Education is not only a theme found in the fictional works of acclaimed author, Ernest J. Gaines, but also plays a major role in his real life. At a young age he would help out the older folks by writing letters for them. He taught himself to listen carefully to their stories, and learned to be creative with his writing. That was the genesis of his interest in both writing and the importance of education. Later, it was many hours spent at the library in California, reading everything he could get his hands on, which really inspired him to become a writer.
Much like the age-old question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg? ” one might wonder if Gaines’s education led to his writings as much as his writings had an influence on him as an educator. We know, as a child Gaines had received only a very basic education in South Louisiana plantation quarters. A lot of his education about life actually came from his beloved aunt, Augusteen, who was a double-amputee, yet taught Gaines the importance of “standing.
Though his life was not an easy one Gaines was still able to become a successful novelist by the age 16, he managed to exemplify the theme of education and learning in many different ways and he also found ways to associate closely related themes to his education of writing. Although, today Gaines is a well know writer with many successful books, he too had to start off somewhere. His beginning however came at a much younger age than most would think for such brilliant pieces of work. Gaines showed interest in writing and completed his first novel at age 16.
The novel went through many re-writes over the years and eventually became Catherine Carmier. However, because a New York publisher originally rejected it, he put writing aside for quite some time to concentrate on his studies. He moved to California to attend junior college. From there, Gaines was drafted into the Army, serving for two years. Shortly after being released from his military duties he began his career as a writer while completing his bachelor’s degree at San Francisco State College and later was accepted into Stanford University.
He was able to attend Stanford on a Creative Writing Fellowship. While at Stanford he became familiar with other literary works, which had a great influence on his writings. Education has been important in Gaines’s life, and so it seems only natural that education is often a theme of Gaines’s writings. In fact it was a theme of his first novel, Catherine Carmier: a book about a young man who leaves Louisiana to receive an education, and returns home.
Not only did his young mind come up with such amazing ideas for novels, but also he was able to demonstrate his choice of themes in many different manners. A Lesson Before Dying is often cited as one of Gaines’ greatest works. It is the tale of a young black man on death row who gains dignity and self-awareness from a rural teacher who visits him daily in prison. This book exemplifies education and learning in different ways. In one way, the prisoner learns how to express his feelings and write them down while in prison.
Another way the theme of education is shown is that the prisoner also learns how to compose himself with courage and dignity. The most important way that this book shares the theme of education is how Ernest Gaines educates all of the readers that all humans (no matter their race) are equal and should be treated that way. Being able to exemplify the many different ways there are to introduce the theme of knowledge into his novels was one of Gaines’s strengths. However, he was also known to have included some sub themes that would compliment his main theme of education.
In many examples of Gaines’ writings, we not only see the theme of education, but also the themes closely associated with education, such as facing responsibility, or getting back up and standing tall when you have fallen or struggled; a life lesson learned by example from his aunt. These life lessons can often be just as educating as what is learned in a classroom. For example, in the short story, The Sky is Gray, the main character (James) learns how to be the ‘man of the house” from his mom, Octavia.
Since James’s dad is never around, James had to quickly adapt and learn how to take care of his family. In later years, Gaines became an educator himself, teaching creative writing at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. He retired 11 years later as a Writer-in-Residence Emeritus. He also was a visiting professor of creative writing at the University of Rennes in France. Ernest J. Gaines certainly experienced education both in the traditional classroom setting, as well as life’s experiences, and the experiences others shared with him.
These experiences of education are themed in many of his writings and also support other worthy themes closely associated with education, such as fortitude and character. Gaines’s writings can also be said to have contributed to his own experience in education, whether it helped him to attend Stanford University or led to him being an educator in creative writing at universities. The theme of education has equally been intertwined in Gaines’s life and writings, and is a worthy theme both in reality and fiction.