Ernest J. Gaines

by OMB Staff on July 18, 2008

Ernest J. Gaines (b. January 15, 1933), a prominent African-American fiction writer, is a writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Gaines’s fiction has received critical acclaim. His works have been taught in college classrooms and translated into many languages, including French, Spanish, German, Russian, and Chinese. Four of his works have been produced into television movies.

Gaines was among the fifth generation of his sharecropper family to be born on the River Lake Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, an influence and common setting for his fiction. He was the eldest of 12 children, raised by his aunt, who was crippled and had to crawl to get around the house. Although born generations after the end of slavery, Gaines grew up impoverished, in old slave quarters on the plantation.

Gaines’s first six years of school took place in the plantation church. A visiting teacher would teach him and the other children for five to six months of each year, depending on when the children were not picking cotton in the fields. Gaines’s then spent three years at St. Augustine School, a Catholic school for African Americans in New Roads. Pointe Coupée Parish schooling for African-American children did not continue beyond the eighth grade during this time.

When he was fifteen, Gaines moved to Vallejo, California to join his mother and stepfather, who had left Louisiana during World War II. His first novel was written at age 17, while babysitting his youngest brother. According to one account, he wrapped it in brown paper, tied it with string, and sent it to a New York publisher, who rejected it. Gaines burned the manuscript, but later rewrote it to become his first published novel, Catherine Carmier.

In 1956, Gaines published his first short story, The Turtles, in a college magazine at San Francisco State University. He earned a degree in literature in 1957 from SFSU. After spending two years in the Army, he won a writing fellowship to Stanford University.

Since 1984, Gaines has spent the first half of every year in San Francisco and the second half in Lafayette, where he teaches a creative writing workshop every autumn at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

His 1993 novel, A Lesson Before Dying, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In 2004, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Gaines has been a MacArthur Foundation fellow, inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, awarded the National Humanities Medal, and inducted into the French Order of Arts and Letters as a Chevalier.

Published works

* Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays (2005)
* A Lesson Before Dying (1993) – National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction (1993); Oprah’s Book Club (1997)
* A Gathering of Old Men (1983)[1]
* In My Father’s House (1978)
* A Long Day in November (1971)
* The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971)
* Bloodline (1968)
* Of Love and Dust (1967)
* Catherine Carmier (1964)

Short stories
* My Grandpa and the Haint (1966)
* A Long Day in November (1964)
* The Sky Is Gray (1963)
* Just Like a Tree (1963)
* Mary Louis (1960)
* Boy in the Double-Breasted Suit (1957)
* The Turtles (1956)

Works made into film
* A Lesson Before Dying, HBO (1999); winner, Emmy Award for Outstanding Made For Television Movie
* A Gathering of Old Men, CBS Television (1987)
* The Sky Is Gray, American Short Story Series, PBS (1980)
* The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, CBS Television (1974)

* Chevalier (Knight) in the Order of Art and Letters (France) (2000)
* The American Academy of Arts and Letters Department of Literature (2000)
* The National Governors’ Arts Award (2000)
* The Louisiana Writer of the Year Award (2000)
* National Humanities Medal (2000)
* National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction (1993)
* John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellow (1993)
* Dos Passos Prize (1993)
* Louisiana Humanist of the Year (1993)
* Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation fellow (1971)
* National Endowment for the Arts grant (1967)
* Wallace Stegner fellow (1957)

Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence
An award sponsored by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and established in 2007 to honor Gaines’ legacy. Submissions of fiction from African-American writers are eligible. The selected recipient receives a $10,000 award.

Wikipedia contributors, “Ernest Gaines,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed July 18, 2008).

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