Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Mozart and Leadbelly

Mozart and Leadbelly is a collection of short stories, essays and talks that Ernest Gaines has produced over the years. I was drawn to this short but repetitious book because I've read two Gaines novels this year and wanted to learn more about Gaines as a writer, more about his creative process, and more about the man that he is.

Ernest J. Gaines was born in Louisiana in 1933, a time when many black families were still tied to the land that their ancestors had worked as slaves. It was, in effect, a watered down version of the plantation system which had once thrived in that part of the state. Gaines learned many lessons before he left Louisiana to go to California for an education, lessons that serve him well to this day. He was raised by a crippled aunt who managed to cook meals, clean house and raise a vegetable garden by crawling on the ground much as a six-month-old baby might crawl. Her example taught Gaines that nothing is impossible and that quitting is not an option. He became a writer when he started producing letters for the illiterate friends of his aunt who came to him on her front porch and asked him to write to their distant family members. Seldom did they have anything to say other than "I'm fine and things here are fine," asking him to fill up the rest of a couple of pages with something interesting.

The essays will be of particular interest to fans of the Gaines novels, A Lesson Before Dying, A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman because of the insights offered into how those novels were conceived and constructed. In addition, there are five early short stories, including the first one Gaines ever wrote, "The Turtles," that display Gaines' remarkable talent for recreating a time through the eyes of the ordinary people who lived it. Not surprisingly, Gaines was influenced and learned from the writers who preceded him, in particular writers like Twain, Joyce, Turgenev, Chekhov and Tolstoy. But he also took inspiration from the great paintings which seemed to him to tell a story as well as any novel could do it, and from music ranging from Mozart to Leadbelly.

Rated at: 3.0


  1. I love Leadbelly, I'll definitely be checking this out.

  2. John, you won't be getting much about Leadbelly from the book other than the lyrics of one song and how his songs influenced the writing of Gaines...didn't want to mislead you.