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Ernest J. Gaines

Ernest J. Gaines
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Reading Level
     edHelper's suggested reading level:   grades 9 to 12
     Flesch-Kincaid grade level:   10.2

     challenging words:    understanding, unvoiced, hamlet, maternal, reading, self-respect, writing, dignity, relationship, determination, numerous, impact, sharecropper, scholarship, jury, professor
     content words:    Ernest J., Pointe Coupee Parish, River Lake Plantation, Although Gaines, Augusteen Jefferson, Miss Jane Pittman, Point Coupee Parish, World War II, San Francisco State University, James Joyce

Ernest J. Gaines
By Jamie Kee

1     American author Ernest J. Gaines was born on January 15, 1933, in Oscar, a hamlet in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. He was a fifth generation sharecropper to be born on the River Lake Plantation, a setting in many of his stories. Although Gaines was born after the end of slavery, he still grew up in an impoverished setting, literally living in the old slave quarters of the plantation. Little did he know that his life would dramatically change.
2     Gaines was the oldest of twelve children raised by their maternal aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, who was later the model for his character, Miss Jane Pittman. Gaines was picking cotton at age nine and only attended school approximately six months out of the year. His schooling took place in a one-room church in the old slave quarters of the plantation, where he attended six years of elementary school. He was later educated at a Catholic school. During this time period, there was no high school in Point Coupee Parish for people of color. In the 1940s, it was even against the law for people of color to enter public libraries. Since he wanted to continue his education, Gaines moved to Vallejo, California, at the age of fifteen to live with his mother and stepfather who had left Louisiana during World War II. Gaines was sixteen before he ever visited a public library. According to Gaines, "I discovered the Russians, Turgenev, Gogol, who spoke of peasants. Then the French, Flaubert, Maupassant, Zola. But no one was telling me the story of my people." At this point in his life, Gaines, as a teenager, decided to write.
3     Gaines was able to continue his education at San Francisco State University. He studied a number of writers, such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. Gaines studied creative writing while attending college and also published his first short story, "The Turtles." Gaines earned his degree in 1957. He worked hard and eventually won a creative writing scholarship to Stanford University. In 1981 Gaines became a visiting professor of creative writing at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now known as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Two years later he became a writer-in-residence.

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