Study Guide

Ernest J. Gaines

Ernest J. Gaines Biography

Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111202387-Gaines.jpgErnest J. Gaines Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Ernest James Gaines, the first son of African American parents Manuel and Adrienne Gaines, was born on January 15, 1933, in Oscar, Louisiana, a small town a few miles northwest of Baton Rouge. He grew up in former slave quarters on River Lake Plantation where for six years he attended a one-room elementary school before enrolling in the Augustine Catholic School in nearby New Roads.

At the end of World War II, his mother moved to California to join her second husband, Raphael Colar, a merchant seaman, leaving Gaines behind to be reared by his invalid aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, who had a formative influence on the boy. Although she had never walked in her life, she had extraordinary resiliency and great faith, and Gaines credits her with teaching him fundamental values, above all about suffering with courage and dignity.

Like so many rural black people, after school and over the summer Gaines worked in the sugar-cane and cotton fields, but many of his evenings were given over to reading and writing for his aunt and her illiterate acquaintances. From them he derived a strong sense of a native, oral tradition and his own heritage.

In 1948, when Gaines was fifteen, he moved to Vallejo, California, to live with his mother and stepfather. The move was traumatic for Gaines, who has dwelled on his departure from the quarters and who later returned in his depiction of characters with experiences paralleling his own.

Prompted by his stepfather’s fear that he might fall in with bad company, Gaines spent long, lonely hours in the public library, reading voraciously while trying to cope with his yearning to return to Louisiana. He made his first serious attempt at fiction, writing the initial draft of what eventually became Catherine Carmier (1964), his first novel.

After completing high school and beginning college, Gaines was drafted into the Army, serving in the Pacific from 1953 to 1955. After his discharge, he entered San Francisco State College to study English. While there, he published his first story, “The Turtles,” which helped to win a Wallace...

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Ernest J. Gaines Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The author has continued to receive many honorary doctorates and awards from American universities, as well as international acclaim such as the French Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in 1996. The four works discussed above have been adapted as television films, reaching viewers who may not have read his fiction. His work is frequently taught in high school and college classes, evidence of its appeal to a generation largely unfamiliar with the history of segregation and racial discrimination. Gaines holds a respected position as one of the most influential voices in contemporary African American literature.

Gaines’s award of the MacArthur Foundation genius grant in 1993 was a testimony to his selfless contributions to humankind as a writer and teacher. His works are strong indictments of bigotry and inhumanity that offer quiet pleas for sanity, for racial harmony and understanding. More than that, they are testimonies to the strength of the human spirit, not only in African Americans but in all people. Finally, they are works of great humor and compassion, rich in the folklore of oral tradition, told through the voices of ordinary people, with masterful skill.

Ernest J. Gaines Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

As a boy, Ernest James Gaines lived in rural Louisiana, where he often worked in the fields. At the age of fifteen he moved to Vallejo, California, to live with his mother and stepfather. In 1955, after his release from the Army, he entered San Francisco State College, from which he graduated in 1957. In 1958 two of his stories helped him win a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship for graduate study at Stanford University. After 1966, when he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Gaines garnered many awards and honors, especially in the wake of the 1974 television version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. He also enjoyed a successful career as lecturer and teacher, working at Stanford, California’s Whittier College, and the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette. He married for the first time at age sixty.

Ernest J. Gaines Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

From birth until age fifteen, Ernest James Gaines lived in rural Louisiana with his parents. As a boy, he often worked in the plantation fields and spent much of his spare time with his aunt, Miss Augusteen Jefferson. He moved to Vallejo, California, in 1948 to live with his mother and stepfather, and he attended high school and junior college there before serving in the army. After his military service, he earned a B.A. degree at San Francisco State College. On the basis of some stories written while he was a student there, he was awarded the Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship in 1958 for graduate study at Stanford University.

He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1971 and won an award from the Black Academy of Arts and Letters in 1972. In 1987 Gaines received a literary award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1993 he was awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship. Also in that year, A Lesson Before Dying won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Since 1958 Gaines has lived, impermanently, by his own testimony, in or near San Francisco, feeling that living elsewhere enables him to gain a perspective on his southern material that would be unavailable were he to live in the South full time. By making yearly trips back to Louisiana, where he holds a visiting professorship in creative writing at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette, he retains contact with his native region.

Ernest J. Gaines Biography (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

ph_0111202387-Gaines.jpgErnest J. Gaines Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Born on a southern Louisiana plantation, Ernest J. Gaines was raised by a disabled aunt who became the model for the strong women in his works, including Miss Jane Pittman. There was no high school for Gaines to attend, so he left Louisiana in 1948 to live with relatives in California, where he suffered from the effects of his displacement. Displacement—caused by racism, by Cajuns’ acquisition of land, or by loss of community ties—is a major theme for Gaines.

Young Gaines discovered works by John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and Anton Chekhov, who wrote about the land. Not finding acceptable literary depictions of African Americans, Gaines resolved to write stories illuminating the lives and identities of his people. After completing military service, he earned a degree in English, published his first short stories, and received a creative writing fellowship at Stanford University.

Gaines rejected California as a subject for fiction, chose southern Louisiana as his major setting, and, like the Southern literary giant Faulkner, invented his own county. Catherine Carmier, an uneven apprentice novel, is the first of Gaines’s works revealing Louisiana’s physical beauty and folk speech.

Receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Gaines published Of Love and Dust, inspired by a blues song about an African American who escapes prison by doing hard labor on a Louisiana plantation. This and...

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Ernest J. Gaines Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111202387-Gaines.jpgErnest J. Gaines Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Ernest James Gaines is one of the most accomplished storytellers among contemporary American writers of the South. The oldest of twelve children, he was born on River Lake Plantation near Oscar, Louisiana, to Manuel and Adrienne (Colar) Gaines. His parents worked as laborers on the plantation, and by age nine Gaines was also working in the fields, chopping cane for fifty cents a day. Gaines spent much of his early childhood with his aunt, Miss Augusteen Jefferson, whose inability to walk did not prevent her from providing for the boy. His aunt’s strength and courage amid adversity had a profound effect on young Ernest, who later drew upon his memories of Miss Augusteen to help create several of his most memorable characters....

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Ernest J. Gaines Biography

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Ernest J. Gaines

Introduction

In the writing of Ernest J. Gaines, the impact of slavery is far from over. Born during the Great Depression as the son of a sharecropper, Gaines was only a few generations removed from slavery and the end of the Civil War. The effects of history and the continuing struggle of African Americans (particularly in the South, where Gaines was raised) can be keenly felt in all of his work. A Lesson Before Dying is Gaines’s most noted novel and draws many parallels to his own life, balancing moments of pain and melancholia with those of serenity and peace. In all his work, Gaines produces honest representations of the African-American experience—one that is harsh and difficult, but by no means devoid of hope.

Essential Facts

  1. Reportedly, Gaines burned his first manuscript after its initial rejection by a publisher. Catherine Carmier, his first published novel, is believed to be a rewrite of that lost manuscript.
  2. Gaines has been nominated for both the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize. The latter was for his highly regarded novel A Lesson Before Dying.
  3. Several of Gaines’s novels have been filmed for television, the earliest of which was The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, starring Cicely Tyson.
  4. A Louisiana native, Gaines teaches creative writing at the University of Louisiana (Lafayette).
  5. In 2007, the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence was established in his honor to recognize African-American writers.

Ernest J. Gaines Biography (Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Ernest Gaines was born on a plantation on January 15, 1933 in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. Even though he has lived primarily in San...

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Ernest J. Gaines Biography (Novels for Students)

Ernest J. Gaines was born on January 15, 1933, on the River Lake Plantation near New Roads, Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. He was the son...

(The entire section is 435 words.)

Ernest J. Gaines Biography (Novels for Students)

Ernest J. Gaines, EJ for short, was born in the slave area of a Louisiana plantation on January 15, 1933. His father, Manuel, and mother,...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

Ernest J. Gaines Biography (Short Stories for Students)

Ernest J. Gaines was born on River Lake Plantation in Oscar, a hamlet of Pointe Coupee Parish in rural Louisiana. He was the first of twelve...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Ernest J. Gaines Biography (Novels for Students)

Ernest J. Gaines Published by Gale Cengage

Amid the worst times of the Great Depression Ernest James Gaines was born on a plantation in Oscar, Louisiana, in 1933. At the age of nine, he joined his parents in the field and dug potatoes for fifty cents a day. During this time on the plantation he was heavily influenced by his aunt, Augustine Jefferson. She had no legs but was still able to care for him and other members of the family. It was this aunt who took care of laundry and cooking for the family, even though she had to crawl to perform her chores. She became the model for many of the women in Gaines's novels, such as the title character of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, whose faith and self-sacrifice would enable the next generation to have a better life.

At the age of fifteen, Gaines was taken by his mother and stepfather to Vallejo, California. This was a fortunate move for a boy who was to become a writer. The education to be gained in the Californian school system was better than that on the Oscar plantation, and the library, his favorite retreat, was open to readers of all races. But the books he found did not include rural black people as subjects or authors. He read the next best thing—stories of Russian peasants and immigrants. But while their history paralleled the plight of Southern black slaves, he knew that African Americans had tales of their own, since members of his family were constantly telling stories. Gaines began writing to fill those gaps on the library shelves.

At the age of seventeen, he naïvely sent his first novel to a publisher, but it was returned. Not easily discouraged, he continued to write. He also read extensively. Some of his favorite writers included Russian author Ivan Turgenev, as well as Americans Willa Cather William Faulkner (to whom he is sometimes compared), and Ernest Hemingway. His diligence paid off when he met with his first success. In 1956, while a student at San Francisco State College, he published a short story in a small literary magazine Transfer. With this encouragement, he graduated from college, won a Wallace Stegner fellowship and went on to study creative writing at Stanford University from 1958-1959.

He reworked the rejected novel he wrote at the age of seventeen and in 1964 published the work as Catherine Cannier. Although the novel was not a critical or financial success, Gaines found his voice for future works. That voice was centered on the world of the plantation and its effect on the creation of black culture. "We cannot ignore that rural past or those older people in it. Their stories are the kind I want to write about. I am what I am today because of them," he said in an interview in 1977.

Having found his voice, his 1967 novel, Of Love and Dust, brought him recognition. Four years later, Miss Jane Pittman established Gaines as a literary master of American fiction. Since then, he has won numerous awards, including a National Books Critic Circle Award and a MacArthur "genius" grant, and has published several collections of short stories and several novels. A writer in residence at the University of Southern Louisiana, Gaines lives with his wife in San Francisco but makes frequent trips to Louisiana.