Going Home

After 22 years as the writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, author Ernest J. Gaines looks forward to writing a new chapter in his life.
March 5, 2003

When Ernest J. Gaines was a kid growing up on the banks of False River in Oscar, he never dreamed that he would one day build his home alongside the big house of the plantation on which he was raised. In the town of Oscar, south of New Roads in Pointe Coupee Parish, the bare trees extend into the gray sky overhead. The open fields, once planted in cotton, corn and potatoes, are now planted in sugar cane and soybeans. It’s the land of Gaines’ fictional Bayonne, the setting of his stories depicting Louisiana early in the century, when black and white sharecroppers worked the land of River Lake Plantation.

Gaines looks out over the land. He’s a tall man, wearing his signature beret and an amulet around his neck. At 70 years old, he uses a cane whenever he can. In the last decade, his arthritis has become worse and it’s harder for him to get around. He’s soft-spoken, but his voice is deep. “This is my world,” he says. “This is my country. This is what I write about. This is my dream. This is my home.”

As a child, Gaines never dreamed he would move to California to continue his education or that he would be allowed into a public library. He never thought that he would write about this land or that he would spend his life telling the stories of the people who lived here. He had no idea that he would write eight books, that he would be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize twice, that he would be honored with the MacArthur Foundation’s genius grant or that the president of the United States would one day place the National Humanities Medal around his neck. He had no way of knowing that he would become the writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, an institution he would not have been allowed to attend as a student in his younger years. And he did not foresee the day he would return to False River to spend his golden years fishing with worms and minnows from his own pier, catching catfish, bream and sac-au-lait.

Gaines has begun another chapter of a life filled with one story after another. This year, he will retire from his writer-in-residence position and, if the weather cooperates, by the end of the year, he and his wife, Dianne, will move into their new home on False River.

The oldest of 12 children, Ernest James Gaines was born Jan. 15, 1933, on River Lake Plantation. His parents, Manuel and Adrienne Jefferson Gaines, worked in the fields on the plantation. His paternal grandfather was the yardman and his maternal grandmother the cook for the big house.

When his mother moved to New Orleans to find work, his maternal aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, cared for Gaines and his siblings. She was unable to walk, but got around the house and the yard by dragging herself. Gaines has said before that even though she was unable to walk, she taught him the importance of standing and “to strive, to keep striving. That was the only way I was going to make it in the world. That was her advice to me.”

Gaines was working in the fields by the age of 9, digging onions and potatoes, pulling corn and picking cotton for 50 cents a day. He also attended school at the Mount Zion Baptist Church, with 30 other black children. He would later describe his early education in his 1993 book, A Lesson Before Dying. By the age of 13, Gaines was writing and directing his own plays, which he staged in the church.

When he was a young child, his parents divorced and his mother later remarried Ralph Norbert Colar. Gaines says Colar “was Catholic, very disciplined, a hard worker” and credits him for seeing to it that Gaines continued his education.

In 1948, Gaines’ mother and stepfather moved to California where they found work. After settling in, they soon sent for the young Gaines to join them. The day he left the quarters, the local name for the old slave quarters of the plantation, he remembers that the old people brought him teacakes and fried chicken for his two-day train journey. All of his possessions fit into an old leather suitcase his uncle gave him. His aunt sat on the floor in the doorway of the house when he told her goodbye. Gaines walked away with his friends, out to the highway to wave down the Trailways bus. He did not know that he had seen his aunt for the last time, that he would never get another chance to tell her goodbye.

Gaines boarded the segregated train in New Orleans. It wasn’t until he reached Los Angeles that blacks and whites rode together in the same cars. When he arrived in Vallejo, Calif., where his stepfather was stationed as a merchant marine, Gaines remembers meeting children of different races and nationalities, something he had never seen back home. He got along with them all, and while he wasn’t a great athlete, he was usually chosen to play in their games.

One afternoon, at the age of 16, Gaines was hanging out on the corner with his buddies when his stepfather came home from work. He was told that he was going to get himself in trouble just hanging out, and that he needed to get off the street. He had three options – the movies, the YMCA or the library. He had no money for the movies, so he chose the YMCA. There were several activities at the center, but Gaines wasn’t interested in swimming, dancing or basketball.

He says, “Some guy asked me, ‘Would you like to box?’ So I got in the ring with this guy, and he just beat the hell out of me. After that, I went to the library. I couldn’t hang around (the YMCA) anymore because they would have laughed at me.”

Gaines began reading plays, novels and short stories. He looked for stories by black authors and about black people, but found none. The closest thing he found was 19th century Russian and French writers. He read Chekhov, de Maupassant, Cather, Turgenev and Steinbeck. He says they were the stories most similar to the people he knew back in Louisiana.

