Ernest J. Gaines (1933 - 2019): A Tribute

By Marcia Gaudet


Louisiana author Ernest J. Gaines passed away unexpectedly at his home in Oscar, Louisiana, on November 5, 2019. He was 86. His brilliant portrayals of African American and Creole culture in southern Louisiana from the Civil War to the Civil Rights era have made him an acclaimed and greatly beloved writer. He was the author of ten books, including The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson Before Dying. He was Writer-in-Residence Emeritus at University of Louisiana Lafayette, a MacArthur Fellow, a recipient of the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of the Arts, a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the government of France, and a National Book Critics Circle Award winner. In 2007, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation established the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, and in 2008, UL Lafayette established the Ernest J. Gaines Center.

Ernest Gaines. Photo: David Humphreys.

Ernest Gaines had been actively engaged in the weeks and days before his death. He had attended a lecture at the Gaines Center and hosted the annual cemetery beautification day at Mount Zion River Lake Cemetery the week before he died. Always a sports fan, he had watched Monday night football the night before. His brother Michael had been visiting from California the week-end before, and he described the wonderful visit they had, sitting around the table, talking, laughing, and as always, telling stories. Gaines has said that he saw himself as a storyteller, someone who tried to put down on paper "the sound of my people talking."

Because of Gaines's use of storytelling, oral tradition, and folklore in his fiction, folklorists have been particularly drawn to his work. Many articles and books on Gaines's fiction have focused on his use of folk narrative, folk belief, traditional religion, folk humor, foodways, folk music and the blues, and folk heroes and heroines. He has said that he was influenced by traditional African American music, particularly the blues, something he discusses in his book Mozart and Leadbelly (2005).

When I asked him about the influence of folklore on his writing in a personal interview in 1982, Gaines said: "You know, I'm not really sure what folklore is . . . I try to tell things honestly, the way it really is. I try to tell a good story, but I want to show the people as they really are" (Gaudet 1984, 9). Later, in a 1986 interview when I asked him about the role of folklore and folk traditions in his writing, he responded, "To me, if you've been accustomed to it, it's not folklore. It's just part of your life . . . it's not folklore to the people it's happening to at the time. Hell, it's reality to the people it's happening to at the time" (Gaudet and Wooton 78-79). Ernest Gaines certainly knew and understood "the reality" of the people and the culture he wrote about so beautifully. That reality included the devastating effects of racism and poverty, but also the ability to survive with dignity. His work shows the importance of personal responsibility as well as the role of music, food, religion, and humor in that culture. He presented it so well that his works of fiction give us a record of a time and place that we strive to get in ethnographic studies. He accomplished the difficult task of being both a tradition bearer and the recorder/interpreter for the imagined landscape of his fiction.

Gaines had a long connection with the Louisiana Folklore Society. He became an honorary member in 1988 when he presented a reading and talk at the annual meeting in Lafayette. Articles on his fiction have been featured in Louisiana Folklore Miscellany several times (Gaudet 1990, Gaughan 1995, Ramsay 1995, Morrison 2016, and Mason 2018), and Gaines's tribute to the late Milton Rickels, a former LFS president and editor, was published in the 1998 Miscellany. Gaines also presented a reading at the 1995 American Folklore Society meeting in Lafayette. His reading of "My Grandpa and the Haint" was wonderfully spirited and funny, with so much laughter from the audience that Gaines sometimes started laughing as well.

Gaines spent the first fifteen years of his life living in the plantation quarter on River Lake Plantation, Oscar, Louisiana, and he spent the last fifteen years of his life in the house he and his wife, Dianne Saulney Gaines, built on former River Lake Plantation land. They had purchased the land from one of the plantation heirs and built their home there, facing False River. Though he left us much too soon, he would have had an appreciation of this balance and order in his life.

Gaines had said many times that his great obsession was to preserve the cemetery on River Lake Plantation where his ancestors, including his beloved aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, are buried. Because of the efforts of Ernest and Dianne Gaines, the cemetery has been preserved. The sixteen heirs of River Lake Plantation deeded the acre of land where the cemetery is located to the non-profit Mount Zion River Lake Cemetery Association in 1998. As he said many times, Gaines wanted to be buried in this cemetery among the many unmarked graves of his ancestors, and on his gravestone he wanted inscribed, "To lie with those who have no marks."

He will be dearly remembered not only as a beloved award-winning author, but also as a genuine and gentlemanly man, loyal to his people and his culture, and devoted to his wife and family. He also leaves a wonderful legacy as a teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend. His most extraordinary and enduring legacy will be the profound effect of his words on the lives of his countless readers throughout the world.


Gaines, Ernest J. 1998. A Tribute to Milton Rickels. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 13: 1-2

Gaudet, Marcia. 1984. Folklore in the Writings of Ernest J. Gaines. The Griot 3 (1): 9-16.

---. 1990. Gaines' Fifteen Narrators: Narrative Style and Storytelling Technique in A Gathering of Old Men. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 6(3): 15-22.

Gaudet, Marcia, and Carl Wooton. 1990. Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer's Craft. Baton Rouge: LSU Press.

Gaughan, Sara K. 1995. Old Age, Folk Belief, and Love in Stories by Ernest Gaines and Louise Erdrich. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 10: 37-45.

Mason, Jeanna. 2018. Becoming the Tradition Bearer: Community History and Community Representation in The Tragedy of Brady Sims. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 28: 81-92.

Morrison, Jennifer. 2016. The Politics of the Plate: Foodways and Southern Culture in Ernest Gaines' Of Love and Dust. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 26: 21-35.

Ramsey, Courtney. 1995. Louisiana Foodways in Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 10: 46-58.

This article was first published in the 2019 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Marcia Gaudet is Professor of English Emerita at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where she was the founding director of the Ernest J. Gaines Center. Her latest publication on Gaines is Ernest J. Gaines: Conversations (2019). She is a Fellow of the American Folklore Society.