All achievers

Ernest J. Gaines

Master of the Novel

Without love for my fellow man and respect for nature, to me, life is an obscenity.

Ernest James Gaines was born on the River Lake Plantation near the small hamlet of Oscar, in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. His ancestors had lived on the same plantation since slavery, remaining after emancipation to work the land as sharecroppers. Gaines and his family lived in the houses, much expanded, that had once served as slave quarters. His parents separated when he was eight; the strongest adult influence in his childhood was a great aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, crippled from birth, who crawled from the kitchen to the family’s garden patch, growing and preparing food, and caring for him and for six of his brothers and sisters.

Ernest Gaines and his siblings received their primary education in a plantation church in Oscar, Louisiana. The Gaineses later purchased property on the old plantation, built a home, and placed the plantation church on their property. (Paul Kieu)
Ernest Gaines and his siblings received their primary education in a plantation church in Oscar, Louisiana. The Gaineses later purchased property on the old plantation, built a home, and placed the church on their property.

Storytelling and oral tradition were a powerful part of African American life in the rural South, and young Ernest Gaines absorbed the stories of his family and neighbors, acquiring a sense of history and an ear for the rhythms of vernacular speech. The only school for African American children in the district was conducted in a single room of the black church. School was open for less than half the year; from the age of nine, Ernest Gaines and the other children were sent to labor alongside their elders in the fields, harvesting vegetables and cotton. Pointe Coupee Parish offered no public high school to its black citizens. For three years, Gaines attended St. Augustine’s School, a segregated Catholic school in the parish seat at New Roads, Louisiana.

During World War II, his mother and stepfather, like many African Americans of their generation, left the South to find work in the booming wartime economy. At 15, Gaines joined his mother and stepfather in Vallejo, California, northeast of San Francisco. To keep him off the streets and out of trouble, his stepfather urged him to spend time in the public library. He soon became enthralled with literature, particularly the 19th century Russian masters, whose tales of a countryside steeped in feudal tradition echoed his own experience of plantation life. Finding no literature that directly portrayed the life of African Americans in the rural South, he began to write stories of his own, recreating the world of his childhood.

Wallace Stegner (1909-1993), recipient of the Puitzer Prize for "Angle of Repose." A novelist, historian and environmentalist, he served as mentor to many young writers, including Ernest Gaines. (Alex Gotfryd/CORBIS)
Wallace Stegner (1909-1993), recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose. A novelist, historian and environmentalist, he served as mentor to many young writers, including Ernest Gaines. (Alex Gotfryd/CORBIS)

After serving in the U.S. Army, he enrolled at San Francisco State University, where he published a number of short stories in the university quarterly. His stories won him admission to the selective graduate program in creative writing at Stanford University, conducted by the novelist Wallace Stegner. Gaines settled in San Francisco after graduate school, working a variety of part-time jobs in the afternoon and reserving his morning hours for writing.

Ernest J. Gaines's 1967 novel, <em>Of Love and Dust</em>.
1967: Ernest J. Gaines’ second novel, Of Love and Dust.

His first novel, Catherine Carmier, was published in 1964. A tragic love story played out against the complex caste system of rural Louisiana, the work met a favorable critical reception, but sold poorly. The next years were difficult ones for Gaines, as a succession of novels and short stories were rejected by publishers. In 1966, he was awarded a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to continue his writing. The following year, his second novel, Of Love and Dust, appeared. Again, he told a story of life and love thwarted by the legacy of servitude and discrimination, but this book attracted greater attention than his first.

While many of his contemporaries were depicting the recent experience of African American migrants to the urban North, Gaines’s work was rich in history, the accumulated experience of centuries. A collection of five stories, Bloodline, was published in 1968. In his novels and stories, Gaines created a vividly detailed imaginary community called Bayonne. Although it is clearly modeled on his own Louisiana parish, his Bayonne is full of invented characters and incidents, often shocking, but utterly convincing. Deeply grounded in a distinctive place and culture, his tales resound with universal themes of love and family, of responsibility, injustice and endurance.

Ernest J. Gaines's 1993 novel, "A Lesson Before Dying," won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.
Ernest J. Gaines’s 1993 epic novel, A Lesson Before Dying, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

In 1971, Gaines was appointed Writer-in-Residence at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. That same year, he completed the work that was to make him famous far beyond his own country. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) is the first-person narrative of a fictional 110-year-old woman, born in slavery, who lives to see the stirrings of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Her story led readers through a century of African American life. A 1974 television adaptation of the novel became a national event. The film won nine Emmy Awards and brought Gaines’s work to the attention of a vast audience for the first time.

