Ernest J. Gaines, who wrote of the inner struggle for dignity among Southern black people before the civil rights era in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and other acclaimed novels, died on Tuesday at his home in Oscar, La. He was 86.
His death was announced by the University of Louisiana on its website.
Mr. Gaines, who spent his early years on a Louisiana plantation, captured the lives and strivings of those he had grown up with in a time of limited opportunities and oppressive racism. Many of the adults he knew in childhood had little education, giving him with an accidental underpinning for his career.
“At an early age I used to write and read letters for them,” he told The Boston Herald in 1999. “In that way I got to learn their stories.”
Those stories lent a genuineness to his fiction. His first novel, “Catherine Carmier,” published in 1964, told the story of a young black man who, much like Mr. Gaines himself, left his home in Louisiana for college in California before returning to the South. It was not exactly a best seller — “I didn’t make a damn cent,” Mr. Gaines told The New York Times in 1978 — but it staked out his geographical and emotional territory.
By the time his second novel, “Of Love and Dust,” came out three years later, he was beginning to gain some attention.
“Aside from occasional technical awkwardness,” Robert Granat wrote in reviewing the novel in The Times, “the writing is clean, and Mr. Gaines paints some vivid scenes and fine portraits.”
In February 1969, when James Baldwin wrote a scalding essay in The Times about the difficulties faced by black artists, it was Mr. Gaines’s novel he cited in making a point about film and television.
“In such a system, it makes perfect sense that Hollywood would turn out so ‘liberal’ an abomination as ‘If He Hollers, Let Him Go,’” Mr. Baldwin wrote, referring to a forgettable movie of the day, “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.’”
It would not be long before Mr. Gaines made Hollywood take notice. In 1971 he published “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” the sprawling story of the fictional title character’s long life, which begins in slavery and continues into the civil rights era.
The book was a critical smash — Alice Walker, reviewing it in The Times, called it a “grand, robust, most valuable novel that is impossible to dismiss or to put down” — and three years later CBS made it into a television movie starring Cicely Tyson as the title character. The production won nine Emmy Awards.
A full obituary will be published shortly.
Mel Watkins contributed reporting.
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