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Ernest J. Gaines

2000 Lifetime Achievement

Lifetime - Ernest J. Gaines
Although Ernest Gaines has spent much of his adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area, all of his work returns to the setting of his southern Louisiana childhood, with its complicated intersections of African American, Creole, Cajun, and white culture. Gaines was born on the River Lake Plantation in Oscar, Louisiana, in Point Coup Parish, and was raised largely by a disabled great-aunt who later provided the model for his powerful fictional character Miss Jane Pittman. The parish had no black high school, and when Gaines was 15 his mother and stepfather sent for him to join them in Vallejo, California, where he could continue his education. After graduating from high school, he attended a junior college and served in the military before receiving a bachelor's degree in English from San Francisco State College in 1957.

In college, Gaines began to read voraciously and write his own stories. He was never exposed to black writers, and so his literary models were such white American writers as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, and European writers such as Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. He decided early, however, to focus his own writing on what he knew — which meant portraying African American culture and language. Gaines published his first short stories in a college literary magazine, where white literary agent Dorothea Oppenheimer noticed them. Oppenheimer helped Gaines obtain a fellowship to Stanford University to study creative writing and a contract with Dial Press that led to his first novel, Catherine Carmier (1964).

Catherine Carmier and Gaines's second novel, Of Love and Dust (1967), both use interracial relationships as a means of exploring the complexities of racial intolerance and injustice in Louisiana. He explored similar themes in the short story collection Bloodline (1968). Each of these books bolstered his literary reputation, but it was The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) that brought Gaines widespread recognition. In this novel, the eponymous 108-year-old heroine tells her life story in her own words—a life story that follows Miss Jane and her community through slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement. The compelling narrative that resulted — still considered Gaines's masterpiece—became a best-selling book and a successful television movie.

Gaines followed that novel with In My Father's House (1978), A Gathering of Old Men (1983), and A Lesson Before Dying (1993). Throughout his career, one of Gaines's hallmarks has been his ability to capture authentic African American voices. Most of his novels and short stories are first-person narratives, and his skill in portraying black speech is felt in every line. Gaines is also applauded for his gift of evoking the Louisiana community he describes — a process he calls "knowing the place, knowing the people." By doing both successfully, he is able to write about them so convincingly that his readers feel as if they know the place and people too.

This talent proved especially important in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which reached an audience of unprecedented breadth. Said one critic, "more than any other single book, this novel helped white Americans understand the personal emotions and the historical events that had produced the civil rights revolution." Gaines lives in California, but since 1983 has spent part of each year as a professor of English at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette.

Contributed By: Lisa Clayton Robinson

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Blog Posts about Ernest J. Gaines

Huffington Post Reveals 50 Books Every African American Should Read - How Many AW Winners Made The List?

Gwendolyn Brooks Huffington Post's Black Voices rounded up 50 books the editors think every African American should read (they added on Twitter that of course the list has value to everyone, but these books focus primarily on the black experience in America). We were thrilled to see how many Anisfield-Wolf winners were on the list, proving to us once again that our winners stand out in the crowded literary field.  Gwendolyn Brooks "Annie Allen" (1949) Edwidge Danticat "Breath, Eyes, Memory" (1999) Chimamanda Adichie "Half Of A Yellow Sun... Read More →

The 5 Best Quotes Ever Uttered By Ernest J. Gaines

We realize the headline is a bit of hyperbole but in researching Mr. Gaines for this week's exploration of his life and works, we realize that he has a tremendous way with words. Not just on the page, but in interviews as well. English rolls off his tongue in a way that to the ear often sounds like poetry, and his fingers create rich worlds without burdening the reader with five-dollar words. We gathered some of his best quotes from interview past so you could see for yourself how he does it:  On writing for the reader:  I write as well... Read More →

Get to Know...Ernest J. Gaines

Each week, we’ll be helping you to get to know our winners better (what a great bunch they are) and highlighting the best of their work, interviews and essays. This week, our focus is on Ernest J. Gaines, our 2000 Lifetime Achievement winner. "...to me, without books, life would be a mistake." In this video with the National Endowment for the Arts, Ernest J. Gaines sat down to talk about one of his most popular books, A Lesson Before Dying. He talks about getting paid to write letters for the less-literate members of the community... Read More →
  • Ernest J. Gaines

    Ernest J. Gaines

    Born: 1933

    Other Works

    • Catherine Carmier (1964)
    • The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971)
    • A Gathering of Old Men (1983)
    • A Lesson Before Dying (1993)
    • Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays (2005)

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