Ernest J. Gaines, who wrote of the inner struggle for dignity among Southern black people before the civil rights era in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and other acclaimed novels, died Tuesday at his home in Oscar, Louisiana. He was 86.
His death was announced by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette on its website.
Gaines, who spent his early years on a Louisiana plantation, captured the lives and strivings of those he had grown up with in a time of limited opportunities and oppressive racism. Many of the adults he knew in childhood had little education, giving him an accidental underpinning for his career.
“At an early age I used to write and read letters for them,” he told The Boston Herald in 1999. “In that way I got to learn their stories.”
Those stories lent a genuineness to his fiction. His first novel, “Catherine Carmier,” published in 1964, told the story of a young black man who, much like Gaines himself, left his home in Louisiana for college in California before returning to the South. It was not exactly a bestseller — “I didn’t make a damn cent,” Gaines told The New York Times in 1978 — but it staked out his geographical and emotional territory.
By the time his second novel, “Of Love and Dust,” came out three years later, he was beginning to gain some attention. “Aside from occasional technical awkwardness,” novelist Robert Granat wrote of the book in The Times Book Review, “the writing is clean, and Mr. Gaines paints some vivid scenes and fine portraits.”
In February 1969, when James Baldwin wrote a scalding essay in The Times about the difficulties faced by black artists, it was Gaines’ novel he cited in making a point about film and television.
“In such a system, it makes perfect sense that Hollywood would turn out so ‘liberal’ an abomination as ‘If He Hollers, Let Him Go,’” Baldwin wrote, referring to a forgettable movie of the day, “while leaving absolutely unnoticed and untouched such a really fine and truthful study of the black-white madness as, for example, Ernest J. Gaines’ ‘Of Love and Dust.’”
It was not long before Hollywood did take notice. In 1971, Gaines published “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” the sprawling story of the fictional title character’s long life, which begins in slavery and continues into the civil rights era.
The book was a critical smash. Alice Walker, in The Times, called it a “grand, robust, most valuable novel that is impossible to dismiss or to put down.” Three years later, CBS made it into a television movie starring Cicely Tyson as the title character. The production won nine Emmy Awards.
Two subsequent books, also widely acclaimed, were made into movies as well: “A Gathering of Old Men” (1983) and “A Lesson Before Dying” (1993).
“A Gathering of Old Men” weaves together multiple viewpoints, including those of a group of old black field hands, to tell a tale of subjugation on a Louisiana plantation.
“He uses a couple of dozen narrators,” Jonathan Yardley wrote in his review in The Washington Post, “each of whom he imbues with a voice that is distinct and believable. Not least, he knows how to tell a story, and ‘A Gathering of Old Men’ is a good one.”
“A Lesson Before Dying,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, is the story of a young Southern black man’s struggle for dignity as he awaits execution in prison.
Charles R. Larson, reviewing it in The Chicago Tribune, wrote, “This majestic, moving novel is an instant classic, a book that will be read, discussed and taught beyond the rest of our lives.”
Ernest James Gaines was born Jan. 15, 1933, on the River Lake Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. His parents, Manuel and Adrienne Jefferson Gaines, were sharecroppers.
“I attended school about 5 to 5 1/2 months out of the year,” he said in a video interview on the Ernest J. Gaines Center’s website. “The rest of the time, I had to work in the fields.”
His early life on the plantation gave him the foundation for many of his novels, including “Of Love and Dust,” whose central character is a young black man, accused in a murder, who is “bonded out” to a harsh plantation owner.
“When I brought my young killer to the plantation,” Gaines said in an interview in “Conversations With Ernest Gaines,” a book edited by John Lowe and published in 1995, “I knew the kind of house he would have to live in; I had lived there 15 years myself. I knew the kind of food he would eat; the same kind that I had eaten. I knew the kind of clothes he would wear, because I had worn the khaki and denim clothes myself. I knew the work he would have to do.”
Gaines’ father left when he was young, and his mother remarried and moved to California, leaving him in the care of a great-aunt, Augusteen Jefferson. Her “quiet heroism,” he later said, became the model for several of the strong female characters in his novels, including Jane Pittman. Jefferson could not walk, but she “taught me the importance of standing,” as he wrote in the dedication of “Miss Jane Pittman.” And she was a disciplinarian when necessary.
