Study Guide

A Gathering of Old Men

By Ernest J. Gaines

A Gathering of Old Men Introduction

Beau Boutan is one of the meanest, most vicious and spiteful white men in Louisiana—and his dad, William "Fix" Boutan, is even worse than he is. Beau and his pop have a lot in common (and none of it's good) but there's one big difference: Beau Boutan is dead.

How did it happen? Well, you can bet that he didn't get hit by a bus or have a piano dropped on his head. He's lying dead as disco, with a belly full of buckshot in front of a house that just happens to belong to old Mathu, an elderly African American man living near what's left of Marshall Plantation. And you can better believe that when Fix finds out there's going to be hell to pay—and Mathu won't be the only one who suffers. 

This whodunit mystery is just the set-up for A Gathering of Old Men. Published in 1983, the book is an exploration of racial tension and the fight for social justice in the Deep South—things that author Ernest J. Gaines knows a thing or two about. Gaines comes from a family of Louisiana sharecroppers. Growing up as a Black man in the rural South exposed him to the sorts of racially-tinged conflict that lie at the heart of this novel. Luckily for us, he was able to turn those troubling experiences into art, winning all sorts of grants and awards for his writing—including a Pulitzer Prize nomination, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and a coveted spot in Oprah's Book Club for his 1993 book A Lesson Before Dying.

A Gathering of Old Men is more than a mystery novel, then. No matter how you slice it, when a group of old men show up at Mathu's place with shotguns and empty shell casings, each of them claiming to be the one who took the murdered Beau down, it's obvious that this is about a whole lot more than just a killing. It's a demand for justice, and for an end to the white racist terror that Fix and his clan represent.

What is A Gathering of Old Men About and Why Should I Care?

Racism? That's over, right? We're putting that stuff behind us and joining hands across America now, aren't we? Well, if you believe that, A Gathering of Old Men would like to have a word with you. 

Almost from the very beginning of Gaines's novel, you're dropped smack dab into the middle of a whole lot of really deep history, and some of it is really, really ugly. More than once you may find yourself wondering just when it is that the story we're reading is taking place. 1924? 1932? Not quite, gang—try some time in the late 1970s. 

That answer may shock you. After all, this is after desegregation and way after slavery, but that's kind of the point. Gaines wants us to understand a couple of incredibly important things. The first is that racism and its history in this country are no joke. It ruins lives, it takes lives, and as much as you might not want to admit it, it's still around. The second thing is that it's probably not going anywhere anytime soon. That is, it won't unless each us takes a stand and joins in the fight to end it once and for all. And to get us fired up and ready to fight the good fight, Gaines is going to give us an up-close and super-personal look at what happens when an entire community stands up together and says that enough is enough.

A Gathering of Old Men Resources

Websites

A Writer So Awesome They Named an Award After Him
Check out the website for the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. It just so happens to have some cool info on the writer, too.

It's Not a Tour of Marshall, But Still…
Take a gander at some authentic Louisiana plantations, courtesy of the National Park Service in Louisiana.

Movie or TV Productions

A Gathering of… Terrific Actors
Unfortunately, a free version of the 1987 short film based on A Gathering of Old Men is pretty hard to come by, but you can pay a couple bucks and check it out at the link below.

Articles and Interviews

Gaines in Louisiana, On Louisiana
Here's a terrific interview where Gaines talks about his past, and his present.

More from the Man himself on Writing, Manhood, and Memory
If that little blurb wasn't enough, check out this longer interview with Gaines

Video

So Just What is This Cajun Thing?
Take a tour through some rocking Cajun tunes. We personally really love "Hippy To-Yo." Yeah, that's right. We said it.