You are here

The Author

Ernest J. Gaines (b. 1933) is a world renowned novelist, short story writer, and teacher. He is among the most widely read and highly respected contemporary authors of African American fiction. Gaines was born in Pointe Coupee Parish in Louisiana. At age fifteen, he moved to California, joining his mother and stepfather there, because his Louisiana parish had no high school for African Americans.

After graduating high school and serving in the Army, Gaines enrolled in San Francisco State University where he began publishing stories in the university’s quarterly literary journal. These stories secured him a place in Stanford University’s graduate program for creative writing. After leaving Stanford, he settled in the San Francisco area.

In 1981, he accepted the position of Writer-in-Residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (formerly University of Southwestern Louisiana). Not long into his tenure, he published A Gathering of Old Men (1983) which was adapted for television. 1993 saw the publication of A Lesson Before Dying, which was also adapted for television in 1999 and is one of his most critically acclaimed novels.

Before retiring in 2004, Dr. Gaines won numerous awards including the Louisiana Humanist of the Year and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1993. In 2000, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal and was made a Chevalier (Knight) of the French Order of Arts and Letters.

His other awards include:

  •     Louisiana State University honorary degree 1987 
  •     Xavier University honorary degree 2005 
  •     University of Louisiana-Lafayette honorary degree 2008 
  •     Tulane University honorary degree 1995 
  •     Loyola University honorary degree 1995 
  •     Centenary College honorary degree 2000  
  •     James William Rivers Prize in Louisiana Studies 1998 
  •     Honorary Citizen of Lafayette certificate 1982   Lafayette,LA
  •     National Governors Association award plaque 2000
  •     Oliver-Sigur Humanitarian Service Award 2004   Louisiana Council on Human Relations
  •     Southern University Department of English plaque 1982 
  •     Citizens Action Council plaque 1993
  •     Universitas Colatensis honorary degree 2000 
  •     Elmira College honarary degree 2000 
  •     University of North Carolina-Ashville honorary degree 2007 
  •     Emory University honorary degree 2008 
  •     Universitas Brunensis honorary degree 1985 
  •     Whittier College honorary degree 1986 
  •     University of Miami honorary degree 1999 
  •     Savannah College of Arts and Design honorary degree 1994 
  •     Lewis and Clark College honorary degree 2001 
  •     St. Thomas University honorary degree 2001
  •     Distinguished Centennial Alumnus award 1999   San Francisco State University
  •     Arts Commission of the City and County of San Francisco award 1983
  •     Golden Plate Award 2001   American Academy of Achievement
  •     Fellowship of Southern Writers medal 1989 
  •     John Do Passos Prize for Literature announcement poster 1994 Longwood College

More About Ernest J. Gaines:

  • Bill Gates lists Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying as one of his two favorite books. Gates says, “It is powerfully written.” 
  • Oprah Winfrey chose A Lesson Before Dying for the Oprah Book Club.
  • President Clinton presented to Ernest J. Gaines the National Humanities Medal in 2000.
  • The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is required reading in France for high school national exams.
  • A Lesson Before Dying won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1994.
  • Ernest J Gaines’ works have been translated into 17 languages.
  • Ernest J Gaines was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, often called the Genius Award, in 1994.
  • A Lesson Before Dying has sold over 2 million copies.
  • Four of Gaines’ works have been made into movies.
  • The National Endowment for the Arts chose A Lesson Before Dying for its BIG READ program.
  • UL Lafayette has had a long association with Ernest J. Gaines as Writer-in-Residence and, since 2005, as Writer-in-Residence Emeritus.
  • In 2007, Baton Rouge Area Foundation established the Ernest J Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, an annual prize of $10,000 for the year’s best book of fiction by an African American author.
  • In 2008, UL Lafayette established the Ernest J Gaines Center.