Born on a plantation near New Roads, Louisiana, in 1933, Ernest J. Gaines is an African-American author whose books are on the syllabus in many college literature courses. His stories have been translated into Chinese, French, German, Spanish and Russian. Four of his novels and short stories, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Lesson before Dying, The Sky is Gray, and A Gathering ...
Born on a plantation near New Roads, Louisiana, in 1933, Ernest J. Gaines is an African-American author whose books are on the syllabus in many college literature courses. His stories have been translated into Chinese, French, German, Spanish and Russian. Four of his novels and short stories, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Lesson before Dying, The Sky is Gray, and A Gathering of Old Men, have been made into films, of which the first two received Emmy awards.
The oldest of twelve children (eight brothers and three sisters), Gaines remembers working in the fields from when he was nine years old. Five or six months out of the year, the children attended a school where they received a basic education, but the school only went as far as eighth grade. He was brought up by his aunt, Miss Augusteen Jefferson, who was unable to walk and who moved around the house by crawling. His famous work of historical fiction, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, published in 1971, is dedicated to his aunt. She served as the model for the protagonist in the story as well as for a number of other dignified and courageous elderly characters who people his fiction. During the years that he lived in his aunt's house, Gaines actually did many of the actions that he has his character Jimmy Aaron doing, such as reading to people, writing letters for them and listening to their stories. The 15 years that he spent in Louisiana provided him with a wellspring of memories to draw on during his writing career.
In 1948 he moved with his mother to Vallejo, California, where his step-father lived, in order to further his education. It was there, as a 17 year old, that he wrote his first published novel, Catherine Carmier, while taking care of his youngest brother. Jackson Bradley, the main character in the book, returns home after having lived in San Francisco for ten years and finds that he now has little in common with his family and former friends. Gaines explores this theme (the 'returning home' story) in his later works, In My Father's House and A Lesson Before Dying, along with the feelings of love and commitment that his characters who return home have to struggle with. After serving in the army for two years, Gaines was awarded a writing fellowship to Stanford University.
A Gathering of Old Men is a story which focuses on race relations as seen through the eyes of more than a dozen of the characters. A white man is found murdered and although everyone knows who killed him, a white woman and 18 elderly black men all take responsibility for the crime, each claiming to be the killer. Mapes, the sheriff, tries to ascertain who the guilty party is before the dead man's father puts together a lynch mob. By defending the killer, the others regain their dignity and finally stand up for themselves after the prejudice and discrimination they have suffered all their lives.
A Lesson Before Dying was actually inspired by a real murder case. In this story, Jefferson, a young man, ends up in a liquor store during an armed robbery in which the owner of the store is killed. Sentenced to death, Jefferson will be taught by Grant, the other main character in the book, the only educated black man in the area, ‘a lesson before dying', but both men end up learning more about themselves and their society.
Gaines won many awards for his work including the National Humanities Medal, the Louisiana Humanist of the Year, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. The Baton Rouge Area Foundation has named an award after him, the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. This award was established in 2007 for African-American writers who produce outstanding works of fiction. The winner receives a sculpture and $10,000.
The realistic stories that Gaines wrote spring from the southern black culture that many mainstream American writers ignored for years. Although his works weave together African-American traditions with authentic dialects used by poor black and white farmers working on southern plantations, some of his themes are universal, such as the relationship between men and their fathers, the importance of maintaining one's dignity, and racial and social conflict. His characters and stories appeal to readers of all races.