2001 Summit Panel Discussion with Arthur Golden, Rita Dove, Stephen Ambrose, Ernest Gaines, N. Scott Momaday.
Members of the American Academy of Achievement — Arthur Golden, Rita Dove, Stephen Ambrose, Ernest Gaines and N. Scott Momaday — in a panel discussion on “The Power of Words” during the 2001 Summit in San Antonio.

Not long after the book’s publication, Gaines was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and swiftly completed a number of major works. In My Father’s House (1978) deals with the estrangement of fathers and sons, a recurring theme in his works. A Gathering of Old Men (1983) tells a complex story through the voices of 15 different narrators — black, white, Cajun and Creole — with a single violent act illuminating the history of an entire community. It too was adapted for television.

Awards Council member Rita Dove presents the Golden Plate Award to Ernest J. Gaines, the acclaimed author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, during the 2001 Academy of Achievement Summit in San Antonio, Texas.

In 1993, Gaines received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” The same year saw the publication of his most critically acclaimed novel to date. A Lesson Before Dying describes the belated education of a young man wrongly sentenced to death. The book created an international sensation; beyond its achievement as a work of literature, it became a touchstone in the ongoing debate over capital punishment. The work received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and a 1999 television adaptation won the year’s Emmy Award as Best Film for Television.

President Barack Obama presents the 2012 National Medal of Arts to best-selling novelist Ernest J. Gaines in an awards ceremony held in the East Room of the White House.
President Barack Obama presents the 2012 National Medal of Arts to novelist Ernest J. Gaines in a ceremony held in the East Room of the White House. Four of Gaines’ books have been made into acclaimed television movies.

Since 1983, Ernest Gaines has been Writer-in-Residence at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. He and his wife, attorney Dianne Saulney, divide their time between San Francisco and Louisiana. In addition to his other honors, Ernest Gaines has been awarded the National Humanities Medal of the United States, and is a Chevalier of France’s Order of Arts and Letters. In 2007, the Baton Rouge Foundation established the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence to recognize new fiction by African American authors.

2014: Ernest J. Gaines and his siblings received their primary education in a plantation church in Louisiana. The Gaineses later purchased property on the old plantation, built a home, and placed the church on their property.
2014: Ernest J. Gaines and his siblings received their primary education in a plantation church in Louisiana. The Gaineses later purchased property on the old plantation, built a home, and placed the church on their property.

In addition to his novels and stories, Gaines is a well-regarded essayist and is much in demand as a public speaker and commentator on American life. A number of his stories and essays were gathered in the 2005 collection Mozart and Leadbelly. Today, his permanent residence in Louisiana is a house that he and his wife built on land that was once part of River Lake Plantation, where he spent his childhood, and where his ancestors labored for generations.

Ernest Gaines has continued his chronicle of rural Louisiana in his 2017 novella, The Tragedy of Brady Sims, the painful story of man who tries to keep the peace in a racially divided town by enforcing his own brand of justice.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2001

Ernest Gaines was born and raised on the same plantation where his ancestors once labored as slaves. For nearly a century, they had remained in the same corner of rural Louisiana, living in the same cabins as their forebears, worshipping in the same church, and working for the same family that had held them in bondage.

Young Ernest left Louisiana as a teenager, but memories of the South haunted him, and he searched the public library for stories that evoked the sights and sounds of his childhood. When he couldn’t find them in books, he began to write them himself, and in time he became a master novelist and chronicler of the rural South. In his novels, such as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying, he has found universal significance in the specific details of life on a Louisiana plantation. Television adaptations of his works have reached millions. His books are studied in classrooms across the United States and read in translation around the world.

One of America’s most acclaimed authors, and a revered professor of literature, Ernest Gaines lives today in a great house on land that once belonged to the plantation where generations of his family had suffered and endured. From a painful history, he has created deathless literature, an eternal monument to the courage of the nearly forgotten men and women who came before.

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Could you tell us a little bit about the environment in Louisiana that shaped you?

Ernest J. Gaines: I was born on a sugar cane plantation in South Louisiana, 1933. So that makes — I’m 68 years old today — I mean 68 years old now, and at that time, we lived in cabins, of course, and those cabins had been built during the time of slavery. Additions had been added to the cabins, but they had been built, the frame — the main part of the cabin — had been there since the time of slavery. And my folks had lived there on that plantation at least three or four generations before I came along. So we lived in that one plantation, about six generations of us. Yes.

