Ernest J. Gaines first gained fame with the release of his 1971 novel, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” which was adapted into a film starring Cicely Tyson. The Louisiana novelist died this past Tuesday of natural causes.
Ernest James Gaines was born January 15, 1933 in Oscar, La., the eldest of 12 children to his sharecropping parents. He moved to Vallejo, Calif. at 15 to join his mother and stepfather, utilizing the freedom there to visit libraries and write, something he couldn’t freely do in the rural South.
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After attending Vallejo Junior College and serving in the U.S. Army, Gaines attended and graduated from San Francisco State College in 1957. He embarked on a professional writing career in 1960.The first of his novels, 1965’s “Catherine Carmier,” was released and earned some acclaim but it was with “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” that he became a literary superstar.
Another notable novel of Gaines’ was 1993’s “A Lesson Before Dying,” which was made into an HBO movie, winning an Emmy in 1999 for Outstanding Movie Made For Television. All of Gaines’ novels were set in Louisiana, giving them a sense of realism and historical detail that made some believe that Pittman was a real-life person.
Gaines was the Writer-In-Residence for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette from 1981 to 2005, after which he retired from public life and writing, returning to his hometown to live out his days.
He is survived by his wife, Dianne Saulney Gaines, four stepchildren, and nine siblings.
Gaines was 86.
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