Authors: Ernest J. Gaines

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer

Identity: African American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Catherine Carmier, 1964

Of Love and Dust, 1967

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, 1971

In My Father’s House, 1978

A Gathering of Old Men, 1983

A Lesson Before Dying, 1993

Short Fiction:

Bloodline, 1968

A Long Day in November, 1971


Ernest James Gaines is one of the most accomplished storytellers among contemporary American writers of the South. The oldest of twelve children, he was born on River Lake Plantation near Oscar, Louisiana, to Manuel and Adrienne (Colar) Gaines. His parents worked as laborers on the plantation, and by age nine Gaines was also working in the fields, chopping cane for fifty cents a day. Gaines spent much of his early childhood with his aunt, Miss Augusteen Jefferson, whose inability to walk did not prevent her from providing for the boy. His aunt’s strength and courage amid adversity had a profound effect on young Ernest, who later drew upon his memories of Miss Augusteen to help create several of his most memorable characters.{$I[AN]9810001179}{$I[A]Gaines, Ernest J.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Gaines, Ernest J.}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Gaines, Ernest J.}{$I[tim]1933;Gaines, Ernest J.}

Ernest J. Gaines

(©Jerry Bauer)

At the age of fifteen Gaines moved to Vallejo, California, where he joined his mother and stepfather. Homesick for Louisiana, Gaines began to read extensively. When he discovered that the people and experiences he knew best were missing from the books he encountered, he started writing himself, drafting at the age of sixteen an eventually discarded version of his first novel. Gaines graduated from San Francisco State College with a B.A. in 1957 and spent the 1958-1959 academic year at Stanford University on a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in creative writing. In 1959 his short story “Comeback” won for him the San Francisco Foundation’s Joseph Henry Jackson Award. Until the early 1980’s San Francisco remained Gaines’s principal residence, though all of his published fiction is firmly rooted in rural Louisiana, particularly in “the quarters,” to which he has given distinctive expression in his fictive Bayonne and its environs. In 1984 Gaines became a writer-in-residence at the University of Southwestern Louisiana.

Gaines published his first novel, Catherine Carmier, in 1964. The book drew virtually no reviews and earned no money for its author. In 1967 Gaines’s second novel, Of Love and Dust, appeared. Like Catherine Carmier, this book was a tale of thwarted love, of human relationships destroyed by racial prohibitions. With the subsequent publication of Bloodline, a collection of five stories, and of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines achieved a well-deserved national reputation. In their strikingly effective first-person narratives, both books demonstrate Gaines’s mastery of diverse speaking voices, and both reflect the increasing impact of the Civil Rights movement on his fiction. Never a political activist, Gaines has nevertheless always emphasized the need for social change. In Bloodline this commitment is most apparent in the title story, but all five stories focus on experiences of change and growth, on the achievement of manhood, and the qualities such growth requires.

Gaines’s masterpiece, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, moves beyond the individual dramas recorded in Bloodline to present a panoramic perspective on black history. Yet Gaines retains the immediacy and emotional power of his short fiction by filtering the novel’s events through the consciousness and the language of his 110-year-old narrator, who provides a dramatic account of black life from the Civil War to the Civil Rights era. In this novel Gaines succeeds in writing a quintessentially American book, one that celebrates both a particular individual and the larger community she represents.

The 1974 television film based on Miss Jane’s story assured Gaines a popular place among contemporary American writers. Although his subsequent novel, In My Father’s House, proved somewhat disappointing, his next novel, A Gathering of Old Men, reveals an author whose creative power is unabated. Returning to the speaking voice he had used so effectively in Bloodline and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and utilizing a structure modeled on that of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), Gaines narrates the novel from multiple first-person points of view, white as well as black. The chorus of black voices comes, finally, to speak for the community itself, as its individual members attest a long history of racial oppression. Where once the community had accommodated itself to that oppression, it now resists, earning its personhood both individually and collectively.

Gaines’s next novel, A Lesson Before Dying, portrays a barely literate man-child named Jefferson who is sentenced to death by an all-white jury for a robbery and murder he did not commit. Narrator and black teacher Grant Wiggins, hired by Jefferson’s godmother to help him gain his manhood before his execution, discovers his own complicity in a dehumanizing system of racial oppression.

