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The National Endowment for the Arts has named A Lesson Before Dying as part of its 2008 Big Read National Reading Program while Mr. Gainesí novels are regularly chosen as part of the Library of Congressís Center for the Book One Book Community Reading Programs.
Ernest J. Gaines was born on January 15, 1933 on the River Lake Plantation in Oscar, a hamlet in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, which is the Bayonne of all his fictional work. His most recent novel, A Lesson Before Dying, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1993. It is the story of a young black man wrongly condemned to Louisiana's electric chair by a white jury in 1948 and of the teacher who tries to help him meet his death - as a man and not as "a hog," the characterization given him by his defense attorney's summation to the jury.
Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the novel won in 1994 the Best Fiction Award by the National Book Critics Circle, the Southern Writers Conference, and the Louisiana Library Association, and was the October 1997 choice of Oprah's Book Club. On May 22, 1999 HBO premiered A Lesson Before Dying, which subsequently received two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Made-For-Television Movie and Outstanding Writing for a Mini-Series or Movie (South African writer Ann Peacock). A play by Romulus Linney and a Southern Writers' Project, based on the novel and having the same title, had its World Premiere at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in January 2000 and Off-Broadway in September 2000.
Raised by his maternal aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, who served as the principal role model for his best known character, Miss Jane Pittman, Ernest Gaines is the oldest of 12 children. At the age of fifteen, he rejoined his mother and step-father in California to continue his education since there was not a high school he could attend in Pointe Coupee Parish and because it was against the law in Louisiana in the 1940's for people of color to enter public libraries!
Ernest Gaines visited a public library for the first time at age 16. He says, "I discovered the Russians, Turgenev, Gogol, who spoke of the peasants. Then the French, Flaubert, Maupas-sant, Zola. But no one was telling me the story of my people. Thus, a teenager, I decided to write. At San Francisco State University I continued reading, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. I studied creative writing at Stanford University with Wallace Stegner and worked and worked."
Ernest J. Gaines is also the author of Catherine Carmier (1964), the relationship between a black man and a sheltered Creole woman; Of Love and Dust (1967), a black Romeo and Juliet tragedy; Bloodline (1968, re-printed by Vintage in December 1997), five short stories, one of which "The Sky is Gray" became a PBS film; The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971),whose TV movie adaptation by CBS won nine Emmys; A Long Day in November (1971), on rites of passage between the young and old; In My Father's House (1978), the double life of a minister/civil rights leader; and A Gathering of Old Men (1983), twelve men conspire to protect a killer, made into a television film in 1993.
Offering understanding for readers of all colors, background and class, Ernest Gaines' novels are set in the plantations of the deep south. His works tackle the issues of manhood for men of color, the breakdown in personal relationships as a result of social pressures, the history and folklore of a distant past, and illustrate the thirty years before the civil rights era.
Book reviews in the Washington Post Book World, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Time have credited Ernest Gaines with "the ability to convey through his work the insidious effect of racism - without moralizing" and "the utter lack of overwrought emotion with which questions of race relations are treated."
Of his books, Professor Gordon Thompson of City College of New York says, "Gaines has written with great sensitivity and insight some of the most significant fiction on the folkways, language and local culture of blacks in Louisiana, particularly in and around the plantation on which he was raised, endearing them to the hearts of countless millions. The incomparable skill with which he describes the strange timelessness of this beautiful country has few equals. He writes about the small-minded and misguided only if he can love them; and of the big-hearted and the patient, he composes portraits of a love so boundless that even as he describes inexcus-ably inhumane situations, his prose remains unequivocally serene."
Professor Gaines holds the title of Writer-in-Residence Emeritus at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette. He is a recipient of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1993) for his lifetime achievements, a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1971), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1971), France's Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1996) and was elected in 1998 to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Ernest J. Gaines received in the year 2000 the Louisiana Center for the Book's Louisiana Award, the National Governors' Association Award for Distinguished Service in the Arts, the Louisiana Governor's Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the Louisiana Writers Award given annually to honor a Louisiana writer whose body of work represents a distinguished and enduring contribution to Louisiana's literary heritage. Honorary doctorates have been conferred upon him by many academic institutions including Brown University, Bard College, Whittier College, Denison University, Savannah College of Arts and Design, Tulane University, Loyola University, The University of the South (Sewanee), Louisiana State University, and the University of Miami. Professor Gaines is married to Dianne Saulney Gaines, an attorney.