POINTE COUPEE PARISH, La. (WAFB) - Author, Ernest J. Gaines, passed away at the age of 86 on Tuesday, Nov. 5, officials with the Pointe Coupee Parish Coroner’s Office confirmed.
Gaines has written several award-winning novels, including A Lesson Before Dying (1993) and Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971). His work has received critical acclaim and is routinely included in academic curricula.
Visitation will be held Friday, Nov. 15 from 4 to 6 p.m. at Hall Davis & Sons Funeral Services, located at 9348 Scenic Hwy. in Baton Rouge. A memorial will be held at the same location Saturday, Nov. 16 from 12 to 1 p.m. with a service to follow.
New Roads Mayor Cornell Dukes says the city is in the process of planning a tribute for Gaines. Those details will be shared once available.
“He was very special to us. He meant a lot to us,” Dukes said.
Dukes says Gaines used to attend many community events in New Roads.
“His novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, was the first neo-slave narrative and was required reading in French schools,” reads a statement released by the Earnest J. Gaines Center. “A Lesson before Dying spent time on top of several literary best-seller lists and Oprah Winfrey’s 1997 book club.”
Gaines was born in Oscar, Louisiana on Jan. 15, 1933. During his teens, his family moved to California because he couldn’t attend high school or junior high school in his hometown. He went on to attended San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University) and then Stanford University for his Masters of Fine Arts.
The immense legacy left behind by the literary icon is nothing short of inspiring.
“I read books and read books and read books and when I didn’t find me or my own people in those books, it was then that I tried to write,” he said in a previous interview with WAFB.
His highly regarded literary works earned him national recognition and a place in the hearts and minds of readers across the globe, but it was his home in Pointe Coupee Parish and all her beauty that truly served as his muse.
“I own six acres of land and I think they are the most beautiful six acres of land in the world,” said Gaines.
Growing up in the old slave quarters of Riverlake Plantation, he later lived on the same property he once worked. He left that land only once in his life, at a time when the place he so dearly loved did not quite have the same fondness for him.
“I could not go to a junior high school or a high school or the library in Pointe Coupee Parish," said Gaines. "I could not go to any and there was nothing there for blacks.”
From national awards to having his nine novels and short stories translated into 14 different languages, he’s truly done it all, including having his work featured atop Oprah Winfrey’s book club in 1997. Gaines was formally educated at Stanford University and lived in California for a time before returning home and getting involved with the creative writing program at the University of Louisiana Lafayette. He spent roughly 20 years there eventually serving as the writer in residence.
Much of his writing draws from rural Louisiana, however, in an interview conducted with WAFB’s Graham Ulkins, he explains why he maintained such an interest in the Bayou State.
“We are on six acres of land and I think they are the most beautiful six acres of land in the world,” he said.
In 1981, Gaines began working at the University of Louisiana Lafayette where he served in the Creative Writing department.
“Ernest Gaines once said he wanted his epitaph to read: ‘He was a good man who wrote well.’ And indeed he was – but to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, he was far more,” said Dr. Joseph Savoie, University of Louisiana at Lafayette president. "He was a literary giant who found his muses among the sugar cane fields of his native Pointe Coupee Parish, and who shared those stories with readers around the globe.
“He was an approachable, yet demanding, teacher who for a quarter century as a professor and writer-in-residence attracted aspiring writers to the University and helped them find their own inspirations,” Savoie continued. “He was a believer in the power of words to inspire unflinching, honest conversations about painful corners of our collective past.”
Gaines passed away from natural causes at his beautiful home in Pointe Coupee Parish. His wife, Dianne, was by his side.
Governor John Bel Edwards released the following statement about Gaines’ passing:
“It is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to Ernest J. Gaines, a native Louisianan who 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. Born in poverty in Pointe Coupee, Ernest would go on to author 10 novels and numerous short stories, to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and win the National Book Critics Circle Award for his acclaimed novel ‘A Lesson Before Dying.’ He was a writer in residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette for more than 20 years. Earlier this year, Donna and I had the chance to visit with Ernest and his wife after a Sunday drive. It’s a memory we will both cherish as part of our long friendship. Please join us in elevating him, his wife and his family in your prayers.”
While he may no longer be with us, his mark on the world of literature and in the lives of those who knew him will live on for generations to come.