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Gaines, Ernest J. 1933–

Ernest J. Gaines 1933

Writer, educator

At a Glance

Made His Mark with Miss Jane

Themes of Black Pride and Civil Rights

Award-Winning Novel of the 90s

Conveying the Legacy of Racism

Selected writings


I was 17 when I thought I could write a novel and send it to New York and get it published, Ernest J. Gaines told Publishers Weekly. Beginning the novel in longhand, Gaines later gained access to a typewriter, which had been rented for him by his mother. Using one finger to type the manuscriptsingle spaced on both sides of half sheets of paper that he had cut to resemble a bookthe young author was ready to mail his work to New York. I wrapped it in brown paper, tied a string around it, and sent the thing off, he reminisced. It came back, of course.

In 1993 Gaines modestly told Essence that he had been trying to be a writer for 40 years. Drawing from the rich cultural diversity and storytelling traditions of the rural bayou region in which he was raised, Gaines has written six novels and a collection of short stories, one of which was published separately as a childrens book. Three of his books and one of his stories have been adapted as television movies.

Unlike many black writers finding their voices in the political and social turbulence of the sixties, Gaines focuses instead on the history and folklore of a more distant past.

A lot happened in those 350 years between the time we left Africa and the fifties and sixties when [black writers] started writing novels about the big-city ghettos, he explained in Essence. We cannot ignore that rural past or those older people in it. Their stories are the kind I want to write about. I am what I am today because of them.

Gaines was bom in Oscar, Louisiana, in 1933, and raised on the River Lake plantation in Point Coupée Parish. The oldest of six children, he was a bright and active child whose attendance at school was limited to the five or six months between the plantations fall harvest and the spring planting. When he was 15, Gaines joined his mother and stepfather who had moved during World War II to Vallejo, California, across the bay from San Francisco. He found greater educational opportunities there. He also found the door open at the Vallejo public library; the public library in Louisiana had been closed to blacks.

Pulling books off the shelf at random, Gaines quickly decided that he liked fiction best. In the late 1940s, however, there were very few books published by or about blacks, so Gaines was drawn to books about immigrants

At a Glance

Bom Ernest James Gaines, January 15, 1933, in Oscar, LA; son of Manuel (a laborer) and Adrienne J. (Colar) Gaines; married Dianne Saulney (an attorney), May 15, 1993. Education: Attended Vallejo Junior College; San Francisco State College (now University), B.A., 1957; graduate study at Stanford University, 195859.

Author of novels and short stories. Denison University, Granville, OH, writer in residence, 1971; Stanford University, Stanford, CA, writer in residence, 1981; University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette, professor of English and writer in residence, 1983. Whittier College, visiting professor, 1983, and writer in residence, 1986. Military service: US. Army, 1953-55.

Member: Fellowship of Southern Writers (one of 26 charter members), 1987.

Selected awards: Wallace Stegner fellow, 1957; Joseph Henry Jackson Award, 1959; awards from National Endowment for the Arts, 1967, and Black Academy of Arts and Letters, 1972; Rockefeller grant, 1970; Guggenheim fellow, 1971; fiction gold medal, Com monwealth Club of California, for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, 1972, and A Gathering of Old Men, 1984; literary award from American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1987; MacArthur Foundation grant, 1993; the 1993 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, awarded in 1994, for A Lesson Before Dying; several honorary degrees.

Addresses: Office Department of English, University of Southwestern Louisiana, East University Ave., Lafayette, LA 70504.

and peasantry. He read books by American writers John Steinbeck and Willa Cather, as well as the works of the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century. In Ivan Turgenevs portrayals of Russian serfs, Gaines found a parallel to the lives of plantation slaves. At this point, he was inspired to write that first novel he had naively sent to New York.

Another strong force in Gainess early life was his great-aunt, Augusteen Jefferson. From Aunt Teen, Gaines learned courage and discipline. Crippled from birth, she could only crawl, not walk; but this did not stop her from taking care of Gaines and his siblings, washing clothes, and even tending a vegetable garden near the house. Augusteen Jefferson was Gainess model for the 110-year-old title character in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Anytime someone asks me who had the greatest influence on me as an artist or a man, I say she had, stated Gaines in the Essence interview.

