Keys to the Archive: A Gathering of Old Men


A Gathering of Old Men is the last novel Gaines wrote while living in San Francisco. By the time it came out in 1983, he was living and teaching in Lafayette, LA. The novel marks both a culmination and a turning point in his career. It completed an extraordinarily productive two-decade period that saw the publication of five novels, a collection of short stories, and a novella for children. The novel also shows Gaines grappling with his contemporary moment—late 70s, early 80s Louisiana—in a way that his other novels do not. While most of his fiction takes place in the Jim Crow era, A Gathering of Old Men dramatizes life in South Louisiana in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. If Gaines’s classic novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman narrates a singular life lived from emancipation to desegregation, A Gathering narrates a singular moment in a Black community’s existence after achieving nominal legal equality. It tells the story of a group of old men who come together to stage a reckoning. Through a series of confrontations with the law, with each other, and with the local white folks, the old men of the novel’s title work through internal and external conflicts to realize their own sense of manhood. Legal rights aside, they develop a sense of Black pride that lets them stand together, as evidenced by Mathu’s comment, “I look up to you. Everyman in here. And this the proudest day of my life” (181).

The iconography of Black Pride movements rarely if ever visualized the rural South. Black Power appeared in the streets of urban centers like Oakland, CA where Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party. But Gaines, writing across the Bay, could envision the implications of Black Power for a small community of Black folks who lived off the land as hunters, fishers, and farmers. In fact, an early draft of the novel featured a character named Bernard who, visiting from out of town, encouraged the old men toward armed resistance. The premise of the novel presents some clear echoes of the Black Power movements, from the strategy of assembling for self-protection to a willingness to use firearms. In 1964, Malcolm X famously declared the nonviolent tactics of the Civil Rights Movement outdated. In the founding objectives of the Organization of Afro American Unity, X advocated for freedom, justice, and equality “by any means necessary.” The Black Panther Party carried X’s philosophy forward, arguing for self-defense and armed revolution. “When the people move for liberation,” wrote Newton, “they must have the basic tool of liberation: the gun” (5). The gun became as much a symbol of Black Power as a tool. It signaled a willingness to defend the legal rights granted by the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the face of on-going police brutality, social discrimination, and cultural marginalization.
Much as the image of armed Black Panthers startled many white Americans in the 1960s and 70s, the sight of old Black men with guns startles white characters in the novel. Lou Dimes notes his shock first when he stops in his tracks in front of “a wall of old black men with shotguns” (59). Later, Gil’s friend Sully compares their gathering to a Twilight Zone episode: “You would be driving through this little out-of-the-way town, and suddenly you would come upon a scene that you knew shouldn’t be there” (118). Sully’s comment suggests that such demonstrations of Black Power appeared out of place in the rural South. Yet, as historian Akinyele Omowale Umoja has documented, a Southern tradition of armed resistance against white supremacist terrorism played a key role in “protecting Black communities, their leaders, allies, and institutions,” including many of the organizations that fought for voting rights during the 1960s (2). Groups such as the Deacons for Defense and Justice, founded in Louisiana, practiced armed self-defense to deter KKK harassment and lynching, providing a historical precedent for the fictional old men in the novel who assemble to protect Mathu from Fix Boutan.

Fix’s youngest son Gil registers white shock as well as the historical weight of the Black men’s self-defense strategy. In describing the old men at Mathu’s house for his father, Gil says, “I saw something over there, Papa—something you, I, none of us in this room has ever seen before. A bunch of old black men with shotguns, Papa” (136). His surprise echoes Lou Dimes and Sully, but Gil goes further to hint at the pride and determination motivating the old men. “Old men, Papa. Cataracts. Hardly any teeth. Arthritic. Old men. Old black men, Papa. Who have been hurt… Tired old men trying hard to hold up their heads” (137). Gil’s comment about the men having been hurt points to the historical fact of their oppression under Jim Crow laws and their exploitation as sharecroppers. In addition to their trauma, however, he also recognizes their gathering as an act of self-respect. As we learn from their monologues in Rufe’s chapter, each of the old men has experienced not just racial violence, oppression, and exploitation, but also a sense of degradation. Holding up their heads in this context means resolving the internal conflict driven by feelings of fear and guilt. As Rufe puts it, “we had all seen our brother, sister, mama, daddy insulted once and didn’t do a thing about it” (97). They acquiesced as a strategy of survival. As old men, without much left to lose, they decide to stand together to enact their own self-worth.

