A Guide to the Ernest J. Gaines Center
Gaines has said that African American authors did not influence him as he worked to find his voice. However, he has stated that Jean Toomer's Cane would have had an impact on him if they did. When reading Bloodline, think about the short story cycle and the writers who influenced Gaines. However, in conjunction with these authors, also think about African American short story cycles as well. Even though they did not influence Gaines, Bloodline is in conversation with them. These include Charles Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman, and Other Conjure Tales, Jean Toomer's Cane, Langston Hughes' The Ways of White Folks, and Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children. Alice Walker cites Gaines as an influence. In the letter, Walker writes to Gaines about his use of dialect. For comparisons, look at Walker's "Everyday Use" in relation to Gaines' stories here.
Questions to consider:
- At the end of "A Long Day in November," Sonny says, "I know my lesson." What is the lesson he has learned throughout the story? Why is the word "lesson" important? James, in "The Sky is Gray," also thinks about his school lesson while in Bayonne. He thinks about Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee." Think back to part two in the schoolhouse and think about the editor's comments about that section.
- What characteristics tie the stories in "Bloodline" together? Are there any themes that unite them? Are there any symbols or recurring images that connect them to one another?
- How do the themes that appear in the short story "Bloodline" recur throughout Gaines' oeuvre? Think about Frank Laurent's discussion of why he goes on. Think about his comments about the rules, the encroachment of the Cajuns, and the increase in technology. Also, consider Copper in relation to other characters throughout Gaines' works: Emmanuel, Ned, Jimmy Aaron, Billy.
- Throughout "Bloodline", religion plays a role. Think about Eddie visiting Reverend Simmons and Sonny praying in "A Long Day in November" and then think about Aunt Fe praying before she dies at the end of "Just Like a Tree." What role does religion play in the stories in "Bloodline"? What other representations of religion appear in the stories?
- In 1972, a school district in Texas recommended that the book version of "A Long Day in November" should not be added to the elementary school libraries because of "questionable" content including Madame Toussaint. After reading Gaines' comments on the book, do you agree or disagree with the district's recommendation? (The district's statement is on page 10.)
- What is the relationship between, or more specifically the movement from, Procter Lewis in "Three Men" to Copper in "Bloodline"? Does this movement, in any way, carry over into the final story "Just Like a Tree?"
- Bloodline is a short story cycle. Have students research the short cycle then have them present on how Bloodline either adheres to or differs from scholars' definitions of the short story cycle. Students can look at short story cycles that influenced Gaines as well: Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio; James Joyce's Dubliners; Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time; and William Faulkner's Go Down, Moses.
- The stories in Bloodline take place around the fictional town of Bayonne (New Roads, LA) and in St. Raphael Parish in Louisiana. Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce, and William Faulkner all have short story cycles that occur around specific locales. In fact, Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio; Joyce's Dubliners; and Faulkner's books contain maps of the areas they write about in their stories. Have students create a map of the places in Gaines's Bloodline then present their maps to the class. These can be done either on Google Maps or by hand.
- Have students read a short story or two by Ernest Hemingway, Ivan Turgenev, or William Faulkner. After reading the stories, have students discuss and present on how each of the authors can be seen as influences on Gaines' style, specifically in the stories that appear in Bloodline. Look at Ernest Hemingway's Men Without Women, Ivan Turgenev's A Sportsman's Sketches, and William Faulkner's Collected Stories of William Faulkner.
- Each of the stories in Bloodline contains a first-person narrator. "Just Like a Tree" contains multiple first-person narrators. Have students examine one of the stories and how the narrator functions in the story. Then, have students rewrite a section of the story from other characters' point of view. For example, students could write a section of "Bloodline" from Copper's point of view. In the same manner, students could rewrite a section from "A Long Day in November" where Sonny sees his father Eddie speaking with someone else from Eddie's point of view.
- Have students research the Black Arts Movement. In the Upchurch interview, Gaines talks about his role in political activism. He says, "I remember, in the 1960s, whenever I heard about the atrocities that were going on in the South at the civil-rights demonstrations, I would promise myself that I would write the best paragraph that I could possibly write that day. And I felt that that was my political statement." Have students discuss how some of the characters in the Bloodline stories fit into the Black Arts Movement and the Civil Rights activism of the 1960s.
- Have students read some of the short stories mentioned and Gaines's stories. After they have read them, have students use one or more of the stories as examples and have them write a story about the place that they live. The place could be factual as in Joyce's Dubliners or it could be based on real places as in Anderson, Faulkner, and Gaines.
Gaines on Writing Bloodline
"One of the good things that happened when I was studying writing at San Francisco State, as well as at Stanford, was they taught me technique, not telling me what to write, but how to write it and how to write it better. I was not pushed with a lot of political ideas. I was not pushed with demands to write about race or anything else. They said write what you want to write about, bring it in, and we'll discuss. And they discussed it more from a technical point of view. I try to teach now from a technical point of view. My students can write about anything they want. I don't care what they write about, born-again Christian, Klansman, or anything you want to write about, as long as you write well. If you don't write well, then I have to criticize it. And fortunately, that was what I needed at the time.
"I always knew what I wanted to do. I had to find a way in which to do it. For example, before I wrote "The Sky is Gray," I had to read Eudora Welty. I was assigned once to read "A Worn Path," and I thought, "This is a great story." I read "A Worn Path" at least ten years before I wrote "The Sky is Gray." When I went to write "The Sky is Gray," I knew a model, just as I did in "A Long Day in November," with the first part of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. These are the kinds of things I learned, and these are the kinds of things they were helping me with, [Wallace] Stegner at Stanford and Stanley Anderson and Mark Harris at San Francisco State. They were telling me to read these things."
Interview With Gaines on Bloodline
"[T]here's the progression in ages as well as experiences [in "Bloodline"]. A six year old [in "A Long Day in November"] would not experience what Procter [in "Three Men"], the eighteen or nineteen year old would experience. The six year old child-all his action is in the quarters; the eight year old child [James in "The Sky is Gray"] moves out of the quarters, and he goes into a small Southern town, which gives him a feeling of much of what a small Southern town would be like. He meets whites, he finds there are certain areas where you cannot go. In the plantation, in the quarters, he could go almost anywhere; everybody knows him, so he can move around; that's his home, that's everything. Then he moves out of that, just like the six year old boy, who doesn't want to come out from under the covers when the mother's trying to get him out because he knows it's cold out there. The eight year old kid begins to feel all these things when he moves out and stands on the road to catch the bus going to Bayonne Institute. He has to walk to the back of the bus and all that sort of thing-there's a little sign. So he sees so much more than the six year old child can see. And in "Three Men," there's a murder; one has committed a murder. So that gets you into different experiences. When one takes a life, he's different from any man who's never taken a life." (New Orleans Review 3.4, 342)