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An Interview with the late Ernest J. Gaines from 2007

Ernest J. Gaines died Nov. 5, 2019, in Oscar, Louisiana. He was born into a family that picked cotton on land along False River. He became among the greatest writers of his generation. And with the money he earned from his books and movies, Mr. Gaines bought the land in Oscar that he worked as a child. With his wife, Dianne, he built a home there.

The Baton Rouge Area Foundation established the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence to honor Mr. Gaines and support promising African American writers of fiction. Mr. Gaines attended each year’s ceremony, sharing a few thoughts of encouragement with the winners. The award ceremony in January will continue his legacy.

This interview with Mr. Gaines was published in Fourth Quarter 2007 issue of the Foundation’s quarterly magazine. The story is by C.E. Richard and Marcia Gaudet, who is director of the Ernest J. Gaines Center at University of Louisiana Lafayette.

I think it’s the greatest six acres of land on earth. I wouldn’t exchange it for anything else in the world,” said Ernest J. Gaines, looking out the window from the office in his new home. “From here, I can look back at the church, and beyond the church to the trees back in the cemetery. You know, they’ve cut some of the sugarcane down, so I can see the trees in the cemetery back there now. I love this.”

Six years ago, Gaines and his wife, Dianne, began building a home on the same piece of False River plantation acreage where he grew up, in the heart of the place that has served as the principal setting for most of his stories—a body of work that includes more than 10 books and earned him a nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004. “I picked cotton exactly where I’m sitting now,” Gaines said.

After he retired as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Gaines moved back to Pointe Coupée Parish, outside Baton Rouge, and renewed his relationship with the same plot of oak-shaded earth that he and his family tilled for generations as sharecroppers. Gaines’ relationship with the land now is a more equitable one; he doesn’t have to wrestle cotton or corn from it the way so many of his forebears did, pleading their survival from the dirt. He owns this land.

“So, yes, that definitely brings satisfaction,” he said. “To be able to have a little piece of this place where my folks worked for more than the last hundred years—and I know they never could’ve owned anything themselves.” Still, in the course of any conversation with him, it quickly becomes apparent that he is no less bound to this place than those who came before him.

On the Land

Earlier this year, Marcia Gaudet, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, drove out to visit Gaines at his home in Pointe Coupée. Along with colleagues Wiley Cash and Reggie Young, she is working on a book titled This Louisiana Thing That Drives Me: The Legacy of Ernest J. Gaines. Research for the book has given Gaudet a good excuse to visit the writer, who has been a dear friend since he first came to UL Lafayette in 1981. Mail still arrives at the university for Gaines, so this time Gaudet arrived at his home with a stack of letters. Among them was one from Wendell Berry.

Berry and Gaines have known each other since their days together in the creative writing workshop at Stanford nearly 50 years ago. Berry, who farms family land in Henry County, Ky., is the author of dozens of books, most of which address the theme of people’s relationship to the land and their past. Gaudet asked Gaines about the letter he’d received from his friend. In it, Wendell Berry professes a greater kinship with Ernest Gaines’ work than any other living writer’s.

“I think it’s because we both knew the talk of old people,” Berry’s letter reads. “Old country people, in summer evenings.” Later, Gaines caught himself laughing gently.

Gaines: Wendell gave a lecture at the Fellowship of Southern Writers in Chattanooga three or four months ago, and he used a little quote from my work, from In My Father’s House, in his speech. But sometimes I think Wendell picks what he wants in my work. For example, in his speech he says that I—that the machine destroyed the people, and ran the people away from the land. Well, if you had to pick cotton eight hours a day, in hundred-degree weather, you’d wish for a machine that could do this kind of work so you could do something else.

What happened was, yes, the machine did take their work, and the people did leave. And they went to the towns without any kind of skills that would be useful for working in the city. And so many of them ended up in prison, in poverty, in prostitution and drugs. Much of this happened, yes. However, I think it’s the result of not being prepared to go to these places. The machine had come in and destroyed these things, like working in the fields, but it had not prepared the people for something else to do. You see the same thing in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The machines come in, put these people out of their houses and put them on the road, looking for something and not finding it.

So Wendell and I do share a love of the land, of course. He and I are good friends. But, you know, Wendell is still working with horses in his fields on his farm. Big horses. I never had a big horse. When I picked cotton, I had to put that sack on my shoulder and pull. And many, many days I suppose I wished for machines to do this kind of work.

On the Writer’s Education

As a writer, Gaines’ relationship with his ancestral home near False River has been complicated and, at times, contradictory. “Fortunately for me, my folks took me away from here when I was 15 and put me in school in California,” he remarked. “As I’ve said many times before, the two greatest moves I’ve made was on the day I left Louisiana in ’48, and on the day I came back to Louisiana in ’63.”

Not unlike the children in A Lesson Before Dying, Gaines’ early schooling took place in the plantation church, where an itinerant teacher would come to deliver lessons for a few months at a time, according to the seasons of planting and harvesting.

Education beyond the eighth grade was not available to black students in Pointe Coupée Parish at that time. World War II had brought his stepfather to California, so, when they were able to, Gaines’ parents brought him out west to join them. There, he would go on to attend San Francisco State University and Stanford.

What brought him back to Louisiana in January 1963 was the news in fall 1962 that James Meredith had successfully challenged legal segregation in attending the University of Mississippi at Oxford; Meredith had won for himself the right to an equal education in his home state. Gaines took this as a sign that, perhaps, the South was beginning to offer black young people the kind of learning that he had left his home to find elsewhere. Then, too, he understood well that, as a writer, there was another kind of learning that he would only find back on False River.