In 1956 one of Gainess short stories appeared in the San Francisco State magazine. After reading this story, agent Dorothea Oppenheimer took Gaines as a client, then represented him for more than 30 years. By 1957 Gaines had been accepted to Stanford University on a Wallace Stegner creative writing fellowship. He changed his focus from writing short stories to writing novels after a visiting critic from New York told a group of students that a publisher would never even consider a collection of short stories written by an unknown author. The only novel Gaines could think to write was the one he had written in high school, the one that eventually evolved into Catherine Carmier.

Even after Gaines graduated from college and served in the U.S. Army, the plot of his first literary effortthe one he had wrapped in brown paper and mailed to New York when he was 17had stayed with him. Determined to rewrite this novel and do it justice, Gaines spent five years approaching the story from every angle. Finally, in 1964, Catherine Carmier was published by Atheneum. The novel tells the story of a young black man who returns from California to his native South to visit his family. There he meets and falls in love with a beautiful woman from his old community. Although the book did not sell well, Gaines had found the location and the voice for the novels that were to follow.

In Catherine Carmier, Gaines created an imaginary Louisiana plantation region named Bayonne, a place to which he would return in later fiction. Critics have often compared Gainess Bayonne to William Faulkners Yoknapatawpha County, and Gaines has acknowledged the influence Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway had on him as a developing writer. After Catherine Carmier Gaines completed another novel, Of Love and Dust, before publishing Bloodline, a collection of short stories. The statement of the New York critic from Gainess college days seemed to hold true; an unknown writer was not likely to have a collection of short stories published until he had first proved himself as a novelist. From the five stories in Bloodline, A Long Day in November was published separately as a childrens book in 1971. Another story from the same collection, The Sky Is Gray, is frequently anthologized.

Made His Mark with Miss Jane

Gaines earned wide recognition with his third novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which was later adapted for an Emmy-winning television movie featuring Cicely Tyson in the title role. The novels story is told by a 110-year-old first-person narrator. Through the character of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines relates the history of rural Louisiana blacks from the time of slavery and the Civil War up through the civil rights era. Never mind that Miss Jane Pittman is fictitious, and that her autobiography, offered up in the form of taped reminiscences, is artifice. The effect is stunning, wrote Josh Greenfeld in Life. Deeming the work a metaphor of the collective black experience, Jerry H. Bryant further commented in the Iowa Review on Gainess uncanny rendering of the character of Miss Jane Pittman. Readers do not think of [him] as her creator, the reviewer noted, but as her recording editor.

With his fourth novel, In My Fathers House, Gaines elaborates on another recurring theme in his worksthe alienation between father and son. In this novel, 60-year-old Reverend Phillip Martin is confronted by his 28-year-old illegitimate son. This son and two other children were conceived during an extended affair Martin had had 30 years earlierin the drinking, fighting, womanizing days before he found God. A deeper and more pervasive theme addressed by this novel is one that is also found in Of Love and Dust, Bloodline, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. In each of these works, Gaines tackles the issue of manhood for men of color. In a 1978 interview in the New York Times Book Review, Gaines stated: You must understand that the blacks who were brought here as slaves were prevented from becoming the men that they could be. A man can speak up, he can do things to protect himself, his home, and his family. Eventually the blacks started [saying], Damn what you think Im supposed to beI will be what I ought to be. And if I must die to do it, Ill die and for a long time they did get killed. Once they stepped over that line there was always that possibility, and quite a few of my characters step over that line.

Themes of Black Pride and Civil Rights

In A Gathering of Old Men, 17 of Gainess characters step across the line along with a 30-year-old white heiress of an aged Louisiana plantation as they all plead guilty to the murder of Beau Boutan, an antagonistic member of a Cajun clan. As each man relays a tale that justly serves as a motive for the murder, Boutan comes to represent a white world that has stripped each of them of their dignity and manhood. Elaine Kendall noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that these individual stories coalesce into a single powerful tale of subjugation, exploitation and humiliation at the hands of landowners ; the men talk about public insults, social and economic discrimination, and various other indignities that they and their families have been forced to endure.

Ten years elapsed between the publication of A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying, a novel in which Gaines returns to the fictional town of Bayonne to confront the issues of racism, dignity, and black manhood. Jonathan Yardley, writing in the Washington Post Book World, described A Lesson Before Dying as quintessential Gaines a fine introduction to his world and his view of it for anyone unfamiliar with his workand, for those who know that work, a welcome opportunity to return to familiar territory.

