A man has been shot, and the self-confessed perpetrator is waiting for the law to arrive. She is neatly dressed, clad in “a white shirt and khaki pants and brown shoes with little gold buckles,” as if ready to go on a school field trip. But then the old men begin to assemble, one after another, dressed in well-worn overalls and caps, and the questions mount. Did Candy, one of a clan of fading white gentry, really pull the trigger, ending the life of one of the Cajun farmers who were “messing up the land with those tractors”?
That is the question that sets Ernest J. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men in motion. Published in 1983, when its author was 50, it continued a de facto saga begun with his Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman two decades earlier, one that took a specific place and envisioned changes to the land and the people on it over time. In that cycle of stories, tinged with questions of class and race, Gaines made of the southern Louisiana plantation where he grew up his own version of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, a place of conflict and tragedy.
In that sense, A Gathering of Old Men is a rejoinder to As I Lay Dying, a story narrated by many voices that seldom converge—except, perhaps, on the certainty that Candy wasn’t the killer and that some sort of odd paternalism is in play. Among those African-American men who have been working the soil for generations, there are countless motives for violence. Says one, “We all gone crazy,” adding that he can think of many reasons why simmering resentments should have found their way into a shotgun barrel.
Others have their reasons, too. Suspicion falls on a sharecropper named Mathu, long-suffering, but for no longer. But then, Candy relates, Rufe, another sharecropper, claimed the honor, and then Johnny Paul, who ran home to get his gun as evidence, and then—well, others step forward, one by one, 15 voices, .12 gauge shotguns in hand.
The sheriff, in turn, quickly senses that the racial intimidation of old isn’t going to do any good in arriving at the truth. Though fully aware of the legacy of vigilantism and terror that has kept the farmers in their presumed place all those years, he does not necessarily subscribe to it. Neither do all the presumed suspects—as one says, skeptically, “Now, when we’re old men, we get to be brave?” For all that, violence does break out, and then, surrounding it, a widening circle of players: Klansmen, militants, lawyers, judges.
And why should all those old men have taken the blame for something that they didn’t do, much as they might have wanted to? Perhaps for the same reason that the slaves in Howard Fast’s 1951 novel Spartacus stood up to the Roman legions and claimed to be the famed Thracian gladiator, willing to die in his place for his cause. Ernest Gaines’ novel remains timely, having found its place as a classic of Southern—and American—literature.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.