Ernest J. Gaines Biography
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.
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 Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship for graduate study at Stanford University. Strongly influenced by the writing of Ivan Turgenev, James Joyce, and William Faulkner, at Stanford Gaines began bringing into focus his own artistic vision.
That vision became sharper in 1962 when he returned to Louisiana and strengthened his desire to write about the places and people of his boyhood years. He hoped to write from an honest but sympathetic perspective that no white writer of the rural South had been able to assume. His first novel, Catherine Carmier, contained several of the themes that would characterize his later work. This novel, generally considered to be of uneven quality, was not a critical success. He followed it by abortive attempts to write about his adopted San Francisco culture. Thereafter, he wisely turned again to writing about Louisiana, about the people and places in his heart.
In 1966 Gaines was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and over the next two years he published a novel, Of Love and Dust (1967), and a collection of short stories, Bloodline (1968), one of which, “A Long Day in November,” was also published separately as a children’s story in 1971. Thereafter, he began garnering considerable acclaim and several awards, including a California Commonwealth Gold Medal Award (1972), the Louisiana Library Award (1972), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1974), and an honorary doctorate from Denison University (1980).
While writer-in-residence at Denison, he published his best-known novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971). It was followed by In My...
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Father’s House (1978) and A Gathering of Old Men (1983), which, like The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, was adapted as a television play and helped to introduce his work to an expanding international audience.
During the 1980’s, Gaines won a number of awards, including three more honorary doctorates and, in 1989, the Louisiana Humanist of the Year Award, presented by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities in recognition of his dedication both to his craft and to his teaching. Fame also brought him travel and lecturing obligations; after a hiatus of ten years, he was able to finish his long-awaited novel A Lesson Before Dying (1993). This novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and later was a selection of Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. In 1993, Gaines was awarded a “genius grant” by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Humanities Medal.
In 1983, Gaines was appointed writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, about sixty miles from his birthplace, where he was recognized as a distinguished teacher. At that time, he also maintained homes in San Francisco and Florida. He retired from active teaching in 2003 with a lifetime appointment as writer-in-residence emeritus. He purchased land in Oscar, near the plantation where he had worked as a boy, and made his home near the town of his birth.
Gaines’s collection of essays and short fiction Mozart and Leadbelly was published in 2005. Work on his novel The Man Who Whipped Children was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina in September, 2005, when he opened his home to relatives from flood-stricken New Orleans. He is married to Diane Saulney, an attorney.