Here’s a timed quiz for you: name a memorable African-American female character living in the post-Civil War era from American Literature published before the Civil Rights Movement that wasn’t either a mammy, a prostitute or an ill-fated jazz...
Gaines was born in 1933 on the River Lake Plantation in Pointe Coupe Parish, Louisiana. He was part of the fifth generation of his family to be raised there. He was raised by his crippled aunt. At the age of nine he began picking cotton, and he attended school five/six months out of the year.
When he was 15, Gaines went to California to live with his mother and stepfather. His stepfather would not let him hang around on the street, for fear that he would get into trouble with the police, so Gaines spent time at the library instead. He credits this as inciting his interest in literature. Initially, he preferred to study European authors who wrote about peasants, with whose experiences he identified, and avoided American writers because he disliked how they portrayed African-Americans in their stories.
Gaines attended San Fransisco State University and won a writing fellowship to Stanford. Before attending Stanford, he spent two years serving in the army. He wrote his first novel, Catherine Carmier, at the age of 17, though it would not be published for another 14 years.
Gaines wrote his first short story in 1956. He wrote a total of eight books of fiction. The first one to be critically acclaimed was The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which is about a 110-year-old woman, once a slave, recounting the events of her life. A Lesson Before Dying, published in 1993, won the National Book Critics' Circle Award. Gaines was also awarded the MacArthur Foundation Grant for writings of "rare historical resonance."
Gaines currently lives with his wife Dianne in Oscar, Louisiana, on land that was part of the plantation on which he grew up. He is a writer-in-residence Emeritus at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette.
Study Guides on Works by Ernest J. Gaines
A Lesson Before Dying is Ernest J. Gaines's eighth book, and is in some ways his most autobiographical. Many aspects of the novel are drawn from Gaines's personal experiences growing up in Oscar, Louisiana. For example, the plantation school where...