The son of sharecroppers, Gaines was born on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, near Baton Rouge. He attended school for little more than five months out of the year. But that was more education than his family before him had received. He would say later in life that his ear for the stories of his elders was developed as he wrote letters for adults who couldn’t read or write.In the late 1940’s, at the age of 15, his family moved to the northern California city of Vallejo, about 30 miles north of San Francisco.
He told interviewer Lawrence Bridges that in California he could do something that had been forbidden in the South: visit a library. Gaines later attended San Francisco State University.
His early writing earned him a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford University.Gaines returned to Louisiana in 1963, inspired by James Meredith’s bid to enroll in the then-all-white University of Mississippi. He took it as a sign that the South was changing and that he could be a part of that change.”As I’ve said many times before, the two greatest moves I’ve made was on the day I left Louisiana in ’48, and on the day I came back to Louisiana in ’63,” he would later tell an interviewer.