LAFAYETTE — Literature survives because it teaches us universal lessons. The Ernest J. Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette is planning to commemorate exactly that Sept. 17 through Nov. 21.
In events planned with public libraries, the center will mark the 50th anniversary of Gaines’ first novel “Catherine Carmier” as well as the 40th anniversary of the film, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” a Gaines’ novel that was adapted into a 1974 movie for television and won nine Emmy awards.
“The land and the people that he left in 1948 are the land and the people that he honors through his writing and his legacy,” said Matthew Teutsch, interim director of the center, which is located on the third floor of the Dupré Library on the campus.
The center is a repository for artifacts and scholarly research. It houses primary sources, handwritten letters from friends and publicists, even some from Alice Walker in the collection, along with those from Jesse Jackson. There are scrapbooks, including one with a note from Gaines pasted in the front of “Jane Pittman”: “The book is neither as good nor as bad as reviews would have you believe.”
Teutsch said Gaines first novel draft of “Catherine Carmier” was rejected by publishers, and he later burned it. Teutsch points out the original draft of chapter one in a spiral notebook, as well as the typewritten book pitch for “Jane Pittman,” lie next to Gaines’s National Medal of the Arts in a curator case.
There are the ballpoint pens rubber-banded together that Gaines used to write “Jane Pittman.” Gaines wrote twice in longhand before typing his drafts, and Teutsch believes he still does. He brings out the heavy manual typewriter Gaines used for “Jane Pittman.”
“He uses a Mac now,” said Teutsch.
Everything, including Gaines’ tiny pocket notebooks is here.
“The thing that caught me was why he wanted to write,” said Teutsch, who admits he is now something of a Gaines scholar. There is even an Ernest Gaines Center blog.
“He wanted to write about his people. ‘I write because I must. If I don’t say it, it might not get said.’ There were no African-American authors when he moved to California,” said Teutsch, who graduated in May with his doctorate in English.
The center opened in 2010, and Teutsch worked there as a graduate assistant organizing and cataloging. The center is still in the process of organizing dissertations, books and academic journal articles. Teutsch does presentations on Gaines to raise awareness.
“I’m from North Louisiana, and South Louisiana has a distinct and unique culture,” he said. “Part of reading Gaines brings me closer to the state.”
The commemorative events are designed to do the same for the general public, and include film showings, book talks and readings.
Also speaking at various venues will be professors and authors Reggie Scott Young and Marcia Gaudet, who, with Wiley Cash wrote, “This Louisiana Thing that Drives Me: The Legacy of Ernest J. Gaines,” and John Lowe, formerly of LSU. Along with these events, there will be items from the collection on display from Oct. 9 through Nov. 9 at the South Regional Library in Lafayette and from Sept. 22 to Dec. 1 at the State Library of Louisiana in Baton Rouge.
Gaines is expected to attend the Louisiana Book Festival on Nov. 1 in Baton Rouge.
“It’s an opportunity for the public to see his materials first hand and includes both cities,” said Teutsch.
Gaines is 81 and now resides permanently in New Roads. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
“The more I get into looking at Gaines, the more I see past his works at those who influenced him,” Teutsch said. “He creates a broader education for academics and the community. These aren’t the people you read about in history books, their voices aren’t there. The community’s embodied in Pittman.
“It’s an ‘I was here. My people were here’. It matters.”