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Full text of "Ernest J. Gaines's A lesson before dying : reader's guide"

National Endowment for the Arts 



READER'S GUIDE 



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ERNEST J. GAINES' 

A Lesson 
Before Dying 





In all my stories and 
novels, no one ever 
escapes Louisiana. 
Maybe that is because 
my soul never left 
Louisiana, although 
my body did go to 
California." 



-ERNEST I. GAINES 



Preface 



The novel has a long history of championing social justice. 
Fiction has the signal ability to embody social ideas in a 
compelling narrative that possesses both emotional and 
intellectual power. Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying offers 
a painful yet inspirational tale of institutional injustice and 
personal redemption. It addresses the biggest theme possible — 
how does one affirm life in the face of death. 




The Big Read is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts 
designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American popular 
culture. Reading at Risk: A Survey of literary Reading in America, a 2004 NEA 
report, identified a critical decline in reading for pleasure among American 
adults. The Big Read aims to address this issue directly by providing citizens 
with the opportunity to read and discuss a single book within their 
communities. 

A great book combines enlightenment with enchantment. It awakens our 
imagination and enlarges our humanity. It can even offer harrowing insights 
that somehow console and comfort us. Whether you're a regular reader 
already or a nonreader making up for lost time, thank you for joining 
the Big Read. 



^0^1^'°- 



Dana Gioia 

Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts 



Ernest J. Gaines, 1 995 



National Endowment for the Arts • THE BIG READ 




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2 THE BIG READ • National Endowment for the Arts 



Introduction to the Novel 



Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before 
Dying poses one of the most 
universal questions literature can 
ask: Knowing we're going to die, 
how should we live? It's the story of 
an uneducated young black man 
named Jefferson, accused of the 
murder of a white storekeeper, and 
Grant Wiggins, a college-educated 
native son of Louisiana, who teaches 
at a plantation school. In a little over 
250 pages, these two men named 
for presidents discover a friendship 
that transforms at least two lives. 

In the first chapter, the court- 
appointed lawyer's idea of a legal 
strategy for Jefferson is to argue, 
"Why, I would just as soon put a 
hog in the electric chair as this." 
This dehumanizing and 
unsurprisingly doomed defense 
rankles the condemned man's grief- 
stricken godmother, Miss Emma, 
and Grant's aunt, Tante Lou. They 
convince an unwilling Grant to 
spend time with Jefferson in his 
prison cell, so that he might 
confront death with his head held 
high. 

Most of the novel's violence happens 
offstage in the first and last chapters. 
Vital secondary characters punctuate 
the narrative, including Vivian, 



Grant s assertive yet patient Creole 
girlfriend; Reverend Ambrose, a 
minister whom the disbelieving 
Grant ultimately comes to respect, 
and Paul, a white deputy who stands 
with Jefferson when Grant cannot. 

White, black, mulatto, Cajun, or 
Creole; rich, poor, or hanging on; 
young, old, or running out of 
time — around all these people, 
Gaines crafts a story of intimacy and 
depth. He re-creates the smells of 
Miss Emma's fried chicken, the 
sounds of the blues from Jefferson's 
radio, the taste of the sugarcane 
from the plantation. The school, the 
parish church, the town bar, and the 
jailhouse all come alive with 
indelible vividness. 

In the tradition of Harper Lee's To 
Kill a Mockingbird and Truman 
Capote's In Cold Blood, Gaines uses 
a capital case to explore the nobility 
and the barbarism of which human 
beings are equally capable. The story 
builds inexorably to Jefferson's 
ultimate bid for dignity, both in his 
prison diary and at the hour of his 
execution. That Ernest J. Gaines 
wrings a hopeful ending out of such 
grim material only testifies to his 
prodigious gifts as a storyteller. 



National Endowment for the Arts • THE BIG READ 3 



Ernest J. Gaines (b.1933) 




Ernest James Gaines was 
born in 1933 in Point 
Coupee Parish, Louisiana, 
and in a sense he never left. 
Although he lived in the San 
Francisco area for more than 
thirty years, Louisiana made 
Gaines a novelist, and he has 
continued tilling its soil long 

after he left off picking crops there 

for 50 cents a day. 

