Ernest J. Gaines was born on January 15, 1933 on the River Lake Plantation 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, to whom The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is partially dedicated. 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, and, as a result, strong older black women, such as Jane Pittman, 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 says 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.

Earnest Gaines originally wanted to write The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman as a folk biography, with a "group of people telling of this one person's life" for over 100 years of history. Gaines attempted the tale in that manner but found that it seemed "untrue," so he proceeded to write the novel from her point of view. Miss Jane's oral story falls into the tradition of the slave narrative, which is a pattern common to the African-American tradition, since the days of slavery. Slave narratives essentially were stories of enslavement, suffering, endurance, and escape. Some of the most famous slave narratives are Frederick Douglass's autobiography and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. By using a personalized narrative, Gaines is able to describe one hundred years of African-American history, as experienced by Miss Jane. Miss Jane's history offers a broader version of American history than the ones often included in textbooks, since the personal experiences of blacks have often been ignored. The oral form of Miss Jane's tale also allows him to explore the textual realm of Southern dialects and the often circular nature of the oral style itself. The novel also brings up several themes common to Gaines's other work, such as the struggle for black manhood, the violent legacy of slavery, and the difficult of freeing oneself from one's history.