Television productions in the 1980’s of A Gathering of Old Men and of Gaines’s most frequently anthologized short story, “The Sky Is Gray,” kept his name before the public–and deservedly so. Gaines’s fiction is marked not only by humor and compassion but also by his profoundly democratic conviction that ordinary people matter. This conviction finds expression in his choice of characters and in his skilled use of first-person narrators who reflect the oral tradition of folk cultures. His central theme–the quest for human dignity and freedom in a society scarred by racism–is apparent in all of his books. While giving voice to characters and experiences and values that are often slighted or ignored, Gaines has, at the same time, emphasized universal human qualities that ultimately transcend racial categories. He invests his best writing with a breadth of vision and a generosity of spirit that affirm human potential. As he himself has remarked, “Survival with sanity and love and a sense of responsibility, and getting up and trying all over again not only for one’s self but for mankind–those achievements I find worth writing about.”

BibliographyAuger, Philip. Native Sons in No Man’s Land: Rewriting Afro-American Manhood in the Novels of Baldwin, Walker, Wideman, and Gaines. New York: Garland, 2000. Looks at Gaines’s use of religious allegory in commenting upon and providing role models for manhood in his novels.Babb, Valerie Melissa. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A solid introduction to the author and his works. Includes a bibliography and an index.Beavers, Herman. Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. This thoughtful analysis of the literary kinship of Gaines and McPherson with their precursor Ralph Ellison focuses on all three writers’ characters’ sense of community, storytelling, and self-recovery. While beginning with a look at their southernness, Beavers examines all three as American writers and discusses all Gaines’s work through A Lesson Before Dying.Burke, William. “Bloodline: A Man’s Black South.” College Language Association Journal 19 (1976): 545-558. This study centers on the design of the five stories in Bloodline and argues that they are a coherent record of changing race relations prompted by the African American male’s recovery of his masculinity.Carmean, Karen. Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. An introductory overview of Gaines’s work, with analysis of each of his novels and short-story collections and a thorough bibliography of primary and secondary sources.Clark, Keith. Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines, and August Wilson. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. The chapter on Gaines focuses on the “neo-masculinist literary imagination.” The opening chapter of the book outlines the aesthetics of black masculinist protest discourse since 1940, contextualizing Clark’s later discussion.Doyle, Mary Ellen. Voices from the Quarters: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. A celebration of Gaines’s characters. Doyle examines the ways in which Louisiana’s bayous and cane fields are peopled by Gaines with characters that exemplify their real life counterparts.Estes, David E., ed. Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. Fourteen essays that cover all six novels to 1994 and Bloodline as well as film adaptations of Gaines’s work, offering detailed explications in addition to broad analyses of pastoralism, humor, race, and gender. An excellent introduction highlights important biographical facts, secondary sources, and literary themes in Gaines’s work.Gaines, Ernest J., Marcia G. Gaudet, and Carl Wooton. Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer’s Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. A transcription of an intimate interview conducted by colleagues of Gaines, this work offers an insightful look at how the author has transmuted his Louisiana heritage, familial experiences, literary influences, and strong folk tradition into fiction with a distinct voice.Jones, Suzanne W. “New Narratives of Southern Manhood: Race, Masculinity, and Closure in Ernest Gaines’s Fiction.” Critical Survey 9 (1997): 15-42. Discusses Gaines’s deconstruction of stereotypes and presentation of new models of black and white southern manhood. Asserts that Gaines suggests that in order to reconstruct the South, black and white men must reject the traditional Western model of manhood that links masculinity and violence.Lowe, John, ed. Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. A selection of interviews in which Gaines speaks about his life, his themes, and his works. Includes and index and chronology of his life.Magnier, Bernard. “Ernest J. Gaines.” The UNESCO Courier 48 (April, 1995): 5-7. In this interview, Gaines discusses his childhood and family background, the books that most influenced him, his feelings about Africa, and other topics.Papa, Lee. “‘His Feet on Your Neck’: The New Religion in the Works of Ernest J. Gaines.” African American Review 27 (Summer, 1993): 187-193. Claims that Gaines is concerned with characters who must make a personal test of religion, not accept it as imposed by institutional Christianity.Peterson, V. R. “Ernest Gaines: Writing About the Past.” Essence 24 (August, 1993): 52. A brief biographical sketch that discusses Gaines’s background, his typical themes, and the development of his writing career.Shelton, Frank W. “Ambiguous Manhood in Ernest J. Gaines’ Bloodline.” College Language Association Journal 19 (1975): 200-209. Shelton notes that although the African American males in Gaines’s stories strive for manhood and dignity, they are only partially successful in their quests.Simpson, Anne K. A Gathering of Gaines: The Man and the Writer. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1991. Simpson’s study, well documented with excerpts from Gaines’s personal papers, offers a biographical sketch, an examination of his stylistic influences and characteristics, and a critical overview of his fiction. It includes an unannotated but thorough bibliography.
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