Award-Winning Novel of the 90s

Set in rural Louisiana in the late 1940s, A Lesson Before Dying focuses on a young black fieldworker named Jefferson who has been convicted of a murder he did not commit. In an attempt to save Jefferson from a death sentence, his defense attorney portrays the barely literate and slow-minded young man as a dumb animal incapable of planning a murder. Jefferson accepts the lawyers depiction of him as an animal, which incenses Miss Emma, his elderly godmother. Miss Emma then enlists Grant Wiggins, a schoolteacher, to help Jefferson regain his sense of human dignity so he can die like a man.

Wiggins must bridge the social distance that separates him from Jefferson in order to accomplish the task set before him. Eventually, the teacher succeeds in forging what Merle Rubin in the Christian Science Monitor called a small but vital link (that) puts both men in touch with a power within themselves that no system, however unjust, can ever extinguish.

Conveying the Legacy of Racism

Critics frequently comment on Gainess ability to convey through his work the insidious effect of racismwithout moralizing. Of A Lesson Before Dying, R. Z. Sheppard wrote in Time: There is an ominous courtesy between the races. The whites are soft-spoken and patronizing. The blacks reply with exaggerated deference and little eye contact. Few writers have caught this routine indignity as well as Gaines. Fewer still have his dramatic instinct for conveying the malevolence of racism and injustice without the usual accompanying self-righteousness.

In the Washington Post Book World, Jonathan Yardley stated that one of the many remarkable things about his work, and thus about Gaines himself, is the utter lack of overwrought emotion with which questions of race relations are treated. Carl Senna, writing in the New York Times Book Review, found that although A Lesson Before Dying contains an atmosphere of pervasively harsh racism, the characters, black and white, are humanly complex and have some redeeming quality.

A Lesson Before Dying reached the Quarterly Black Review of Books and Blackboard bestseller lists and was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for the best American book of fiction published in 1993. In addition to his recent professional triumphs, Gaines found fulfillment in his personal life as well; at the age of 60, he was married for the first timeto a Miami-based assistant district attorney. I used to think that when I was 60, Id like to live near a small university, Gaines told Emerge contributor Ruth Laney, someplace where I could communicate with young people who like to write. And that was before I ever knew that there would be a woman in my life, or who that woman would be. And now theres Dianne. What frightens me is that so many things are falling into place.

American Western writer Wallace Stegner once asked Gaines to describe his intended audience; Gaines replied that he wrote for no one in particular. Gaines recalled for Publishers Weekly that when Stegner pressed the issue, he eventually answered: Id probably say I write for the black youth of the South, to make them aware of who they are. [I also write for] the white youth of the South to make them aware that unless they understand their black neighbors they cannot understand themselves.

Selected writings

Catherine Carmier, Atheneum, 1964.

Of Love and Dust, Dial, 1967.

Bloodline (short stories), Dial, 1968.

A Long Day in November, Dial, 1971.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Dial, 1971.

In My Fathers House, Knopf, 1978.

A Gathering of Old Men, Knopf, 1983.

A Lesson Before Dying, Knopf, 1993.

Works by Gaines that were adapted for television include The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, CBS-TV, 1974; The Sky Is Gray, public television, 1980; A Gathering of Old Men, CBS-TV, 1987; and A Lesson Before Dying, Walt Disney Television, in production, 1994.



Babb, Valerie-Melissa, Ernest Gaines, Twayne, 1991.

Black Literary Criticism, Gale, 1992.

Black Writers, Gale, 2nd edition, 1994.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 2: American Novelists Since World War II, 1978; Yearbook 1980, 1980; Volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, 1984.

Gaudet, Marcia, and Carl Wooton, Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writers Craft, Louisiana State University Press, 1990.


America, June 2, 1984; August 28, 1993, p. 21.

Atlanta Journal and Constitution, March 28, 1993, p. M-l; April 25, 1993, p. Monday-10.

Boston Globe, April 18, 1993, p. B-41.

Chicago Tribune Book World, October 30, 1983.

Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 1983; April 13, 1993, p. 13.

Emerge, May 1994, p. 66.

Essence, August 1993, p. 52.

Iowa Review, Winter 1972, p. 106.

Life, April 30, 1971.

Los Angeles Times, March 2, 1983; August 30, 1992, p. BR-11.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 1, 1984.

MELUS, Summer 1984, pp.59-81.

Nation, February 5, 1968; April 5, 1971, p. 436; January 14, 1984, p. 22.

