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Ernest J(ames) Gaines Biography

Ernest J. Gaines comments:

Nationality: American. Born: Oscar, Louisiana, 1933. Education: Vallejo Junior College; San Francisco State College, 1955-57, B.A. 1957; Stanford University, California (Stegner fellow, 1958), 1958-59. Military Service: Served in the United States Army, 1953-55. Career: Writer-in-residence, Denison University, Granville, Ohio, 1971, Stanford University, Spring 1981, and Whittier College, California, 1982. Since 1983 professor of English and writer-in-residence, University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette. Awards: San Francisco Foundation Joseph Henry Jackson award, 1959; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966; Rockefeller grant, 1970; Guggenheim grant, 1970; Black Academy of Arts and Letters award, 1972; San Francisco Art Commission award, 1983; American Academy award, 1987; National Book Critics Circle award, 1994, and Pulitzer prize, 1994, both for A Lesson Before Dying. D. Litt.: Denison University, 1980; Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1985; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, 1985; Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge 1987; D.H.L.: Whittier College, 1986. Agent: JCA Literary Agency, 242 West 27th Street, New York, New York 10001.



Catherine Carmier. New York, Atheneum, 1964; London, Secker and Warburg, 1966.

Of Love and Dust. New York, Dial Press, 1967; London, Secker andWarburg, 1968.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York, Dial Press, 1971; London, Joseph, 1973.

In My Father's House. New York, Knopf, 1978.

A Gathering of Old Men. New York, Knopf, 1983; London, Heinemann, 1984.

A Lesson Before Dying. New York, Knopf, 1993.

Short Stories

Bloodline. New York, Dial Press, 1968.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Turtles," in Transfer (San Francisco), 1956.

"Boy in the Doublebreasted Suit," in Transfer (San Francisco), 1957.

"My Grandpa and the Haint," in New Mexico Quarterly (Albuquerque), Summer 1966.


A Long Day in November (for children). New York, Dial Press, 1971.

Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines, with Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1990.


Manuscript Collection:

Dupree Library, University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette.

Critical Studies:

"Human Dignity and Pride in the Novels of Ernest Gaines" by Winifred L. Stoelting, in CLA Journal (Baltimore), March 1971; "Ernest J. Gaines: Change, Growth, and History" by Jerry H. Bryant, in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), October 1974; "Bayonne ou le Yoknapatawpha d'Ernest Gaines" by Michel Fabre in Recherches Anglaises et Américaines 9 (Strasbourg), 1976; "To Make These Bones Live: History and Community in Ernest Gaines's Fiction" by Jack Hicks, in Black American Literature Forum (Terre Haute, Indiana), Spring 1977; "Ernest Gaines: 'A Long Day in November"' by Nalenz Puschmann, in The Black American Short Story in the 20th Century edited by Peter Bruck, Amsterdam, Grüner, 1978; "The Quarters: Ernest J. Gaines and the Sense of Place" by Charles H. Rowell, in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), Summer 1985; Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines, edited by David C. Estes. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1994; Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson by Herman Beavers. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995; Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion by Karen Carmean. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1998.

I have tried to show you a world of my people—the kind of world that I came from.

* * *

The fictive world of Ernest J. Gaines, as well as certain technical aspects of his works, might be compared to that of William Faulkner. But useful as such a comparison may be, it should not be pursued to the point of obscuring Gaines's considerable originality, which inheres mainly in the fact that he is Afro-American and very much a spiritual product, if no longer a resident, of the somewhat unique region about which he writes: south Louisiana, culturally distinguishable from the state's Anglo-Saxon north, thus from the nation as a whole, by its French legacy, no small part of which derives from the comparative ease with which its French settlers and their descendants formed sexual alliances with blacks.

Gaines's Afro-American perspective enables him to create, among other notable characters both black and white, a Jane Pittman (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman) whose heroic perseverance we experience, rather than a housekeeping Dilsey (The Sound and the Fury) for whom we have little more than the narrator's somewhat ambiguous and irrelevant assurance that "She endured." In general, Gaines's peculiar point of view generates a more complex social vision than Faulkner's, an advantage Gaines has sustained with dramatic force and artistic integrity. Gaines's fictive society consists of whites, blacks, and creoles, presumably a traditionally more favored socio-economic class of African American given to fantasies of racial superiority to those of darker skin, fantasies of the kind the Martinican psychiatrist Frantz Fanon explores in Black Skin, White Masks.

The Gainesian counterparts of the Sartorises and Snopeses (the moribund aristocracy and parvenu "poor white trash" respectively of Faulkner's mythical Mississippi county) are the south Louisiana plantation owners, mostly of French extraction, and the cajuns, of French extraction but of lesser "quality." The cajuns are inheriting and spoiling the land and displacing the creoles and blacks, the former tragically though not irrevocably doomed by a persistent folly, the latter a people of promise who have never really betrayed their African heritage.

All Gaines's works reflect the inherent socio-economic intricacy of this quadruplex humanity, though we are never allowed to lose sight of its basic element of black and white. In his apprentice first novel Catherine Carmier, for instance, we see the sickly proscribed love of Jackson, who is black, and Catherine, daughter of an infernally proud creole farmer, as a perverted issue of the miscegenation that resulted from the white male's sexual exploitation of black people. This mode of victimization assumes metaphoric force in Gaines's works, figuring forth in historical perspective the oppression of black people generally. The fictive plantation world, then, is uniquely micro-cosmic. It is south Louisiana, the south, the nation as a whole. This aspect is explored, for example, in the title story of Bloodline. Copper, a character of mythopoeic proportion, the militant young son of a now deceased white plantation owner and a black woman field hand, stages a heroic return, presumably from his education in school and in the world at large, to claim his heritage: recognition of kinship by an aristocratic white uncle and his rightful share of the land. In In My Father's House, and for the first time, Gaines deals with the black father-son relationship, and explores a neglected aspect of African American life: the perplexities of the public vs. private person relative to individual responsibility. The Reverend Phillip Martin, a grass roots Civil Rights leader in the fictional south Louisiana town of St. Adrienne, is forced to confront his wayward past when his estranged son Etienne, reminiscent of Copper, comes to claim paternal recognition and redress of grievances.

In A Gathering of Old Men Gaines extends the thematic concerns of his earlier novels into a new South setting, employing a multiple first-person point of view in the manner of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. The conflict between blacks and cajuns comes to a cinematically stylized, somewhat surrealistic climax and resolution as several old black men gather in mutual militant defense of one of their number who has been accused of killing Cajun farmer Beau Boutan, confronting the local sheriff as well as the slain man's avenging father, "retired" nightrider Fix Boutan. The result is a gripping allegorical tale of race relations in the new South resonant with the Gainesian theme of individual responsibility, this time for holding ground in the wake of the civil rights gains of the 1960s and 1970s.

In Gaines's 1993 novel A Lesson Before Dying, set in 1940, individual responsibility is highlighted again. Wiggins, the novel's narrator, is a young school teacher and one among a number of Gainesian tutelary figures. Wiggins is pressured by his elders into assuming the responsibility of mentor to Jefferson, a young black manchild who awaits execution for having taken part in the murder of a white storekeeper, a crime for which he is apparently unjustly convicted in a racist environment. A National Book Critics Circle award winner and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1994, A Lesson chronicles the young Jefferson's gradual assumption of responsibility, under Wiggins's increasingly committed mentorship, for assimilating the attributes of manhood before he dies in the electric chair. In one of Gaines's characteristic ironies, Wiggins's mentorship of Jefferson contributes to his own edification as well.

—Alvin Aubert

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