Like his most memorable character, Jane Pittman, Earnest James Gaines was a compelling storyteller, with an ear for the tone and the rhythm of the speech he heard coming of age in Louisiana, and a student of oral history. This literary giant who put us in touch with his southern experience died peacefully Nov. 5 at his home in Louisiana. He was 86.
Born on the River Lake Plantation near the small hamlet of Oscar, in Pointe Coupee Parish, Gaines and his family chose to live on the same plot of land that once housed the slave quarters of their ancestors. He was 8 years of age when his parents separated and his great aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, became his guardian throughout his childhood, though she was born with a crippling disease and could only crawl to get from one place to another.
“My great aunt was probably the greatest influence in my life,” Gaines said in an interview with the Academy of Achievement in which he was inducted in 2001. “She was crippled. She never walked in her life. She crawled over the floor all her life. When my mother had to go out into the fields when we were smaller children, and then later go to California, she left us with my aunt, and my aunt could do everything except walk.”
He was 15 when he joined his mother and stepfather in Vallejo, California, just northeast of San Francisco. To keep off the streets, his parents made him spend time in the library, and it was there that he began his lifelong love and interest in literature. Most enthralling for him was 19th century Russian literature, particularly the novels of Ivan Turgenev.
Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons” gave him the blueprint he needed to structure his own early attempts to write and he was further invigorated by Turgenev’s treatment of serfdom, which mirrored his own rural experiences.
Gaines’ first novel “Catherine Carmier” was very much in the tradition of Turgenev with a similar plot about a young man who returns to his village, falls in love with a beautiful woman, and then loses her. It wasn’t well received by critics.
Undismayed by the lack of attention for his first novel, Gaines continued to write novels and short stories, none of which found favor with editors and publishers. Things began to change for the better by 1966 when the National Endowment of the Arts awarded him a grant. A year later his second novel, “Of Love and Dust,” was published. Like his first book, servitude and unrequited love were major themes, however, it did much better than his first novel. In 1968, “Bloodline,” a collection of short stories appeared with good notices, and each was imbued the life in the parishes that he knew so well.
He hit the literary jackpot in 1971 with “The Autobiography of Jane Pittman,” the same year he was appointed Writer-in-Residence at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Only after consultation with a close friend and editor did he finally resolve how the story would be told. Deciding on having the narrative delivered by Pittman in first person worked perfectly as she recounted the milestones of the 20th century. The book gained even more attraction and praise in 1974 when Cicely Tyson portrayed Jane Pittman in a televised version. “In My Father’s House” (1978) and “A Gathering of Old Men” (1983) were highly praised and earned him more awards and fellowships.
In 1983, Gaines was again a writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “The first thing I tell my students when they ask me—well, anyone who asks me what do you say to an aspiring writer, I said, ‘I have six words of advice, and I have eight words of advice. The six words of advice are read, read, read, write, write, write, and the eight words of advice is read, read, read, read, write, write, write, write.’”
Gaines’ epic novel “A Lesson Before Dying” garnered him the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1993 and was adapted for television, the same year he received the MacArthur Genius award.
His last book “The Tragedy of Brady Sims” was published in 2017, and it took place in the rural setting that Gaines knew intimately. Sims does his best to maintain peace in a town on the verge of violence.
Keeping the peace, being humble, and investing his characters with some of the same integrity he possessed will be enduring traits and forever keep Gaines current.