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Acclaimed author Ernest J. Gaines dead at 86

Novelist Ernest J. Gaines, who wrote stories of black struggles that grew into universal stories of grace and beauty, has died.

Best known for A Lesson Before Dying and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

Author Ernest J. Gaines in 1977. Gaines died Tuesday at the age of 86. (The Associated Press)

Novelist Ernest J. Gaines, whose poor childhood on a small Louisiana plantation germinated stories of black struggles that grew into universal stories of grace and beauty, has died. He was 86.

The Baton Rouge Area Foundation, which sponsors a literary award named in Gaines' honour, confirmed he died Tuesday in his sleep of cardiac arrest at his home in Oscar, La.

"Ernest Gaines was a Louisiana treasure," foundation president and CEO John Davies said in a statement. "He will be remembered for his powerful prose that placed the reader directly into the story of the old South, as only he could describe it. We have lost a giant and a friend."

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a statement that Gaines "used his immense vision and literary talents to tell the stories of African Americans in the South. We are all blessed that Ernest left words and stories that will continue to inspire many generations to come."

A Lesson Before Dying, published in 1993, was an acclaimed classic. Gaines was that year awarded a "genius grant" by the MacArthur Foundation, receiving $335,000 US to spend over the next five years.

Both The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) and A Gathering of Old Men (1984) became honoured television movies.

I work five days a week, just like a regular job.— Ernest J. Gaines

The author of eight books, Gaines was born on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish and his first writing experience was writing letters for illiterate workers who asked him to embellish their news to far-off relatives. Bayonne, the setting for Gaines' fiction, was actually New Roads, La., which Gaines left for California when he was 15.

Although books were denied him throughout his childhood because of Louisiana's strict segregation — which extended even to libraries — he found the life surrounding him rich enough to recollect in story after story through exact and vivid detail.

In A Lesson Before Dying, for example, the central figure is the teacher at the plantation school outside town. Through the teacher, whose profession Gaines elevates to a calling, the novelist explores the consistent themes of his work: sacrifice and duty, the obligation to others, the qualities of loving, the nature of courage.

Gaines found that using his storytelling gifts meant more than militant civil rights action. "When Bull Connor would sic the dogs, I thought, 'Hell, write a better paragraph.'

"In 1968, when I was writing The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, my friends said, 'Why write about a 110-year-old lady when all of this is going on now?' And I said, 'I think she's going to have something to say about it."'

What Gaines' characters said about it achieved a power and timelessness that made him a distinctive voice in American literature. Much of the appeal of his books is their seeming simplicity and straightforward story line. "I can never write big novels," he always maintained. But the questions he explored were the eternal ones great writers confront: what it means to be human, what a human lives and dies for.

A large, gentlemanly man with a certain bohemian air — braces and berets were favourite attire — and a stately manner, Gaines was devoted to friends and family. When he married in 1993 at age 60, he celebrated in Lafayette, New Orleans, Miami, and San Francisco, so that the gatherings could include his intimates. The couple divided their time among various abodes but spent the MacArthur money on a year in France and other travels.

U.S. President Barack Obama presents the 2012 National Medal of Arts to Gaines during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on July 10, 2013. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Eclectic influences

From 1983 on, Gaines spent the falls teaching creative writing at the then-University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette (now University of Louisiana at Lafayette), only about an hour's drive from his childhood home.

He could not write and teach at the same time. He needed five or six hours each day devoted to writing and said "I can't write a couple of days and skip two or three days."

A Lesson Before Dying took seven years.

"I work five days a week, just like a regular job. I get up in the morning, do a little exercise, eat a little breakfast. I'm at my desk by nine in the morning, work until three with a little break for lunch," he said.

His literary influences were eclectic. Since he got a late start as a reader, he read with a vengeance.

"I discovered John Steinbeck … then Willa Cather … then the great 19th century Russian and French writers, writers like DeMaupassant and Flaubert. Then I discovered Ivan Turgenyev, the great Russian classicist. He wrote small novels where everyone wrote big novels. I could never write big novels. [Turgenyev's] Fathers and Sons was one of my favourite books when I was a young man. It was my Bible when I was writing my first novel, Catherine Carmier," he said.

Other books include Of Love and Dust (1967), Bloodline (1968), A Long Day in November (1971) and In My Father's House (1978).

In addition to the MacArthur and numerous other awards, Gaines received prestigious grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations. He held honorary doctorates from five colleges and universities.