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Ernest J. Gaines A Lesson Before Dying

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Award: National Book Critics Circle Award

(Full name Ernest James Gaines) Born in 1933, Gaines is an American novelist and short story writer.

For further information on Gaines's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 11, and 18.

A Lesson before Dying (1993) is Gaines's first major publication in ten years. Like all of his fiction, it is informed by his upbringing on a Louisiana plantation. Set in 1948 in rural Louisiana, A Lesson before Dying presents the story of Jefferson, a black man accused by a white community and sentenced to death for a murder and robbery he did not commit. His attorney's defense—that Jefferson would be incapable of planning and carrying out the crimes of which he is accused because he is merely a dumb animal incapable of independent thought—is unsuccessful. This reasoning, however, robs Jefferson of his self-respect and he withdraws into a nearly catatonic state. His godmother, Miss Emma, resolves that if he must die, "I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet." She enlists Grant Wiggins, a successful young black man, to be Jefferson's mentor and to help him find dignity while he awaits execution. Jonathan Yardley describes the book as "quintessential Gaines, a fine introduction to his world and his view of it for anyone unfamiliar with his work—and, for those who know that work, a welcome opportunity to return to familiar territory."

Principal Works

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Catherine Carmier (novel) 1964
Of Love and Dust (novel) 1967
Bloodline (short stories) 1968
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (novel) 1971
In My Father's House (novel) 1978
A Gathering of Old Men (novel) 1983
A Lesson before Dying (novel) 1993

Jonathan Yardley (review date 28 March 1993)

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SOURCE: "Nothing but a Man," in Book World—The Washington Post, March 28, 1993, p. 3.

[Yardley is an American critic and educator who has written a weekly syndicated book review since 1974. In the following review, he favorably assesses A Lesson before Dying.]

The year is 1948 [in A Lesson Before Dying] and the place is rural Louisiana. "A white man had been killed during a robbery, and though two of the robbers had been killed on the spot, one had been captured, and he, too, would have to die." His name is Jefferson. He is a barely literate man-child, he was present at the killing purely by accident, and he almost certainly is innocent; but white justice in Bayonne, the seat of St. Raphael Parish, demands that he must die.

His lawyer does the best he can, considering the time and the circumstances. He portrays his client as a mere dumb animal incapable of coherent thought or action. "No, gentlemen," he tells the jury, "this skull here holds no plans. What you see here is a thing that acts on command. A thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton, a thing to dig your ditches, to chop your wood, to pull your corn…. What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this."

To Miss Emma, Jefferson's ancient godmother, these last words have a terrible resonance. "I don't want them to kill no hog," she says. "I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet." She is speaking to Grant Wiggins, himself black and young, a teacher at a school for black children, whom she wants to take over the task of making Jefferson a "man." It is not an assignment he welcomes, as he tells his lover:

"The public defender, trying to get him off, called him a dumb animal. He said it would be like tying a hog down in that chair and executing him—an animal that didn't know what any of it was all about. The jury, twelve white men good and true, still sentenced him to death. Now his godmother wants me to visit him and make him know—prove to these white men—that he's not a hog, that he's a man. I'm supposed to make him a man. Who am I? God?… What do I say to him? Do I know what a man is? Do I know how a man is supposed to die? I'm still trying to find out how a man should live. Am I supposed to tell someone how to die who has never lived?"

However reluctantly, Grant agrees to see what he can do. Miss Emma approaches her former employer to ask that he intercede with the sheriff so Grant can gain admission to Jefferson's cell. This in turn is followed by Grant's own interview with the sheriff—a humiliating encounter that is described with restraint and economy—after which he is permitted to proceed.

Thus the scene is set in A Lesson Before Dying, the eighth novel by Ernest J. Gaines, a writer who gained a measure of renown for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman but has never really been given the recognition he deserves. Whether A Lesson Before Dying will change that is, as is usual in such matters, highly problematical, but in a just world it would. It is quintessential Gaines, a fine introduction to his world and his view of it for anyone unfamiliar with his work—and, for those who know that work, a welcome opportunity to return to familiar territory.

Gaines was born six decades ago on a Louisiana plantation. He was reared there, and it was there that his understanding of American life was shaped. He has traveled widely and lived in many places, but as he himself has readily acknowledged, rural Louisiana is where he feels most truly at home. It is there to which he returns, over and over again, in his fiction.

One of the many remarkable things about his work, and thus about Gaines himself, is the utter lack of overwrought emotion with which questions of race relations are treated. It is not that Gaines is incapable of anger. Quite to the contrary: "Twelve white men say a black man must die," he writes in this novel, "and another white man sets the date and time without consulting one black person. Justice?" Rather it is that he has the breadth and depth of mind to understand that generalizations are always suspect, that one must look at individual humans instead of stereotypes if there is to be any hope of understanding them.