“She had the strongest pair of arms,” he said. “She could whip hard. I had to go out and break the switch, bring it to her, kneel down, and get my whipping.”
Because she couldn’t walk, many people came to visit Jefferson at her home. Gaines listened to their stories and, just as important, the cadences of their speech, absorbing details and yarn-spinning techniques that would be reflected in his books.
Gaines left Louisiana in 1948 to join his mother and stepfather in Vallejo, California. There he was able to do something that was forbidden to him in Louisiana: go to a library. Once he did, he began to discover the great novels — he especially liked Turgenev and the other Russians — but also found they were missing something.
“Many left me with the feeling of disappointment,” he told The Times-Picayune of New Orleans in 1999. “They were not describing my people, my aunt, my brothers or my friends whom I played ball and marbles with. I did not see me.”
Gaines tried filling that gap while still a teenager, writing a novel and sending it off to a New York publisher. When it was rejected, he burned the manuscript, he said.
After serving in the Army from 1953-5, he enrolled at San Francisco State University, publishing short stories in a literary journal there. That was enough to get him a Wallace Stegner writing fellowship at Stanford University, where he stayed for a year before settling in San Francisco.
He worked an assortment of jobs while continuing to write. He took another pass at the novel he had destroyed as a teenager, but was having trouble with it. Then, in 1962, as he followed the reports about a black man, James Meredith, who was trying to enroll at the all-white University of Mississippi, he had an epiphany.
“I realized then with all the trouble he had to put up with, I must go to Louisiana if I’m going to write my novel,” he told CNN in 2010. “I had to see and feel and be with the thing that I wanted to write about.”
He returned to his home state in early 1963 and finished the book, “Catherine Carmier,” six months later. “Miss Jane Pittman,” in 1971, made him famous, and the next year he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. He became a writer in residence at what is now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 1981. In 2008, the university established the Ernest J. Gaines Center to promote the study of his life and works.
Gaines was named a MacArthur Fellow — the “genius grant” — in 1993. In 2000, he received the National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton.
“His body of work has taught us all that the human spirit cannot be contained within the boundaries of race or class,” Clinton said at the award presentation at the White House.
In 2013, President Barack Obama presented Gaines with the National Medal of Arts.
Among Gaines’ other books are “Bloodline” (1968), a collection of five stories; “In My Father’s House” (1978), about a civil-rights leader and a mysterious stranger; and “The Tragedy of Brady Sims” (2017), a novella about a courthouse shooting.
Gaines married Dianne Saulney, a Miami attorney he had met at a book fair, in 1993.
“In the earlier years I couldn’t take the chance,” Gaines said, explaining his relatively late-in-life marriage. “I knew I wanted to be a writer and I knew if I had a wife and family, I would neglect something. I was afraid it wouldn’t be the writing.”
His wife survives him. Information on other survivors was not immediately available.
Shortly after the turn of this century, the Gaineses were visiting the black cemetery on the grounds of the old plantation where he grew up, where many of his ancestors are buried. They noticed a for-sale sign on a nearby 6-acre plot, bought it and built a house there.
They also rebuilt a 1930s-era church where Gaines had received school lessons, and moved it from one part of the plantation to their new backyard. And they formed an association to preserve and keep up the cemetery, holding an annual beautification day. Gaines thought it was the least he could do for his ancestors and the others buried there.
“They had nothing,” he told The Times in 2010. “At least here they each have 6 foot of ground.”
Gaines knew that whatever storytelling gifts he had came from those people and his upbringing. In the 1978 interview with The Times, he explained that the art wasn’t merely in the tale, but in the shaping of it.
“Content is probably only 40% of it, no more than 50%, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “If a book doesn’t have form, then damn, it ain’t no novel. We can go down the block right now and find a guy on the next corner who’ll tell the biggest and truest story you can ever hear. Now, putting that story down on paper so that a million people can read and feel and hear it like you on that street corner, that’s going to take form. That’s writing.”