Pointe Coupee Parish native son and acclaimed novelist and short story writer Ernest J. Gaines died Tuesday of natural causes at his home in Oscar, not far from where he was born. He was 86.
Famous for his detailed depictions of the South before and after slavery, Gaines made the world conscious of civil rights before there was a civil rights movement.
His most famous works were “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” “A Lesson Before Dying” and “A Gathering of Old Men.” All three were adapted for the big screen.
Born on River Lake Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Gaines’ first education came in a small church on a lane filled with former slave quarters on the plantation.
The noted author was born in one of those old houses and he never forgot his roots. Most of his earliest memories served as the backbone of his novels.
Gaines received many accolades over the course of his long career, including grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation.
The list of awards he received for his writing is impressive—he was presented a National Medal of Arts by Pres. Barack Obama, the Gold Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement, the Sidney Lanier Prize for Southern Literature and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Achievement in American Literature.
“Ernest Gaines was a Louisiana treasure,” said John Davies, president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. The Foundation sponsors a literary award in his name given to a black author annually.
“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,” Davies continued. “We have lost a giant and a friend.”
Gaines was honored by the Louisiana Center for the Book in the State Library of Louisiana in 2001 to culminate the first Louisiana Writers Month.
"I've received quite a few of these awards," Gaines said after being presented with the award. "But to get one from home, that's really special."
"We have wonderful writers in Louisiana and these events gave us the opportunity to showcase their talents," said then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, whose office in the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism oversees the State Library.
Dr. John Lowe, a scholar of Gaines' work and an English professor at LSU, praised the famous author in his introduction of Gaines, calling him "Louisiana's greatest writer...and a man I am proud to call my friend."
"He is simply one of the finest human beings I have ever known," Lowe continued.
"Ernest Gaines received an outstanding education even though it was not all in school," he added. "His novels and stories include Louisianas of all sorts."
Gaines was born during the bleakest years of the Great Depression and he frequently returned in his writings to his earliest days to Pointe Coupee, where he spent his childhood.
"My people had lived in the same parish where I grew up since the time of slavery," Gaines said.
"I come from a long line of storytellers," he said. "I come from a plantation, where people told stories by the fireplace at night, people told stories on the ditch bank."
"People sat around and told stories," Gaines continued. "They would talk and talk and talk and I listened to them."
He is survived by his wife Dianne Saulney Gaines, whom he married in 1993, and a host of other family members and close friends.