- Published: 06 November 2019 06 November 2019
When her ladyship, the editor, sat down to write her letter for this week's newsletter, she began with "Another beloved Southern voice has fallen silent..."
And then she stopped.
"A voice lost" is the phrase her ladyship habitually uses when she has to write about the passing of a beloved author. She has used when remembering Kay Byers. She used it to talk about Harper Lee and Maya Angelou. She used it earlier this year when writing about Charles F. Price and Toni Morrison. So when her ladyship read, with deep sorrow, the news that Ernest J. Gaines had died she opened her laptop and almost automatically typed "Another beloved Southern voice has been lost..." and then something in her rebelled. It's not true, she sat there thinking. Gaines's voice is not lost. He is not silent. His books are right there, on your shelf, and they are still speaking to you. You only have to look at them to bring up the memory of stories they tell, the landscape and the images of people they describe so ruthlessly and so lovingly. Just the sight of them on the shelf evokes the force of what you felt reading them. Ernest J. Ganies will never be silent.
"Even before visiting False River, I knew this landscape held a holy place in Gaines’s heart, but after that morning in the cemetery, I understood that it also held a holy place in his fiction. I was standing on the land where the century-old Miss Jane Pittman had talked to oak trees, where the hardened schoolteacher from A Lesson Before Dying had decided that even a condemned man is worth saving" -- Wiley Cash, remembering Ernest J. Gaines.
Wiley Cash, the 2020 Conroy Legacy Award recipient and author of The Last Ballad,
once described a similar feeling when he wrote about his long friendship with Gaines, which began when he dug up a copy of Bloodline as a college student: "Two decades later, when I think about the book, an early passage from the story “The Sky Is Gray” still comes to mind." That serendipitous story set Cash on the lengthy path that would result in his breakout novel A Land More Kind Than Home -- a story that in large part exists because of what he learned from Gaines: "Write what's true, not what's pretty."
Ernest J. Gaines will never write another book, and we are the poorer for it. But he is still with us, in the voice of Jane Pittman, Tante Lou, Candy Marshall, Jefferson, Grant Wiggins. His voice is not silent and it is not lost.