“If they wrote about peasant life, people who worked in the fields, I liked reading those stories,” he says. “I wasn’t reading too much of American writers at the time because I didn’t care for them, especially Southern writers and the depiction of blacks in their books. I didn’t care for that.”

At the age of 16, Gaines wrote his first novel, titled The Little Stream. After writing the story in longhand, he tore pieces of paper in half, typed the story single-spaced on the front and back of each page, and bound the book together just as a published book should look.

“I didn’t know too much about punctuation,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about indenting paragraphs. I didn’t know what I was doing. I wrote a single line on both sides, and I don’t know what kind of margin I had on either side.” After the book was rejected by a publisher, he burned the manuscript in the incinerator in his back yard. Ten years later, he would revisit the same idea of The Little Stream when he published it as the novel Catherine Carmier.

Gaines graduated from Vallejo High School and Vallejo Junior College, then served for two years in the Army, stationed in Guam. It was there that he won his first two awards for writing fiction, including a $25 prize in a short story contest. Under the GI Bill, he later enrolled at San Francisco State University to study English and creative writing.

In 1956, he published his first short story, “The Turtles,” in the first issue of the college’s literary magazine, Transfer. His second story, “Boy in the Double-Breasted Suit,” was published a year later in the same magazine. After graduating with a bachelor of arts in language arts, he was awarded the Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship at Stanford University.

Gaines realized that he needed to publish a novel if he was going to make his living as a writer. He worked as a shoe shiner, a cab driver, a dishwasher and a post office clerk. He wrote whenever possible. He also delivered the mail in an insurance office, where he would sneak into the bathroom to jot down a story, “A Long Day in November,” composed on 250 pieces of paper towels.

In 1962, Gaines intended to move to Mexico, but that fall, James Meredith became the first black to enter the University of Mississippi. “That was felt all over the world,” he says, “especially for a young black who wants to write and who’s writing about the South and staying away from the South.”

Inspired by Meredith’s courage, Gaines returned to Louisiana in January 1963 and lived with an aunt and uncle for six months in Baton Rouge. He says, “It was James Meredith going into Ole Miss that I’m sure saved my life, as well as my writing. I didn’t know whether I would succeed as a writer, had I not come to Louisiana in January of ’63 … If I had not come back to Louisiana at that time, I don’t know that I ever would have completed Catherine Carmier. If I had not completed Catherine Carmier, I don’t know what I would have done with my life.”

Gaines published Catherine Carmier in 1964, after revising it 12 times. “No writer worth his salt believes his first draft is worth publishing,” he says.

In 1967, he published Of Love and Dust, followed a year later by Bloodline, a collection of five short stories. Gaines also received the National Endowment for the Arts Study Award and began giving public readings of his work in 1967.

But Gaines did not garner widespread attention until 1971, when he published The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, the story of a 110-year-old woman told from her own point of view. The book became a best seller. Gaines says that readers were so convinced by the voice of Miss Jane Pittman that they did not realize she was his creation and not an actual person. The book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Three years later, the CBS network made it into a television movie, which received nine Emmy Awards. Gaines also received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Louisiana Library Association Award, the California Gold Medal and the Letters Award from the Black Academy of Arts and Letters. But he didn’t rest on his laurels.

Gaines began working on a novel titled The House and The Field. The book was the story of a mulatto, the son of a slave woman and the white owner of a plantation, who could pass for a white. The character runs away from the plantation with other slaves and ends up selling the others into bondage in order to pay his own gambling debts. Gaines abandoned the work after publishing the first chapter in The Iowa Review. He had grown tired of writing about slavery so soon after publishing The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and he was already working on a new story.

It took him seven years to write, but Gaines published In My Father’s House in 1978. Despite the amount of time and work it took him to complete, he says, “I don’t feel like it came off as I wished it had.” That same year, he spoke for the first time at the Deep South Writers Conference at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. Three years later, he became a visiting professor of English at the university.

A Gathering of Old Men was published in 1983 and was later made into a CBS television movie. Gaines was also named the university’s writer-in-residence. Local attorney Ray Mouton donated his home in the Arbolada subdivision to the university, with the stipulation that it would remain Gaines’ home for as long as he was a member of the English department faculty.

In 1993, Gaines published A Lesson Before Dying. The novel won the Best Fiction Award from the National Book Critics Circle, the Southern Writers Conference and the Louisiana Library Association. He was nominated again for the Pulitzer Prize and was awarded a genius grant of $355,000 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. But the most significant event in his life that year was his marriage to Dianne Saulney, a Miami attorney. Gaines had met Saulney, a New Orleans native, at the Miami International Book Fair in 1988, and they had courted and corresponded for five years before marrying.

Oprah’s Book Club chose A Lesson Before Dying as one of its selections in 1997. The daytime talk show host’s endorsement of the book sent it to the top of the best seller list, four years after its initial publication. Two years later, the book was made into an HBO movie, which won two Emmy Awards.

