IN MEMORIAM: As a descendant of slaves, Ernest Gaines used the eloquence of his acclaimed fiction to affirm the dignity and resilience of the human spirit.
ERNEST GAINES grew up writing and reading for the adults around him on the Louisiana plantation where he grew up--and where his ancestors once toiled as slaves.
"In that way, I got to learn their stories," he told The Boston Herald in 1999.
The influential author, who wrote about Southern black people and their struggle for a dignified existence, died Nov. 5. He was 86.
In rural Pointe Coupee Parish, Gaines joined his family in the fields from age 9 and only attended school for less than half a year, according to his National Medal of the Arts biography. During World War II, his mother and stepfather moved to Vallejo, California, where a teenaged Gaines was told to go to the library to stay out of trouble. He found solace in Russian works that detailed a feudal life in the countryside, much like his own on River Lake Plantation.
"Many (of the Russian books) left me with the feeling of disappointment. 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 told The Times-Picayune in 1999.
After a stint in the Army from 19531955, Gaines enrolled at San Francisco State University and then in the graduate creative writing program at Stanford University lead by Wallace Stegner. He published his first novel, Catherine Carmier, in 1964.
"I didn't make a damn cent," Gaines told The New York Times.
Three years later, he published Of Love and Dust and Bloodline before his breakout hit, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in 1971. Alice Walker, writing in The New York Times, called Pittman a "grand, robust, most valuable novel that is impossible to dismiss."
It was made into an Emmy-winning movie by CBS, as were his books A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying. He also published In My Father's House in 1978 and the novella The Tragedy of Brady Sims in 2017.
Gaines was also a Guggenheim Fellow and a MacArthur Fellow and was a writer in residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he became a member of Phi Kappa Phi. President Bill Clinton awarded Gaines the National Humanities Medal in 2000, and President Barack Obama presented him with the National Medal of the Arts in 2013.
"His body of work has taught us all that the human spirit cannot be contained within the boundaries of race or class," Clinton said.
In his later years, Gaines and his wife, Dianne, built a house near the Louisiana plantation where he grew up. The Gaineses formed an association to preserve and maintain the cemetery.
"They had nothing," Gaines told the Times. "At least here, they each have six foot of ground."
Ernest Gaines (1933-2019). Photo provided by Baton Rouge Area Foundation.