This semester, I finally decided to teach Ernest Gaines’ Of Love and Dust. For a number of years, I’ve cited Gaines’ 1967 novel as my favorite book, and as I reread it in preparation for this semester, I began to think about it as one of the most important works of the twentieth century American literature. On the surface, I know this sounds like hyperbole, but every time I read it, I think about everything that it encompasses. First and foremost, it appeared in 1967, the same year as the Loving decision. The overarching narrative of two intersecting relationships between Pauline/Bonbon and Marcus/Louise connects here. Along with this historical moment, Gaines’ style throughout is the embodiment and maturation, in many ways, of modernist authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. In fact, Gaines mentions that Jim Kelly’s narration is based off of Nick Caraway’s in The Great Gatsby. Today, though, I don’t want to focus on that; rather, I want to look at my conversation with Dr. Jennifer Morrison and some of the things we spoke about regarding the novel.
Jennifer and I went to grad school together, and we both worked at the Ernest Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana Lafayette, immersing ourselves in Gaines’ oeuvre. She encountered Gaines long before I did, and even mentions reading Of Love and Dust when she was twelve. I didn’t encounter Gaines until I finished my undergrad, so not until my mid-twenties. Whenever we talk about Gaines’ work, or anything, we can go on for hours and hours. In fact, finishing up the lecture, we both thought we could have talked, specifically, about Of Love and Dust, for the whole day. That’s practically impossible and definitely not good for an asynchronous lecture, but it points to the depth of the novel and the impact that it has had on each of us.
Our conversation covered a lot of ground, but there are a few things that stand out. Along with the novel, students read Jennifer’s essay “The Politics of the Plate: Foodways and Southern Culture in Ernest Gaines’ Of Love and Dust,” a piece where she looks at the ways that Gaines deploys southern foodways over the course of the novel. While a lot of things stand out is the essay, I wanted to talk with Jennifer about the final section where she examines a scene late in the novel where Marcus and Louise eat breakfast in the kitchen as Aunt Margaret serves them. This scene is an important moment in the novel because it represents Marcus and Louise’s confrontation of the plantation system and Marcus’ usurping of Bonbon as the man of the house. Marcus, the Black man, becomes the head of the family in the overseer’s house.
As Jennifer notes, Marcus and Louise’s dinner presents “a marked change in their relationship” because to this point we see them, or more specifically hear about them, engaged in sexual activity in the bedroom. At the table, though, they become a family unit. As we talked about this scene, and the scene where Marcus, Louise, and Tite attempt to leave the house and escape the plantation, Jennifer added more to this reversal. She talks about, in our conversation, how during that final scene Louise and Tite are in blackface, in order to disguise their identity, and Marcus leads them out. He is the head of the house. He is the owner of the house. Bonbon, the Cajun overseer, becomes the intruder as he approaches them from the driveway. That is a key reversal. As I think about this, I also think about how, and we did not discuss this in our conversation, Louise and Tite appearing in blackface serves as a symbolic commentary of the fear of “miscegenation,” the defiling of Louise’s and Tite’s whiteness.
Along with this discussion, we looked at the final word of the novel. When Jim leaves the plantation, he looks back at Aunt Margaret and says she was going back “home.” That word contains a lot of meaning, especially when we think about the intraracial tensions within the novel between characters such as Aunt Margaret and Marcus. What does “home” mean? One of the fears of those who live in the quarters, is that Marcus will upend their “home,” their routine and their minuscule stability. That is what Jim, Margaret, and Bishop all mention in different ways. However, Marcus challenges those notions through his actions, and Jim buys into Marcus’ view at the end of the novel.
“Home,” for Margaret, is the community. That is “home” for most of the people in the novel. Reading Of Love and Dust, and any Gaines novel for that matter, we notice the ways that even if the novel is told from a first person point of view it’s really a collective narrative. It’s the community who tells the story, especially in areas where Jim isn’t present. In this manner, we see the ways that community connects individuals and creates “home.” Even with all of the violence and subjugation, the connection to family and friends remains. I think about Gaines here, notably how he had to return home to South Louisiana from California in order to write. When he wrote about the people he knew and loved, people who could not speak for themselves, he became the writer that we know.
This led us to talk about Gaines’ style, one of the things that I immensely love every time I read Gaines. This time through, I kept thinking about Gaines in relation to comics and sequential art. One that Gaines does extremely well is move, seamlessly, from a first person perspective to someone else. We see this as Jim relates what Aunt Margret, Sun Brown, and others in the community see when he is not around. We get what happens through two levels of filtering. Aunt Margret’s sections stand out here, notably when she hears Marcus and Louise in the bedroom. In these sections, I thought about comics and the gutter, what happens between the panels. The gutter serves as the space where we, as the readers, create our own images and pictures of the action. It’s where we actively engage with the text. When Margret hears Marcus and Louise in the bedroom, rather they are engaging in rough or intimate sex, we must fill in the blanks. We must imagine, because we cannot see, what takes place within the room. There are other moments in the novel as well, but these stand out.
There’s so much more, as I mentioned, that I could say about our conversation. Of Love and Dust’s richness deserves an in-depth, possibly even a book-length study of its own, placing it within the conversation surrounding the most prominent American novels of the twentieth century. What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.