Drawing on the images, cadences, and sentiments of his youth, Ernest J. Gaines writes novels that evoke the particulars and the feel of small-town southern Louisiana in the early part of the twentieth entury. He is renowned for his tales about Bayonne, Louisiana, based on Pointe Coupee Parish, where he spent his childhood and early adolescence. "The humanities are all about criticizing man, but at the same time you say what is good in him. It's like a mirror," says Gaines. "The artist tries to show the truth. It's not always a beautiful picture. The humanities are about saying, what can we do to improve it?"
Though his works are based on historical fact, and sometimes specific circumstances like the crime that serves as the centerpiece of the book A Gathering of Old Men, Gaines does not associate himself with historians. He says, "History is interpreted by the winners." Pointing out that historians often owe their mindset to preexisting schools of political thought, he adds, "An artist does not owe anyone anything, if he is honest. He's got to do his work as best he can."
When researching The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines aimed to create an accurate historical environment for the character of a centenarian ex-slave. He spoke with left-wing and right-wing historians, with Confederacy and Union experts, and put it all in the mouth of Miss Jane Pittman, "an intelligent character." It is Gaines's ability to sift through contrasting viewpoints that gives Miss Pittman her credibility, as much as the fact that her character is based on the aunt who raised Gaines, Augusteen Jefferson.
Louisiana has changed since Gaines first left it at age fifteen. The crops have changed and machinery has replaced workers who used to do everything by hand. Many of Gaines's friends have died or moved on. The little church that served as his school still stands, but the other changes are significant. Gaines's work captures the essence of a time that has all but disappeared. His most recent novel, A Lesson Before Dying, which takes place in the 1940s, depicts the struggle of an educated black man whose highest achievement is limited to being a schoolteacher. "Today he could be an attorney, or a doctor," Gaines notes.
Gaines has bought property where he grew up, on the river where he and his ancestors were baptized. "When I left, I could not have come through the front door of this university. I would have had to come in the back door with a mop and bucket." Now there are thousands of black students at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, where he has been author- in-residence since 1983. He spends his time traveling to other schools, doing research, and planning his next novel.
Although he set his stories in Louisiana, Gaines wrote them in San Francisco. He says, "I needed that distance in order to write." During his time in California he frequently traveled back to Louisiana to reconnect to the land and the people there. "I had to be part of them to write about them in a small cold room in San Francisco."