That Gil does not see their act of self-respect as a threat to him or his family marks an important generational and class divide in the novel. Gil reminds his father that “the day of the vigilante” has passed. “Those days when you just take the law in your own hands” Gil says, “those days are gone” (143). Gil represents a new generation of Southerner who accepts integration and trusts the law—both constitutional law and law enforcement—to effect justice and preserve the peace. That generational change has its limits, as evidenced by Luke Will, who assembles a mob to carry out a lynching. The other key component of social change, the novel suggests, is education. Gil is Fix’s youngest son and his most educated. As a student athlete at LSU, Gil clearly aspires to more than sugarcane farming and more even than Louisiana. As he explains to his father, he hopes to become a nationally recognized football player, which depends on cooperating with Cal, a Black teammate who is key to his success. This detail in the novel also has an historical precedent in LSU players Charles Alexander and Robert Dugas who earned All American status in 1978. The dramatization of interracial athletic excellence in the novel makes clear how the perspective of a new generation depends on class aspirations and education. In that sense, Gil is both a product of his family background and a deviation from it.

The novel balances individuals against their community by representing characters through the unique perspectives of fifteen different narrators. An early draft of the novel, titled “The Revenge of Old Men,” told the entire story from Lou Dimes’s perspective. The published version, however, has no frame to gather these voices together or to explain how they’ve been transmitted to readers in the form of a novel. Instead, they appear as unmediated accounts of the day’s events, reported directly by eye witnesses. The impressive collection of points of view gives us a sense of several communities existing within the geographic space of Bayonne, a fictionalization of New Roads, LA. Those communities overlap, creating affiliations and tensions in a complex network of relationships. Candy, for instance, owns Marshall Plantation with her aunt and uncle, but feels more affinity for Mathu and the former sharecroppers who live in the quarters than her own relatives. Yet, she also maintains her social position as a landowning white woman, which makes her a fraught ally to the men as they undergo a process of self-actualization. Similarly, the old men represent a collective unit, but they come from different areas around Bayonne to gather at Mathu’s. Each has his own perspective, background, and family relations, ensuring that each contributes to the collectivity as an individual. The multiple perspectives give readers a sense of how racial segregation, class hierarchy, and gender norms produce a variety of experiences that make it hard to construe any narrator simply as representative of a Black or white point of view.

The multi-perspective narrative structure of this novel makes it one of Gaines’s more experimental works. Although it maintains his characteristic literary realism, drawing heavily on the area where Gaines grew up, it mixes genres and styles as it pieces together the plot from different perspectives. Commenting on the novel’s unusual form, Ash Green, Gaines’s editor at Knopf, wrote, “It is both who-done-it and a sort of tragi-comedy-folk opera sort of thing combined. Quite unique. Keep it that way all the way through. Never mind if it’s different from all the other books you’ve ever seen or done.” Part of the uniqueness derives from what Gaines leaves out. The archival collection related to this novel, housed at the Ernest J. Gaines Center, includes chapter drafts from the perspective of key characters, such as Candy and Mapes. Cutting those perspectives from the published novel leaves their characters to the description of others, decentering the landowning class and law enforcement from the narrative construction of the story. They occupy plenty of space on the page, but they do not have their interior perspectives represented. That choice helps shape a narrative that centers voices otherwise lost to history—voices that rarely had a say in organizing the society that produced them.

In the process of gathering to protect Mathu, the old men in this story carve out a brief moment in time and a small place in the world to voice their experiences. That insistence on recognizing the truth as they lived it goes some way toward memorializing proof of their lives. In the novel, we see the cemetery as one site of memorialization at risk of destruction as industrialized agriculture threatens to plow it under. As Johnny Paul puts it, modernization threatens to destroy “all proof that we ever was” (92). His emphasis on the importance of the cemetery as a site of memory echoes Blind Lemon Jefferson’s most famous song, “See That My Grave’s Kept Clean,” which asks those who come after him not simply to remember him but to respect his memory in a material form. Given the existential threats faced by the sharecropping community Gaines memorialized in his fiction, one can imagine this novel as preserving the experience and the voices of his childhood at the moment of their potential disappearance, the same way grave sites memorialize lives when they are lost. In that sense, the gathering this novel stages moves toward the shared horizon of Black Pride and cultural memory, a revolution in attitudes about what deserves recognition, representation, and preservation. Much like the famous Blind Lemon Jefferson song, A Gathering of Old Men gives voice to characters at the moment of their imminent death. Yet it also voices hope for a continued legacy. Certainly, Gaines ensured his literary legacy would remind readers of the places he cherished in South Louisiana, the places he called home.

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