National Medal winner Ernest Gaines: “spare eloquence … with a classic dimension”


Wheelchair-bound author at the White House ceremony earlier this week.

Another local connection with this year’s National Medal of Arts recipients: former Stanford Stegner Fellow Ernest Gaines is the only novelist on the National Medal of Arts list this year – he already received the National Medal for the Humanities in 2000.  (Looking at past recipients, poets and novelists seem to be awarded regularly in both categories. How many are awarded both?) The government language is characteristically bland and generic:  he “is recognized for his contributions as an author and teacher. Drawing deeply from his childhood in the rural South, his works have shed new light on the African-American experience and given voice to those who have endured injustice.”

A_Lesson_Before_Dying_novelWell, yes, one could say that.  One could also say, as Marcia Gaudet of the University of Louisiana’s Ernest Gaines center did: “His literature is based on memory of the past, and it’s somewhat different from that of many African-American writers of the mid-20th century, who based their work on erasure of that past and moving their characters to Northern urban settings. Gaines was one of the first to go back and look at what the hardships were.” Or as William Styron wrote about Gaines’ last book, A Lesson Before Dying. “This is a painful story told with spare eloquence, and the resonance it creates long after one’s reading gives it a classic dimension.”

Gaines was born 80 years ago on the River Lake Plantation near the small town of Oscar, in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. According to the Academy of Achievement:

His ancestors had lived on the same plantation since slavery, remaining after emancipation to work the land as sharecroppers. Gaines and his family lived in the houses, much expanded, that had once served as slave quarters. His parents separated when he was eight; the strongest adult influence in his childhood was a great aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, crippled from birth, who crawled from kitchen to the family’s garden patch, growing and preparing food, and caring for him and for six of his brothers and sisters.

“I was raised by a lady that was crippled all her life but she did everything for me and she raised me,” he wrote. “She washed our clothes, cooked our food, she did everything for us. I don’t think I ever heard her complain a day in her life. She taught me responsibility towards my brother and sisters and the community.”

The account goes on:

The only school for African American children in the district was conducted in a single room of the black church. School was open for less than half the year; from the age of nine, Ernest Gaines and the other children were sent to labor alongside their elders in the fields, harvesting vegetables and cotton. Pointe Coupee Parish offered no public high school to its black citizens. For three years, Gaines attended St. Augustine’s School, a segregated Catholic school in the parish seat at New Roads, Louisiana.

“What I miss today more than anything else – I don’t go to church as much anymore – but that old-time religion, that old singing, that old praying which I love so much. That is the great strength of my being, of my writing,” said Gaines.

His family moved to Vallejo when he was 15, and his stepfather sent him to the public library to keep him out of trouble.  That was the perfect place for him.  He fell in love with books, especially those 19th century Russian novels that tell of the feudal tradition that continued in the countryside.  Why did no one tell of the equivalent stories of the life of African Americans in the rural South? A writer was born.

Eventually, he became a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing Program at Stanford. He wrote The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying. The last received a National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1993 – the same year he received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”

He lives in Louisiana, in a great house that he and his wife built on land that was once part of River Lake Plantation, where his ancestors labored for generations.

See NEA “Big Read” video below:

One Response to “National Medal winner Ernest Gaines: “spare eloquence … with a classic dimension””

  1. America, Ethnicity, Race and the Future | Franksummers3ba's Blog Says:

    […] is based on memory of the past, and it’s somewhat different from that of many African-American writers of the mid-20th century, who based their work on erasure of that past and moving their characters […]