The wrought-iron gates, monogrammed with the letter G, swing wide to admit the visitor. A puppy named Sam, a recent rescue, frolics down the long drive. It is a beautiful day in Oscar, along False River.
Ernest Gaines and his wife, Dianne, make visitors welcome to their home, built in a landscape rich in literary history — the same landscape where Gaines lived as a child.
The dean of Louisiana writers, Gaines is the creator of a body of work that will stand the test of time. From his first novel, “Catherine Carmier,” he was recognized as a major talent. Later would come “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” “A Gathering of Old Men,” “A Lesson Before Dying” and many others.
Gaines remembers with affection his first writing effort, when he was a teenager and his family was living in California. The tale was an early version of “Catherine Carmier.”
“It was back in 1949, I think,” he said. “My mother just had a baby boy — Michael, my little brother — and I looked after him while my mother worked. My stepfather was in the Merchant Marine. So I bought some paper, cut it in half, because that was book size. I got her to rent me a typewriter, a little portable Royal, and I typed with two fingers while Michael was asleep. I wrote on both sides of the paper because that’s how pages are printed. And I sent it to New York, and of course they sent it back, and I took it to the incinerator.
“About 10 years later, while I was at Stanford, I heard a critic give a lecture and say it’s hard for a young writer to publish short stories until he’s written a novel, and that day I quit writing short stories — I had to make some money some other way.
“The only way I knew to make a novel was the one I’d written earlier,” he said. “It took me about five years to rewrite that book.”
Devoted to his craft from the beginning, Gaines has been driven to make his mark.
“I would sacrifice everything in the world to be a writer,” he said. “No male in my family had gone beyond high school. I just knew that I had to do something. When I was a kid here, on this same place where we’re living now, I used to write letters for the old people or read them to them, because they could not write or read their letters. And I was the only one they called on to do those things — a little boy running up the road to do those things for them.
“I felt, very young, that I had to do something with my life, for my aunt who raised me, who was crippled and crawled on the floor all her life, crawled across the yard and into the vegetable garden. I had to do something to make her proud of me. I had the freedom to go out and write, and that’s why I chose to write.”
He was single-minded about it, delaying marriage until he turned 60, when he fell in love with Dianne Saulney, a distinguished Miami lawyer. For a time, the couple divided their time among homes in California, Florida and Louisiana, but now their lives are centered on Oscar.
The couple purchased Mount Zion Baptist Church and moved it to their backyard. The lovely, serene space was once a bustling schoolroom, which Gaines attended through sixth grade.
Nearby, the Gaineses are focused on restoring the old Mount Zion River Lake Plantation Cemetery.
“That is the most important thing for me to do with my life,” Gaines said. “The people I knew on this plantation as a child did not own anything. They were just living here, but didn’t even own the homes they lived in.
“I feel that what we try to do is give them that little six feet of land. That is the purpose of my life, for as long as I can. … I would not be the person I am today without the people who are buried back there. I’m trying to pay back a little something for what they’ve given me.”
At 83, Gaines is reaping the rewards of a long and distinguished career.
He was the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Louisiana Writer Award. And he received that great contemporary seal of approval: “A Lesson Before Dying” was an Oprah Book Club pick.
His books have been adapted for the screen as well, and “A Lesson Before Dying” is one of the most-selected titles for One Book One City reading initiatives across the country.
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette is home to the Ernest J. Gaines Center, which is the repository for his papers and hosts exhibits and scholarly research.
After a colleague’s suggestion met with approval from the university, Gaines went out to California and rescued footlockers full of his papers from storage. Some of his books are at the center as well, with more materials to come. And the center has just gotten a grant for an archivist. “I’m very pleased with it,” Gaines said.
Another honor is the Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence, presented each year by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. Previous winners have included such rising African-American literary stars as Olympia Vernon, Ravi Howard, Jeffery R. Allen, Victor Lavalle, Dinaw Mengestu, Stephanie Powell Watts, Attica Locke and Mitchell S. Jackson.
This year the award goes to New Orleans native T. Geronimo Johnson for his satirical novel, “Welcome to Braggsville,” about a group of college students who disrupt a Civil War re-enactment.
“It’s interesting,” Gaines said. “I like meeting the young people, discussing literature with them. It’s wonderful and informative. And they receive the award plus $10,000, which is a lot of money at that stage.”
He sums up his philosophy of writing thusly: “I believe novels should be written for entertainment. I don’t believe in getting on a soapbox … Twain once said that humor should not teach and preach but that the end result should be both. That’s what I try to do.
“I’ve met a lot of people who feel that they know Miss Jane — a Chinese Miss Jane or a Russian Miss Jane, an old woman who is maybe not book learned but very intelligent,” he said, chuckling a bit. “People always ask me, ‘Are you sure she was not based on any one person?’ I may not have met a Miss Jane but I know a thousand Miss Janes.
“Everything has been done, the trouble is to do it again. We can always write about our little corner of the world. No matter how much Goethe and Tolstoy and Shakespeare knew, they didn’t know Oscar, Louisiana.
“And that’s where I come in.”
Susan Larson hosts the weekly radio program, The Reading Life, on WWNO, New Orleans’ NPR affiliate; she is the author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.