Gaines in conversation at Fall for the Book, 28 September 2015. Photo courtesy of S L O W K I N G (Wikipedia user Slowking4)
African American, Literature
Ernest James Gaines
Ernest James Gaines was a celebrated author and educator, who infused African American folklore into his writings.
Ernest James Gaines was born on River Lake Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, in 1933 to Manuel Gaines and Adrienne Jefferson Gaines. He attended classes in a plantation church and three years at a Catholic school for African American children in New Roads, Louisiana. Gaines’s parents separated when he was eight years old, and his mother later remarried. When his mother and stepfather, Raphael Colar, moved to Vallejo, California, in search of better work opportunities, Gaines remained in Louisiana with his great-aunt, Augusteen Jefferson. She would have had a significant influence on his life. Born without legs, she moved about her house by using her arms to propel herself across the floor. Because she was not able to go out, people would visit her, and while Gaines helped her to serve guests, he listened to their stories, their language, and their speech patterns—ultimately learning firsthand about storytelling.
When he was 15 years old, Gaines joined his parents and graduated from high school in (1951), an opportunity he would not have had in Louisiana where African American children in his rural community were denied an education beyond the eighth grade. After attending Vallejo Junior College, he served in the U.S. Army for two years, beginning in 1953. When he returned from the military, he enrolled at San Francisco State College from which he graduated with a BA in Literature (1957). In 1958, Gaines was awarded a Wallace Stegner Writing Fellowship at Stanford University for graduate study, where he was enrolled for one year before withdrawing to focus on his writing.
Gaines published numerous novels and short stories, all of which were set in the South, particularly in the fictional town of Bayonne, Louisiana. He wrote about southern Louisiana African American rural people as he knew them and told the truth of their lives in ways not done previously. Drawing upon oral tradition and using a storytelling frame, Gaines’s writings created characters who displayed the dignity and humanity of African Americans. In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), he captured the oral tradition of Miss Jane as she shares her personal experience narrative. Gaines created a believable and trustworthy narrator whose authenticity is manifested in her voice while she tells the story of her and Gaines’s people. In A Gathering of Old Men (1983), he used communal storytelling as his narrative approach, with multiple voices and stories coming together to create a single story that highlighted the importance of community for African American people.
Gaines taught and was writer-in-residence at several universities. He received numerous national and international awards, including both a MacArthur and a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Humanities Medal, National Medal of the Arts, and a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the government of France.
Among his works relevant to folklore are:
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971)
A Gathering of Old Men (1983)
“My Grandpa and the Haint” in Mozart and Leadbelly (2015)