Louisiana Author, Ernest J Gaines to appear on U.S. Stamp

Louisiana author, Ernest J Gaines, who is widely known for examining race, class, and poverty in his works, will be featured on a postage stamp to be issued January 2023, according to this article from The Advocate and announced by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

The internationally acclaimed author, who passed away at age 86 in November 2019, was a writer-in-residence emeritus at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he also taught creative writing from 1983 until he retired in 2010. This past week, the United States Postal Service announced that the 46th stamp in their Black Heritage series will feature an oil painting based on a photograph of a stoically poised Ernest Gaines wearing his trademark beret.

President of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Dr. Joseph Savoie, commented on the postage stamp honoring Ernest Gaines by saying, “Dr. Gaines’ stamp offers an impressive representation of the man I knew and admired, and it reminds me of the immeasurable grace, strength, and character he displayed throughout his life and through his words. More importantly, it acknowledges and affirms his belief in the inherent commonality of people and his unflinching courage in reminding us of the need to continually address some of the darkest chapters in our collective past.”

Something the nation lost when Gaines passed was the chance to hear his literary voice. His understated yet striking prose had a way of highlighting the struggles of marginalized groups and shaking up our consciences. Ernest Gaines began his publishing career with the 1964 publication of Catherine Carmier. He soon received acclaim and published 7 more novels, two collections of short stories, and many other volumes throughout his prolific career. In 2013, Gaines was awarded a National Medal of Arts, which is the highest award given by the U.S. government to artists, by President Barack Obama for his contributions to the arts and his dynamic lifetime of achievement in literature.

In their published obituary, The New York Times noted that in his writing, Ernest J Gaines told “of the inner struggle for dignity among southern black people before the civil rights era” and “captured the lives and strivings of those he had grown up within a time of limited opportunities and oppressive racism.”

Born in 1933, Gaines grew up on the River Lake Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana with his parents, who worked as sharecroppers. With every hardship they faced, from economic desperation to racial segregation and its aftermath, the family’s eloquence in their losses constructed Gaines’ personal narrative and literary ethos. As a teenager, he moved to California and studied at Stanford University. Soon after, he taught at Stanford before returning to Louisiana to continue writing his fiction, which was resiliently rooted in his ancestors and the people and places of his childhood.

Gaines’ novel that first received widespread attention was The Autobiography of Jane Pittman. The novel is a true account of the fictional life of a 110-year-old woman born into slavery. Published in 1971, Gaines’ inspiration for the work came from his Aunt Augusteen Jefferson, who raised him after his parents were killed when he was four years old.

His other massively notable work, A Lesson Before Dying, revolves around the story of an illiterate man wrongfully condemned to death. This novel earned a National Book Critics Circle Award, won a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s book club.

Gaines’ novels have been published in at least 17 languages, and their writing is often compared to both Charles Dickens and William Faulkner. His wide-reaching appeal is linked to his skills of “prompt[ing] conversation about humanity,” as explained by UL Lafayette’s Cheylon Woods, who is an assistant professor and director of the Ernest J Gaines Center.

UL Lafayette’s Ernest J Gaines Center, which  Gaines worked to establish after he retired, is an international center for scholarship on the author and his fiction that is housed in the Edith Garland Dupré Library.

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Famous Louisiana Authors

The vibrant, rich culture and history of the Bayou State has inspired countless numbers of famous Louisiana authors and even more stories.  Some of America’s, even the world’s best work came from the South. Tennessee Williams. Mark Twain. Walt Whitman.  Ernest Gaines. Kate Chopin. Anne Rice. Literary lovers from all over can appreciate the folklore and storytelling that the bayous, foodways, and the motley crew of ethnicities, cultures, and belief systems inspire. Louisianatravel.com recently published a compilation of all the most famous Louisiana literary legends and we took our favorites from that list to dive deeper into their works, inspiration, and backgrounds.  

1.    Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams is considered among the three foremost playwrights of 20th-century American drama.  Some of his most famous works include The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959).  His works were greatly influenced by his struggle with depression and tumultuous personal life. Well into his 60s, Williams still struggled but as he slid deeper in depression, his work began to suffer as well.  Much of Williams’ most acclaimed work was written early in his career and has been adapted for the cinema. His mother once said of Williams’ writing: “Tom would go to his room with black coffee and cigarettes and I would hear the typewriter clicking away at night in the silent house. Some mornings when I walked in to wake him for work, I would find him sprawled fully dressed across the bed, too tired to remove his clothes.”  Williams also wrote short stories, poetry, essays and a volume of memoirs. In 1979, four years before his death, Williams was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. Every year the French Quarter hosts the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. Williams lived for a time in New Orleans and used it as the setting for “A Streetcar Named Desire” and other short stories. Fans can also check out Williams’ first Vieux Carre apartment at 722 Toulouse Street, now home of the Historic New Orleans Collection. Next hop a streetcar, you can temporarily name “Desire,” down Saint Charles and view the cemeteries and sights of fading Southern grandeur that inspired Williams’ work.

2.    Ann Rice

Anne Rice is one of the most well known contemporary Louisiana authors.  She was born and raised in New Orleans and holds a Master of Arts Degree in English and Creative Writing. Even though Anne has spent more of her life in California than in New Orleans, she has said numerous times that New Orleans is her true home and inspiration for her famous novels. Interview with the Vampire, her 1st novel, was set in The French Quarter. Interview with the Vampire was made into a motion picture in 1994, directed by Neil Jordan, and starring Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Kirsten Dunst and Antonio Banderas. Her antebellum house in the Garden District was the fictional home of her imaginary Mayfair Witches. Ann is the author of over 30 novels, including The Witching Hour, Servant of the Bones, Merrick, Blackwood Farm, Blood Canticle, Violin, and Cry to Heaven.

3.    Ernest Gaines

Ernest James Gaines (born January 15, 1933) is an African-American author whose works have been taught in college classrooms and translated into many languages, including French, Spanish, German, Russian and Chinese. Gaines was among the fifth generation of his sharecropper family to be born on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. This became the setting and premise for many of his later works. He was the eldest of 12 children, raised by his aunt, who was crippled and had to crawl to get around the house. Although born generations after the end of slavery, Gaines grew up impoverished, living in old slave quarters on a plantation.  When the children were not picking cotton in the fields, a visiting teacher came for five to six months of the year to provide basic education. Schooling for African-American children did not continue beyond the eighth grade during this time in Pointe Coupee Parish. His first novel was written at age 17, while babysitting his youngest brother, Michael. According to one account, he wrapped it in brown paper, tied it with string, and sent it to a New York publisher, who rejected it. Gaines burned the manuscript, but later rewrote it to become his first published novel, Catherine Carmier.  Four of his works have been made into television movies. His 1993 novel, A Lesson Before Dying (1993) was nominated for Pulitzer Prize, was rewarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction (1993), and was inducted into Oprah’s Book Club (1997). Gaines currently resides on the land where he grew up with his wife.

At the University of Louisiana at Lafayette resides The Ernest J. Gaines Center which is an international center for scholarship on Ernest Gaines and his work. The center honors the work of Gaines and provides a space for scholars to work with the his papers and manuscripts. Gaines’s generous donation of his early papers and manuscripts (through 1983) and some artifacts to Edith Garland Dupré Library provided the foundation for the center’s collection. The center also anticipates acquiring the remainder of Gaines’s papers.

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