Ernest Gaines, one of the most important writers of the twentieth century, is known for his depiction of the South, his strong characters, his historical accuracy, and his realistic use of setting. He has created a town in Louisiana, Bayonne, a sustained place like Faulkner's creation of Yoknapatawpha County. Bayonne is the setting for most of his stories; the readers come to know this part of Louisiana which is based on the place in which Gaines spent the first fourteen years of his life. Even though he uses this setting repeatedly, he adds new details each time. He often uses foil characters who present the contrast between what is and what might be. His best-known works are The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, A Lesson Before Dying, and "The Sky Is Gray," all of which have been adapted to the screen. Gaines has been a teacher and a writer in residence at several institutions, both in the United States and abroad, and he is the author of six novels, two collections of short works, and a children's book.
Gaines, the oldest of twelve children, was born on January 15, 1933, in Oscar, Louisiana, and raised on the River Lake Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish. He says he was raised by older people, both men and women, who depended on him because he often read and wrote for them. However, in turn, he learned to respect and appreciate them and their wisdom. He grew up in a community that valued the oral tradition of storytelling. Even though he says he is not a storyteller, he has the stories and the sound of the Louisiana he knew. When he began to write, the language was true to his experience. His old women have more voice and are more decisive than the men, in many cases, which may result from his being reared by his aunt, Augustine Jefferson.
Gaines says that even though his mother was in the house, she often worked away from home. The guiding force in his life was his aunt who never walked, but she stood tall both morally and physically. She taught him what it means to survive with dignity, which he often portrays in his works. From reading Ernest Hemingway, Gaines came to understand what the expression "grace under pressure" means. He heard so much from the people in the Quarters; since his aunt could not travel, people came to her. The strength of his aunt can be seen in Gaines's portraits of old women, especially Miss Jane Pittman. He patterned that character after and dedicated the book to his aunt, "who did not walk a day in her life but who taught me the importance of standing."
Though bright, Gaines received limited schooling; the cycle was five to six months between the time of harvesting and the time of planting. Classes were taught in a church, which during the week served as a one-room schoolhouse. Following his time in the little church-schoolhouse, he attended a Catholic school. However, there was no high school for black children, so in 1948, Gaines joined his mother and stepfather, who had become a merchant marine, in Vallejo, California, where they had moved during World War II. There he spent a lot of time in the public library. In California he attended high school and developed his fondness for fiction.
Gaines began to look for writers who wrote about the South and the people he knew. He was constantly searching for himself, the South, his people. He read John Steinbeck and Willa Cather. Then he began to read the Russian writers of the nineteenth century, Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov. In the works of Ivan Turgenev, Gaines appreciated the treatment of the peasantry, the land, and small everyday things. However, there was no black voice. At seventeen, he wrote his first novel and confidently sent it off to New York to be published; it was returned. However, he had decided to become the voice for which he had been searching.
- Born in Oscar, Louisiana on January 15
- Joins his mother and stepfather in Vallejo, California
- Serves in the U. S. Army
- Receives B.A. from San Francisco State College (now the University of California, San Francisco); receives the Stanford University Creative Writing Fellowship
- Receives the Joseph Henry Jackson Literary Award
- Receives a Rockefeller grant
- Receives the California Commonwealth Gold Medal Award; writer in residence Denison University in Granville, Ohio
- Receives the Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award and the Louisiana Library Association Award; Guggenheim Fellowship
- The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman made into a film and shown on CBS Television
- Awarded an honorary doctor of letters, Denison University; "The Sky Is Gray," American Short Story Series aired on PBS
- Writer-in-residence, Stanford University, in Stanford, California; professor of English and writer-in-residence University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette
- Receives honorary doctor of letters from Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island and from Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York
- Receives honorary doctor of letters from Louisiana State University
- Marries Dianne Saulney, an attorney; MacArthur Foundation Fellow; publishes A Lesson Before Dying
- Receives the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, for A Lesson Before Dying
- Receives the Chevalier de l'Ordre Arts et des Lettres, Paris
- Receives honorary doctor of letters from Dillard University, New Orleans, Louisiana
- Receives the National Humanities Medal; National Governor's Association Award for Lifetime Contribution to the Arts; Louisiana Governor's Arts Award Lifetime Achievement Award
- Writer-in-residence emeritus, University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette
In 1953, Gaines entered the U.S. Army where he served until 1955. When he left the armed forces, he entered San Francisco State College (now the University of California, San Francisco). There, he published his first short stories. "The Turtles" (1956) appeared in the inaugural edition of Transfer, the school's literary magazine; this was followed in 1957 with "Boy in the Double-Breasted Suit." Following the publication of "Turtles," Dorothea Oppenheimer contacted him and encouraged his writing and ultimately became his agent. Upon graduation in 1957, Gaines received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship (creative writing) to Stanford University where he studied between 1958 and 1959. At both universities black writers were not assigned; however, once his teachers (including Stanley Anderson, Mark Harris, and Wallace Stegner) understood what he wanted to do and that he was serious, they encouraged him. He read Eudora Welty and William Faulkner. Though Gaines had physically left the South at fifteen years of age, the South never left him; his family was still there as was his spirit and he returned frequently, both in person and in his writing.
