RIP Ernest J. Gaines — 'The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman' Author Dead At 86

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How Did Ernest J. Gaines Die? New Details On Death Of Novelist At 86

He turned a life of poverty into an award-winning novel that was taught at colleges and high schools all over the world. In his own time, he was a legend, but unfortunately, he passed away recently. How did Ernest Gaines Jr. die?

If you went to high school at any time in the United States (and perhaps sooner if you didn't go to school in a red state), you were probably assigned The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman as summer reading. The 1971 book, which was actually the fourth that Ernest J. Gaines wrote, told a story through the eyes of a young slave girl named Jane Pittman, and it started from the time she was a slave until the end of the Civil War. In the 1974 television movie based on the book, Cicely Tyson played the titular Jane Pittman. 

Let's look at what we know about the author, Ernest J. Gaines, whose passing is a true loss to the literary world. 

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1. People thought The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was a real autobiography. 

According to the National Endowment of the Humanities, at the time that the book was released, people commended Ernest J. Gaines for writing such a great autobiography. He had to explain, at length, that the book was a fiction book. He blamed his publisher, Dial Press, for not putting "a novel" on the book cover, which got people confused. 

2. Ernest J. Gaines went to college in Vallejo, California before serving in the military. 

"When he was fifteen, Gaines moved to California to join his mother and stepfather. There he attended junior college in Vallejo before being drafted into the U.S. Army. After two years of military service, he completed a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University) in 1957, attended Stanford University on a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship, and initiated his literary career," noted 64 Parishes.

3. He said that growing up poor in Louisiana shaped his world view. 

According to The Chicago Tribune, though Ernest J. Gaines credited a lot of different things for his literary career, the biggest influence on his world view was the fact that he grew up poor in rural Louisiana. He also said that it was the influence of one of his aunts, who also grew up in that rural town, that shaped the character of Miss Jane Pittman, and he even dedicated the book to her!

4. Two other books by Ernest J. Gaines were made into movies. 

According to The Root, though The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was the best-known work of Ernest J. Gaines, two other books — A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying — were also made into movies. 

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5. He was a writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana.

"In 1983, Ernest Gaines was named Writer-in-Residence at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. For many years, he and his wife, attorney Dianne Saulney, divided their time between San Francisco and Louisiana. In addition to his other honors, Ernest Gaines was awarded the National Humanities Medal of the United States and was named a Chevalier of France’s Order of Arts and Letters. In 2007, the Baton Rouge Foundation established the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence to recognize new fiction by African American authors," noted his official American Achievement biography.

6. Ernest J. Gaines died of natural causes. 

Ernest J. Gaines died of natural causes at his home. He was 86 years old. Our thoughts are with his friends and family during this difficult time. 

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Bernadette Giacomazzo is an editor, writer, and photographer whose work has appeared in People, Teen Vogue, Us Weekly, The Source, XXL, HipHopDX, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Post, and more. She is also the author of The Uprising series. For more information about Bernadette Giacomazzo, click here.