"There's an old oak tree in the Quarters... and I'm not ashamed to say I've talked to it. It's not necessary craziness when you talk to trees or rivers. ...When you talk to an oak tree that's been here all those years and knows more than you'll ever know, it's not craziness -- it's just a nobility you respect."
-- From The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
It was a Sunday in 1933, on a Louisiana plantation, when one of America's most outstanding writers was born. Not much fuss was made when "EJ" Gaines became the newest member in "the Quarters," the slave area of the plantation, but much ado was made years later, however, when his books gave an immortal voice to the people in his early life. In ERNEST J. GAINES: Louisiana Stories, you'll meet the man who introduced an historical part of the old South to readers nationwide through such works as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and My Father's House, to name a few. It's a memory-filled journey from the land of dirt roads, magnolias and majestic oak tress to the big city of San Francisco and back again.
One of Gaines' most vivid memories of his childhood is sitting on the front porch with adults who came to visit his Aunt Augusteen, the woman who cared for him and his siblings. He was mesmerized by their stories of ancestors and old times, and now attributes much of the dialogue in his books to these people. When the plantation owner brought a teacher to the Quarters so the children could learn to read and write, EJ conquered these lessons almost effortlessly. He says that was not only the beginning of his formal education, but also one of his first real lessons in life. "I used to write letters... for my aunt and the other old people," Gaines recalls. "That was the beginning of understanding my place in the world, and understanding them."
At age 15, EJ moved to the San Francisco area to live with his mother and stepfather. It was in this city that he entered his first library and began reading voraciously. There was an empty spot inside Gaines, however, that he sought to fill by reading fiction about his old home. He soon discovered that none of the white authors were adequately portraying the blacks of the South, and he set out to complete this task himself. When James Meredith became the first black to attend Ole Miss University, Gaines was inspired by the young man's perserverance and courage. He discovered in himself a true dedication to writing and returned to Louisiana where he finished his first book, Catherine Carmier, in the summer of 1963. He eventually would return to the West Coast to live, but frequently made trips home to Louisiana. "Each time I went back," says Gaines, "I realized that, as Hemingway would say, I was refilling the well. I was getting more and more out of it to put back into my stories."
Old photographs illustrate what family members remember about Gaines' childhood and his career. Couple that with the reminiscences of Ernest J. Gaines himself, comments from other writers and scholars, and passages from his books, and you'll find yourself in the South of long ago.
""Although I've lived in California for the last 43 years or more, I still write about this place here, because I feel that those letters [I used to write] aren't finished. I doubt I could ever finish them."
-- Ernest J. Gaines
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