National Endowment for the Arts
IIMilllUltO/ . ..
ERNEST J. GAINES'
In all my stories and
novels, no one ever
Maybe that is because
my soul never left
my body did go to
-ERNEST I. GAINES
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
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.
Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts
Ernest J. Gaines, 1 995
National Endowment for the Arts • THE BIG READ
I *^ .-^ J *' w W I
* F /""
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
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
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
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
Ernest J. Gaines is born
in Louisiana, 1933.
Louisiana Senator Huey
P. Long, creator of
populist "Share Our
Wealth" program, is
assassinated in Baton
Joe Louis becomes
champion, both in pro
boxing and in the hearts
America enters World
War II, 1941; all-African-
Airmen help win the air
war,1 942-5; armistice
integrates pro baseball
with the Brooklyn
Gaines moves to Vallejo,
California, in 1948, the
year A Lesson Before
Dying is set.
segregation in Brown v.
Board of Education,
Rosa Parks refuses to
give up her bus seat to
a white man, 1955.
Martin Luther King, Jr.,
delivers his "I Have a
Dream" speech, 1963.
A six-month return to
Gaines' career, 1963.
Congress passes Civil
Rights Act, 1964.
Thurgood Marshall to
the Supreme Court,
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.
The Autobiography of
Miss Jane Pittman wins
the California Book
Award, 1972, the same
year Gaines receives a
Rep. Shirley Chisholm,
the first woman and first
African-American to run
for president, receives
152 delegates, but loses
Gaines takes a
professorship at the
University of Louisiana-
Lafayette, is later made
Jesse Jackson wins five
primaries in 1984 and
11 in 1988.
A Gathering of Old Men,
After 28 years in prison,
Nelson Mandela is
released in 1990; his
policies of reconciliation
help to heal the wounds
of apartheid in South
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
Romulus Linney's play
A Lesson Before Dying
premieres at New York's
Signature Theatre, 2000.
Gaines retires from
Supreme Court rules
schemes to create racial
National Endowment for the Arts •THE BIG READ 5
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
6 THE BIG READ •National E
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
'We had the great
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
DS: What experiences from your
own life did you work into A Lesson
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
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
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
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
Richard Wright's Native Son (1940)
bert Penn Warren's All the Kings
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
Jean Toomer's Cane (1923)
William Faulkner's The Sound and
"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
In 1964 Atheneum published
Catherine Cannier, a novel
about the love between a
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
redefined what a television movie
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
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
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
How A Lesson Before
Dying Came to Be
"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
— Excerpted from Ernest J. Gaines' interview
with Dan Stone
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
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
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
7. How does the radio mark a
turn in Grants relationship
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
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
—ERNEST J. GAINES
from his essay "Writing A Lesson Before
Dying in Mozart and Leadbelly, 2005
Works by Ernest J. Gaines
Catherine Cannier, 1964
Of Love and Dust, 1967
The Autobiography of Miss Jane
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
Works about Ernest J. Gaines
Lowe, John, ed. Conversations
with Ernest Gaines, Jackson, MS:
University Press of Mississippi,
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
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea.
1940. New York: Hill and Wang,
Electric chair, c. 1 920s.
I'm not begging for his
life no more; that's over.
I just want see him die
like a man."
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
FOR THE ARTS
. . INSTITUTE of „ .,
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
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.
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.
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
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:
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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
FOB THE ARTS
. . INSTITUTE of , „
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.