A Lesson Before Dying: Biography


Born on January 15, 1933, to Manual and Adrienne Gaines on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, Ernest J. Gaines is among the most honored of American writers. His novels, though not autobiographical, draw deeply on the place where he grew up.


River Lake Plantation was not only his childhood home but the home of his forebears, back to the time of slavery. After Emancipation, they stayed on as sharecroppers; Gaines’s family lived in houses made by expanding former slave quarters. When Gaines was eight years old, his parents separated, and his great aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, took him and six siblings in. Though she was severely disabled, by force of personality and will she raised these children. Many of Gaines’s stories have a figure inspired by this woman; in A Lesson Before Dying, her strength and dedication can be seen in both Miss Emma and Tante Lou. 


Gaines grew up in a rich tradition of story-telling and attended a one-room school held in a church on the plantation; there was no public high school for blacks in the parish, so he also attended a segregated Catholic school for three years. When he was fifteen, Gaines moved to Vallejo, California, to live with his mother and stepfather, who had moved to the state to take advantage of work possibilities during World War II. There, he was able to further his schooling. Gaines spent a lot of time in the library during these years, reading literature. He was drawn in particular to the novels of nineteenth-century Russian authors such as Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev. But Gaines was disappointed to find that there were no novels about African Americans living in the South. He has spent much of his writing career creating such novels and inspiring others to create them as well.


After two years’ service in the United States Army, Gaines attended Vallejo Junior College and then San Francisco State College, graduating in 1957. He then won a writing fellowship to study at Stanford. In 1964 his first novel, Catherine Carmier, was published to critical success but light sales. Gaines experienced a period of rejections of his stories but in 1966 won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. His next two works, Of Love and Dust (1967) and Bloodline (1968), attracted more attention. Bloodline, a collection of five connected stories, is set in Bayonne, a fictional Louisiana community loosely based on Gaines’s childhood home and the setting for many of the major works he later wrote.


The year 1971 was an important one in Gaines’s career. He was invited to be writer-in-residence at Denison University in Ohio, and he published The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. This compelling novel, in which a 110-year-old woman tells of the changes she has witnessed in the South over her long life, was both a critical and sales success. An equally successful television adaptation debuted in 1974 and eventually won an Emmy. 


In 1972 Gaines received a Guggenheim Fellowship to continue his work, one of a long parade of awards, grants, and honorary degrees that marked his later career. He produced In My Father’s House in 1978, a novel that deals with conflicts between fathers and sons, and A Gathering of Old Men in 1983, a novel narrated from multiple points of view.


Gaines won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (the so-called “genius grant”) in 1994, the year that also saw the publication of A Lesson Before Dying, perhaps his most critically acclaimed novel. A Lesson Before Dying was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and won the National Book Critics Circle Award; it was successfully adapted for television in 1999. 


Gaines’s works have been translated into many languages and have earned him many honorary degrees and awards, including the National Humanities Medal. Gaines is writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana at LaFayette, but he and his wife divide their time between San Francisco and Louisiana, where they have built a house near the plantation where Gaines was born. As essayist and commentator on society as well as a novelist, Gaines published a collection of essays, Mozart and Leadbelly, in 2005. In 2007 the Baton Rouge Foundation established the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence to honor and encourage African American authors. The man who once found nothing in the library about the people of his childhood continues, through this award and through his teaching, to inspire others to tell their stories.