Gaines' father left the family early, 
and his mother moved to New 
Orleans to find work. This left the 
boy in the care of his disabled aunt, 
whose strength returns in Tante Lou 
and several of Gaines' other female 
characters. Barely into his teens, 



Gaines began to write and stage 
steadily more ambitious plays at the 
local church. 

In 1949 Gaines rejoined his mother 
in Vallejo, California, where she had 
found work in California's great 
post- World War II economic boom. 
He discovered the downtown 
Carnegie Library and plundered it 
for books with two necessary 
qualities: "Number one, they had to 
be about the South, and two, they 
had to be fiction." 

The 1950s ushered Gaines from 
high school to junior college, to an 
Army tour in Guam, to college back 
in California, and finally into the 
writer Wallace Stegner's prestigious 



THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ERNEST J. GAINES 



1930s 

Ernest J. Gaines is born 
in Louisiana, 1933. 

Louisiana Senator Huey 
P. Long, creator of 
populist "Share Our 
Wealth" program, is 
assassinated in Baton 
Rouge, 1935. 

Joe Louis becomes 
champion, both in pro 
boxing and in the hearts 
of African-Americans, 
1937. 



1940s 

America enters World 
War II, 1941; all-African- 
American Tuskegee 
Airmen help win the air 
war,1 942-5; armistice 
signed, 1945. 

Jackie Robinson 
integrates pro baseball 
with the Brooklyn 
Dodgers, 1947. 

Gaines moves to Vallejo, 
California, in 1948, the 
year A Lesson Before 
Dying is set. 



1950s 

Thurgood Marshall 
successfully argues 
against school 
segregation in Brown v. 
Board of Education, 
1954. 

Rosa Parks refuses to 
give up her bus seat to 
a white man, 1955. 



I 







1960s 

Martin Luther King, Jr., 
delivers his "I Have a 
Dream" speech, 1963. 

A six-month return to 
Louisiana invigorates 
Gaines' career, 1963. 

Congress passes Civil 
Rights Act, 1964. 

President Lyndon 
Johnson names 
Thurgood Marshall to 
the Supreme Court, 
1967. 

A segregated 
drinking fountain 



4 THE BIG READ • National Endowment for the Arts 




creative writing program at Stanford, 
where classmates included Wendell 
Berry and Ken Kesey. He soon won 
the Joseph Henry Jackson Award for 
a novel in progress. 

That novel developed into 1964 s 
Catherine Cannier, followed three 
years later by Of Love and Dust, 
which coincided with a fellowship 
for Gaines from the National 
Endowment for the Arts. He broke 
through to a wider public with The 
Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman 
(1971), which was nominated for 
the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. 

More well-received novels followed, 
including^ Gathering of Old Men in 



Gaines married lawyer 
Dianne Saulney in 1993. 

1983, shortly after the start of his 
years teaching writing at the 
University of Louisiana in Lafayette. 
There he conceived the idea for his 
sixth novel, A Lesson Before Dying, 
though a decade would pass before 
it saw print. 

A Lesson Before Dying surpassed even 
the rapturous reception accorded 
Miss Jane Pittman. The Pulitzer jury 
shortlisted Gaines again. He walked 
off with the prestigious National 
Book Critics Circle award. A 
MacArthur Fellowship finally gave 
him some financial security, and he 
married Dianne Saulney, a Miami 
attorney who grew up in — where 
else? — Louisiana. 



1970s 

The Autobiography of 
Miss Jane Pittman wins 
the California Book 
Award, 1972, the same 
year Gaines receives a 
Guggenheim grant. 

Rep. Shirley Chisholm, 
the first woman and first 
African-American to run 
for president, receives 
152 delegates, but loses 
the Democratic 
nomination, 1972. 




Gaines takes a 
professorship at the 
University of Louisiana- 
Lafayette, is later made 
Writer-in-Residence, 
1981. 

Jesse Jackson wins five 
Democratic presidential 
primaries in 1984 and 
11 in 1988. 

Gaines publishes 

A Gathering of Old Men, 

1983. 



After 28 years in prison, 
Nelson Mandela is 
released in 1990; his 
policies of reconciliation 
help to heal the wounds 
of apartheid in South 
Africa. 

Toni Morrison wins the 
Nobel Prize in Literature, 
1993, the same year 
Gaines publishes A 
Lesson Before Dying. 
Oprah Winfrey selects 
Gaines' novel for her 
bookclub, 1997. 