In several interviews and the book Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines, Gaines identifies some of his influences and models: music, paintings, and the discipline of great athletes; Ernest Hemingway for grace under pressure; William Faulkner for dialogue; Gertrude Stein for rhythms; Leo Tolstoy for demonstrating how to put a complete story into a day; Ivan Turgenev's treatment of serfs; Anton Chekhov's handling of the significant rural past; and both Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant for style.
Gaines's first novel, Catherine Carmier (1964), set in the Louisiana of the 1960s, is the story of Jackson Bradley who returns to Bayonne after completing his education in California. Upon his return, he clashes with the town's traditions, which he no longer accepts; falls in love with Catherine Carmier, who is light skinned, believed by her father to be better than those darker than she and he will recognize no dark-skinned suitor; and becomes the victim of Carmier's love and the pull she feels between him and her father. The novel was coolly received, often called an apprentice novel.
Gaines's second novel, Of Love and Dust, set in 1940s Bayonne, is about forbidden love and racial conflicts. It is the story of Marcus Payne, who has been released from prison on bond to a white landowner and placed under the supervision of Sidney Bonbon, a Cajun overseer. The overseer attempts to break Marcus who in turn seeks revenge by paying attention to the overseer's wife, Louise. They fall in love and determine to run away, but there is a confrontation between Marcus and the overseer which ends tragically. The story is narrated by Jim, Marcus's coworker. The black community and its reactions are more prominent in this novel and the themes are clearer.
With the folk autobiography, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines garnered wide public attention. Characters and events are so finely drawn and the novel is so well executed that people ask continuously if it history, if Miss Jane Pittman is based on his aunt. The novel is, indeed, a work of fiction, though the character of Miss Jane Pittman draws upon Gaines's aunt. In the story, a young black history teacher with a tape recorder from Baton Rouge goes to a plantation to interview this lady who is upwards of one hundred years old. He wants the black students to have an authentic perspective on their past. Miss Jane tells her own story of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, segregation, and the civil rights era. In this first person narrative, Gaines presents for the reader a neo-slave narrative. Though fictional, the novel was carefully researched and Miss Jane's storytelling is based on fact. Gaines read many of the 1930s Works Progress Administration (WPA) slave narratives. One theme pertains to manhood and that is addressed through three generations of men in Pittman's life: Ned, whose mother is killed and Miss Jane becomes his surrogate mother; Joe Pittman, her husband, who is independent and a hard worker; and Jimmy, "the One," the one who is seen as special and in whom the black community places its hopes and dreams. Miss Pittman at the end of the novel makes a decision to become a leader for her community and people. The novel was adapted for television in 1974 with Cecily Tyson in the role of Miss Jane Pitman; it won nine Emmy Awards.
The 1978 novel In My Father's House presents the relationship between father and son. It is the story of Reverend Phillip Martin, a prominent civil rights leader, who at the height of his career is forced to confront his past. This is precipitated by the appearance of a young man, Robert X, who intends to kill him. The book was not a moneymaker; but it did present the themes of manhood, struggle and sacrifice, and survival with dignity, which would remain important for Gaines.