Thus it is that one of the most sympathetic characters in A Lesson Before Dying is Paul, a white jailor who befriends Grant and quietly helps Jefferson. Thus it is that Jefferson is portrayed without sentimentality, as an ignorant man who must struggle against himself as well as against injustice. Thus it is that Grant is no cardboard hero but an immensely complex man who not merely is loath to take on a task he finds distasteful but also must resist the temptation to condescend to the uneducated man—so unlike himself except in being black—to whose cell he has so unhappily come.

He also admits, however grudgingly, his own complicity in the system of which Jefferson is a victim. Though whites regard him with disdain and a measure of apprehension—"You're smart," one of them tells him. "Maybe you're just a little too smart for your own good"—he knows that, like the black preacher who bows and scrapes, there is only so far that he can go. This is at the core of his appeal to Jefferson, the words that finally cut through the prisoner's hostility and resistance:

"Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson? A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they're better than anyone else on earth—and that's a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand, they're safe. They're safe with me. They're safe with Reverend Ambrose. I don't want them to feel safe with you anymore."

The drama of the novel's final pages is psychological rather than actual; this is Louisiana in 1948, after all, and no one is going to ride to the rescue of a black man awaiting execution. Instead the questions involve how Jefferson will face his final hours and what the rest of the community, Grant most particularly, can learn from them—for the real lesson of the title is not learned by Jefferson but by others. Suffice it to say that the lesson is valuable and apt, presented in the modest but forceful terms that we have come to expect from Ernest J. Gaines.

Charles R. Larson (review date 9 May 1993)

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SOURCE: "End as a Man," in Chicago Tribune—Books, May 9, 1993, p. 5.

[Larson is an American novelist, editor, and critic. In the following positive review, he focuses on Gaines's treatment of human dignity and the "morality of connectedness" in A Lesson before Dying.]

The incident that propels the narrative of Ernest J. Gaines' rich new novel is deceptively simple. Shortly after World War II, in a Cajun Louisiana town, a 21-year-old black man who is barely literate finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, an innocent bystander during the robbery of a liquor store. The white store owner is killed, as are the two black men who attempt to rob the store; Jefferson—who is just standing there—panics. He grabs a bottle of a liquor and starts drinking it. Then he looks at the phone, knowing he should call someone, but he's never used a dial phone in his life. Flight seems the only option, but as he leaves the store, two white customers enter.

That event takes place at the beginning of A Lesson Before Dying, Gaines' most rewarding novel to date, and it's followed by a brief summary of Jefferson's trial. The 12 white jurors find him guilty, assuming he's an accomplice of the two other black men, and the judge sentences Jefferson to death by electrocution. Much of what follows in this often mesmerizing story focuses on Jefferson's slow rise to dignity and manhood.

The obstacle to be overcome is a derogatory remark made by the defense during the trial, supposedly to save Jefferson from the death sentence. The lawyer asks the jurors, "Do you see a man sitting here? Look at the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand…. Do you see a modicum of intelligence? Do you see anyone here who could plan a murder, a robbery … can plan anything? A cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, a trait inherited from his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackest Africa—yes, yes, that he can do—but to plan?…. No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans. What you see here is a thing that acts on command."

Finally, wrapping up his plea, the lawyer concludes, "What justice would there be to take his life? Justice, gentlemen. Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this."

The fallout from the lawyer's defense is devastating. In his cell, after receiving the death sentence, Jefferson is close to catatonic. As his aged godmother Emma and her friends try to make contact with him, he withdraws further into himself. In one wrenching scene when they bring him home-cooked food, he gets down on all fours and ruts around in the food without using his hands.

The complexity of this painful story is richly enhanced by Gaines's ironic narrator, Grant Wiggins. Only a few years older than Jefferson, Grant is college educated and a parish school teacher. Bitter in his own way and aloof from the community he has come to loathe, Grant is initially uninvolved, until his aunt (Miss Emma's friend) asks that he try to make Jefferson into a man. This quest for manhood becomes the emotional center of the story and a challenge for Grant himself to become reconnected to his people.

Assuming he will fail, Grant articulates his feelings to his mistress:

"We black men have failed to protect our women since the time of slavery. We stay here in the South and are broken, or we run away and leave them alone to look after the children and themselves. So each time a male child is born, they hope he will be the one to change this vicious circle—which he never does. Because even though he wants to change it, and maybe even tries to change it, it is too heavy a burden because of all the others who have run away and left their burdens behind. So he, too, must run away if he is to hold on to his sanity and have a life of his own…. What she wants is for him, Jefferson, and me to change everything that has been going on for three hundred years."

Grant's task is further complicated by the local minister, who believes that saving Jefferson's soul is more important than making him into a man. The tensions between the teacher and the preacher add still another complex dimension to Gaines' formidable narrative.