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Romulus Linney's play 
A Lesson Before Dying 
premieres at New York's 
Signature Theatre, 2000. 

Gaines retires from 
teaching, 2005. 

Hurricane Katrina 
devastates Southern 
Louisiana, 2005. 

Supreme Court rules 
against voluntary 
schemes to create racial 
balance among 
students, 2007. 



National Endowment for the Arts •THE BIG READ 5 



Historical Context 

The Pre-Civil Rights South 



Between the atrocities of the Jim 
Crow South and advances of the 
civil rights era, the 1940s Louisiana 
of Ernest Gaines' youth forms a 
crucial bridge. Gaines had used that 
era before in three other books, and 
he has written that A Lesson Before 
Dying didn't begin to crystallize in 
his mind until he made a relatively 
late decision to set it then. In his 
essay "Writing A Lesson Before 
Dying," Gaines says, "If I put my 
story in the forties, there was so 
much material I could use. . .1 knew 
the food people ate, knew the kind 



Jackie Robinson (r); 
Joe Louis (I) 



of clothes they wore, knew the kind 
of songs they sang in the fields and 
in the church." 

During the Jim Crow era, local 
officials had instituted curfews for 
blacks and posted "Whites Only" 
and "Colored" signs in parks, 
schools, hotels, water fountains, 
restrooms, and public transportation. 
Laws against miscegenation or "race- 
mixing" deemed all marriages 
between white and black not only 
void, but illegal. Compounding the 
injustice of Jim Crow laws was the 
inconsistency of their application. 
Backtalk would rate a laugh in one 
town, a lynching just over the 
county line. 




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6 THE BIG READ •National E 




e Arts 



It's little wonder that those few 
.African Americans who succeeded 
on a national level became a source 
of enormous pride to those still 
under racisms lash. The scholar- 
critic Henry Louis Gates has written 
of hearing the shouts go up all over 
his West Virginia hometown 
whenever a black face appeared on 
television: "Colored on Channel 
2!" "Sammy Davis Jr. s on Channel 
5!" For Gaines' slightly older 
generation, the same thing 
happened whenever the names of 
the barrier-breaking ballplayer Jackie 
Robinson, or heavyweight champ 
Joe Louis — both mentioned in A 
Lesson Before Dying — or pioneering 
civil-rights lawyer Thurgood 
Marshall came up. 

As chief counsel for the North 
American Association of Colored 
People (NAACP), Marshall argued 
and won th 1954 landmark Brown 
v. Board of Education case, which 
struck down school segregation. 
Thirteen years later, Marshall 
crossed the courtroom rail to 
become America's first black justice 
on the Supreme Court, where 
several of his influential opinions 
became, and still are, the law of the 
land. But he laid the groundwork 





An African American sharecropper has his 
cotton checked by an inspector, 1 936. 

for that triumph in political and 
legal struggles — such as the Garner 
v. Louisiana case, which invalidated 
convictions for a lunch-counter 
sit-in — during the pre-civil rights 
era that Ernest J. Gaines chronicles 
so well. 



'We had the great 
landowners, the 
sharecroppers, the small 
towns, uptown, and back 
of town, the swamps, the 
bayous — there's a story 
behind every tree." 

—ERNEST J. GAINES 
in a 1994 interview 



National Endowment for the Arts • THE BIG READ 7 






On August 1 6, 2007, Dan Stone of the National 
Endowment for the Arts interviewed Ernest J. Gaines at 
his home in Pointe Coupee, Louisiana. An excerpt from 
their conversation follows. 



DS: When did books first become 
important to you? 

EG: As a child in Louisiana, there 
was no library that I could go to. 
But when I went to California, I 
found myself in the library. And at 
16, I started reading and reading. I 
especially read anybody who wrote 
about the land. I'd look at the dust 
jacket, and if there was a tree or lake 
or field on it, I'd flip through. I 
especially liked to read the 19th- 
century Russian writers — Chekhov, 
Tolstoy, and Turgenev — because 
they wrote about the land and 
peasant life. 

DS: What experiences from your 
own life did you work into A Lesson 
Before Dying! 

EG: My first six years of my 
education was in my plantations 
church, and I used that as Grant's 
school. We worked and picked 
pecans to buy our clothes, and we 
went to school about five and a half 
months of the year because we had 
to begin to work in the field at age 



eight, from mid-March until about 
mid-September. 