New Republic, December 26, 1983. Netusiueefc, June 16, 1969; May 3, 1971.

New York Times, July 20, 1978.

New York Times Book Review, November 19, 1967; May 23, 1971; June 11, 1978, p. 13; October 30, 1983, p. 15; August 8, 1993, p. 21.

People, April 26, 1993, p. 34.

Publishers Weekly, March 1, 1993, p. 38.

Southern Living, September 1993, p. 44.

Time, May 10, 1971; December 27, 1971; March 29, 1993, p. 65.

USA Today, March 26, 1993, p. D-4.

Washington Post, January 13, 1976.

Washington Post Book World, June 18, 1978, p. E-5; September 21, 1983; March 28, 1993, p. WBK-3.

Gaines was the subject of the film Louisiana Stories:

Ernest Gaines, which aired on WHMM-TV, 1993.

Debra G. Harroun

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"Gaines, Ernest J. 1933–." Contemporary Black Biography. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Gaines, Ernest J(ames)

GAINES, Ernest J(ames)

Nationality: American. Born: Oscar, Louisiana, 15 January 1933. Education: Vallejo Junior College; San Francisco State College, 1955-57, B.A. 1957; Stanford University, California (Stegner fellow, 1958), 1958-59. Military Service: Served in the United States Army, 1953-55. Career: Writer-in-residence, Denison University, Granville, Ohio, 1971, Stanford University, Spring 1981, and Whittier College, California, 1982. Since 1983 professor of English and writer-in-residence, University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette. Awards: San Francisco Foundation Joseph Henry Jackson award, 1959; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966; Rockefeller grant, 1970; Guggenheim grant, 1970; Black Academy of Arts and Letters award, 1972; San Francisco Art Commission award, 1983; American Academy award, 1987; National Book Critics Circle award, 1994, and Pulitzer prize, 1994, both for A Lesson Before Dying. D. Litt.: Denison University, 1980; Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1985; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, 1985; Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge 1987; D.H.L.: Whittier College, 1986. Agent: JCA Literary Agency, 242 West 27th Street, New York, New York 10001. Address: 128 Buena Vista Boulevard, Lafayette, Louisiana 70503-2059, U.S.A.



Catherine Carmier. New York, Atheneum, 1964; London, Secker and Warburg, 1966.

Of Love and Dust. New York, Dial Press, 1967; London, Secker andWarburg, 1968.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York, Dial Press, 1971; London, Joseph, 1973.

In My Father's House. New York, Knopf, 1978.

A Gathering of Old Men. New York, Knopf, 1983; London, Heinemann, 1984.

A Lesson Before Dying. New York, Knopf, 1993.

Short Stories

Bloodline. New York, Dial Press, 1968.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Turtles," in Transfer (San Francisco), 1956.

"Boy in the Doublebreasted Suit," in Transfer (San Francisco), 1957.

"My Grandpa and the Haint," in New Mexico Quarterly (Albuquerque), Summer 1966.


A Long Day in November (for children). New York, Dial Press, 1971.

Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines, with Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1990.


Manuscript Collection:

Dupree Library, University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette.

Critical Studies:

"Human Dignity and Pride in the Novels of Ernest Gaines" by Winifred L. Stoelting, in CLA Journal (Baltimore), March 1971; "Ernest J. Gaines: Change, Growth, and History" by Jerry H. Bryant, in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), October 1974; "Bayonne ou le Yoknapatawpha d'Ernest Gaines" by Michel Fabre in Recherches Anglaises et Américaines 9 (Strasbourg), 1976; "To Make These Bones Live: History and Community in Ernest Gaines's Fiction" by Jack Hicks, in Black American Literature Forum (Terre Haute, Indiana), Spring 1977; "Ernest Gaines: 'A Long Day in November"' by Nalenz Puschmann, in The Black American Short Story in the 20th Century edited by Peter Bruck, Amsterdam, Grüner, 1978; "The Quarters: Ernest J. Gaines and the Sense of Place" by Charles H. Rowell, in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), Summer 1985; Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines, edited by David C. Estes. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1994; Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson by Herman Beavers. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995; Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion by Karen Carmean. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1998.

Ernest J. Gaines comments:

I have tried to show you a world of my peoplethe kind of world that I came from.