Nowhere is the story more moving than in the scenes in which Grant and Jefferson are together in Jefferson's cell, agonizing over his horrific past—for Jefferson has been shaped not only by the animalistic designation thrust upon him in his 21st year but also by the deprivations of the previous 20.

When Grant can finally mention the unspeakable—the last day of Jefferson's life—Jefferson tells him, "I never got nothing I wanted in my whole life." When asked what he wants to eat that last day, Jefferson responds, "I want me a whole gallon of ice cream…. Ain't never had enough ice cream. Never had more than a nickel cone. Used to … hand the ice cream man my nickel, and he give me a little scoop on a cone. But now I'm go'n get me a whole gallon. That's what I want—a whole gallon. Eat it with a pot spoon."

More than any other novel about African American life in the United States, A Lesson Before Dying is about standing tall and being a man in the face of overwhelming adversity. And, equally important, Gaines' masterpiece is about what Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner would call the morality of connectedness, of each individual's responsibility to his community, to the brotherhood beyond his self. This majestic, moving novel is an instant classic, a book that will be read, discussed and taught beyond the rest of our lives.

Bob Summer (essay date 24 May 1993)

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SOURCE: "Ernest J. Gaines," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 21, May 24, 1993, pp. 62, 64.

[In the following excerpt, Summer examines the influence of Gaines's life on his novels.]

Inspired by Turgenev's depictions of Russia's serfs, with whom he found parallels to the plantation slaves, [Gaines] began to write.

"I was 17 when I thought I could write a novel and send it to New York and get it published. But I didn't know a damn thing about doing it; I didn't even know how to type. I started in longhand, but my mother rented me a typewriter, which I typed on with one finger. I must have used the cheapest paper I could find, because we couldn't afford anything else. I cut the paper in half, the size of a book, and typed on both sides, single space. I thought it was pretty good. I wrapped in it brown paper, tied a string around it, and sent the thing off. It came back, of course."

After graduating from San Francisco State College (now the University of California-San Francisco) Gaines served in the army. He used $1000 he had saved, plus a small amount remaining from [his] $2500 Stegner Fellowship, to support himself while he tried to produce a saleable book. "After that ran out, I got a job in the Post Office," he says, adding, with a deep, rolling chuckle, "all artists get a job in the Post Office; even Faulkner did at one point."

The plot outline from his first amateurish effort—a young black man returns from California to his native South and falls in love with a woman in his old community—remained stubbornly alive, and Gaines determined to do it justice this time around. It took him five years. "I tried every point of view I could think of, but nothing worked. I knew I had to write a novel, but the truth is I didn't know how," he admits. Turgenev's Fathers and Sons provided the answer. "It's about a young man who goes back home to visit his people. He's changed since he left and plans a short stay. Then he falls in love with a beautiful woman. That's what I was writing about, so all the moves Turgenev made I followed. Fathers and Sons was my bible when I was writing Catherine Carmier."

The title of Gaines's first novel came from legendary editor Hiram Haydn at Atheneum, where the book was published in 1964. It met a cool response, however, and most of the 3500 first printing was remaindered. (Reprinted by North Point in the early '80s, it has just been reissued as a Vintage trade paperback.) Nevertheless, Gaines had found the place and voices that would continue to engage him as sources for his fiction.

His next three novels (Of Love and Dust; Bloodline; A Long Day in November), and a book for children, were published by Dial when E. L. Doctorow was editor-in-chief. Each is set in the region of his boyhood, a place of sugarcane and cotton fields where the people who work them say "mon" for mother, "gallery" (or "garry") for porch, and "fair" for a house party. While he did not base any of his characters directly on the people he knew in the quarter, he freely used the sounds of their voices and concentrated on capturing the rhythm of their speech.

His beloved Aunt Augusteen was the inspiration for the 110-year-old former slave who is the title character in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which has sold over a million copies worldwide since its 1971 publication. Miss Jane, he points out, "was never my aunt physically. Miss Jane goes everywhere and does everything, and my aunt, who was crippled and could only crawl, could not. I never saw Aunt Augusteen in front of me when I was writing, but I felt her spirit." He dedicated the book to Augusteen, "who did not walk a day in her life but who taught me the importance of standing."

Miss Jane Pittman, which he researched in Baton Rouge libraries, took him two and a half years to write, but he feels that it had germinated for 38 years, his age when it was published. "Probably I couldn't have written it had I not come from Louisiana. I grew up listening to the old people in the quarter, and all that I heard, in some way, I buried in my subconsciousness. I just didn't begin putting it down on paper until I was 35. I wrote letters for those folks, too, as young Jimmy—my middle name is James—does in the novel…. I don't think I'm finished with those letters yet, although the people for whom I wrote them have been dead for 40 years or more. Maybe that's what I'm still trying to do as a writer."