DS: It's assumed that Jefferson is 
innocent, but in the beginning, this 
is never stated. Did you intentionally 
give two sides? 

EG: I don't know whether he's 
innocent or guilty. The point of the 
story is how two men would grow to 
become real men. Jefferson, with 
only a few months to live; Grant 
with another 40 years or more to 
live — what will they do with that 
time? Neither one is going anywhere 
in life. Grant wants to get away. 
Jefferson is just there, doing whatever 
people want him to do. He never 
argues, he never questions anything. 
I wanted the story to be about how 
both men develop. 

DS: Grant gives Jefferson a radio. 
How is music able to break down 
those barriers? 

EG: Music is very important to me. 
When I was growing up, there were 
maybe one or two radios on the 



8 THE BIG READ • National Endowment for the Arts 




Philco radios displayed in a shop window, c. 1 932. 

quarters here. We'd listen to the 
music at my grandmother's house, 
especially late at night when you 
could hear the blues. It is the blues 
that reaches Jefferson spiritually. The 
minister tried to reach him, but I 
think he was closer to those old 
blues. So the purpose of the radio 
was to get Jefferson to open up. 

DS: Why is Grant so unable to help 
Jefferson at the beginning of the 
novel? What is his deepest struggle? 

EG: Grant is struggling with the 
South at that time. This man was 
terribly angry. He didn't know who 
he was — and that's the worst thing 
in the world can happen to a man. 
He hated where he was, but at the 
same time, he can't leave. I don't 
know what would have happened to 
me, had I stayed here. I probably 
would have ended up teaching in a 
little school and angry the rest of my 
life. So the two best moves I've ever 



made in life were the day I went to 
California and the day I came back 
here. My folks took me away from 
here in 1948, and, then in 1963, 1 
came back here. 

DS: The California poet Robinson 
Jeffers wrote about something he 
called inevitable place — that most 
people are tied to a place where they 
inevitably have to return. They can 
go anywhere in the world, but that's 
the spot for them. It seems Louisiana 
is that place for you. 

EG: Definitely so. I tried to write 
about the Army and the year I spent 
in Guam. I tried to write ghost 
stories about San Francisco. I can't 
write about San Francisco! But I can 
write about that little postage stamp 
of land in Louisiana. In my case, the 
body went to California. The soul 
remained here with my aunt and my 
brothers and sisters and friends and 
the old shack we lived in. 



National Endowment for the Arts • THE BIG READ 9 




Gaines on Film 



The challenge of programming a 
traditional monthlong film festival 
around a good writer is either too 
many interesting movies or not 
nearly enough. Ernest Gaines is the 
exception. All four television movies 
made from his work reward close 
viewing, and Gaines may stand 
alone as the only author whose 
adaptations have earned two 
Emmys for outstanding telefilm, 
plus a third nomination in that 
category for another. 

Ineligible for an Emmy at 46 
minutes, The Sky Is Gray (1980) was 
a short film in the much-missed 
"American Short Story" series, made 
possible originally by the National 
Endowment for the Humanities. 
Olivia Cole plays Octavia, an 
impoverished Louisiana mother 
trying to stretch a few coins far 
enough to cover busfare into town, 
dental care for her young son, and 
maybe a hunk of salt meat for the 
two to share. An adaptation of 
Gaines' story of the same name, 
The Sky Is Gray returns Gaines to 
the 1940s parish of his childhood 



for a delicately moving parable of 
interracial kindness and cruelty. 

The Autobiography of Miss Jane 
Pittman (1974) remains the best 
known among the films made from 
Gaines' work. Lovingly adapted by 
Tracy Keenan Wynn from Gaines' 
novel about the panoramic life of a 
1 1 0-year-old black woman, it won 
not just Outstanding Special but 
four other Emmys as well, including 
one for Cicely Tyson's towering 
performance in the tide role. Not 
only does Miss Jane Pittman appear 
regularly on lists of television's 
proudest events, but it's hard to 
imagine the landmark miniseries 
Roots ever getting produced without 
Miss Jane Pittman s precedent to cite. 