1995: Writer Ernest Gaines, at the Cherie Quarters off of the False River, Louisiana. (Philip Gould/CORBIS)
1995: Writer Ernest Gaines, at the Cherie Quarters off of the False River, Louisiana. (Philip Gould/CORBIS)

I had folks there who had been slaves on that plantation. This in Pointe Coupee Parish in Louisiana. I went to school. We did not have a school. We had a church, and we attended the church, the same church where my folks worshiped on Sundays and where my ancestors had worshiped. There were grades from primer to the sixth grade, and classes were about five and a half months a year. Because the people had to go into the fields, children who were old enough to go to school were already heading for the fields at seven, eight years old, already going to the fields, and so we went to school between the crop seasons, between the planting of the crops and the harvesting of the crops, whatever it was, cotton or Irish potatoes or onions or whatever small children could do at that time. I attended that school for six years, my first six years, through the sixth grade.

So, when you were a very small child, you were already working on the plantation.

Ernest J. Gaines: Yeah. When I was eight years old, I was already going into the fields to work, and we’d work eight hours a day, ten hours a day, whatever. I remember being paid 50 cents for that day’s work, but I was not the only one doing that. The average child at that age at that time was doing the same thing.

What were you picking?

Ernest J. Gaines: They could have been potatoes, Irish potatoes or onions or picking cotton. There was a lot of cotton at that time there.

1995: Writer Ernest Gaines walks along a dirt road near the River Lake Plantation in Cherie Quarters, Louisiana where he was born and raised. (Philip Gould/CORBIS)
1995: Gaines on a dirt road at River Lake Plantation in Cherie Quarters, Louisiana where he was born and raised.

The childhood you describe was a very difficult and challenging one. Who inspired you to go forward?

Ernest J. Gaines: My great aunt was probably the greatest influence in my life. She was crippled. She never walked in her life. She crawled over the floor all her life. When my mother had to go out into the fields when we were smaller children, and then later go to California, she left us with my aunt, and my aunt could do everything except walk. She cooked the food for us, would bring everything to the stove. We had an old wood-burning stove. She cooked the food for us. She washed our clothes on this old washboard. We had to bring all the stuff there, the water, the soap, the washboard itself. She also disciplined us. So we had to break our own switch to get our punishment if we did something wrong. So we’d go out and break our own switch and come back and take our punishment.

She had to crawl over the floor, but she liked going out into the garden.

We had a little vegetable garden beside the house. From the time of slavery, they always gave the slaves a little place to plant the vegetables. So even when I grew up, there was still a little vegetable garden beside the house or behind the house, wherever, and when it was cool enough in the afternoon, she would crawl over the floor, down the steps, and she’d work in our vegetable garden. She had to put her hand into the earth, and she had a little short-handled hoe. She would work around the different plants in the garden. Beans or okra or tomatoes or whatever we had growing in the garden during that time. We had a pecan tree in our back yard, and during the fall, September, October, and Novembers too, I suppose, she would crawl over the yard and gather pecans in a little sack and bring them back to the house, and crack the pecans and make candy or cookies, whatever.

Keys to success — Courage

In all the time that I knew my aunt — and she raised me until I was 15-and-a-half years old — I never heard her complain once about anything, never complain once about her condition and the things that she had to do for us. Never once. So I think it was she who has had the greatest influence on me, both as an artist, as well as a man. Many times in my early age, when things were not working right for me in my writing, I wanted to give up, but I could not afford to give up because I remembered her and the things that she had to go through in her lifetime.

Ernest J. Gaines's 1971 novel, "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman." The book was made into an award-winning television movie, "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," broadcast on CBS in 1974. The film holds importance as one of the first made-for-TV movies to deal with African American characters with depth and sympathy.
Ernest J. Gaines’s novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. The book was made into an award-winning television movie, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, broadcast on CBS in 1974. The film holds importance as one of the first made-for-TV movies to deal with African American characters with depth.

Did you have older brother and sisters?

Ernest J. Gaines: I was the oldest. I’m the oldest of my siblings. There were 12 of us. One died about three or four years ago, but we were not all born in Louisiana. Seven of us were born in Louisiana. Five of us were born in California.

And how many did your aunt take care of?

Ernest J. Gaines: My aunt must have taken care of seven of us, six of us.

What was her crippling disease?

Ernest J. Gaines: I really don’t know. No one has ever explained it to me, but whoever I ask, they would tell me that she was born with that affliction.

What’s the connection between The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and your aunt?

