By CHEVEL JOHNSON and REBECCA SANTANA
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Novelist Ernest J. Gaines, whose poor childhood on a small Louisiana plantation germinated stories of black struggles that grew into universal tales of grace and beauty, has died. He was 86.
The Baton Rouge Area Foundation, which sponsors a literary award in Gaines’ honor, confirmed he died Tuesday in his sleep of cardiac arrest at his home in Oscar, Louisiana.
“Ernest Gaines was a Louisiana treasure,” foundation president and CEO John Davies said in a statement. “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.”
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a statement that Gaines “used his immense vision and literary talents to tell the stories of African Americans in the South. We are all blessed that Ernest left words and stories that will continue to inspire many generations to come.”
“A Lesson Before Dying,” published in 1993, was an acclaimed classic. Gaines was awarded a “genius grant” that year by the MacArthur Foundation, receiving $335,000.
Both “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1971) and “A Gathering of Old Men” (1984) became honored television movies.
The author of eight books, Gaines was born on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish. His first writing experience was writing letters for illiterate workers who asked him to embellish their news to far-off relatives. Bayonne, the setting for Gaines’ fiction, was actually New Roads, Louisiana, which Gaines left for California when he was 15.
Although books were denied him throughout his childhood because of Louisiana’s strict segregation, which extended even to libraries, he found the life surrounding him rich enough to recollect in story after story through exact and vivid detail.
In “A Lesson Before Dying,” for example, the central figure is the teacher at the plantation school outside town. Through the teacher, whose profession Gaines elevates to a calling, the novelist explores the consistent themes of his work: sacrifice and duty, the obligation to others, the qualities of loving, the nature of courage.
Gaines found that using his storytelling gifts meant more than militant civil rights action. “When Bull Connor would sic the dogs, I thought, ‘Hell, write a better paragraph.’
“In 1968, when I was writing ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,’ my friends said, ‘Why write about a 110-year-old lady when all of this is going on now?’ And I said, ‘I think she’s going to have something to say about it.’”...
(a few interviews)
(birthday post from 2013, with booklist)
I remember reading "The Sky is Gray" for fun in a 7th-grade textbook: "Outlooks Through Literature," published by Scott, Foresman and Company and edited by Edmund James, James L. Pierce, Mabel H. Pittman, Jesse Stuart, and Hilton Farrell. It made a big impression on me. The illustrator was Carl Owens. One picture shows Monsieur Bayonne trying to work a "prayer cure" on James' aching tooth, and another shows James and his mother walking on the sidewalk.
"When I speak to black students about Hemingway, they often ask me what I expect them to learn from 'that white man.' I tell them: 'All Hemingway wrote about was grace under pressure. And he was talking about you. Can you tell me a better example of grace under pressure than our people for the past three hundred years? Grace under pressure isn't just about bullfighters and men at war. It's about getting up every day to face a job or a white boss you don't like but have to face to feed your children so they'll grow up to be a better generation.' "