Gaines says he has no particular audience in mind when he writes, just as he's certain that Turgenev, Joyce and Gertrude Stein—in whose The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas he found the method he used to tell Miss Jane Pittman's life story—did not have him in mind either, although he's learned much from each.

"Wallace Stegner once asked me for whom I write, and I told him: no one. He said if he put a gun to me and forced an answer, what would I say. If he did that, I told him, I'd probably say I write for the black youth of the South, to make them aware of who they are. Who else, he asked. I said the white youth of the South to make them aware that unless they understand their black neighbors they cannot understand themselves. But, in fact, I have no intention of addressing any group over another. It's dangerous for writers to think of their audience. I try to write as well as I can, and that's tough enough."

In his last three novels from Knopf, where his editor is Ashbel Green, Gaines has focused on men, and in A Lesson Before Dying, as well as In My Father's House, he confronts the separation of black men from each other and their loss of mutual support. "My thesis is that black fathers and sons were separated in Africa in the 17th century and have not come back together since. They can eat across the table, but that is not the same as coming together."

In A Lesson Before Dying, a black schoolteacher and a young black fieldworker sentenced to be electrocuted for a crime at which he was a bystander are forced to do just that. "I've written a lot about men going to jail, and there are schoolteachers throughout my books—it was about the only thing an educated black in the South in the '40s, the time of the novel, could do for a living. I wanted to bring them together and see what a schoolteacher would say to someone in jail."

The novel is authenticated by what he learned from two lawyers in Louisiana who had defended young black men sentenced to death (one was mildly retarded and another went through the ordeal twice, because the electric chair malfunctioned the first time.) The seed for A Lesson Before Dying, however, was planted in the '60s in San Francisco, where Gaines's apartment is near Alcatraz. When he knew an execution was to take place there, he became so agitated that he had to go for a long walk. "Knowing when a man was going to the gas chamber made work impossible," he notes. Then he discovered that in Louisiana in the '40s, electrocutions were always held in the parish where the capital crime was committed, and always on Fridays between noon and 3 p.m. "Everything clicked for me then. Friday between 12 and 3, [the time of] Christ's crucifixion!" For a writer whose work attests to the endurance of the human spirit, the message was clear.

Michael Swindle (review date 30 May 1993)

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SOURCE: "Louisiana Justice," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 30, 1993, p. 11.

[In the following review of A Lesson before Dying, Swindle calls the story "enormously moving," but faults the novel's pace and dialogue.]

One fall afternoon in rural south Louisiana in the late 1940s, a slow-witted young black man called Jefferson accepts a ride from two ne'er-do-wells, Brother and Bear. In the scene that serves as catalyst for Ernest Gaines' eighth novel, A Lesson Before Dying, Brother and Bear decide to detour by Alcee Grope's store to try to obtain a pint of wine on credit. When they are refused their request, guns are produced; two black men and the white grocer are left dead on the floor.

In a state of panic, Jefferson swills a half bottle of whiskey and pockets the money from the open cash drawer. Before he can flee, two white men enter the store. Jefferson is arrested, branded a co-conspirator in the robbery and put on trial for murder.

In his summation to the jury, Jefferson's defense attorney tells them that "this skull here holds no plans. What you see here is a thing that acts on command. A thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton, a thing to dig your ditches, to chop your wood, to pull your corn. That is what you see here, but you do not see anything capable of planning a robbery or a murder. He does not even know the size of his clothes or his shoes…. What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this."

His words, demeaning as they are to poor Jefferson, fall on deaf ears. Given the time and place, the jury is comprised of 12 white men. With a black man standing accused of killing a white man, their verdict is a foregone conclusion: death by electrocution.

This verdict, and the reference to Jefferson being nothing more than a dumb animal, spurs the action of the novel, affecting the entire community, black and white, around the fictional town of Bayonne, the setting of all Gaines' works.

Most touched by the tragedy is Grant Wiggins, the book's narrator, who was raised by his aunt, Tante Lou, in "the quarter" adjacent to Henry Pichot's plantation, upon which all the residents are dependent for their livelihood. Educated at an out-of-state university, he has returned to the plantation to teach in the elementary school.

Because of his role in the black community, Grant is summoned by Miss Emma Glenn, Jefferson's "nannan" (god-mother). She is grieved by the fate of the man-child she raised, but also deeply offended by the public defender's remarks. She wants Grant to visit Jefferson in jail and make him know, to prove to the white people, that he is a man and not an animal.

"I don't want them to kill no hog," she tells him. "I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet."

Grant's problem is that since returning to the quarter he has become tired of being committed. He hates teaching, feels he is running in place and needs "to go someplace where I can feel like I'm living."

He makes no effort to disguise his reluctance to take on this mission, telling Miss Emma that Jefferson is already dead. "The past 21 years," he says, "we've done all we could for Jefferson. He's dead now. And I can't raise the dead. All I can do is try to keep the others from ending up like this—but he's gone from us. There's nothing I can do anymore, nothing any of us can do anymore."

