Ernest J. Gaines
Considered among the most important southern writers, Ernest J. Gaines was an award-winning fiction writer whose work often features the region where he grew up: rural and small-town south-central Louisiana.
Considered among the most important southern writers, Ernest J. Gaines (1933-2019) was an award-winning fiction writer whose work often features the region where he grew up: rural and small-town south-central Louisiana. In novels such as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Lesson before Dying, Gaines excels at depicting familial, generational, and racial struggles in the lives of mid-twentieth-century Louisianans, especially from the perspectives of African American men. Known primarily as a novelist, Gaines also wrote several noted short stories and had his work adapted for television and film. He was the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowship and the National Humanities Medal, among other awards and honors.
Childhood and Early Adulthood
Ernest James Gaines was born January 15, 1933, in Pointe Coupée Parish, the son of African American sharecroppers Manuel and Adrean Gaines. He spent his childhood and received his rudimentary early education in plantation quarters that would later figure prominently in his fiction. A formative presence during these years was his aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, who cared for her family without the use of her legs. Gaines dedicated The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to, among others, his “beloved aunt” “who did not walk a day in her life but who taught me the importance of standing.” When he was fifteen, Gaines moved to California to join his mother and stepfather. There he attended junior college in Vallejo before being drafted into the US Army. After two years of military service, he completed a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University) in 1957, attended Stanford University on a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship, and initiated his literary career.
When reflecting on his literary influences, Gaines cited nineteenth-century Russians, such as Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, and Ivan Turgenev, and early twentieth-century Americans, such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and fellow southerner William Faulkner. Stein’s and Hemingway’s influences can be detected in Gaines’s spare, rhythmic prose. Faulkner’s influence, on the other hand, surfaces in Gaines’s attention to southern dialects, his frequent structuring of novels around multiple first-person narrations, and his creation of a detailed imagined setting that recurs in much of his writing. Just as Faulkner, drawing upon the locales of his childhood, created Yoknapatawpha County, with its county seat of Jefferson based on Oxford, Mississippi, Gaines created St. Raphael Parish, with its center of Bayonne based on New Roads. He revised Stein and Faulkner, however, by writing from an African-American perspective and acknowledging oral African-American folk culture as an important literary influence.
Gaines’s first novel was Catherine Carmier, an exploration of an interracial love triangle published in 1964. (He destroyed an earlier version of the manuscript and subsequently rewrote the novel.) Here, as in much of his subsequent writing, he relays the nuances of Louisiana’s racial categories, exploring how Creole identity complicates blackness and how Cajun identity complicates whiteness, especially within the contexts of social class. Subsequent novels include Of Love and Dust (1967), The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), In My Father’s House (1978), A Gathering of Old Men (1983), and A Lesson before Dying (1993). Many critics consider A Lesson before Dying, the tale of a rural teacher charged with bringing self-awareness and dignity to the life of a young man awaiting execution, to be Gaines’s most accomplished work, and it received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1993. The novel gained even wider readership when chosen as the September 1997 selection for the book discussion club of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Other Writings and Film Adaptations
Although known primarily as a novelist, Gaines also wrote several noted short stories. His first, “The Turtles,” was published in the college magazine of San Francisco State College in 1956. Later stories—“A Long Day in November,” “Three Men,” “Bloodline,” “Just Like a Tree,” and the frequently anthologized “The Sky Is Gray”—were collected in Bloodline, published in 1968. The first of these stories was revised as Gaines’s children’s book, A Long Day in November, in 1971. Other stories, including several early ones, were published in Mozart and Leadbelly, a collection of stories and autobiographical essays, in 2005.
Gaines’s fiction has repeatedly been adapted into film. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was filmed as a made-for-television movie in 1974 and featured Cicely Tyson in the titular role. “The Sky Is Gray” was adapted into film in the American Short Story Series on the Public Broadcasting Service in 1980. A Gathering of Old Men was filmed for Columbia Broadcasting System television in 1987 and starred Lou Gossett Jr., and Holly Hunter. The most critically claimed film adaptation, however, is A Lesson before Dying, directed by Joseph Sargent and starring Don Cheadle as teacher Grant Wiggins. The Emmy Award-winning movie aired on Home Box Office in 1999.
Once established as a major writer, Gaines taught creative writing at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette (now the University of Louisiana, Lafayette). After a year as a visiting professor in 1981, he served as Writer-in-Residence from 1983 until his retirement in 2004 when he became Writer-in-Residence Emeritus. He was also a visiting professor of creative writing at the University of Rennes in France in 1996. Throughout these years, Gaines spent time in both California and Louisiana, where he built a home on the plantation where he grew up. He married Dianne Saulney, a Florida attorney, in 1993. He was the recipient of a Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in 1971, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Humanist of the Year award in 1989, a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1993, and the National Humanities Medal in 2000. He was inducted in to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in the Department of Literature in 1998.