A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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Ernest J. Gaines | Biography


Early Life and Influences

Like many characters in A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines was born and grew up on the same plantation where his ancestors lived, worked, and died, first as slaves and later as sharecroppers. Gaines was born on January 15, 1933, on the River Lake Plantation, located in a small southern Louisiana town called Oscar. Like the narrator in the novel, Gaines's family home was formerly used as slave quarters, and a great aunt was the primary caretaker for Gaines and his siblings. He attended primary school at the plantation church, but beginning at age nine spent more than half of each year working in the plantation's cotton and vegetable fields. He attended a segregated Catholic middle school. At age 15 Gaines moved to California to live with his mother and stepfather, who had moved during World War II (1939–45) in search of economic opportunity. Young Gaines became a voracious reader when his stepfather encouraged him to use the public library, thinking it would keep him out of trouble. He fell in love with Russian literature in particular. When Gaines couldn't find literature reflecting his own life—as an African American from the rural southern United States—he began to write, using his own experiences to guide him.


Gaines served in the army before completing an undergraduate degree at San Francisco State University in 1957. On the basis of his undergraduate writing, Gaines was admitted to Stanford University's creative writing graduate program, where American novelist Wallace Stegner mentored Gaines. After graduating, Gaines remained in San Francisco, devoting himself to writing novels.

Gaines's writing deals with themes of the black community and individual experiences within the context of a fundamentally racist society and is often set in the invented town of Bayonne, which is much like Gaines's hometown. In 1964 Gaines published his first novel, Catherine Carmier, a love story examining social divisions within rural Louisiana culture. The novel was praised by critics but largely ignored by the reading public. A 1966 National Endowment of the Arts grant supported Gaines while he wrote his second novel, Of Love and Dust (1967). In 1968 he released a short story collection titled Bloodline.

Gaines became Writer-in-Residence at Denison University in Ohio in 1971. At Denison he completed the first novel to bring him international renown: The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971). A woman born into slavery, whose life extends into the early years of the civil rights movement, narrates the novel. The made-for-television film adaptation of the novel won nine Emmy Awards.

In the wake of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman's success, Gaines received a Guggenheim Fellowship (1972). Subsequent works are 1978's In My Father's House and 1983's A Gathering of Old Men, with its 15 narrators representing all the various racial castes in the Louisiana of his childhood. In 1983 Gaines became the Writer-in-Residence at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. A MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" followed in 1993. The foundation noted his "mastery of the first-person ... storytelling voice establishes his work firmly in the African American literary tradition that draws upon memory of the past." 1993 was the same year Gaines published A Lesson Before Dying. Acclaimed and beloved the world over, the book is noted for its literary value as well as the power of its social and political message.

The Writing and Reception of A Lesson Before Dying

In the early 1980s Gaines began planning a novel about a young man sentenced to die for a crime he didn't commit. Gaines soon learned of Willie Francis, a black Louisiana teenager who went to the electric chair twice in the 1940s for the murder of a local white pharmacist. Because the chair had been wired incorrectly, Francis endured horrific suffering during the first execution attempt. His case attracted national attention and even went before the U.S. Supreme Court. A year after the first botched attempt, the state of Louisiana successfully executed Francis. Along with Gaines's own life experiences, aspects of the Willie Francis case informed many of the decisions Gaines made in writing A Lesson Before Dying.

A Lesson Before Dying became an international sensation and entered into the discourse surrounding the controversial issue of capital punishment. The New York Times called A Lesson Before Dying "a moving and truthful work of fiction," noting Gaines's skill at rendering morally complex characters. The reviewer wrote Gaines's novel "powerfully evokes in its understated tone the 'new wants' in the 1940's that created the revolution of the 1960's." A Lesson Before Dying won the 1993 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and was announced as an Oprah's Book Club pick in September 1997. In 1999 a television adaptation received an Emmy Award for "Best Film for Television."

Later Years

Gaines remained a respected and significant voice in arts and letters, and he continued to write, teach creative writing, and speak publicly. In 2005 he released Mozart and Leadbelly, a collection of short stories and essays. In his honor, The Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence was established in 2007 by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. The award recognizes new fiction from African American writers. During a 2012 ceremony at the White House, President Barack Obama honored Gaines with a National Medal of Arts. He was also made a Chevalier in France's Order of Arts and Letters and was a recipient of the National Humanities Medal of the United States.
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