A strong position, but not strong enough to enable Grant to stand up under the moral pressure of his indomitable aunt and the immovable Miss Emma. They prevail and he endures—suffering humiliation from the white power structure that no longer has any use for him because he is "too educated," agonizing self-doubt and philosophical introspection over his religious belief, and stubborn resistance from his most important pupil. He is rewarded in the end with a success of sorts in the form of a semiliterate, but haunting, diary written by Jefferson during his last days.

The story Gaines tells in A Lesson Before Dying is enormously moving. The author, a native of south Louisiana, unerringly evokes the place and time about which he writes. Some passages are redolent with the aura of a memoir.

The pacing of the novel, however, is a bit too languorous, even for a Southern writer writing about Southern characters. Gaines' use of repetition wears thin over the course of the book. The reiterations accumulate without building on themselves to further the narrative. We are apprised of Jefferson's big brown eyes, with the whites too reddish, three times in less than half a page. On that same subject, the three white characters whose eyes are mentioned all have gray-blue eyes—though this may be a feature of white south Louisianans that I am unfamiliar with.

In a sub-plot involving Grant Wiggins and his love-interest, a fellow teacher, their exchanges are particularly stilted and clumsy, as evidenced by the following:

You want me here?" Vivian asked.

I was not looking at her when she said it, and I could tell by her voice that she was not looking directly at me.

"Yes," I said.

She had been gazing down at the ground. Now she raised her eyes to me.

"I love you Vivian," I said. "I want you to know that. I love you very much."

I hope you love me half as much as I love you."

Call this quibbling, if you will, but these flaws inflate a narrative that needs no such favor, hint that a writer did not get the editing he deserves, and tug the whole endeavor perilously close to the border of melodrama.

Bruce Bawer (review date 26 July 1993)

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SOURCE: "Race, Justice and Integrity in the Old South," in The Wall Street Journal, July 26, 1993, p. A9.

[Bawer is an American critic and editor. In the following largely positive review, he discusses the spiritual development of the characters in A Lesson before Dying.]

Bayonne, the fictitious Louisiana river town in which Ernest J. Gaines has set all eight of his novels, is not far from the Mississippi lowlands immortalized by William Faulkner. Yet if Faulkner's lush, penetrating prose seems eminently suited to the region's sultry climate and racial tensions, Mr. Gaines's novels are written in a low-key, matter-of-fact prose that may surprise the first-time reader.

Consider, for example, Mr. Gaines's newest novel, A Lesson Before Dying, which takes place during the late 1940s. Jefferson, a guileless young black man, has been wrongly accused of complicity in the murder of a white liquor-store owner. His attorney tells the all-white jury that Jefferson is incapable of planning such a crime. For he is not a man, really, but "a thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton, a thing to dig your ditches, to chop your wood, to pull your corn."

The strategy doesn't work and Jefferson is sentenced to death. His ailing godmother has only one wish: that Jefferson—who has been as devastated by his lawyer's line of defense as by the verdict—will go to the electric chair with his head up, knowing himself to be not a "thing" but a man. To this end, she asks Grant Wiggins, the collegeeducated teacher at Bayonne's black school, to meet with Jefferson regularly. Wiggins (the narrator) is loath to get involved; he doesn't share the old lady's fervent religious faith and doesn't appreciate being put in a position where he has to toady to the ignorant white bigots who work at the jail house.

Wiggins is a Southern-black variation on that old Humphrey Bogart movie cliche, the cynical reluctant hero. He's constantly complaining about the pointlessness of his presence in Bayonne, where the only thing an educated black man can do is teach reading, writing and arithmetic to kids who will grow up to become field workers on some plantation. Yet as we learn from some contrived expository dialogue between Wiggins and his lover, Vivian (a one-dimensional character whose role never rises above the functional), he's already gone off to California once, only to return home. Deep down, he's committed to this place and feels needed here.

And indeed he is. By his conduct on the day of his execution, Jefferson will either inspire or demoralize his fellow blacks in Bayonne, and challenge or confirm his white executioners' image of blacks. Wiggins comes to realize that for Jefferson to see himself as a man is important not just to Jefferson but to the entire town.

So Wiggins perseveres. The breakthrough comes when Jefferson, who has been sad, surly and self-deprecating, turns to Wiggins and tells him to thank his students for sending him pecans. This line recalls the climactic scene in the celebrated 1974 TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, based on Mr. Gaines's best-selling novel, in which the ancient Miss Jane strikes a blow for desegregation by drinking from a whites-only water fountain. Jefferson's thank you is a similar, seemingly trivial, everyday act that carries huge moral significance.