The playwright Charles Fuller, who 
also wrote the script for The Sky Is 
Gray, adapted the likewise Emmy- 
winning A Gathering of Old Men 
(1987) from Gaines' 1983 novel. 
Brilliandy acted by a cast including 
Louis Gossett, Jr., Richard 
Widmark, Holly Hunter, and a 
gallery of such great character actors 



| THE BIG READ ■ National Endowment for the Arts 




as Woody Strode, Julius Harris, 
and Joe Seneca — plus musicians 
Sandman Sims and Papa John 
Creach — A Gathering of Old Men 
honors a vanishing Louisiana so 
faithfully that a viewer can hear 
and almost smell the canebrakes 
burning. 




Finally, Ann Peacock's careful 
television adaptation of A Lesson 
Before Dying (1999) does full justice 
to Gaines' popular novel. Don 
Cheadle plays Grant, Mekhi 
Feiffer the doomed Jefferson, 
and Miss Jane Pittman 
herself, Cicely Tyson, 
contributes a wily turn as 
Tante Lou. Directed by 
the underrated TV veteran 
Joseph Sargent, whose 
nearly only widescreen foray 
was the magnificent Taking of 
Pelham 1-2-3 (1974), A Lesson 
Before Dying is no substitute for 
the novel, but the perfect lagniappe 
after finishing it. 



If you enjoyed A Lesson Before 
Dying, you might want to read: 

Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life 
of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave 
(1845) 

Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) 

bert Penn Warren's All the Kings 
Men (1946) 

n's Invisible Man (1952) 

read books that 
rnest J. Gaines, you 
fant to try: 

nev's Fathers and Sons (1852) 

Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of 
Courage (1895) 

Jean Toomer's Cane (1923) 

William Faulkner's The Sound and 
'(1929) 



"In all of my stories and 

novels, no one ever escapes 

Louisiana. Miss Jane, after she heard 

about freedom, then she tried to walk 

to Ohio. She didn't get out of the swamps 

of Louisiana. Charlie, in A Gathering of Old 

Men, wanted to run away, but he had to come 

back and face it here. In Catherine Cormier 

Catherine had to stay; Marcus in Of Love and 

Dust tried to get away, but he had to die 

here. All of my characters remain in 

Louisiana. And maybe that is because 

my soul never left Louisiana." 

—ERNEST J. GAINES 




National Endowment for the Arts • THE BIG READ 



Gaines and His Other Works 



Ernest J. Gaines began 
his long walk to renown 
in 1959 when a story of 
his won the Joseph Henry 
Jackson Award, named for 
the influential San Francisco 
Chronicle book critic. 
Encouraged, Gaines began to 
rework a novel that he had 
first written and burned at 16 
after New York publishers 
rejected it. 

In 1964 Atheneum published 
Catherine Cannier, a novel 
about the love between a 
dark-skinned African- 
American man and a lighter- 
skinned Creole sharecroppers 
daughter. Gaines plowed a 
related furrow three years later 
in the novel Of Love and Dust, 
also about tangled affairs of the 
heart among whites, blacks, and 
Cajuns. Bloodline came out in 1968, 
gathering three previously published 
stories and two new ones. 

Seemingly refreshed by this return 
to short fiction, in 1971 Gaines 
produced his breakthrough book, 
The Autobiography of Miss Jane 
Pittman. The saga of a 1 1 0-year-old 
African-American woman from the 
Civil War to the 1960s, the CBS 
adaptation of Miss Jane Pittman 




ERNEST J. 

GAINES 





ERNEST J. GAINES 



redefined what a television movie 
could achieve. 

That same year, Gaines published 
his only work for young people, 
the litde-known A Long Day in 
November. He then took seven years 
to publish the novel In My Fathers 
House, about a civil rights leader 
confronted by living proof of a 
long-ago indiscretion. 

In 1983 "sA Gathering of Old Men, 
Gaines borrowed the detective story 



| 2 THE BIG READ • National Endowment for the Arts 



form for an exploration of racisms 
lingering cost. The story begins 
when a white man is found dead 
and several African-Americans step 
forward with competing claims of 
responsibility. 

If a writer can have a second 
breakthrough book, Gaines achieved 
it 10 years later in A Lesson Before 
Dying. With its inexorable 
momentum and bitter, stifled 
narrator, the novel struck a 
nationwide chord, was nominated for 
a Pulitzer Prize, and won the coveted 
National Book Critics Circle award. 

