Ernest J Gaines, recipient of the National Humanities Medal, National Medal of the Art, Chavalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the government of France, and a National Books Critics Circle Award winner, died on November 5, 2019, at his home in Oscar, Louisiana. He was 86. His brilliant portrayals of race, community, and culture in rural south Louisiana –in particular of both dispiriting and triumphal experiences of black personhood–made him a greatly respected and beloved world-renowned author. He was the author of ten books of fiction. He was writer in residence Emeritus at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
From The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to A Lesson Before Dying and The Tragedy of Brady Sims, Gaines stories addressed the timeless issues of class, poverty, and race which transcend the American South and which transcend America itself. While his fictional world centers on a small rural place in south Louisiana, his address is to universal challenges, to human dignity of all peoples, no matter where they come from. His concerns are always with the capacity to confront oppression with dignity, to confront dissembling with triumph, and to replace the language of injustice with the transformative language of humane dialogue and social justice.
In presenting the National Medal of the Arts, President Barack Obama cited Ernest J Gaines “for his contributions as an author and teacher. Drawing deeply from his childhood in the rural South, his works have shed new light on the African American experience and given voice to those who have endured injustice.”
Ernest J Gaines was born on January 15, 1933, on River Lake Plantation in the small south Louisiana town of Oscar in Pointe Coupee Parish. He was the son of Adrian Jefferson and Manuel Gaines. His parents worked on the plantation, and he grew up in the plantation quarter. His parents separated when he was eight years old, and his mother later married Raphael Norbert Colar. When they moved to Vallejo, California, Gaines remained in Louisiana with his great-aunt, Miss Augusteen Jefferson, until 1949 when he joined his mother and stepfather. Gaines is the eldest of his mother’s twelve children.
In Gaines’s childhood, the center of his world was Cherie Quarter, the former slave quarter on River Lake Plantation, where five generations of his family had lived. His early schooling in Louisiana included six years in the one-room church in the quarter and three years at St. Augustine, a Catholic school for African Americans in nearby New Roads. During the years Gaines remained in Louisiana, he and his five siblings were raised primarily by his Aunt Augusteen whom Gaines credits with instilling in him a sense of personal responsibility and dignity. Gaines joined his parents in California at the age of fifteen because there was no high school available to him in that part of rural Louisiana at that time. He graduated from high school in Vallejo, and then served in the United States Army, winning a creative writing contest while stationed on Guam. Gaines published first short story as an undergraduate at San Francisco State College. That story drew the attention of Dorothea Oppenheimer, who became his literary agent. After graduating with a B.A. in English, he won a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship to Stanford University.
In 1964, Gaines published his first novel, Catherine Carmier, a story he first tried to write at a storyge sixteen in response to his realization of the lack of an accurate black perspective in Southern literature at that time. It addresses the challenges and heartbreak of returning to the plantation after experiencing a wider world, themes of alienation and separation that recur in later works. His second novel, Of Love and Dust, a tragic interracial and intercultural love story, was published in 1967. Bloodline, his collection of short stories published in 1968, is a work that includes some of his best known short fiction, “The Sky Is Gray,” “Just Like a Tree,” and “A Long Day in November” (also published as a children’s book in 1971).
Gaines achieved both critical and popular acclaim in 1971 with his novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Narrated by a 110 year old former slave, the novel is a major contribution to African American literature, with its first person narrator based on memory of the past. The 1974 movie adaptation won nine Emmy Awards, including Cicely Tyson’s Best Actress Award for the title role. Gaines’s next novel (1978) particularly focuses on the theme of the search for the father and the tragic failure of the father-son relationship. A Gathering of Old Men (1983) features multiple first person narrators, including a child narrator. The novel is a tragicomic story of the aftermath of the killing of a white man in the plantation quarter.
A Lesson Before Dying (1993) was published to great critical acclaim. The novel, set in 1940s Louisiana, focusing on Jefferson, a young black man unjustly condemned by a jury of white men for a murder he did not commit, and Grant, the teacher who facilitates Jefferson’s realization of his own dignity and humanity. Among Gaines’s awards for A Lesson Before Dying are the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Louisiana Literary Award, the Southern Book Award for Fiction, and the Langston Hughes Award. The novel was also an Oprah Book Club selection, a National Endowment for the Arts Big Read selection (from 2006 to the present), and a featured novel for One Book/One Community reading campaigns. In 2001, Romulus Linney adapted the novel into a play performed at theaters and universities throughout the country.
Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays (2005) and The Tragedy of Brady Sims (2017) are Gaines’s most recently published works. Like his earlier works, the settings for these works are mainly on plantations much like the one on which he grew up. He has said that the oral tradition of the plantation and the legacies of personal responsibility and human dignity that he learned from his aunt were a significant part of his training to become a writer. Dignity, the ambiguity of being human, the authentic use of the spoken word, the masterful use of humor, and survival of the perils of racism are essential parts of life in the Gaines narrative.
Gaines’s works have been translated into nineteen languages, and four of his works have been made into films (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, 1974; “The Sky Is Gray,” 1980; A Gathering of Old Men, 1987; and A Lesson Before Dying, 1999). In addition, Gaines’s life and work have been presented in three documentary films, sixteen scholarly books, and 25 doctoral dissertations.
