Ernest J. Gaines
The biography of a famous black author
I hadnt heard of Ernest J. Gaines until reading a lesson in our Social Studies book, and even then I didnt really put much importance in the name. It was just another man who wrote about the South. Then when I found we were to start a project on Louisiana authors, I remembered that name, and decided that if this Ernest J. Gaines was important enough to put in a history book, then he must have some interesting aspects.
Ernest J. Gaines was born on January 15th, 1933 on River Lake Plantation in Oscar, Louisiana, which was a quiet hamlet in obscure Pointe Coupee Parish. Born during the Depression, he is the son of a sharecropper. Even though all the slaves were free, Gaines recalls living, eating, and working like a slave. Most people would have found it galling and tiring to do so, but Gaines had a remedy for that. After the work was done, or on a rest day, an elder would sit on his porch and a crowd of young ones would sit below him. People sat around telling stories, said Gaines. The porch was his [the orator's] stage, and you were his audience.
Gaines thinks of himself more as a listener and not a humorist. His great passion (besides collecting records) is writing fiction, and most of his writings take place in the South. Even though he worked on a plantation for most of his childohood, Gaines feels that he will never be able to fully represent the South. Although he writes about the injustice, anger, and troubles of his people, Gaines felt that no one except a slave could really know and show the hard work in the sun, the feelings of the whip stinging across his back, and the strain and weariness when he trudge's back to his quarters at dark to eat a little corn and ham, then fall into his moss bed into relieving darkness.
But how did the son of a sharecropper first find his passion with writing? At age fifteen, Gaines went to his first public library. His early influences were Faulkner, Hemingway, Greek tragedy, and the Russian writers such as Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Chekhov. Surprisingly, Gaines remarks that black writers did not have such an influence on him as Hemingway and the Russian writer Tolstoy did.
I looked at Hemingway as a man who can really construct paragraphs; when I want to construct a good paragraph I read a little Hemingway. You look at Tolstoy, who I think is the greatest of them all, the greatest man to write a novel. So you can learn from these people; Ive learned from all of them. I learned how to get what was in me on paper.
In Gainess work, he has taken the years of oral storytelling, and transformed it into literature. A writer tries to write about what he is a part of, explains Gaines. Thats what I was trying to do with Miss Jane Pittman, to get the essence of what she was saying. Then you use your background or fill it in with history. You fill it in with things you know.
It has been said that Gainess contemporary works tend to be more concerned with community, place, and the past and its legacy -- and to ground its fiction more fully in a rich traditional folk culture than his white counterparts. This is obvious, since he lived on a plantation where the people cared fiercely for each other while they tried to scratch a living laboring in the fields. I suppose that it should not be a big surprise that Gaines cares about the old traditions and writes about racial conflict because he experienced it firsthand and the ways that he used to live and breathe everyday may have propelled him into becoming a great African American author.
Ernest J. Gaines has written many books, the most famous of which are The Autobiography of Miss. Jane Pittmann, and A Gathering of Old Men. If you would like to know more about A Gathering of Old Men, click here.
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