Gaines: The young writer finds his education both in the library and in the people around him. I’ve talked about this in Mozart and Leadbelly: Mozart is a symbol for form, which you pick up in books of all kinds, in the library; and Leadbelly is a symbol of the source for my work. That is, I learned both from the books I studied at San Francisco State, at Stanford, as well as from the people here, on this plantation, during my days growing up, the first fifteen years of my life. And then, later, coming back here a couple times a year. I learned as much about writing here, by just being around those people and talking to them, listening to them, listening to the music.

The white writers’ novels—because I only studied white writers in college, and then many libraries really only carried the work of white writers at that time—I needed their form, their direction, in creating novels and short stories. But they couldn’t give me the source I needed; that had to come from the people. I needed the Leadbellies. And I was constantly referring to the music, to the spirituals, to gospel, the blues, to jazz.

I remember, whenever I’d come back from San Francisco to Baton Rouge, I would always go to nightclubs with my uncles. On Sundays Baton Rouge was dry, so we had to leave town, go across the river to Port Allen to a joint, to drink and talk. Some of those places were pretty rough, and I saw some pretty rough things happen in them, which gave me a source for Of Love and Dust, as well as “Three Men” in my Bloodline stories. So this is a sort of education that you get as well. I experienced both the book—Mozart—and the source: Leadbelly. I needed both of them.

On the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence

Gaines’ formation as a writer also benefited from his receipt of several important literary awards, beginning with a fellowship in Stanford University’s creative writing program in 1958 under Wallace Stegner. There, he joined other young writers whose work would likewise become widely read favorites, including Ken Kesey, Wendell Berry, Tillie Olsen, Larry McMurtry and Bill and Gloria Broder. “It was a wonderful class to be in at that time,” Gaines remembered. “And there were many, many others through the years at Stanford. Stegner had that nose for picking out talent and bringing them there and giving them a year to work.”

With no curricular requirements, that fellowship provided Gaines with several vital resources: a stipend to live on, regular contact with other working writers, and the one luxury most coveted by all writers: time to work. Recognizing how important such literary awards have been in facilitating Gaines’ career, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation established a $10,000 prize in his honor, to be awarded annually to promising African American fiction writers.

Gaines: I know what it means to a young writer to receive these kinds of awards. I received an award by going Stanford, just one year after graduating from San Francisco State. And then, while I was at Stanford I started writing another novel, called Catherine Carmier, and I received the Jackson Award there in San Francisco for that. So, yes, I know what it means to receive those kinds of funds when you’re starting out. It encourages you, and it helps you too when, as in my case, you don’t have a lot of money to begin with. Why, when I was there at Stanford, I would work eight hours a day. I’d get up in the morning, go to breakfast, work until noon, come back from lunch, work until dinner at night, and sometimes after dinner. It always helps when someone gives you that chance to write.

But also it encourages the young writer because he finds that someone is interested and feels he’s doing something worthwhile. And that’s what young writers really need. It tells a writer that he’s doing something worthwhile. Of course, if somebody’s going to be a writer, he’s going to be a writer anyway, whether you tell him that or not. But it always helps, and I had that.

On His Readers

His success with novels like The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), A Gathering of Old Men (1983) and A Lesson Before Dying (1993) has placed Ernest Gaines among America’s most highly regarded living writers, here and abroad. Concentrated in a very particular part of Louisiana, his characters and settings strike readers as especially distinct, singular. And yet in Gaines’ stories, the universal somehow manages to speak through the unique.

Gaines: My work has been translated into about twelve different languages—Japanese, Chinese, German, Russian, Slovene, Norwegian. How they understand anything I’m talking about, I don’t know. But apparently, they do. Readers from different parts of the world say, okay, yes, we recognize these characters, we believe in these characters.

But I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, you know. I’ve met students who don’t want to study dialect. Asian students I’ve met in San Jose, California, for example, who came out said, “Listen, my folks didn’t send me here to study dialect. They sent me to learn to speak proper English grammar. I don’t know how long we’ll be communicating with those students.”

On the Company He Keeps Nowadays

Inevitably, the topic of any talk with Ernest Gaines will return again and again to his home on False River, just as he himself has throughout his work and his life. But it’s not the place that has kept his imagination, and his readers’, captivated through the years.

Gaines: Returning to it is the result of my love for my ancestors who worked much harder than I did, and who are buried about three-quarters of a mile from where I’m sitting right now. Knowing that their spirit is here, their bones are here, their dust is here—these are the kinds of things that give me great satisfaction. I mean, if it weren’t for that fact, I don’t think I would care anything for this part of Louisiana any more than any other part of Louisiana, or the South, or the rest of the country.

So, owning this property, it’s not necessarily for me. It’s for them, and then for the living too; for my younger brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews. They can see this place and have pride in what I’ve done and in knowing what I’ve cared about.

I know that the old ones, the ones that are dead—I often sit on my back porch at night and think about how wonderful it would be if they were there sitting with me in rocking chairs and drinking coffee and talking. It’s the sort of thing I think about often, because this is where they were, right here, my grandparents’ grandparents. This is what makes me proud of the place.

If Auntie [Augusteen Jefferson] could sit here with me, or my stepfather who took me away from here, or my Uncle George, who used to take me to those old beat-up bars in Baton Rouge—if I could, I’d just buy him a good glass of Gentleman Jack, and we could sit here and talk. Oh, I wish I could do that. •