In 1981 Gaines accepted an invitation form the University of Louisiana at Lafayette as the visiting professor of creative writing. He was writer and in residence at UL Lafayette from 1983-2004, when he became Writer in Residence Emeritus. In 2010 UL Lafayette formally opened the Ernest J Gaines Center, an International research center on Gaines and his work. Gaines’s original manuscript and papers, all edition and translations of his work, and memorabilia-gifts from the Gaines to the University, are housed in the center. Gaines and his wife, Dianne Saulney Gaines, were actively involved with the center from its inceptions and attended the 2019 Annual Gaines Lecture days before his death.
Gaines holds honorary doctorates from 19 universities. He was a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Gaines was named the first Louisiana Humanist of the year by the Louisiana Endowment of the Humanities. In 1993 he received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundation fellowship. The Chevalier Honor was presented to him in Paris by Pamela Harriman, the United States ambassador to France. In 1996 Gaines was a visiting professor of Creative Writing at the University Rennes, where he taught the first creative writing class in the French University System.
Among his other honors, Gaines was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, received National Governor’s Association award for lifetime contribution to the arts, and the Louisiana Center for the Book Writer of the Year Award. He also received the Aspen Prize for Literature, the Cleanth Brooks Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, The Sidney Lanier Prize for Southern Literature, the Celebration of Black Writing Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Northstar Award, Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation Legacy Award. In 2015, he and his wife Dianne Saulney Gaines, received the Foundation for Historic Louisiana Award for the Preservation of the Cherie Quarter Church and Cemetery at River Lake Plantation. After his retirement, the Gaines’s built a home on property along False River that was once part of the plantation where he was born. For over 20 years they have been activist where his ancestors and 2 of his brothers are buried. The Gaines’s serve, respectively, and president and secretary of the Mount Zion River Lake Cemetery Association. Each year on the last Saturday in October, they organize and host a cemetery beautification day honoring all who lived and died in Cherie Quarter. Gaines’s work inspired an original Jazz composition by Irvin Mayfield, Dirt, Dust and Trees.
Dr. Ernest J. Gaines is survived by his wife, Diane Sulney Gaines, stepchildren, grandchildren, siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends. Dr. Gaines will be deeply missed, but his work will live on.
Some of Dr. Gaines’s Noteable Awards
- Louisiana State University honorary degree (1987)
- Xavier University honorary degree (2005)
- University of Louisiana-Lafayette honorary degree (2008)
- Tulane University honorary degree (1995)
- Loyola University honorary degree (1995)
- Centenary College honorary degree (2000)
- James William Rivers Prize in Louisiana Studies (1998)
- Honorary Citizen of Lafayette certificate (1982 Lafayette,LA)
- National Governors Association award plaque (2000)
- Oliver-Sigur Humanitarian Service Award (2004 Louisiana Council on Human Relations)
- Southern University Department of English plaque (1982)
- Citizens Action Council plaque (1993)
- Universitas Colatensis honorary degree (2000)
- Elmira College honorary degree (2000)
- University of North Carolina-Ashville honorary degree (2007)
- Emory University honorary degree (2008)
- Universitas Brunensis honorary degree (1985)
- Whittier College honorary degree (1986)
- University of Miami honorary degree (1999)
- Savannah College of Arts and Design honorary degree (1994)
- Lewis and Clark College honorary degree (2001)
- St. Thomas University honorary degree (2001)
- Distinguished Centennial Alumnus award (1999 San Francisco State University)
- Arts Commission of the City and County of San Francisco award (1983)
- Golden Plate Award (2001 American Academy of Achievement)
- Fellowship of Southern Writers medal (1989)
- John Do Passos Prize for Literature announcement poster (1994 Longwood College)
More About Ernest J. Gaines
- Bill Gates lists Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying as one of his two favorite books. Gates says, “It is powerfully written.”
- Oprah Winfrey chose A Lesson Before Dying for the Oprah Book Club.
- President Clinton presented to Ernest J. Gaines the National Humanities Medal in 2000.
- The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is required reading in France for high school national exams.
- A Lesson Before Dying won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1994.
- Ernest J Gaines’ works have been translated into 17 languages.
- Ernest J Gaines was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, often called the Genius Award, in 1994.
- A Lesson Before Dying has sold over 2 million copies.
- Four of Gaines’ works have been made into movies.
- The National Endowment for the Arts chose A Lesson Before Dying for its BIG READ program.
- UL Lafayette has had a long association with Ernest J. Gaines as Writer-in-Residence and, since 2005, as Writer-in-Residence Emeritus.
- In 2007, Baton Rouge Area Foundation established the Ernest J Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, an annual prize of $10,000 for the year’s best book of fiction by an African American author.
- In 2008, UL Lafayette established the Ernest J Gaines Center.
- In 2006, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation established the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. The Award” honors the legacy of one of America’s finest literary treasure and recognizes the work of a deserving fiction writer”. The $15,000 annual prize is awarded for excellence in book-length fiction in book-length fiction by a new African American writer.