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Ernest James Gaines was born on the River Lake Plantation near the small hamlet of Oscar, in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana.  His ancestors had lived on the same plantation since slavery, remaining after emancipation to work the land as sharecroppers.  Gaines and his family lived in the houses, much expanded, that had once served as slave quarters.  His parents separated when he was eight; the strongest adult influence in his childhood was a great aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, crippled from birth, who crawled from kitchen to the family's garden patch, growing and preparing food, and caring for him and for six of his brothers and sisters. 

Story-telling and oral tradition were a powerful part of African American life in the rural South, and young Ernest Gaines absorbed the stories of his family and neighbors, acquiring a sense of history and an ear for the rhythms of vernacular speech.  The only school for African American children in the district was conducted in a single room of the black church.  School was open for less than half the year; from the age of nine, Ernest Gaines and the other children were sent to labor alongside their elders in the fields, harvesting vegetables and cotton. Pointe Coupee Parish offered no public high school to its black citizens.  For three years, Gaines attended St. Augustine's School, a segregated Catholic school in the parish seat at New Roads, Louisiana. 

During World War II, his mother and stepfather, like many African Americans of their generation, left the South to find work in the booming wartime economy.  At 15, Gaines joined his mother and stepfather in Vallejo, California, northeast of San Francisco.  To keep him off the streets and out of trouble, his stepfather urged him to spend time in the public library. He soon became enthralled with literature, particularly the 19th century Russian masters, whose tales of a countryside steeped in feudal tradition echoed his own experience of plantation life.  Finding no literature that directly portrayed the life of African Americans in the rural South, he began to write stories of his own, recreating the world of his childhood. 

After serving in the U.S. Army, he enrolled at San Francisco State University, where he published a number of short stories in the University quarterly.  His stories won him admission to the selective graduate program in creative writing at Stanford University, conducted by the novelist Wallace Stegner.  Gaines settled in San Francisco after graduate school, working a variety of part-time jobs in the afternoon and reserving his morning hours for writing.

His first novel, Catherine Carmier, was published in 1964.  A tragic love story played out against the complex caste system of rural Louisiana, the work met a favorable critical reception, but sold poorly.  The next years were difficult ones for Gaines, as a succession of novels and short stories were rejected by publishers.  In 1966, he was awarded a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to continue his writing.  The following year, his second novel, Of Love and Dust, appeared.  Again, he told a story of life and love thwarted by the legacy of servitude and discrimination, but this book attracted greater attention than his first. 

While many of his contemporaries were depicting the recent experience of African American migrants to the urban North, Gaines's work was rich in history, the accumulated experience of centuries.  A collection of five stories, Bloodline, was published in 1968.  In his novels and stories, Gaines created a vidily detailed imaginary community called Bayonne.  Although it is clearly modeled on his own Louisiana parish, his Baynonne is full of invented characters and incidents, often shocking, but utterly convincing.  Deeply grounded in a distinctive place and culture, his tales resound with universal themes of love and family, of responsibility, injustice and endurance.

In 1971, Gaines was appointed Writer-in-Residence at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.  That same year, he completed the work that was to make him famous far beyond his own country.  The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) is the first-person narrative of a fictional 110-year-old woman, born in slavery, who lives to see the stirrings of the modern Civil Rights Movement.  Her story led readers through a century of African American life.  A 1974 television adaptation of the novel became a national event. The film won nine Emmy Awards and brought Gaines's work to the attention of a vast audience for the first time. 

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Not long after the book's publication, Gaines was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and switfly completed a number of major works.  In My Father's House (1978) deals with the estrangement of fathers and sons, a recurring theme in his works.  A Gathering of Old Men (1983) tells a complex story through the voices of 15 different narrators -- black, white, Cajun and Creole -- with a single violent act illuminating the history of an entire community. It too was adapted for television. 

In 1993, Gaines received a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."  The same year saw the publication of his most critically acclaimed novel to date.  A Lesson Before Dying describes the belated education of a young man wrongly sentenced to death.  The book created an international sensation; beyond its achievement as a work of literature, it became a touchstone in the ongoing debate over capital punishment.  The work received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and a 1999 television adaptation won the year's Emmy Award as Best Film for Television.

Since 1983, Ernest Gaines has been Writer-in-Residence at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette.  He and his wife, attorney Dianne Saulney, divide their time between San Francisco and Louisiana.  In addition to his other honors, Ernest Gaines has been awarded the National Humanities Medal of the United States, and is a Chevalier of France's Order of Arts and Letters. In 2007, the Baton Rouge Foundation established the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence to recognize new fiction by African American authors.

In addition to his novels and stories, Gaines is a well-regarded essayist and is much in demand as a public speaker and commentator on American life.  A number of his stories and essays were gathered in the 2005 collection Mozart and Leadbelly.  Today, his permanent residence in Louisiana is a house that he and his wife built on land that was once part of River Lake Plantation, where he spent his childhood, and where his ancestors labored for generations.

Ernest J. Gaines - Academy of Achievement.  (February 26, 2010).  Retrieved November 1, 2014.


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Ernest J. Gaines  •  official portrait  •  National Endowment for the Arts 2010 (Joseph Sanford)

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