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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