After his longest layoff, in 2005 
Gaines came back with Mozart and 
Leadbelly, which contains five stories, 
an extended conversation with two 
scholars, and half a dozen essays, 
including one apiece about writing 
both Miss Jane Pittman and A Lesson 
Before Dying. A year later, The Baton 
Rouge Area Foundation afforded 
Gaines the chance to pay forward 
an old favor. That's when the 
foundation endowed the Ernest J. 
Gaines Award for Literary 
Excellence, to honor an African 
American for a book-length work of 
fiction — much as the Jackson Award 
had launched Gaines nearly half a 
century earlier. 



How A Lesson Before 
Dying Came to Be 
Written 



"I used to have nightmares about 
execution. I lived in San Francisco, 
just across the bay from San 
Quentin. 1 o'clock on Tuesdays 
was execution day. I wondered 
what this person must go through 
the month before, the week before, 
then the night before. I'd see 
myself, my brothers, and my friends 
going to that gas chamber. I'd have 
those nightmares over and over. 

I wanted to write a story about an 
execution, so a colleague told me 
about this material that he had 
about a young man, who had been 
sent him to the electric chair twice. 
The first time the chair failed, but a 
year later, he was executed. That 
happened in 1 948, the same year 
that I left to go to California. 

I visited small-town sheriffs and jails. 
I met a minister who had escorted 
a young man to the electric chair. 
The electric chair at Angola was 
called Gruesome Gerty. I had a 
student in my creative writing class 
who had her young man [working] 
on death row, and I would ask him 
questions. I'd ask him about the size 
of the strap, the height and weight 
of the chair. The character Paul in A 
Lesson Before Dying is built around 
this student. And that's how I wrote 
the novel." 

— Excerpted from Ernest J. Gaines' interview 
with Dan Stone 



National Enc 



Discussion Questions 



1 . A Lesson Before Dying is mostly 
narrated by the teacher Grant 
Wiggins from the first-person 
point of view. What important 
attributes does he reveal about 
himself in the opening 
chapters? What kinds of things 
does he conceal? 

2. Why hasn't Grant left 
Louisiana, though he says he 
wants nothing more than to 
get away? What is he trying to 
escape? 

3. Grant was educated in the 
1930s, and 1942 marks his first 
year as a teacher. What do we 
know about Grants school 
days, and how does this inform 
his own teaching methods? 

4. Miss Emma and Grants Tante 
Lou pressure Grant to visit 
Jefferson in prison. Why does 
Grant follow their advice 
against his own wishes? 

5. Why does Grant refuse to sit 
down and eat in Henri Pichot s 
kitchen? 

6. Grant's girlfriend is a light- 
skinned Catholic mother of 
two, who is not yet divorced. 
How do these differences 
create tension in their 
relationship? 



7. How does the radio mark a 
turn in Grants relationship 
with Jefferson? 

8. Grant describes the cycle of life 
for black men in the south to 
Vivian. What is his answer to 
the question: "Can the cycle 
ever be broken?" Is the answer 
relevant today? 

9. Do you agree, as Grant says, 
that he can never be a hero but 
that Jefferson can be? 

10. What effect does Chapter 
29 — the only time in the 
narrative when we directly hear 
Jefferson's voice — have on the 
reader? Why might Gaines 
make the choice to use 
Jefferson's diary to tell this part 
of the novel? 

1 1 . How does the white deputy, 
Paul, contrast with other white 
men and women in the novel? 
How is it important that Paul 
attends Jefferson's execution? 

12. Would you have been able to 
stand with Jefferson? Why 
wasn't Grant at the execution? 



| 4 THE BIG READ • National Endowment for the Arts 



Ernest J. Gaines 
walks the railroad 
tracks that run 
through his land. The 
tracks were once 
used to transport 
sugarcane from the 
fields to the mills. 



"Students are always asking 
me/Do you know the ending 
of your novel when you start 
writing?' And I have always 
used the analogy of getting on 
a train from San Francisco to 
go to New York. It takes three 
or four days to get there. I 
know some facts. ... What I 
don't know is how the weather 
will be the entire trip... I can't 
anticipate everything that 
will happen on the trip, and 
sometimes I don't even get 
to New York, but end up in 
Philadelphia." 

