Ernest James Gaines was born January 15, 1933, on River Lake Plantation in Oscar, a small town in Pointe Coupee Parish, near New Roads, Louisiana. The oldest of twelve children, he was raised by his great-aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, who provided the inspiration for Miss Jane Pittman, as well as other strong black female characters, such as Miss Emma and Tante Lou in Lesson. Gaines' birthplace serves as the model for his fictional world of Bayonne and St. Raphael Parish. With the exception of his fourth novel, In My Father's House, all of Gaines' fictional work is set in Bayonne. Although he has spent much of his life since age fifteen in San Francisco, he writes exclusively about life in the South. He is perhaps best known for his 1971 novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which was made into a TV movie and won several Emmys. In May 1999, HBO debuted its made-for-television movie of A Lesson Before Dying.
Growing up in Louisiana and attending rural schools, Gaines began working in the fields, earning fifty cents a day, when he was eight years old. In 1945, he started attending St. Augustine Middle School for Catholic African-American children, in nearby New Roads, Louisiana, and became active in staging plays for the local church. Gaines left Louisiana in 1948 to join his mother and stepfather in Vallejo, California. In 1949, he wrote an early version of his novel Catherine Carmier and submitted it to a New York publisher, who rejected it. Following high school graduation in 1951, he attended and graduated from Vallejo Junior College (1953). He then served two years in the United States Army.
Gaines is a graduate of San Francisco State College (now University) and pursued advanced studies at Stanford University. He holds several honorary degrees and has received numerous literary awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Louisiana Library Association Award, the Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, or "genius" award. He is a member of the National Academy of Arts and Letters and the Chevalier Order of Arts and Letters, France's highest literary honor. His works have been translated into several languages, including French, Japanese, Chinese, German, Norwegian, and Russian.
Although Gaines resists being categorized as a "black" or "Southern" writer, he believes that "much of our [African-American] history has not been told; our problems have been told, as if we have no history." Consequently, his novels provide a chronicle of American history from a black (Afrocentric) perspective. A recurring theme throughout Gaines' fiction is the search for dignity and masculine identity in a hostile, racist environment. As he points out in an interview, "The major conflict in my work is when the black male attempts to go beyond the line that is drawn for him." Although he consistently celebrates the pride and dignity of African Americans, he has often been criticized by black writers who feel that his works do not adequately portray the harsh realities of black life. During the late 1960s, at the height of the Black Arts/Black Power movement, Gaines was severely criticized by Black Power advocates for refusing to become emotionally involved in the Civil Rights movement. Convinced that "a writer should be as detached as a heart surgeon is from his work," Gaines refused to be swayed by his critics. In a 1993 interview, reflecting on that turbulent era, he remarked, "When Bull Connor turned the hoses on the marchers, I just said to myself, 'Write a better paragraph.'"