Literary Giant Ernest Gaines Dies Age 86

Novelist Ernest J. Gaines, who explored the hardships of African Americans living in rural Louisiana, died in his home in Oscar, Louisiana, on November 5. The acclaimed author of “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” was 86.

Gaines died in his sleep of cardiac arrest, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation confirmed to The Associated Press (AP).

“It is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to Ernest J. Gaines, a native Louisianan who used his immense vision and literary talents to tell the stories of African Americans in the South,” Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said in a statement.

“We are all blessed that Ernest left words and stories that will continue to inspire many generations to come.

The Baton Rouge Area Foundation that sponsors the annual Ernest J. Gaines Literary Award and ceremony said in a statement it will continue on “in his legacy.” The award, given out every year since 2007 and to be handed out in January, was established to support promising African-American fiction writers.

“Ernest Gaines was a Louisiana treasure,” Baton Rouge Area Foundation president and CEO John Davies told the AP. “He will be remembered for his powerful prose that placed the reader directly into the story of the old South, as only he could describe it. We have lost a giant and a friend.”

Gaines was born the son of sharecroppers on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish in Louisiana. As a child, he attended school for just five months out of the year, Gaines told Lawrence Bridges in an interview. Gaines said he was forced to “work in the fields,” the rest of the year.

At the age of 15, Gaines and his family moved to Vallejo, California, where he said was able to do what he had been banned from doing in Louisiana: visit a library. Gaines went on to attend San Francisco State University, where he published his first story in the university’s literary magazine in 1956. According to NPR, Gaines’ early writing earned him a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford University.

Gaines returned to his home state in 1963. Eight years later, he published his acclaimed novel, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” about a Black woman born into slavery who witnesses the Civil Rights era. In 1974, the novel was adapted into a television movie and won nine Emmys.

He wrote a total of eight novels and several short stories, including his award-winning novel “A Lesson Before Dying.”

Gaines was a highly celebrated author, who was awarded the coveted “genius grant” by the MacArthur Foundation in 1993. The award money allowed him to spend a year in France and on other travels with his wife, the AP reported.

Gaines received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations. He was also awarded the Louisiana Humanist of the Year in 1993.

In 2000, Gaines was awarded the National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton. Thirteen years later, President Barack Obama awarded Gaines the National Medal of Arts.

From 1983, Gaines taught creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette every fall. He claimed that he could not write and teach at the same time, since he needed to devote between five to six hours a day to writing.

The Louisiana native is survived by his wife Dianna Saulney Gaines, four stepchildren and nine siblings, NPR reported.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia, Australia and the Americas.