Ernest J. Gaines

Easton Press Ernest J. Gaines books

A Lesson Before Dying - signed modern classic - 1998


Ernest J. Gaines biography

Ernest J. Gaines, born on January 15, 1933, in Oscar, Louisiana, was an acclaimed American author known for his powerful and poignant portrayals of African American life in the Southern United States. His works often explored themes of race, social injustice, and the complexities of human relationships. Gaines grew up on a Louisiana plantation, and his experiences growing up in the racially segregated South profoundly influenced his writing. At the age of 15, he moved to California to live with his mother, seeking better educational opportunities. He attended San Francisco State University and later earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Stanford University.

Gaines's literary career began with the publication of his first novel, Catherine Carmier, in 1964. However, it was with the release of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in 1971 that he gained widespread recognition. The novel, written as the fictional autobiography of a former slave who lives through the Civil Rights Movement, earned critical acclaim and established Gaines as a significant voice in African American literature. In 1974, Gaines published In My Father's House, a novel exploring the impact of racism on a black family in Louisiana. He continued to delve into the complexities of race relations in his subsequent works, including A Gathering of Old Men (1983) and A Lesson Before Dying (1993). The latter, set in the 1940s in a racially charged Louisiana community, received the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Gaines's writing was characterized by its vivid depiction of rural Southern life, its exploration of human resilience in the face of adversity, and its commitment to portraying the dignity of African American characters. His novels often examined the legacy of slavery and the enduring effects of systemic racism. In addition to his novels, Gaines published short stories and essays, contributing to publications such as The New Yorker and Harper's. He also held various academic positions, including teaching at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and the University of Rennes in France.

Ernest J. Gaines received numerous awards for his contributions to literature, including the National Humanities Medal and the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. His works, celebrated for their social relevance and literary merit, have been widely studied in academic settings and continue to resonate with readers around the world. Ernest J. Gaines passed away on November 5, 2019, leaving behind a lasting legacy as a literary trailblazer and a chronicler of the African American experience in the American South.


A Lesson Before Dying

From the author of A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman comes a deep and compassionate novel. A young man who returns to 1940s Cajun country to teach visits a black youth on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Together they come to understand the heroism of resisting.

A Lesson Before Dying is set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s. Jefferson, a young black man, is an unwitting party to a liquor store shoot out in which three men are killed; the only survivor, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Grant Wiggins, who left his hometown for the university, has returned to the plantation school to teach. As he struggles with his decision whether to stay or escape to another state, his aunt and Jefferson's godmother persuade him to visit Jefferson in his cell and impart his learning and his pride to Jefferson before his death. In the end, the two men forge a bond as they both come to understand the simple heroism of resisting and defying the expected. Ernest J. Gaines brings to this novel the same rich sense of place, the same deep understanding of the human psyche, and the same compassion for a people and their struggle that have informed his previous, highly praised works of fiction.

Gaines explores the deep prejudice of the American South in the tradition of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird and Toni Morrison's Beloved. A Lesson Before Dying is a richly compassionate and deeply moving novel, the story of a young black man sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit, and a teacher who hopes to ease his burden before the execution.

A deep and compassionate novel about a young man who returns to 1940s Cajun country to visit a Black youth on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Together they come to understand the heroism of resisting.

"An instant classic." - Chicago Tribune

A “majestic, moving instant classic, a book that will be read, discussed and taught beyond the rest of our lives" ( Chicago Tribune), from the critically acclaimed author of A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

" A Lesson Before Dying reconfirms Ernest J. Gaines's position as an important American writer. " - Boston Globe

" Enormously moving.... Gaines unerringly evokes the place and time about which he writes ." - Los Angeles Times

“A quietly moving novel [that] takes us back to a place we've been before to impart a lesson for living.” - San Francisco Chronicle

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