Ernest Gaines, Author of ‘Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,’ Dies at 86

Ernest J. Gaines (YouTube/ Larry Bridges)

Ernest J. Gaines, a novelist best known for writing The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, has died. He was 86.

Gaines passed away peacefully at his home in Oscar, Louisiana, on Nov. 5, according to an obituary published online by the Ernest J. Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Over his lifetime, Gaines penned nearly a dozen novels and several short stories centering on the African American experience and the lives of Cajuns and Creoles living in the rural South.

In 1971, he published The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, the story of a 110-year-old woman born into slavery who lived to witness the civil rights movement.

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The novel was adapted into a 1974 TV movie by the same name starring Cicely Tyson. The film won nine Emmy Awards, including best directing in a drama, best writing, outstanding achievement in costume design, outstanding achievement in makeup, and best lead actress in a drama for Tyson.

Gaines’ other notable works included A Lesson Before Dying, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1993.

Born on a plantation in rural Oscar, Louisiana in 1933, Gaines has said in interviews he attended school about five months out of the year as a child, and spent the rest of the year picking cotton in the fields.

He was raised by an aunt. But left the South at age 15, and moved to Vallejo, California, with his mother and stepfather. Gaines said in the below interview with filmmaker Larry Bridges that he “was not allowed to go into a library” in Louisiana, because they were “for whites only.”

He visited his first library in California and it changed his life. “I discovered in the library, lives of different people other than my own,” he explained.

He went on to earn a degree in literature at San Francisco State University. After joining the army, he won a writing fellowship and earned a Masters of Fine Arts from Stanford. Years later, Gaines returned to Louisiana, where he spent the rest of his life.

In 1981, he began working at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette until he retired in 2010. After he retired, the school established the Ernest J. Gaines Center, an international research center and archive dedicated to preserving his works.

The university described Gaines as an “inspiration to generations” in its obituary.

The late author is survived by his wife, Dianne Gaines, who was by his side when he passed away.

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