With the 1983 A Gathering of Old Men, Gaines came back in the public eye. The story, set on the Marshall Plantation in the 1970s, focuses on a group of old men, much like the ones in Gaines's youth, who take a stand against injustice; the story is told in multiple first person points of view. Each man, like Miss Jane, reveals a part of his personal history. In the revelations, each voices the humiliation and exploitation he endured within the oppressive system. These men, plus a thirty-year-old white female, plead guilty to the murder of an antagonistic member of a Cajun clan. The novel was adapted for television in 1987.
In 1993, Gaines published A Lesson Before Dying, which created much the same stir in the reading public as had The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. The story, set on a plantation and in a Bayonne jail in the 1940s, concerns a young man, Jefferson, wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair. The black teacher, Grant Wiggins, intends to teach Jefferson to die with dignity and in the process discovers something about himself and reconnects with the black community. Both Jefferson and Grant learn important lessons. For this novel, which was both critically and commercially successful, Gaines received the 1993 National Book Critics' Circle Award. It was adapted for the Home Box Office cable channel by Walt Disney Television in 1994.
In 1971, Gaines published his only children's book, A Long Day in November. It is dedicated, says Gaines, "to all little boys who have had one long day in their lives." It is a revision of the story of this title in his Bloodlines collection. The story begins with the little boy waking up in the cold morning and ends with him curling up in the warmth of the bed that night. In the course of the day, he encounters and witnesses many challenges. Yet, in the course of growing into manhood, he, like his father, makes sacrifices in order to survive with dignity.
His first collection, Bloodlines (1968), contains five short stories that convey a sense of the novel because time progresses and characters grow. The stories begin in the 1930s and progress through to the 1960s. The male characters age from the first story to the last, which actually portrays a number of ages and a woman, Aunt Fe, who in upwards of one hundred years old. The movement in the collection is ever widening. The first story takes place on the plantation; the second is mostly set in the town, with a brief period on the plantation; the third story takes place in town; the fourth moves back to the plantation, but the main character has traveled the world; and the fifth story presents various places. The first story, "A Long Day in November," became a children's book. The second story, "The Sky Is Gray," moves the little boy toward manhood while socializing him in the traditions and ways of his culture and introducing him to the future world. "Three Men," the third in the collection, illustrates ways of approaching manhood. The title story involves a young man who returns home to claim his inheritance; he's a little crazy since he is trying to buck tradition, and yet, evidently some recognize the coming change. The final story, "Just Like a Tree," has the black community and one lone white woman coming together to see Aunt Fe leave the plantation for her safety. The violent forces of the civil rights movement have caused family members to decide Aunt Fe needs to leave the area for her own safety, but she says she will not be moved. Thus, the collection ends with the beginning of a new era, the passing from the old traditions to new ones. However, throughout, Gaines cautioned the reader that the new era must be combined with the old.
In 2005, Gaines published Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays. In these pieces, Gaines discusses why he became a writer, his early life in Louisiana, the inspirations behind his books, and his portrayal of the black experience in the South. In so doing, he gives valuable background information on both the artist and the man. There are six essays, five short stories, and a conversation between Gaines and fellow writers Marcia Gaudet and Darrell Bourque. Two of the short stories "The Turtles" and "The Boy in the Double-Breasted Suit" represent his first published writing. "Christ Walked Down Market Street" is a moving story and his first attempt to write a story with a setting outside Louisiana. The title reflects the coexistence of similarities and differences, neither being superior to the other. In 2006, Gaines was working on a novel, which had the working title The Man Who Whipped Children.
Gaudet, Marcia, and Carl Wooton. Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer's Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.
Ernest J. Gaines. http://www.louisiana.edu/Academic/LiberalArts/ENGL/Creative/Gaines.htm (Accessed 3 February 2006).
"Major Twentieth Century Writers." http://www.princeton.edu/∼howarth/557/gathering3.html (Accessed 3 February 2006).
The papers of Clarence Gaines are in the archives of the C. G. O'Kelly Library, Winston-Salem State University.
Helen R. Houston