“Question everything. Every stripe, every star, every word spoken. Everything.” ― Ernest J. Gaines (1933-2019)”
Novelist Ernest J. Gaines passed away on November 5 at the age of 86. He was best known for his novel A Lesson Before Dying, which was acclaimed as a classic in 1993, the same year Gaines received a MacArthur Genius grant. He would go on to receive honorary doctoral degrees from five colleges and universities. In 2013, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts from President Obama.
Gaines was born on a plantation in New Roads, Louisiana during an era of Jim Crow segregation in America. Louisiana’s particularly violent segregation laws extended even to libraries. Gaines did not enter a library until he moved to California with his mother at the age of 16. His reading interests and literary influences became electric and diverse, and as a young adult he was especially interested in 19th century Russian writers – Checkhov, Tolstoy, and Turgenev.
Ernest Gaines made Louisiana and its life and people a center of his storytelling, which he saw as contributing to important missives in literature. Novels he read were “not describing my people, my aunt, my brothers or my friends whom I played ball and marbles with. I did not see me.”
At Norwich Public Library, we celebrate the work of Ernest Gaines and his influences and peers.
Books by Ernest J. Gaines
A lesson before dying. “‘A Lesson Before Dying’ took seven years. ‘I work five days a week, just like a regular job. I get up in the morning, do a little exercise, eat a little breakfast. I’m at my desk by nine in the morning, work until three with a little break for lunch,'” (quote via NYTimes)
The autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. “In 1968, when I was writing ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,’ my friends said, ‘Why write about a 110-year-old lady when all of this is going on now?’ And I said, ‘I think she’s going to have something to say about it.'” (quote via NYTimes)
Great works by Russian writers
Fathers and sons / Ivan Turgenyev. Gaines was inspired by the Russian classicist’s treatment of land and landscape.
The death of Ivan IIynch and other stories / Leo Tolstoy. Gained credits Tolstoy and other Russian writers with helping compress the events of a singular day into narrative.
Contemporaries of Ernest Gaines
Going for a beer: selected short fictions / Robert Coover (available via Overdrive).
Elbow Room / James Alan McPherson (available via an interlibrary loan request).