Ernest J. Gaines: I know some people have said that Miss Jane Pittman is my aunt. No, she is not, but Miss Jane has my aunt’s spirit and courage. My aunt wasn’t too feisty. She was just strong, courageous. Most courageous person I’ve ever met, I suppose ever lived on earth as far as I’m concerned, because what she had to go through would discourage most people.

What an epic Miss Jane Pittman is! How did you formulate that idea to take somebody through an entire century of history?

Ernest J. Gaines: I left the South in 1948, and in 1968 the idea came up to write a story like that.

What I was trying to do in the beginning was to write from a multiple point of view. A multiple point of view, after some little old lady had died, a group of people gather at the home of — someone’s home — and after a funeral, they’d gather there for a repast, to eat and to talk and whatever, drink and whatever. And so I’d thought I would write a novel like that, because I had heard the old people who used to visit my aunt, because my aunt could not travel. They used to come there, and they used to talk all the time. They’d talk out on the porch during the day — or if it’s cold, around the fireplace at night — they were always talking, and I knew they talked about all kinds of things. They talked about what they had heard — knew — about slavery, vicariously, of course. About religion or politics. They were always talking.

Novelist Ernest Gaines, creator of <em>The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman</em> and <em>A Lesson Before Dying.</em>
Novelist Ernest Gaines, creator of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Lesson Before Dying.

So in 1968, when I came down from San Francisco to Baton Rouge, I had a friend over at Southern University, and he and I sat around one day talking, and I said, “Al” — I said, “What do you think those old people were talking about all the time?” He said, “I don’t know. They talked like that all the time around me, too.”

Keys to success — Vision

I said, “Well, I have this idea about this. I want someone that lived from slavery to now. But to make it real, I have to bring in different things about history or whatever,” and I said, “Let’s start with 12 national things.” Of course, they did not experience these things, but they may have heard about these things. So we talked about things like slavery. We talked about the Reconstruction period. We talked about, oh, the Depression era, many things. So after we dealt with 12 things nationally, about 12 things nationally, then I dealt with 12 things statewide. This is what could have happened in the state between 1862, say, until 1962. What could have happened in the state that they could have heard about from someone else, from other sources? They didn’t know anything about it, really. They couldn’t read. So they did not know anything about it directly. So let’s deal with that. So we must have come up with ten, 12 things there. Then we dealt with the parish, need something here. She knows more about — she has to know something about the parish. So we dealt with the parish. Then we came to the plantation. So the circle becomes smaller and smaller, and there are four books there in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. After I had gotten all this information, then I tried to put it into the voices of these different people who are going to tell the story about this little old lady, but they talked so much about her that I fell in love with her, and it was then that I decided to write the book from her point of view.

September 23, 2014: Ernest Gaines at his home library in Oscar, Louisianna. (Paul Kieu, The Advertiser)
September 23, 2014: Ernest Gaines at his home library in Oscar, Louisianna. (Paul Kieu, The Advertiser)

The original idea was something like “Sketches of a Plantation,” because I loved this piece of work, “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Yeah. I really loved that piece of work. So what I wanted was a series of pictures, pictures, pictures, and I just called them sketches, and then that didn’t sound right.

Keys to success — Preparation

Then I retitled it A Short Biography of Miss Jane Pittman, when we were talking about it, and I worked on it about a year, and my editor — who was Bill Decker, he was at the Dial Press at the time — Bill called me one day and he says — because I sent him drafts of it — he called me one day and he said, “Listen, Ernie, I think this book has to be told from the first-person point of view. She has to tell the story. These people are not telling the story right.” I told him, “Well, forget it. I’m going to go and continue to do what I’m doing,” and I must have done that for another month or so. And then I realized he was right. So I started in Chapter One: “It was a day something like right now,” she says. “Hot, hot, and dusty, dusty” were my first lines in it, and then she talks about how the Secessionist army came in, and then the Northern army behind them, chasing them and so on, and it just started there, and things began to move to move to move. I continued to read and read and read about the Civil War, and then I read about the Reconstruction period, and then I kept reading. I would write in the morning from — oh, I’d say from about 9:00 to about 2:00, and I had to go to work. I had part-time work, and then I’d work about four hours. Then I’d come back home, and I’d read. I was always a few years ahead of the time I was writing about. If I was writing about the Civil War, I was already reading about the Reconstruction period. If I was writing about that, I was reading about some other period in time. So I’d keep reading and reading and reading. So by the time my little character would get here, I have already gotten all the information or most of it.