Mr. Gaines's fiction has continually attested to the psychological and symbolic importance of apparently minor gestures. Mr. Gaines reminds us movingly of many things: that the simplest of acts can be heroic, that it is important to set a moral example for others (especially the young), that struggles against inequity are carried on individual by individual and that everyone who participates in such struggles wages a battle not only in the world but within himself. By the book's end—which surprises with its power—it is clear not only what the lesson referred to in the title is, but also that Jefferson is not the only one who has learned it.

While this book's heart is most assuredly in the right place, it is, in a number of ways, rather disappointing. While Wiggins makes a credible enough protagonist, the transformation of Jefferson from self-disparaging "thing" to self-respecting man doesn't quite convince. Too often the book feels formulaic, written to outline. Its characters don't rise sufficiently off the page and its setting fails to burst into life with sights, smells and sounds.

Yet to complain about the lack of local color is to miss the point. Mr. Gaines's plain style ultimately proves appropriate because his book is less about the riverfront milieu than about the naked moral truths of these people's shared predicament. And Mr. Gaines knows that predicament inside out; he understands the workings of institutionalized prejudice and captures perfectly the complex tensions between black and white.

In the end, what is most surprising about this book is its tough, unsentimental spiritual power. Jefferson, whom we first encounter as a supposed subhuman, has by the final pages emerged (though Mr. Gaines doesn't lean too hard on the comparison) as a Christ figure, an exemplary victim, while Wiggins—whom his aunt condemns as an atheist—has grown from a secular into a spiritual teacher. Its deficiencies notwithstanding, A Lesson Before Dying is a very special book about prejudice, the value of individual integrity and the extraordinary resources of the human spirit.

Carl Senna (review date 8 August 1993)

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SOURCE: "Dying like a Man: A Novel about Race and Dignity in the South," in The New York Times Book Review, August 8, 1993, p. 21.

[In the following positive review of A Lesson before Dying, Senna emphasizes Gaines's ability to evoke the social climate of the South in the 1940s and its foreshadowing of the 1960s civil rights movement.]

Near the end of Ernest J. Gaines's novel A Lesson Before Dying, set in the fictional town of Bayonne, La., in 1948, a white sheriff tells a condemned black man to write in his diary that he has been fairly treated. Although the prisoner assents, nothing could be farther from the truth in that squalid segregated jail, which is an extension of the oppressive Jim Crow world outside.

A black primary school teacher, Grant Wiggins, narrates the story of Jefferson, the prisoner, whose resignation to his execution lends credence to the lesson of Grant's own teacher, Matthew Antoine: the system of Jim Crow will break down educated men like Grant and prisoners like Jefferson to "the nigger you were born to be."

Grant struggles, at first without success, to restore a sense of human dignity to Jefferson, a semiliterate, cynical and bitter 21-year-old man, who accepts his own lawyer's depiction of him as "a hog" not worthy of the court's expense. The social distance between the college-educated Grant and Jefferson appears as great as that between the races, and class differences often frustrate their ability to communicate. It does not help that Grant has intervened only reluctantly, prompted by his aunt, a moralizing scold and a nag, and by Jefferson's godmother, Miss Emma.

Mr. Gaines, whose previous novels include A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, admirably manages to sustain the somber tone of the issues confronting the black citizens of Bayonne. What is at stake becomes clear. We find Grant vicariously sharing in the triumphs of Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson. The larger-than-life achievements of these black heroes make it intolerable to the black folks that Jefferson die ignobly. For that reason, Grant, who makes no secret of his disdain for Jefferson, reluctantly becomes their instrument in trying to save him from disgrace. Justice, or Jefferson's innocence, becomes secondary to the cause of racial image building—no trifling matter.

With the day of Jefferson's execution approaching, Grant begins to despair. Jefferson himself dismisses appeals from Grant and the blacks of Bayonne that he die with dignity—like a man, not like a hog.

To complicate the plot further, Grant must overcome another racial divide, crossing the color line to love a divorced Creole woman, Vivian Baptiste. She becomes yet another reason why Grant must save Jefferson's dignity, if not save him from execution. By rejecting Creole prejudice against blacks, Vivian must accept that she too has a stake in how Jefferson confronts the electric chair. She crosses the black-brown line, to the horror of other Creoles and the subtle animosity of Grant's black relatives.

It is a tribute to Mr. Gaines's skill that he makes the conflicts convincing. Jefferson, chained and securely behind bars, still has one freedom left, and that is the freedom to choose how he accepts death.

Despite the novel's gallows humor and an atmosphere of pervasively harsh racism, the characters, black and white, are humanly complex and have some redeeming quality. At the end, Jefferson's white jailer, in a moving epiphany, is so changed that he suggests the white-black alliance that will emerge a generation later to smash Jim Crow to bits.

