Ernest J. Gaines, a MacArthur fellow best known for the book The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, died at his home in Oscar, La., Tuesday. He was 86.
In an obituary on their website, the Ernest J. Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, described the author as leaving behind a legacy that is “nothing short of brilliant.”
Born Ernest James Gaines on Jan. 15, 1933 on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, La., Gaines grew up the son of sharecroppers. As he told the Center in a video interview, he only attended school five to five-and-a-half months out of the year, and spent the rest of the year working in the fields.
That early plantation life would serve as the foundation for many of the stories he wrote later on, including the novel Of Love and Dust, which chronicles the story of a young black man accused of murder who gets “bonded out” to a harsh plantation owner.
From the New York Times:
“When I brought my young killer to the plantation,” Mr. Gaines said in an interview in “Conversations With Ernest Gaines,” a book edited by John Lowe and published in 1995, “I knew the kind of house he would have to live in; I had lived there 15 years myself. I knew the kind of food he would eat; the same kind that I had eaten. I knew the kind of clothes he would wear, because I had worn the khaki and denim clothes myself. I knew the work he would have to do.”
After the end of his parents’ marriage, Gaines’ father left the family, and his mother remarried and moved to California, leaving him in the care of his great-aunt Augusteen Jefferson. Gaines said Jefferson served as the model for several of his strong black women characters, including Jane Pittman.
He also listened to the stories of the many people who came to visit Jefferson and incorporated their speech cadences, storytelling techniques, and experiences into his later stories.
Gaines served in the U.S. Army from 1953-1955, then enrolled at San Francisco State University. The stories he published in an SFSU literary journal earned him a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
In 1971, after publishing Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was named a MacArthur fellow in 1993, received the National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton in 2000, and the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2013.
Three of his books—Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson Before Dying—were made into movies.
Gaines is survived by his wife, Dianne Gaines.
America has truly lost a treasure.
Rest in power, Mr. Gaines.