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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Ernest J. Gaines
(b. 1933)

Ernest J. Gaines was born in Pointe Coupee Parish on “The Quarters” of River Lake Plantation, a few miles from New Roads, Louisiana. “Until I was fifteen years old,” Gaines recounts, “I had been raised by an aunt, Miss Augusteen Jefferson, a lady who had never walked a day in her life,” but who, as he says in the dedication to The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, “taught me the importance of standing.” As a boy Gaines worked in the cane fields “where all my people before me worked.”

In 1948 Gaines left Louisiana to join his mother and stepfather in Vallejo, California. There, as a teenager, he began to “read all the Southern writers I could find in the Vallejo library; then I began to read any writer who wrote about nature or about people who worked the land—anyone who would say something about dirt and trees, clear streams, and open sky.” After a two-year stint in the army Gaines took his B.A. degree from San Francisco State College in 1957. He then won a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship at Stanford and also received the Joseph Henry Jackson Literary Award there in 1959.

Gaines’s novels and short fiction are set in an imaginary Louisiana that evokes and re-creates the world of his childhood and the changes he has observed on his many returns to Louisiana. Although he has a drawer full of San Francisco-inspired fiction, Gaines’s published work is exclusively about Louisiana. “I wanted,” he says of his intention as a writer, “to smell that Louisiana earth, feel that Louisiana sun, sit under the shade of one of those Louisiana oaks, search for pecans in that Louisiana grass in one of those Louisiana yards next to one of those Louisiana bayous, not far from a Louisiana river. I wanted to see on paper those Louisiana black children walking to school on cold days while yellow Louisiana busses passed them by. I wanted to see on paper those black parents going to work before the sun came up and coming back home to look after their children after the sun went down. I wanted to see on paper the true reason why those black fathers left home—not because they were trifling or shiftless—but because they were tired of putting up with certain conditions. I wanted to see on paper the small country churches (schools during the week), and I wanted to hear those simple religious songs, those simple prayers—that true devotion. (It was Faulkner, I think, who said that if God were to stay alive in the country, the blacks would have to keep Him so.) And I wanted to hear that Louisiana dialect—that combination of English, Creole, Cajun, Black. For me there’s no more beautiful sound anywhere.”

Through the act of writing Gaines reexperiences Louisiana. Once there in imagination, he puts on paper the historical but alterable society which exists in the midst of nature’s abiding reality. The instrument behind the passage of the spoken word to the page is the writer’s healing human voice. Like his storytellers, Gaines breaks down the barriers between his voice and the voices of his characters. As a writer for his people, Gaines keeps faith with the oral tradition—a tradition of responsibility and change, and, despite violent opposition, a tradition of citizenship.

“The Sky Is Gray” and the other stories in Gaines’s Bloodline mediate two complementary facts of life: first, that very little changes in his remote parish between the Civil War and his departure after World War II; and, second, that even rural Louisiana could not resist the racial upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s. According to Gaines’s speech-driven donnée of fiction, for the writer to be free, his characters must be free, and an independent, individual voice is the first test of freedom.

John F. Callahan
Lewis and Clark College

In the Heath Anthology
The Sky Is Gray (1968)

Other Works
Catherine Carmier (1964)
Of Love and Dust (1967)
Bloodline (1968)
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971)
In My Father's House (1978)
A Gathering of Old Men (1983)

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A Louisiana Life: Ernest J. Gaines
A biographical article by Faith Dawson.

Ernest J. Gaines, Distinguished Author
A literary and biographical introduction to Gaines.

Perspectives in American Literature
Paul Reuben's site providing a list of primary and secondary materials and a substantive chronology/biography.

Secondary Sources