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Ernest J. Gaines was born on January 15, 1933 on the River Lake Plantation located in Oscar, Louisiana. His parents, Manuel and Adrienne Gaines, worked on the plantation and Ernest also started working there he was just eight. By the time he was nine, he was digging potatoes for fifty cents a day. He is the oldest of eight brothers and three sisters. A major influence in his early life was his Aunt Augusteen. She was disabled, having no legs, so she took care of the children while the other adults worked. Her strength and determination influenced the young Ernest, such that strong older Black women have frequently played an important role in his fiction.
In 1948 at the age of fifteen, Gaines moved with his family to Vallejo California. In California, Gaines was able to receive a more thorough education than had been possible in the South. He began to read extensively, feeling particularly drawn to the Russian novelists, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, whom he felt taught him to write about rural people. After high school, Gaines enrolled in Vallejo Junior College and also served for two years in the army. He published his first story in 1956 in a small San Francisco magazine, Transfer. He graduated from San Francisco State College in 1957. In the same year, he won a Wallace Stegner Fellowship to study creative writing at Stanford during the academic year of 1958–1959.
Since graduating from Stanford, Gaines has devoted himself fully to the craft of writing. He states that he writes "five hours a day, five days a week." His dedication has paid off. Gaines published his first novel Catherine Carmier in 1964. Seven other novels have followed: Of Love and Dust 1967; Bloodline 1968; A Long Day in November 1971; The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman 1973; In My Father's House 1978; A Gathering of Old Men 1983; and A Lesson Before Dying 1993. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Lesson Before Dying, and A Gathering of Old Men were also made into television movies, thereby popularizing Gaines's work. Gaines currently is a professor at the University of Southwestern Louisiana.
Ernest Gaines's work is best categorized as Southern fiction and African- American fiction. Gaines's novels and short stories focus on the people, folklore, and dialects of rural Louisiana. The setting of his novels is always Bayonne Louisiana: a mythical region that embodies the Louisianan culture, much in the way that Faulkner's mythical county of Yoknapatawpha did for Mississippi. Many textual references to Faulkner can be seen in Gaines's writing such as the common first person narration and the use of Southern dialects. Gaines does acknowledge that Faulkner heavily influenced his work and also has cited the influence of another great Southern stylist, Hemingway.
Gaines's work also frequently presents motifs common to the African-American tradition. Oral storytelling and folklore, two elements that have dominated African-American literature since the days of slavery, frequently appear in his novels. Additionally, by setting his tales in old plantations, Gaines creates neoslave narratives that retell post Civil War African-American history from the perspective of one character. By using these personalized tales, Gaines seeks to record their previously unrecorded experiences. His efforts to include African- American stories in American history can be compared to similar efforts by Toni Morrison and John Edgar Wideman. Gaines's interest in the issue of Black masculinity is another issue shared by many other African-American writers, such as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and James McPherson. All in all, Gaines has never sought to be known as a "Black writer" and even avoided being placed in the more militant Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. Still, his devotion to the people and cultures of his youth necessarily bring up both Southern and African-American themes and has made him a formidable writer of recent times.