Ernest J. Gaines

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 born on the River Lake Plantation, a setting in many of his stories. Although Gaines was born after the end of slavery, he grew up in the old slave quarters of the plantation. Little did he know how dramatically his life would change.

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.

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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