The New England abolitionist preacher William Ellery Channing observed just before the Civil War that "there are seasons, in human affairs, of inward and outward revolution, when new depths seem to be broken up in the soul, when new wants are unfolded in multitudes, and a new and undefined good is thirsted for." A Lesson Before Dying, though it suffers an occasional stylistic lapse, powerfully evokes in its understated tone the "new wants" in the 1940's that created the revolution of the 1960's. Ernest J. Gaines has written a moving and truthful work of fiction.

Scott Jaschik (essay date 11 May 1994)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2125

SOURCE: "A New Star in the Canon," in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. XL, No. 36, May 11, 1994, pp. A23-4.

[In the following essay, Jaschik discusses Gaines's views on his work as an author and educator, the extent of his influence as a Southern black writer, and his belief that an "appreciation of humanity" is the key to his success.]

Ernest J. Gaines grins when he's told that more and more professors are now analyzing his novels in their classrooms. "They think they know more about me than I do myself," he says.

His amusement is easy to understand. He knows he is hard to categorize.

Mr. Gaines has joined the canon of African-American literature, yet he credits 19th-century Russian writers with inspiring his work. He is a male writer at a time when the stars of black literature are women. His fans applaud his empathetic portrayals of black men, yet Mr. Gaines's best-known creation is a woman, the title character of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. His novels unflinchingly portray the viciousness of white racism, yet faculty members say one reason they teach his works is that white students identify with the black characters.

Even classifying Mr. Gaines geographically is more difficult than it should be—considering that all of his fiction takes place in a county modeled on his birth-place of Pointe Coupée Parish in Louisiana. For although he spends each fall teaching at the nearby University of Southwestern Louisiana, he has written nearly every word of his eight books in San Francisco.

"I've been called a Southern writer who happened to live in the West, a California writer who writes about the South, a black writer, a Louisiana writer," Mr. Gaines says. "I don't know where I fit in and I don't give a damn."

Where Mr. Gaines fits in, increasingly, is in the nation's classrooms. Since its publication in 1971, Miss Jane Pittman has been widely taught in history and literature classes alike. Other Gaines works have also claimed students' and teachers' imaginations, especially A Gathering of Old Men and the short stories in Bloodline.

Now, however, teaching Gaines may take off.

In the last year, his stock in academe shot up when he won one of the so-called genius awards given by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

He also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for his latest novel, A Lesson Before Dying. When Vintage brings out that book in paperback next month [June 1994], it is expected to start showing up on course reading lists as well. Selections from Mr. Gaines's work will be included in forthcoming anthologies of African-American literature from both McGraw-Hill and Norton, and he is already included in The Heath Anthology of American Literature.

Mr. Gaines's work is taught most often in literature classes, sometimes in survey courses and other times in specialized seminars on black or Southern writing. But other disciplines are also using his novels. John M. Grady, for example, teaches A Gathering of Old Men in a sociology class at Wheaton College (Mass.) to examine black-white relations.

Why has interest in teaching Mr. Gaines's work grown so rapidly?

"He is an extraordinary writer, and his compassion for both the victims and the victimizers in his books is outstanding," says Bernard W. Bell, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University and author of the introduction to Mr. Gaines's writings in the McGraw-Hill anthology.

Mr. Bell says that Mr. Gaines's work is as important as his better-known contemporaries, such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. It could rise in public consciousness if more people—and professors—were willing to explore more than just a few black authors, he says.

At a time when racial tensions are simmering on many campuses, professors also say that his novels seem to inspire frank discussion among black and white students.

"My students are overwhelmingly middle-class whites, and sometimes I find that there are cultural reasons that prevent them from assimilating some work," says Cedric Gael Bryant, associate professor of English at Colby College. "But with Gaines there is an immediate identification, because he deals with timeless themes: love and hate and courage."

Lawrence Rodgers, a professor of English at Kansas State University, says the students in his African-American literature class—about half of whom are black and half are white—always respond well to A Gathering of Old Men. "I almost always teach that book last, but students who by that time in the semester are fairly grumpy about everything find that they just can't put it down."

He says the book affirms "the non-hierarchical traditions" in which black citizens worked together to help each other. The story tells how a group of old black men all claim responsibility for the killing of a cruel white man as a means of protecting the person who actually did it.

In the style of Faulkner, the story is told through the voices of those men and others—black and white, heroes and villains—who view the scene. "Gaines's ability to get inside white Southerners' heads is nothing short of phenomenal," Mr. Rodgers adds.

In largely black courses, too, faculty members report strong connections between their students and Mr. Gaines's characters. Willa G. Lowe is a professor of English at historically black Stillman College. She says her students focus on "the strong bonds among families, which are a great part of the African-American tradition."

Mr. Gaines's characters also inspire her students by the way they handle challenges, she says. "He writes about people who have been held back for so long, but have to make a positive statement about themselves before they leave this world."

