Literary realism in America grew out of the ashes of the Romanticism of the Antebellum years. After the atrocities of the Civil War, writers like Mark Twain and Kate Chopin ushered readers into an age of realism that we recognize in novels such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Awakening. Literary realism describes the genre or movement in which literature is grounded in reality and makes a conscious effort to illustrate life as it is truly lived. Ernest Gaines was inspired by Twain and other realists to write honestly and accurately about the struggles he witnessed in his childhood home of Oscar, LA. Gaines made several trips home to remind himself of details of setting or personality that he wanted to highlight. He he was using what he knew as the canvas upon which he drew out his narratives. In a 1996 interview, Gaines explained, “I think that in each one of the books, there is some other little detail I might bring out about the area. The area is one which I know pretty well. I lived there the first 15 and a half years of my life.” He goes on to explain how he set all his novels in the same area around fictional Bayonne: “I got that technique from Faulkner, from his Yoknapaptawpha County…And there is, of course, Joyce and Dublin. And Faulkner might have gotten the idea from Joyce” (Lepschy 198). Gaines draws on and extends their modernist technique of using place as itself a character, adding verisimilitude by fully developing his representation of South Louisiana across several novels and short stories.
In A Gathering of Old Men, one cannot help but notice the care Gaines took to describe and name the old men of the story. Look through the quotations gathered in the above table of character descriptions from the novel, then peruse the photographs that Gaines took for his photographic essay, Home. It is impossible to ignore the connections. Gaines wrote what he knew, and he knew the people and the places and the things of Cherie Quarters. Mary Ellen Doyle goes a long way to flesh out the specifics of Gaines’s influences. She conducted many interviews with Gaines himself, and notes that he introduced her to his brother, who in turn introduced her to the others who were then still living in the Quarters and the surrounding area. Many very interesting details emerge. “Pointe Coupée Parish, [is] renamed St. Raphael in Gaines’ fiction to honor his stepfather, Raphael Colar” and “St. Adrienne…[is] named for his mother” and “the False River, renamed for his brother, has become the St. Charles River” (76). Doyle’s entire article should be noted for the rich body of information it contains regarding Gaines and the area and people about whom he wrote. Gaines used their real appearances and personality quirks to enrich the story he is trying to tell.
Research on Gaines’s novels reveals other scholars who have documented the impact of South Louisiana on his writing. For instance, Marcia Gaudet explains, “While none of Gaines’ fiction is strictly autobiographical, there is always the strong influence of culture and family in his works. The setting is based on the rural Point[e] Coupee parish in South Louisiana where he grew up” (24). And those who grew up right there, like Gaines’s brother, Norbert Colar, will tell you the same. Mr. Colar was able to recall the identities of most of the men in the 1960s photograph with Gaines and corroborate the realism of Gaines’s writing style. The man squatting is Walter Zeno, who was very old and the keeper of the details of events of each family in the neighborhood. In Rufe's chapter of A Gathering of Old Men, he mentions the funeral of “Edna Zeno” and we can be sure he pays homage to the memory of a family that was important to him (93). Colar remembers that Walter Zeno was most often referred to as “Pete” or “Salute” and did not remember ever hearing him called “Walter.” To discover that this important person who held all the knowledge of the Quarters was known mostly by one or more nicknames gives us insight into Gaines’s choice to name each of his chapters with a character’s name and nickname. Another interesting detail that Colar offered was that “Bayonne” is the last name of Gaines’s stepfather’s mother (Colar interview). We can discern the layering of details from his life that make Gaines’s works so rich and tangible to the reader. His realism offers us an authentic look into the world he wanted us to know.
Drafts of the novel held at the Ernest J. Gaines Center show how character names changed during the process of composition, as Gaines worked through decisions about what each name might convey. Mathusal Jack became Mathu. Candace Sarah became Candi, then Candy. At the Mount Zion Riverlake Cemetery, one can find names like “Snook” and “Zeno” and “Marshall” and other names which appear in his novel. Gaines bought and maintained the graveyard until his own passing and burial there. It appears just as he described it, with pecan trees and oak trees shading those who have only his memory of them to mark their places. Maybe it is yet another tribute to those he loved that his own grave looks as plain as the others.
Description of characters and setting of a novel may seem like mundane details, merely there set the stage for the action. But for Gaines, such details bring to life not only his stories but also his place in the world. It is hard to discern why a writer develops one style or another, but we can speculate that Gaines had a purpose. He did not like to claim to write to any particular reader, but he did concede that “…if [he] was demanded at gun point to name an audience, he would say first, the black youth of the South, and second, the white youth of the South. To the former he hopes to convey a sense of proud and free identity, to the latter a sense of the essential unity of all human beings” (Doyle 91). Gaines wrote to make young people who looked like him proud to be from such a rich background. And he wrote to teach everyone about the realities of community in South Louisiana.