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Gaines, Ernest J.

Gaines, Ernest J.

January 15, 1933


The oldest son of a large family, Ernest Gaines, a writer, was born on the River Lake Plantation in Point Coupée Parish, Louisiana. His parents separated when he was young, and his father's absence led to a permanent estrangement. More important than his parents in his childhood was a maternal great-aunt who provided love and served as an example of strength and survival under extreme adversity. The older people in the close-knit community of the plantation "quarters" exemplified similar qualities, passing on to the child the rich oral tradition that figures prominently in his fiction.

At the age of fifteen Gaines moved from this familiar environment to Vallejo, California, where he could receive a better education. Lonely in these new surroundings, he spent much of his time in the town's public library and began to write. After high school he spent time in a junior college and the military before matriculating at San Francisco State College. An English major, he continued to write stories and graduated in 1957. Encouraged by his agent, Dorothea Oppenheimer, and (while in the creative writing program at Stanford) by Malcolm Cowley, Gaines committed himself to a literary career. In 1964 he published his first novel, Catherine Carmier. His subsequent books are Of Love and Dust (1967), Bloodline (1968), The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), In My Father's House (1978), and A Gathering of Old Men (1983). In a collection of interviews published as Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines (1990), he discussed his work in progress, a novel about an uneducated black man on death row and a black teacher in a Louisiana plantation school titled A Lesson Before Dying (1993).

In the 1960s and 1970s, except for a year at Denison University, Gaines lived and wrote in San Francisco. Since the early 1980s he has been associated with the University of Southwestern Louisiana, although he has continued to summer in San Francisco.

South Louisiana, the region of Gaines's youth and literary imagination, is beautiful and distinctive with unique cultural, linguistic, and social patterns. Like George Washington Cable and Kate Chopin before him, Gaines has been fascinated by the interplay of caste and class among the ethnic groups of the area: blacks, mixed-race Creoles, Cajuns, white Creoles, and Anglo whites. Once fairly stable as subsistence farmers, blacks and mixed-race Creoles have been dispossessed of the best land or displaced altogether by Cajuns, who are favored by the plantation lords because they are white and use mechanized agricultural methods. Under such socioeconomic conditions, young blacks leave, as Gaines himself did, though they often find themselves drawn back to Louisiana.

Such is the case in Catherine Carmier. In this novel the protagonist is the educated and alienated Jackson Bradley, who returns to his native parish to claim the love of the title character, the daughter of a mixed-race Creole whose racial exclusivism, attachment to the land, and semi-incestuous feelings toward her cannot condone such an alliance. Nor do Jackson's fellow blacks approve. Jackson cannot recapture his love or his homeland because, for all its pastoral charm, the world of his childhood is anachronistic. In Of Love and Dust Gaines moves from Arcadian nostalgia to a tragic mode. Marcus Payne, the rebellious protagonist, defies social and racial taboos by making love to the wife of a Cajun plantation overseer, Sidney Bonbon, after being rejected by Bonbon's black mistress. As Marcus and Louise Bonbon prepare to run away together, the Cajun, a grim embodiment of fate, kills him with a scythe.

If Catherine Carmier is a failed pastoral and Of Love and Dust a tragedy, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a near-epic account of a centenarian whose life has spanned slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement. Her individual story reflects the experience of oppression, resistance, survival, and dignity of an entire people. Although the protagonist of In My Father's House is a minister and civil rights leader in Louisiana and his unacknowledged son is an urban militant, this work's central theme is more private than publicthe search for a father who has abdicated parental responsibility. In this grim tale, the son commits suicide and the father survives but without dignity. The mood of A Gathering of Old Men, on the other hand, is more comic than grim, but the old men who gather with shotguns to protect one of their own from unjust arrest achieve in this act of resistance the dignity that has been missing from their lives. White characters, too, achieve moral growth as social and racial change finally catches up with the bayou country. It is Gaines's most hopeful novel and in some ways his best.

In 1972 Gaines received the Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award. He was given the annual literary award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1987. In 2000 he won the National Humanities Medal, the National Governors Association Award for Lifetime Contribution to the Arts, and Writer of the Year honors from the Louisiana Center for the Book.

See also Black Academy of Arts and Letters; Literature of the United States

Bibliography

Babb, Valerie Melissa. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Doyle, Mary Ellen. Voices from the Quarters: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.

kenneth kinnamon (1996)
Updatd by publisher 2005

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