Mr. Gaines's latest work, A Lesson Before Dying, deals with that issue explicitly. It is the story of Jefferson, a black man in late-1940's Louisiana who is about to be executed for a crime he didn't commit. Jefferson's lawyer—pleading unsuccessfully for his client's life before an all white jury—argues that Jefferson is less than human. "I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this," the lawyer says. That comment prompts Jefferson's godmother to recruit a young, cynical teacher, fresh out of a black college, to visit Jefferson in jail and teach him enough so that he can face death as a man.

What it means to be a man is at the heart of much of Mr. Gaines's work. In the short story "The Sky Is Gray," a young boy describes the day his mother saves up enough money to take him to town to see a dentist for his toothache. Through the boy's eyes, the reader sees the mother imparting her values of responsibility and dignity.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman deals with similar themes as it tracks the treatment of blacks from the end of slavery to the start of the civil-rights movement.

Mr. Gaines says these themes come out of his earliest memories of growing up in Louisiana. Born in 1933, he was raised on a plantation with 11 younger siblings. "We didn't have running water, and my responsibility from the time I was 8 years old was to get the water. By the time I was 11 or 12 I was going out with my father to saw wood."

An aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, helped raise the large family, even though, for reasons nobody knew, she was unable to walk. "What I learned from her was a tremendous amount of discipline. She cooked for us and cleaned for us, even though she couldn't walk," he says. "We would bring her things and she would work at a little table and crawl around."

Mr. Gaines dedicated The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to that aunt, who, he wrote, "did not walk a day in her life, but who taught me the importance of standing."

His aunt's disability also helped spur Mr. Gaines's writing. Since she couldn't move, friends would come to their small house and sit on the porch to talk. Hearing those stories, Mr. Gaines says, he picked up on the black oral tradition, which he mines for his novels.

Mr. Gaines picked up still more stories as a youth because he was known for being smart, and illiterate older people had him read and write letters for them.

At 15, he moved with his family to California, where he eventually enrolled at San Francisco State University and decided to become a writer. As he read American literature there in the mid-1950's, he found little that spoke to his experience. "I didn't read a single black author there. The only black character I knew was Othello, and he had been written by a white guy 300 years earlier."

Eventually, he was drawn to the 19th-century Russian writers, especially Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. The Russians attracted him because their portrayals of serfs were more realistic than anything he read by American writers about poor or black people.

Hemingway also made a lasting impact. Says Mr. Gaines: "I keep telling black students when I visit schools to read Hemingway to see how he writes about grace under pressure. No one has been under more pressure than blacks and not too many groups have come through as gracefully as we have."

Mr. Gaines says he realizes his views may not be popular with those who criticize the teaching of works by "dead white men." But he says that the push to add non-white writers to the curriculum, which he applauds, becomes foolish when it becomes a battle against everyone who was in the traditional canon.

"I think those dead white men should be read, but live black men and women should be read, too," he says. "I would tell any student to read Tolstoy, to read Twain, to read Hemingway, Shakespeare. I say, 'Read it. It can't hurt you.'"

All of his reading, combined with a writing fellowship in 1958 at Stanford University, started Mr. Gaines on his own career. His first novel, Catherine Carmier, was published in 1964 and he has steadily followed that with more work.

While Mr. Gaines always returned to Louisiana for visits, he made it his home base again in 1984, when he became a professor of English at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. The university approached him, he says, with the best deal possible: He teaches writing every fall and has the rest of the year for his novels. His students praise his patience. Some take his seminar many times.

Mr. Gaines says that teaching may slow down his writing, but he thinks that is a plus. He took seven years to write A Lesson Before Dying. "I probably would have written it much faster if I hadn't been teaching, but it probably wouldn't have had things that it has now."

Saying that he is "never in a hurry," Mr. Gaines writes his books out longhand and does extensive interviews to supplement his own experiences. For A Lesson Before Dying, he interviewed small-town sheriffs about their work and talked to death-row lawyers to learn about the impact of working with someone facing execution.

With the success of that book and his recent MacArthur grant, other universities have come courting, but Mr. Gaines says he is committed to Southwestern Louisiana and hopes to teach there for another 10 years before retiring. For now, he is battling carpal-tunnel syndrome through physical therapy so he can get to work on his next project: three novellas.

Two of the novellas will deal with an issue Mr. Gaines has touched on in previous work, the relationships between lighter- and darker-skinned black people. The third, tentatively titled The Man Who Whipped Children, will be about a black man on a plantation to whom parents went for help in disciplining their children.

The key to his success as a writer, he says, and what he hopes college students get from his work, is an appreciation of humanity. "I try to use characters whom people can identify with, and then put those characters in situations where people can think they might act the same way," he says.

"Of course the experience of my characters has been as a result of the color of their skin, but there is something deeper than that inside of us. They are black characters, but I aim at a humanity that makes them much more than the color of their skin."

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