* * *

The fictive world of Ernest J. Gaines, as well as certain technical aspects of his works, might be compared to that of William Faulkner. But useful as such a comparison may be, it should not be pursued to the point of obscuring Gaines's considerable originality, which inheres mainly in the fact that he is Afro-American and very much a spiritual product, if no longer a resident, of the somewhat unique region about which he writes: south Louisiana, culturally distinguishable from the state's Anglo-Saxon north, thus from the nation as a whole, by its French legacy, no small part of which derives from the comparative ease with which its French settlers and their descendants formed sexual alliances with blacks.

Gaines's Afro-American perspective enables him to create, among other notable characters both black and white, a Jane Pittman (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman ) whose heroic perseverance we experience, rather than a housekeeping Dilsey (The Sound and the Fury ) for whom we have little more than the narrator's somewhat ambiguous and irrelevant assurance that "She endured." In general, Gaines's peculiar point of view generates a more complex social vision than Faulkner's, an advantage Gaines has sustained with dramatic force and artistic integrity. Gaines's fictive society consists of whites, blacks, and creoles, presumably a traditionally more favored socio-economic class of African American given to fantasies of racial superiority to those of darker skin, fantasies of the kind the Martinican psychiatrist Frantz Fanon explores in Black Skin, White Masks.

The Gainesian counterparts of the Sartorises and Snopeses (the moribund aristocracy and parvenu "poor white trash" respectively of Faulkner's mythical Mississippi county) are the south Louisiana plantation owners, mostly of French extraction, and the cajuns, of French extraction but of lesser "quality." The cajuns are inheriting and spoiling the land and displacing the creoles and blacks, the former tragically though not irrevocably doomed by a persistent folly, the latter a people of promise who have never really betrayed their African heritage.

All Gaines's works reflect the inherent socio-economic intricacy of this quadruplex humanity, though we are never allowed to lose sight of its basic element of black and white. In his apprentice first novel Catherine Carmier, for instance, we see the sickly proscribed love of Jackson, who is black, and Catherine, daughter of an infernally proud creole farmer, as a perverted issue of the miscegenation that resulted from the white male's sexual exploitation of black people. This mode of victimization assumes metaphoric force in Gaines's works, figuring forth in historical perspective the oppression of black people generally. The fictive plantation world, then, is uniquely micro-cosmic. It is south Louisiana, the south, the nation as a whole. This aspect is explored, for example, in the title story of Bloodline. Copper, a character of mythopoeic proportion, the militant young son of a now deceased white plantation owner and a black woman field hand, stages a heroic return, presumably from his education in school and in the world at large, to claim his heritage: recognition of kinship by an aristocratic white uncle and his rightful share of the land. In In My Father's House, and for the first time, Gaines deals with the black father-son relationship, and explores a neglected aspect of African American life: the perplexities of the public vs. private person relative to individual responsibility. The Reverend Phillip Martin, a grass roots Civil Rights leader in the fictional south Louisiana town of St. Adrienne, is forced to confront his wayward past when his estranged son Etienne, reminiscent of Copper, comes to claim paternal recognition and redress of grievances.

In A Gathering of Old Men Gaines extends the thematic concerns of his earlier novels into a new South setting, employing a multiple first-person point of view in the manner of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. The conflict between blacks and cajuns comes to a cinematically stylized, somewhat surrealistic climax and resolution as several old black men gather in mutual militant defense of one of their number who has been accused of killing Cajun farmer Beau Boutan, confronting the local sheriff as well as the slain man's avenging father, "retired" nightrider Fix Boutan. The result is a gripping allegorical tale of race relations in the new South resonant with the Gainesian theme of individual responsibility, this time for holding ground in the wake of the civil rights gains of the 1960s and 1970s.

In Gaines's 1993 novel A Lesson Before Dying, set in 1940, individual responsibility is highlighted again. Wiggins, the novel's narrator, is a young school teacher and one among a number of Gainesian tutelary figures. Wiggins is pressured by his elders into assuming the responsibility of mentor to Jefferson, a young black manchild who awaits execution for having taken part in the murder of a white storekeeper, a crime for which he is apparently unjustly convicted in a racist environment. A National Book Critics Circle award winner and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1994, A Lesson chronicles the young Jefferson's gradual assumption of responsibility, under Wiggins's increasingly committed mentorship, for assimilating the attributes of manhood before he dies in the electric chair. In one of Gaines's characteristic ironies, Wiggins's mentorship of Jefferson contributes to his own edification as well.

Alvin Aubert

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"Gaines, Ernest J(ames)." Contemporary Novelists. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

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