Rediscover: Ernest J. Gaines
Louisiana author Ernest J. Gaines, whose experiences in the segregated South inspired his novels and short stories, died November 5 at age 86. Gaines was the oldest of 12 children in a family of impoverished sharecroppers living in old slave quarters on a plantation. He was raised by his crippled aunt, who moved around the house by crawling. For five or six months each year, a visiting teacher used the plantation church as a schoolhouse. At the time, education for African American children stopped at the eighth grade. At age 15, Gaines moved in with his mother and father in California. He wrote his first novel at age 17 but burned the manuscript after it was rejected, later rewriting it as the basis for his first published novel, Catherine Carmier (1964). He earned a literature degree from San Francisco State University, a writing fellowship to Stanford University, and was a writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette between 1981-2004. In 1996, Gaines taught the French university system's first ever creative writing class at the University of Rennes.
Gaines earned widespread recognition with his fourth novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), which tracks a century of African American history through the eyes of its titular character. A Gathering of Old Men (1983) takes place in the aftermath of a Cajun farmer's murder, when a group of old sharecroppers with shotguns gather to protect the suspected murderer from being lynched. A Lesson Before Dying (1993) is partially based on the true story of Willie Francis, a black teenager who was sent to the electric chair for a murder he likely did not commit, and who survived the first electrocution attempt, though not the second. A Lesson Before Dying was selected for Oprah's Book Club in 1997. It is available from Vintage ($14, 9780375702709). --Tobias Mutter