Keith Clark’s latest book, Navigating the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines: A Roadmap for Readers, appeared in the midst of the drastic upheavals brought on by the coronavirus. Here, he talks about adapting to the “new normal” as a college professor and looking to the future, for both himself and his book.
As a professor of English—not to mention tech Luddite—I winced at the news that my university would be ending on-campus instruction and migrating to online instruction exclusively. Though my familiarity with the teaching platform Blackboard was severely limited, I credit George Mason University for shepherding us not-so-tech-friendly faculty through the process of teaching “synchronously”—a new term for me, defined by a colleague whom I’d queried about teaching in what I erroneously called “real time.” And to my utter shock and delight, the transition has been much smoother than I’d anticipated. Not only am I now meeting with my students in real time (sorry, colleague, old habits are hard to break), but attendance at these sessions hasn’t decreased one bit. Of course, there are bewildering moments, like the one that occurred at yesterday’s meeting of my course on Toni Morrison. Since one student had already signaled her presence by contributing a comment, I requested that she read a passage from Paradise. My request was followed by a rather lengthy pause. When she finally replied, she apologized for the radio silence, informing her classmates and me that she needed to unload the dryer. I guess Morrison was no competition for Maytag.
A quick circle-back to Morrison. Aside from wondering how on earth I’d be able to bring the same energy to my classes now that my students were reduced to what one academic buddy deems “faceless avatars on the screen,” I contemplated how I could teach the next novel—Beloved—with any modicum of effectiveness and clarity. Beloved is a work of postmodernist fiction par excellence, with its pendulous shifts from past to present (given that Morrison was a Faulkner devotee, I’m reminded of his most famous literary dictum, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”); its dense, lyrically infused language; and its harrowing portrayal of slavery and infanticide—and did I mention that it’s a ghost story? I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d only taught it once before, in 1997 when a colleague who regularly taught “American Fiction since 1914” was on leave and I was tasked with pinch-hitting. I decided then that the labyrinthine novel was something of a nightmare to teach in person, so I’d been treating my students to a steady diet of less exacting and more stylistically conventional Morrison works ever since—The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Song of Solomon. But to my amazement and glee, my students and I have navigated the text with diligence and sensitivity, if not aplomb.
While my teaching has obviously been impacted by our protracted and perilous moment of quarantine, my scholarly life has also been turned a bit asunder. With LSU Press’s March publication of my new book, Navigating the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines: A Roadmap for Readers, this spring had the potential to blossom into my most fulfilling and rewarding since the appearance of my last book, The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry, in 2013. I was set to launch the Gaines book at the Virginia Festival for the Book in Charlottesville, my scheduled appearance on a panel just happening to coincide with the book’s official release date.
When LSU Press editor Margaret Lovecraft approached me about writing a book on Gaines, I almost said yes before she could complete her formal invitation. The proposal to write a book on a writer many consider the doyen of African American southern fiction (with all due apologies to Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and the still very much alive and writing Alice Walker) was serendipitous and humbling. But her solicitation of this manuscript also included an important caveat: the press would like for this book to be written for a wider audience, accessible to readers beyond the rarefied scholarly world that puts a premium on unreadability. Though I’d been trained to write for an audience that values big words and often impenetrable jargon, I responded that I could indeed tailor this book to the panoramic readership that Gaines’s fiction has drawn. I’d already published several dense scholarly essays on Gaines’s works.
To be sure, Gaines is that rare writer whose works bridge the general/academic reader divide; works such as A Lesson before Dying are fixtures on college syllabi and the subject of abstruse scholarly essays, while they simultaneously appeal to audiences such as Oprah’s Book Club and community-read groups. In fact, I’d lectured at libraries across my home state of Virginia back in ’09 as part of an NEA-sponsored Big Read program, which funded statewide programs revolving around A Lesson before Dying.
Writing this book has proven unexpectedly rewarding on so many levels. It enabled me to meet and interview Mr. Gaines (and to meet his wonderful wife, Dianne Saulney Gaines); it reacquainted me with the acclaimed Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman; and it introduced me to riveting but underread novels such as In My Father’s House and the storytelling tour de force A Gathering of Old Men. It has drawn laudatory responses from family members and friends, all congratulating me on writing a book they found compelling and illuminating—and accessible.
And though the cancellation of my state’s book festival was indescribably disappointing, all hasn’t been lost in terms of publicizing the work. I was interviewed on a local radio literary program in April (On the Margin, on WPFW in Washington, DC), and I’m scheduled to appear at what I optimistically hope to be two face-to-face events: my own university’s Fall for the Book festival in early October; and Louisiana’s annual book festival, which is slated for October 31. My only regret is that Mr. Gaines’s passing last November meant that he would not get to see the finished product, with its striking cover picture of him smiling broadly. The photo was taken by photographer Cynthia Lee Beeman when he was a young up-and-coming writer in San Francisco in the ’60s.
“In the State of Quarantine: Pedagogy, Morrison, and Gaines” sounds like a potential title for the talk I plan to give to my dual if not dueling audiences: those from my esoteric academic milieu, and the general readership I now embrace and appreciate so much more upon having finished Navigating the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines: A Roadmap for Readers.
In Navigating the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines: A Roadmap for Readers, Keith Clark shows how the themes of Ernest J. Gaines’s literary oeuvre, produced over the past fifty years, dovetail with issues reverberating in twenty-first century America: race and the criminal justice system; black masculinity; the environment; the enduring impact of slavery; black southern women’s voices; and blacks’ and whites’ interpretation of history. In addition to textual discussions, the book includes an interview Clark conducted with Gaines at the writer’s home in New Roads, Louisiana, in 2014, further illuminating the inner workings and personality of this eminent literary artist.
Keith Clark is the author of Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines, and August Wilson and The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry, and the editor of Contemporary Black Men’s Fiction and Drama. He is professor of English and African and African American studies at George Mason University, focusing on African American fiction and drama, black literary masculinity studies, and African American LGBT literature and criticism.