Ernest Gaines: Biography & Books

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and experience teaching.

This lesson discusses the author Ernest J. Gaines and his novels, including 'A Lesson Before Dying.' Read the article, then test yourself with a quiz.

Exploring the World of Ernest Gaines

One of the best things about reading a good book is that you get to experience things you may otherwise have never known about. Authors can create ways for you to be eighty thousand leagues under the sea with no submarine required, or flying through the trees on a broomstick under a full moon. Authors can even make you feel like you are someone else. A fifteen-year-old girl in Alabama can understand the plight of a fifty-year-old man living in Imperial China, just through the story that is written.

Ernest Gaines is such a writer. He has written novels and short stories that draw on his own life experiences dealing with racial tension and the American South. Even readers who have no personal understanding of those issues are pulled into the worlds Gaines creates. The author's books were so well-received that some of them were even adapted into television movies.


Ernest James Gaines was born in 1933 on what used to be a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. He was the oldest child of Manuel and Adrienne Gaines, who were sharecroppers on the plantation. His parents proceeded to have seven children in eight years, at which point his father left the family.

The family was deep in poverty, and Gaines's mother remarried and had five more children. She and his stepfather moved to California in search of work following World War II, and Gaines and his siblings were left in the care of his disabled aunt. Gaines and his siblings had to pick cotton in order to survive, but attended school the other half of the year. It was while at school that Gaines fell in love with the written word and stories that took him away from his work-heavy existence.

Gaines joined his mother and stepfather in California at the age of fifteen and was able to continue his education. He attended high school and junior college, but was then drafted into the US Army, where he served two years. He then attended San Francisco State University, where he earned a degree in literature.

Gaines was given an award to write at Stanford University and receive a master's degree, but he dropped out after a year to write full time. Along with publishing his work, Gaines has been a professor for many years, teaching in both Louisiana and California. Gaines has a home in Louisiana that he lives in primarily.

Ernest Gaines
Ernest Gaines

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