Mr. Gaines, who spent his first 15 years on a plantation near Baton Rouge, later moved with his family to Northern California, but in many ways he never left the landscape, rhythms and painful history of his childhood. His writing drew comparisons to that of Charles Dickens and William Faulkner.
In eight novels and many short stories, Mr. Gaines created a fictional world surrounding a town called Bayonne, in St. Raphael Parish, not unlike his boyhood home in Pointe Coupee Parish.
“There were places I couldn’t go, things I couldn’t say, questions I couldn’t ask,” he told The Washington Post in 1993. “You had to work for nothing and take what they gave you. Yet at the same time, you had all the fields to run in, the river to fish in, the swamp to hunt in. . . . I was freer than any white kid, and at the same time, not free at all. What a paradox.”
In 1971 he published “Miss Jane Pittman,” an account of a 110-year-old woman who had been born into slavery. In a review in the New York Times, author Alice Walker pronounced it a “grand, robust, most valuable novel that is impossible to dismiss or to put down.”
Written in the form of an oral history, the novel examines a century of African American life from the perspective of Miss Jane Pittman, who could recall the Civil War and lived long enough to witness the beginning of the civil rights movement. It was adapted in 1974 as a television movie, with Cicely Tyson as the title character, and won nine Emmy Awards.
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Mr. Gaines’s portrait of Miss Jane had such depth and emotional resonance that many readers believed she was a real person.
“Everyone asked me, ‘Who is she based on?’ ” he told the Baton Rouge Advocate in 2010. “I’ve never met one Miss Jane Pittman, I’ve met a thousand.”
He did admit, however, that he drew from the spiritual courage shown by his disabled aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, who raised him and several of his brothers and sisters.
“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,” Mr. Gaines told the Advocate in 2016. “I had to do something to make her proud of me.”
His other novels included “A Gathering of Old Men” (1983), in which more than a dozen aging black men in rural Louisiana recount their struggles and humiliations under segregation. After a brutal white overseer has been found dead, all of the men claim to be responsible for his murder.
Mr. Gaines’s 1993 novel, “A Lesson Before Dying,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and became a best seller in 1997, when it was a featured selection of Oprah Winfrey’s book club.
In the novel, an uneducated — and innocent — African American man named Jefferson stands accused of killing a white man in Louisiana in 1948. The novel’s central character, Grant Wiggins, is a black teacher who searches for a measure of justice and dignity for Jefferson. (Wiggins was played by Don Cheadle in an Emmy-winning HBO production in 1999.)
In “A Lesson Before Dying,” Mr. Gaines contrasts the harsh reality of life in the Jim Crow South with sensitive descriptions of the countryside:
“All there was to see were old white weather-houses, with smoke rising out of the chimneys and drifting across the corrugated tin roofs overlooking the yard toward the field, where some of the cane had been cut. The cane had not been hauled to the derrick yet, and it was lying across the rows. A little farther over, where another patch of cane was standing, tall and blue-green, you could see the leaves swaying softly from a breeze.”
Not every black person in Mr. Gaines’s books is blameless, and not every white person is a racist ogre. Yet in that time and place, the fate of a black man charged with killing a white person was foreordained.
“Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson?” Wiggins, the teacher, says to the man charged with murder. “A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they’re better than anyone else on earth — and that’s a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth.”
Ernest James Gaines was born Jan. 15, 1933, on River Lake Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, La. After his parents divorced, his mother remarried, and Mr. Gaines became the oldest in a mixed family of 12 children.
He began working in the fields when he was 8 and attended classes in a church on the plantation. At 15 he moved to Vallejo, Calif., where his mother and stepfather were living.
It was there that he entered a library for the first time. He was drawn to 19th-century Russian writers such as Ivan Turgenev and Anton Chekhov and to the novels of Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Willa Cather. Other than the work of Zora Neale Hurston — “the only black writer who has influenced my work” — Mr. Gaines said he could find almost no literature that reflected the lives of black people in the rural South.
“I knew I wanted to be a writer,” Mr. Gaines told The Post in 1993, “and by the age of 20 I knew I wouldn’t let any obstacle get in the way — family, religion, politics, racism or anything else.”
After serving in the Army, Mr. Gaines graduated in 1957 from San Francisco State University, where he published his first stories. He later studied with novelist Wallace Stegner at Stanford University.
To support himself, Mr. Gaines held jobs as a postal worker and printer’s assistant. He published his first novel, “Catherine Carmier,” in 1964, followed three years later by “Of Love and Dust.”
In a 1969 essay, writer James Baldwin lamented that caricatures of African American life appeared too often in popular culture “while leaving absolutely unnoticed and untouched such a really fine and truthful study of the black-white madness as, for example, Ernest J. Gaines’s ‘Of Love and Dust.’ ”
In 1978, Mr. Gaines published “In My Father’s House,” about the fraught relationship of a civil rights leader and his estranged son. Mr. Gaines’s final book, “The Tragedy of Brady Sims,” appeared in 2017.
After living in San Francisco for many years, Mr. Gaines returned to Louisiana in 1984 as a professor and writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He bought a six-acre plot on the plantation where he grew up, built a house and restored the rustic church where he had gone to school as a child.
He received a MacArthur Award, or so-called genius grant, in 1993, and in 2013 he was presented a National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama.
Survivors include the former Dianne Saulney, a lawyer and his wife of 26 years, of Oscar; four stepchildren; and nine siblings.
Mr. Gaines recalled that when he was a child, neighbors would often congregate at his aunt’s house, telling stories about their lives and about events reaching deep into the past. Because some of them did not know how to write, Mr. Gaines began to compose letters for them.
“They’d want me to fill in both sides of the paper, to use it all up, so I had to start inventing,” he told The Post in 1993. “I’m still trying to write letters — not only for the people I knew, but for the ones who died long before I was born. They didn’t keep diaries, they didn’t keep journals, they couldn’t write letters. So what I’m trying to do is imagine how they must have felt.”