In 2000, Gaines received the National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton, and the city of Seattle began a program that would be duplicated in a dozen cities across the country, including Lafayette. Schools, colleges, public libraries and city halls chose A Lesson Before Dying to read and discuss on a citywide level. With the endorsement of entire cities, the book has continued to sell well over the course of the last decade.

Throughout his career, Gaines has had 50 awards and honors and a dozen honorary doctorates bestowed upon him. He has also received the Louisiana Center for the Book’s Writer of the Year Award, the National Governors’ Association Award for Distinguished Service in the Arts, the Louisiana Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Louisiana Writers Award.

For the last 22 years, Gaines has incorporated his tenets of discipline, work and clarity in his advanced creative writing course. Every fall semester at the university, about two dozen students and non-students apply for acceptance into the class. One must supply either a 20-page short story or a chapter from a novel for Gaines’ consideration. Only 12 students make the cut.

Each student submits two pieces of fiction, either short stories or chapters from a novel, during the semester. The class reads and critiques each piece. Each student reads a portion of his work to the class, followed by an hour-long discussion. Gaines adds his insight, going paragraph by paragraph if necessary, pointing out errors, omissions or ambiguities.

“Dr. Gaines is a stickler for clarity of writing, and he makes you think about what you are writing and whether it makes sense,” says Danny Smith, a doctoral candidate, teaching assistant and native of Marion. “This is a class that will improve your writing, not stoke your ego.”

Gaines also comments on the structure, conflict, characters, dialogue and action of each piece of work. The student who hears Gaines ask, “What does that mean?” knows that he has failed to convey his intentions to the reader. For Gaines, simplicity is the best policy.

Suzanne Synborski, originally from upstate New York, lives in Mamou as a freelance writer working on her master’s degree in literature and rhetoric at the university. She says the hallmark of Gaines’ work is his simplicity and clarity. “He tells important stories without hype or gimmicks,” she says. “As an instructor, Dr. Gaines is like his writing. He doesn’t spout complicated theory that usually has little or no use in the real world. He helps his students keep their feet on the ground.”

Oddly enough, Gaines says, “I don’t feel like I’m a teacher really. I’m a writer who’s written a few more books than my students have, and I can give them some advice. I always leave it up to my students to make that final decision. I just try to help them.” His advice to writers is always, “Read, read, read. Write, write, write.”

Gaines says the writer’s obligation is to tell a story and to entertain. He adds, “I think the writer should write about whatever he wishes to write about, and I think he should know what he’s writing about.” At the same time, Gaines doesn’t believe that the purpose of fiction is to serve as a podium for expressing political and social ideas. Instead, “through those characters, those things must come through. They must happen if the story is worth reading. Something has to come through.”

Dr. Darrell Bourque, the head of the university’s English department, says, “I don’t think his students ever forget that (Gaines) would not call himself a master, but he is a master. When he participates in the workshop, to a large extent, he participates as a fellow reader with the other students. And he has a tremendous amount of respect for the text that a student produces … He becomes a teacher with a really powerful impact on the students who study under him.”

For some students, the chance to study under Gaines is at first intimidating. Claire Lowry, a graphic artist at Lowry’s Kwik-Kopy Printing and an undergraduate majoring in general studies, says, “At first I was a little star-struck just to be sitting in the same room with one of the greats. I would have never thought I would have the nerve to make Dr. Gaines read any of my work. After the first couple of meetings, I relaxed.”

Some students become so comfortable with Gaines and his workshop that they re-apply to take the class. Edward G. Gauthier, an English and environmental science teacher at Carencro High School, has taken the class twice already and says he will apply for the class again this fall. He says Gaines is “a writer of force” who “writes and teaches with incredible clarity.” Mark Gremillion, a civil and environmental engineer, has also taken the class twice. He says the obvious reason for taking the class is the opportunity to study under Gaines. “His fiction is truer than most things you’ll read about Louisiana,” he says, “and you won’t find many people with a broader understanding of human nature or a simpler, more direct approach to telling a story. I don’t know of a better living writer.”

Bourque says that Gaines is in many ways “a star,” but that he wants nothing to do with any fanfare that may get in the way of his writing. He says, “He’s one of the most fully realized human beings that I know. Gaines tests himself over and over again. Part of him testing himself is in the writing, but part of him testing himself is in living as a human being. He’s immensely successful in both ways.”

It’s one thing to be an accomplished writer, but what does it mean to be a “a fully realized human being?”

Gaines says, “To me, a man, a woman, whatever, is someone who loves mankind. He cares for mankind, and he respects nature. I care for people, and I must care for nature. I care for trees and the waters and the plants and the earth and the birds and the insects and everything around me. You know, you have to, at times, destroy things in order to survive, like a rattlesnake. You’ve got to get rid of the rattlesnake. And I suppose in areas you have to destroy things, but I believe in respecting nature.