—ERNEST J. GAINES 

from his essay "Writing A Lesson Before 
Dying in Mozart and Leadbelly, 2005 




Additional Resources 



Works by Ernest J. Gaines 

Catherine Cannier, 1964 
Of Love and Dust, 1967 
Bloodline, 1968 
The Autobiography of Miss Jane 

Pittman, 1971 
A Long Day in November, 1971 
In My Father s House, 1978 
A Gathering of Old Men, 1983 
A Lesson Before Dying, 1993 
Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and 

Essays, 2005 

Works about Ernest J. Gaines 

Lowe, John, ed. Conversations 
with Ernest Gaines, Jackson, MS: 
University Press of Mississippi, 
1995. 

Other Works about the Historical 
Context of A Lesson Before Dying 

Chafe, William H., Raymond 
Gavis, Robert Korstad, eds. 
Remembering Jim Crow: African 
Americans Tell About Life in the 
Segregated South. New York: New 
Press, 2001. 

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 
1940. New York: Hill and Wang, 
2002. 




Electric chair, c. 1 920s. 



<*i> 



I'm not begging for his 
life no more; that's over. 
I just want see him die 
like a man." 

—MISS EMMA 

in A Lesson Before Dying 



Scott, Simon. Jackie Robinson and 
the Integration of Baseball. Hoboken, 
NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002. 

Washington, Booker T. Up from 
Slavery: An Autobiography. 1 90 1 . 
New York: Random House, 1999. 



| 6 THE BIG READ • National Endowment for the Arts 




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MIDWEST 



The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting 
excellence in the arts — both new and established — bringing the arts to all 
Americans, and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 
1965 as an independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the 
nation's largest annual hinder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, 
including rural areas, inner cities, and military bases. 

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal 
support for the nation's 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's 
mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to 
information and ideas. The Institute works at the national level and in 
coordination with state and local organizations to sustain heritage, culture, and 
knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support professional 
development. 

Arts Midwest connects people throughout the Midwest and the world to 
meaningful arts opportunities, sharing creativity, knowledge, and understanding 
across boundaries. One of six non-profit regional arts organizations in the United 
States, Arts Midwest's history spans more than 25 years. 

Additional support for the Big Read has also been provided by the 
WK. Kellogg Foundation. 



"Works Cited 

Ferris, Bill. "Meeting Ernest Gaines." July/August 1998. Online Posting. Humanities, Volume 19/Number 4. 20 
August 2007. http://www.neh.gov/news/humanides/1998-07/gaines.html 

Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying. New York: Random House, 1993. 

— . Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. 

Lowe, John. ed. Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. 

Acknowledgments 

David Kipen, NEA Director of Literature, National Reading Initiatives 

Writer: David Kipen for the National Endowment for the Arts, with a preface by Dana Gioia 

Series Editor: Erika Koss for the National Endowment for the Arts 

Image Editor: Molly Thomas-Hicks with Dan Brady for the National Endowment for the Arts 

Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington, DC 

Image Credits 

Cover Portrait: John Sherffius for the Big Read. Inside Front © 1993 by Philip Gould. Page 1: Caricature of Dana Gioia by John Sherffius. 
Page 2: Photo © Samuel Portera; A Lesson Before Dyingbook cover courtesy of Random House, Inc. Page 4: top, © Steven Forster; 
bottom, © Bettman/Corbis. Page 5: © Dr. James J. Prestage. Page 6: Both images © Bettman/Corbis. Page 7: Photo by Alfred 
Eisenstaedt © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. Page 9: © Tim O'Hara/Corbis. Pages 10-11: Photo by Willard R. Culver © National 
Geographic/Getty Images. Page 12: Book covers, courtesy of Random House, Inc. Page 15: Courtesy of Ernest J. Gaines. Page 16: 
© Archive Holdings Inc./Getty Images. 



This publication is published by: 

National Endowment for the Arts • 1 100 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. • Washington, DC 20506-0001 

(202) 682-5400 • www.nea.gov 



www.NEABigRead.org 



Sept 2007 






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'Why wasn't I there? 
Why wasn't I standing 
beside him? Why wasn't 
my arm around 
him?... Why wasn't I 
down on my knees?" 

—ERNEST J. GAINES 
Grant Wiggins in A Lesson Before Dying 



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MuseunrtandLibrary 

SERVICES 



The Big Read is an initiative of the National 
Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading 
to the center of American culture. The NBA presents 
The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of 
Museum and Library Services and in cooperation 
with Arts Midwest. 



A great nation deserves great art.