Ernest Gaines is an award-winning American writer. Born January 15, 1933, the eldest of 12 children, Gaines was raised on a plantation in Louisiana where his family had been living for five generations. When he was 15 years old, he left the plantation to join his mother and stepfather in California, writing his first novel at the age of 17 while babysitting his brother. He attended San Francisco State University, where he published his first short story, The Turtles, and earned his degree in literature. Gaines then joined the Army for two years before attending Stanford University on a writing fellowship.
In 1964, Atheneum published Gaines’s first novel, Catherine Carmier, a rewrite of the first manuscript he wrote (and burned after it was rejected) at the age of 17.
Gaines’s second Novel, Of Love and Dust, was published in 1967 by Dial Press.
His third book, Bloodline, a collection of stories, was published by Dial in 1968.
Long Day in November is a children’s book written by Gaines and published in 1971 by Dial press. There are illustrations throughout the 137 pages by Don Bolognese. The book takes place in the rural South of the 1940s, and the story is told through Sonny, a 6-year-old whose family is breaking apart unless his father can save it with the help of the local conjure woman.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, published in 1971 by Dial Press, was Gaine’s first critical and commercial success. It was made into a groundbreaking television movie that same year, presenting African-Americans characters with depth and sympathy not previously seen in American television.
In 1972, Gaines was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 1993, a MacArthur Fellow ‘Genius Grant.’
Alfred A. Knopf Co. published In My Father’s House (1978) about a respected Civil Rights leader and local minister in a small black community in Louisiana who comes face-to-face with the sins of his youth when a stranger comes to town.
Gaines’s two following novels, A Gathering Of Old Men (1983) and A Lesson Before Dying (1993) were made into movies as well. A Lesson Before Dying was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.
Gaines got married in 1993, at the age of 60, to his wife Dianne Saulney, an attorney he met at a book fair, stating that he had put marriage on hold to pursue his publishing career.
Throughout his career, Gaines gathered many accolades and awards. Among the most prestigious were the National Humanities Medal awarded by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and the National Medal of Arts awarded in 2013 by President Barack Obama. He was also was inducted into the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters) as a Chevalier.
In 1995, the University of Mississippi published Conversations with Ernest Gaines edited by John Lowe. As stated by Bookfever.com who is currently listing a copy of this book: “Although Gaines has won many awards – including the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the MacArthur “genius” award, and his books have been the basis of excellent films, he remains a very under-appreciated writer by the public as a whole.”
On the even of Gaines retirement from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, he published Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays (2005). In 2008, the University of Lafayette established the Ernest J. Gaines Center to promote the life and study of his works.
His last book, a novella, The Tragedy of Brady Sims, published by Vintage in 2017, revolves around a human interest piece on Brady Sims, a black man charged with keeping the youth of his town in line no matter what it takes, even if that means shooting his own son for his transgressions.
Gaines spent the last years of his life at the house he and his wife built in Oscar, Louisiana, on the land bought from the plantation where he had grown up. He had the building where he attended church and school moved onto the property. He died at his home on November 5th, 2019, of natural causes. He was 86 years old.
Amy C. Manikowski is a writer living in Asheville, NC.