“I wish we could all get along, care for each other, help each other, support each other. That’s my idea of what living should be about, having the courage to do it. Most of us are such cowards that we’re afraid to stand up and believe in things. We’re afraid to go against our peers, our race or our family and to speak out.

“But you know, life is made up of balance. You’re always going to have evil in the world. You’re going to have good people, and you’re going to have evil people, no matter what the hell you do. And if you concentrate only on the evil, you are going to be destroyed by it. If you try to destroy evil in the world, you will be destroyed. I think that a good example is in Moby Dick, you know, Ahab going after Moby Dick. ‘I’m going to destroy this thing.’ Who’s destroyed? Ahab is destroyed.

“So you try to control it, and you try to help develop goodness in people. The world is always going to be made of good and bad, and who’s to say what is good and what is bad? I don’t know. That’s why I said I hate saying anything that can be quoted. Goethe once said that everything has been done. The problem is doing it all over again. Goethe would say things like that, and I believe in it. But, I would never say things like that.

“Yeah, I just try to write. I try to write in a way that anyone can read it. The writing is simply put, but I hope that the story has some meaning to it, that you can get something out of it, to improve one’s self, and yet, that’s not the purpose of it, the main objective to writing.

“A writer is nothing but a storyteller. A guy went to another little village or he’s traveling, walking across the world, the earth, with a little walking stick and enough food in his pack, and he tells a story so that somebody will give him another biscuit or a piece of cheese or something to eat. He entertained them while he was sitting there, starting out in these caves, millions of years ago. So they would start out and go from one village to another, one cave to another, tell a little story and move on.

“That’s all we are, just storytellers.”

It’s been 10 years since Gaines published A Lesson Before Dying. He’s been working on a new book titled The Man Who Whipped Children, but he doesn’t expect to have it completed any time soon. “I have five or six chapters,” he says, “but the energy is not there. The creative energy is not there. The thing that should go into the book is not there.”

Gaines admits that “if you’re a writer, you want to get back to your writing,” but writing is not the same thing as teaching. He seems satisfied with the prospects of the retired life, to be moving with his wife back out to the land of his work and the source of his inspiration.

Two years ago, the couple purchased six acres along False River Road. A trailer sits on the banks of the lake, and they plan to build their home on the other side of the highway that dissects the property. They hope to have the 4,000 square-foot, Acadian-style home completed by the end of the year.

Gaines is also moving the dilapidated Mount Zion Baptist Church, the schoolhouse of his childhood, into his back yard. He plans on remodeling it, turning half of it into his office and the other half into a meditation space for his wife. The church now sits alongside the main paved road into the quarters, a road that Gaines remembers when “it was all just dust” in a time when the small church “was the biggest place around.”

Gaines was born and raised in one of the houses, about “a dozen pecan trees down” from the church. It’s no longer standing. All that remains of the lives lived here are the church and two houses. One is hidden in a thicket of brush, and the other is on its way to the ground.

Behind his land, further down the road and past the quarters, lies the Mount Zion Baptist Church Cemetery. It’s an acre of land in the middle of the fields, nestled in a grove of tall and sturdy oak trees. Sixteen people, all descendants of the people who once worked the land, share ownership of the cemetery. Gaines, his wife and about 30 other people maintain the cemetery. Every year, they meet on All Saints’ Day to tend the graves and the grounds.

Gaines isn’t sure how many people are buried here. He guesses that hundreds have been laid to rest since the 19th century, even though only 40 to 50 of the graves are marked with tombstones. The wooden grave markers have decayed and disappeared over time. The newer tombstones are marked with the names of the families that once worked the land – Spooner, McVeigh, Hebert, Williams, Overstreet and Phillips.

Gaines points to an area of ground with his cane, stirring in a circular motion. “My aunt’s buried somewhere around here,” he says. There is no marker, only a spot of land firmly planted in his mind. When Augusteen Jefferson died, Gaines was living in California. “We were too poor to put a marker there when she died,” he says. “I was too poor. I couldn’t even come back to the funeral because we didn’t have any money.”

Gaines points to the spot where he and his wife plan to be buried, between two lone oak trees in the corner of the cemetery. He looks up into the trees, at the parting clouds overhead and the sun trying to fight its way into the day.

Sometimes, he likes to visit the cemetery with his dog, Didi. He sits on one of the concrete benches and thinks of the people who have come before him, who have lent their voices to his own, in recalling a land that still is, but a place and a time that are no more. “Without them,” he says, “I wouldn’t be anything.”

As he walks past the graves and the tombstones, steadying himself with his cane, he says of the cemetery, “I love it, as long as I’m standing up like this. I’m sure I’ll be at peace lying down here, but I’m not going to rush it.”

This article originally appeared in The Times of Acadiana.