Ernest J. Gaines Biography

At a Glance

In Ernest J. Gaines’ writing, 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.

Facts and Trivia

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Several of Gaines’s novels have been filmed for television, the earliest of which was The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, starring Cicely Tyson.
  • A Louisiana native, Gaines teaches creative writing at the University of Louisiana (Lafayette).
  • In 2007, the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence was established in his honor to recognize African American writers.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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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(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...

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(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,...

(The entire section is 140 words.)


(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...

(The entire section is 245 words.)