Ernest J. Gaines

Louisiana Literary Master Ernest J. Gaines at home in Pointe Coupee Parish, LA
Louisiana Literary Master Ernest J. Gaines at home in Pointe Coupee Parish, LA

Ernest J. Gaines was born in 1933 on River Lake Plantation in Pointe Coupe Parish, LA. Like William Faulkner, Mr. Gaines has chosen to go home and use what he knows best as the setting for most of his fiction, drawing on the people of his small community for his
inspiration for characters.  He was the fifth generation in his family to be born there. At the age of nine he was picking cotton in the plantation fields; the black quarter’s school held classes only five or six months a year.

When he was 15, Gaines moved to California to join his parents, who had left Louisiana during World War II. There he attended San Francisco State University and later won a writing fellowship to Stanford University. Gaines published his first short story in 1956. Since then he has written eight books of fiction, including Catherine Carmier, Of Love and Dust, Bloodline, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Long Day in November, In My Father’s House, and A Gathering of Old Men, most of which are available in Vintage paperback editions. A Lesson Before Dying, his most recent novel, won the 1993 National Book Critics Circle Award. He has also been awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant, for writings of “rare historical resonance.”

This Louisiana Thing That Drives Me:

The Legacy of Ernest J. Gaines

Published by UL Lafayette Press in 2009, this title is a book in pictures and words that includes an introduction by Mr. Gaines, an original poem by Wendell Berry, and short essays by Reggie Scott Young, Marcia Gaudet, and Wiley Cash. The book uses photographs and quotations from Gaines’s fiction and essays to create a narrative of the land and people who inspired him, the literature he produced, and his legacy. All royalties from the book will go to the Ernest J. Gaines Center.  In addition, there is to be special limited edition of the book for Founding Patrons of the Gaines Center.

Other Honors
Ernest Gaines was awarded the 2011 Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement by the Fellowship of Southern Writers. The medal was presented to Gaines at the Conference on Southern Literature in Chattanooga, TN, on April 16. The Cleanth Brooks Medal is awarded biennially. He was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of North Carolina at the Spring Commencement ceremonies on May 8, 2011, in Chapel Hill. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill website refers to Gaines as “one of the premier American writers of the second half of the 20th century.”

Ernest Gaines and his wife Dianne now live year-round in Oscar, LA. They built a house on land that was part of the plantation where he grew up. He is now Writer-in-Residence Emeritus at University of Louisiana at Lafayette (formerly University of Southwestern Louisiana).

The BIG READ Book: A Lesson Before Dying

In his 1994 novel A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines, the highly acclaimed author of the best-selling
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
, brought us a wrenching story of death and identity in a small Cajun Louisiana community in the late 1940s. A young black named Jefferson is a reluctant party in a shoot-out in a liquor store in which the three other men involved are all killed, including the white store owner. Jefferson, the only survivor, is accused of murder. At the trial, the essence of the defense is that the accused, a lowly form of existence lacking even a modicum of intelligence, is incapable of premeditated murder. His lawyer argues: “Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” But Jefferson is condemned to death. Grant Wiggins, who left his small rural black community to go to university, has returned to the plantation school to teach children whose lives promise to be not much better than Jefferson’s. But he wonders whether he has the will to take off north or west like so many before him who knew it was the only way to climb out of a centuries-old rut. He is grappling with his own situation when Jefferson’s godmother and Grant’s aunt persuade Grant to impart something of himself, of his learning and pride, to Jefferson before his death – to prove the lawyer wrong.

A Lesson Before Dying tells the story of these two men who, through no choice of their own, come together and form a bond in the realization that sometimes simply choosing to resist the expected is an act of heroism. Ernest Gaines brings to the novel the same rich sense of place, the same deep understanding of the human psyche, and the same compassion for a people and their struggle that have informed his previous, widely praised novels.