Novelist Ernest J. Gaines, whose poor childhood in a small Louisiana plantation town germinated the stories of black struggles that grew into universal stories of grace and beauty, has died. He was 86.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office on Tuesday released word of his death.
Edwards said in a statement that Gaines “used his immense vision and literary talents to tell the stories of African Americans in the South. We are all blessed that Ernest left words and stories that will continue to inspire many generations to come.”
“A Lesson Before Dying,” published in 1993, was an acclaimed classic. Gaines was that year awarded a MacArthur Fellowship grant, receiving $335,000 to spend over the next five years.
He was the author of eight books, and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1971) and “A Gathering of Old Men” (1984) became honored television movies.
Ernest James Gaines was born Jan. 15, 1933, on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish. His first writing experience was writing letters for illiterate workers who asked him to embellish their news to far-off relatives. The fictional town of Bayonne, La., the setting for Gaines’ stories, was actually New Roads, which Gaines left for California when he was 15.
Although books were denied him throughout his childhood because of Louisiana’s strict segregation — which extended even to libraries — he found the life surrounding him rich enough to recollect in story after story through vivid detail.
In “A Lesson Before Dying,” for example, the central figure is the teacher at the plantation school outside town. Through the teacher, whose profession Gaines elevates to a calling, the novelist explores the consistent themes of his work: sacrifice and duty, obligation to others, the qualities of loving, the nature of courage.
The themes are explored among the tensions of late 1940s, and the teacher is the character burdened with the long past and with the expectations of a better future. As he struggles to find a way to help a convicted young cane field worker face the electric chair, he must find how to become both human and heroic at the moment of extinction.
Gaines himself found that the use of his storytelling gifts meant more than militant civil rights action. “When Bull Connor would sic the dogs, I thought, ‘Hell, write a better paragraph,’” he said, referring to the Alabama segregationist law enforcement official.
“In 1968, when I was writing ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,’ my friends said, ‘Why write about a 110-year-old lady when all of this is going on now?’ And I said, ‘I think she’s going to have something to say about it.’”
What Gaines’ characters said about it achieved a power and timelessness that made him a distinctive voice in American literature. Much of the appeal of his books is their seeming simplicity and straightforward story line. “I can never write big novels,” he said. But the questions he explored were the eternal ones many great writers confront: what it means to be human, what a human lives and dies for.
Gaines had taught creative writing each fall at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette since 1983, about an hour’s drive from his childhood home.
A large, gentlemanly man with a certain bohemian air — he was fond of wearing berets — and a stately manner, Gaines was devoted to friends and family. When he married for the first time in 1993 at the age of 60, he celebrated in Lafayette, New Orleans, Miami and San Francisco, so that the gatherings could include his intimates. Dianne Saulney Gaines is an assistant district attorney for Dade County, Fla. The couple divided their time among various homes but spent the MacArthur money on a year in France and other travels.
He could not write and teach at the same time. He needed five or six hours each day devoted to writing, and “I can’t write a couple of days and skip two or three days.”
“A Lesson Before Dying” took seven years.
“I work five days a week, just like a regular job. I get up in the morning, do a little exercise, eat a little breakfast. I’m at my desk by nine in the morning, work until three with a little break for lunch,” he said.
His literary influences were eclectic. Since he only began reading at 15, he began with a vengeance.
“I discovered John Steinbeck ... then Willa Cather ... then the great 19th century Russian and French writers, writers like De Maupassant and Flaubert. Then I discovered Ivan Turgenev, the great Russian classicist. He wrote small novels where everyone wrote big novels. I could never write big novels. [Turgenev’s] ‘Fathers and Sons’ was one of my favorite books when I was a young man. It was my Bible when I was writing my first novel, ‘Catherine Carmier’” of 1964, he said.
Other books include “Of Love and Dust” (1967), “Bloodline” (1968), “A Long Day in November” (1971) and “In My Father’s House” (1978).
In addition to the MacArthur and numerous other awards, Gaines received prestigious grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller and Guggenheim foundations. He held honorary doctorates from five colleges or universities.