Renowned author Ernest J. Gaines dies at 86

Ernest J. Gaines wrote “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and “A Lesson Before Dying.


Ernest J. Gaines died in his sleep of cardiac arrest at his home in Oscar, Louisiana on Nov. 6, according to a statement from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. Gaines was 86.

He was the author of “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” which was adapted into a 1974 TV movie that received nine Emmy awards. 

His 1993 book, “A Lesson Before Dying,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and is a part of high school curricula across the nation. He also was Writer-in-Residence Emeritus at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. 

The Gaines Award 

In 2007, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation established the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.

The Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence was established to honor the literary work of rising African-American authors while recognizing Gaines’ contribution to the literary world. 

The Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence will continue as his legacy. It will be presented to a new awardee on Jan. 30, 2020. 

‘A Louisiana treasure’

The native of Pointe Coupee Parish in Louisiana was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature and won numerous other awards for his literary achievement, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the MacArthur Prize, also known as “the genius grant” for creativity.  

“Ernest Gaines was a Louisiana treasure,” said Baton Route Area Foundation President and CEO John Davies. “He will be remembered for his powerful prose that placed the reader directly into the story of the old South, as only he could describe it. We have lost a giant and a friend.” 

First novel at 17 

Gaines wrote his first novel at the age of 17 and returned to Louisiana after living in California, building his home on former property of the plantation that inspired his stories. 

In a 2007 interview that ran in the foundation’s quarterly magazine,  Currents, Gaines said of his ancestors, “I often sit on my back porch at night and think about how wonderful it would be if they were there sitting with me in rocking chairs and drinking coffee and talking.

“It’s the sort of thing I think about often, because this is where they were, right here, my grandparents’ grandparents. This is what makes me proud of the place.” 

He is survived by his wife, Dianne Saulney.

Information from the Baton Route Area Foundation was used in this report.


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