I was fortunate to know Ernest J. Gaines, the novelist whose storied career we celebrate in mourning his death at 86. A gentleman to his marrow, Gaines had the Great Writer gravitas. One on one, Ernie melded kindness, wit and charm.
His evocation of injustice in the pre-civil rights South, “A Lesson Before Dying” will have long reach, akin to that of the Russian writers, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Pushkin, whose works he oft-cited as early influences.
Writers talk books; yet in the dozen or so conversations we had, Ernie thrived on the topic of music just as much. How grand that jovial laugh at Ernie K-Doe’s sardonic line, “the worst person I know,” in “Mother-in-Law.” He was a student of the mini-stories in songlines.
“I think I have learned as much about writing about my people by listening to blues and jazz and spirituals as I have learned by reading novels,” he wrote in an essay.
“The understatements in the tenor saxophone of Lester Young, the crying, haunting, forever searching sounds of John Coltrane, and the softness and violence of Count Basie’s big band — all have fired my imagination as much as anything in literature. But the rural blues, maybe because of my background, is my choice of music.”
We corresponded before meeting on Sept. 22, 1978, the date he inscribed in my copy of his earlier classic, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” We talked, unhurried, over coffee at the Deep South Writers Festival in Lafayette. (He would subsequently become writer in residence at ULL.) As a nonfiction author, I was brooding over a novel, getting thumbs-down on Manhattan Island.
Gaines nodded. “Rejections. I’ve known those.” He mentioned turn-downs of his early fiction, a long struggle through failure to discover the right balance of characters and plot. To that candor he added gentle wisdom: “Keep working; keep working.” From an author so esteemed, it was a gift of solidarity.
Ernest Gaines’ life was a work of art.
Born in sharecroppers’ quarters behind the False River plantation, the boy wrote letters for old folk. “I learned to write what I thought they would like to say and write it fast,” he noted decades later. Augusteen Jefferson, his nurturing aunt, was crippled; people gathered around her. The boy listened.
Gaines moved to California at 15, gaining access to a library. After years at San Francisco State, and grad school in writing at Stanford, he began traveling back to native ground, “moving farther and farther back into the past,” he later wrote. Capturing that past became his life’s work.
When “A Lesson Before Dying” appeared in 1993, I interviewed him at “the old place” of his youth on False River.
The outhouses were gone, and many of the shacks. Poverty still gripped the area, but plumbing and electricity had come. “My grandmother’s house had a faucet on the road, and we’d go draw the water and bring it back to the house,” he said in a distant tone.
We entered the graveyard of flowers over sunken headstones. His aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, a major influence on the character of Miss Jane Pittman, was long deceased. “Where is she buried?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
I asked if he was offended that the woman so pivotal to his upbringing lay in an unmarked grave.
“No,” he replied, gazing at a profusion of yellow blossoms. “She’s there, still a part of me, with the others.”
With the rewards of his career, Gaines purchased a large swath of land at the old place, reversing Thomas Wolfe’s notion that you can’t go home again. Gaines built a spacious house and moved a forgotten country church onto the grounds, reclaiming a physical world as he had done with the written word.
His life was a testament to those “others,” his aunt and the elders for whom the boy wrote letters, their lives and memory secured in time through the literature Ernest Gaines achieved. He becomes a part of us and will be as long as people read.
A memorial is scheduled for Nov. 11 at 5 p.m. at the Ernest J. Gaines Center, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Library, 1100 E. St. Mary Blvd.
Jason Berry is the author most recently of “City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300.”