Novelist Ernest J. Gaines, known for writing ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman’, and other novels about the struggles of African Americans in rural Louisiana, died on Tuesday at the age of 86.
According to the Associated Press, Gaines, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated novelist and MacArthur Foundation fellow, died in his sleep of cardiac arrest at his home in Oscar, Louisiana. He is survived by his wife Dianne Saulney Gaines, four stepchildren and nine siblings.
John Davies, CEO, and president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, which sponsors a literary award in Gaines’ honor, spoke highly of the literary legend in light of his passing.
“Ernest Gaines was a Louisiana treasure,” he said. “He will be remembered for his powerful prose that placed the reader directly into the story of the old South, as only he could describe it. We have lost a giant and a friend.”
National Sportslink gathered that Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards also remembered Gaines’ legacy and contribution to the state’s rich culture in a statement of his own.
“Gaines used his immense vision and literary talents to tell the stories of African Americans in the South,” he said. “We are all blessed that Ernest left words and stories that will continue to inspire many generations to come.”
Throughout his career, Gaines boasted several prestigious awards and accolades. He was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1993 and received the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in 2013.
The son of sharecroppers, Gaines was born on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, near Baton Rouge. He attended school for a little more than five months out of the year.
But that was more education than his family before he had received. He would say later in life that his ear for the stories of his elders was developed as he wrote letters for adults who couldn’t read or write.
In the late 1940s, at the age of 15, his family moved to the northern California city of Vallejo, about 30 miles north of San Francisco. He told interviewer Lawrence Bridges that in California he could do something that had been forbidden in the South: visit a library. Gaines later attended San Francisco State University. His early writing earned him a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford University.
Gaines returned to Louisiana in 1963, inspired by James Meredith’s bid to enroll in the then-all-white University of Mississippi. He took it as a sign that the South was changing and that he could be a part of that change.
“As I’ve said many times before, the two greatest moves I’ve made was on the day I left Louisiana in ’48, and on the day I came back to Louisiana in ’63,” he would later tell an interviewer.
Less than 10 years later, in 1971, he published the novel that brought him attention, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. It told the story of a black woman born as a slave who lives long enough to witness the civil rights era. It was later adapted for a television movie in 1974 starring Cicely Tyson and won nine Emmy Awards.
Gaines would later say that the fictional Jane Pittman was modeled after his disabled great-aunt, Augustine Jefferson, who could not walk, but was strong enough to raise a family.