Sunday, January 1, 2012

Ernest J. Gaines and A Lesson Before Dying

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The connection between an author and a novel that he or she writes may often be more closely related than the reader realizes. The author’s life and surroundings are often how he or she decides upon the subject and setting of the novel. The author will often write about what he or she knows best and can portray a setting that may be unfamiliar to the reader. The author of the novel A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines, is a good example of this. His life strongly impacts the novel through the places and time period when the novel takes place, his Southern Black heritage, and the people that were influential to Gaines.

Ernest J. Gaines was born in 1 near Oscar, Louisiana ( Dictionary of Literary Biography). The time period in which Gaines grew up as well as where he grew up are both contributing factors to the setting of his novel A Lesson Before Dying. Although the setting itself, as well as the places in the novel, is imaginary, Bayonne, Louisiana is based on Gaines’s hometown from which he has used his surroundings and experiences to create Bayonne (Dictionary of Literary Biography). Gaines is very passionate about his home state of Louisiana in the aspects of the land itself as well as the language and people of the area. Gaines describes Louisiana as “…Probably one of the most romantic and interesting of all southern states.” (Scribner Series 8). Because of his experiences as an African American growing up in the South, he could write from a perspective that white writers of the time and area could not portray the way Gaines could. The time period of the novel is also an important factor that was pulled from Gaines’s life. The novel was originally set in 188 (Carmean 117), but Gaines decided instead to set it in the 140s because he was more familiar with how the criminal justice system acted toward blacks (Scribner Series, 0). He “Takes his reader back to a time when racial segregation was both legal and endemic in the South, a time when black people could barely hope for recognition of their humanity, much less find justice in a court of law.” (Magill’s 0). Gaines also sets up the surroundings in the novel to mirror his own surroundings growing up on the slave quarters of a Louisiana plantation (Magill’s 85). The sugar cane and cotton fields that Grant mentions often in the novel are based on the ones on which Gaines worked as a child (Magill’s 8). Grant teaches at a school set in a small Baptist church, and Gaines received his first six years of education in a church similar to the one described in the novel (Scribner Series ).

Gaines’s Southern Black heritage is also a factor to be noted when comparing his life with the novel. Although the racial caste system was present in the novel, the characters do not dwell on it. Rather than basing his novel on the racist practices, Gaines instead gives the facts the way they were and focuses on the strengths of the black characters and the dignity they pursue despite racism to quietly show that white superiority did not really exist (Magill’s 86). Gaines created Grant as a man influenced by his mother figure to challenge racial stereotypes by playing an active role in helping the community (Carmean 14). This shows that Gaines wanted to better portray his own hometown as a good place and eliminate any misconceptions about racial myths (Carmean 1). Gaines himself said, “Too many blacks have been writing to tell whites about all ‘the problems’ instead of writing something that all people, including their own, could find interesting, could enjoy” (Contemporary Authors Online 5). In writing from the point of view that he does, Gaines is writing for the youth of the South, both black and white, to encourage the black youth to be aware of their roots and the white youth to understand their black neighbors in order to better understand themselves (Contemporary Black Biography 10).

Besides the racial barriers, there is another part to Gaines’s Southern Black heritage, and that is pride. Throughout the novel, Grant always seems to be seeking something greater; he longs for a more eventful life beyond where he has lived so many years. Ernest J. Gaines added this to show about the young black men and their search for pride and dignity in their heritage in the period of the novel (Magill’s 86). The vibrant text of the novel shows the pride Gaines has in where he came from. The descriptions of the people and places help the reader to get a better understanding of the area as well as Gaines himself. He is quoted as saying, “I think one of the greatest things that has happened to me, as a writer and as a human being is that I was born in the South, that I was born in Louisiana” (Scribner Series 1). His life connections to the people and places in the novel show his rich heritage and strong feelings of community with them (Contemporary Authors Online 5). When asked whom an author should write to and what he or she should write about, Gaines replied, “If he is true, he will use the material closest to him” (Dictionary of Literary Biography ).

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The people in Gaines’s life are major influences on the characters in A Lesson Before Dying. The person who had the most impact on the novel was the person who had the most impact on Gaines himself (Contemporary Black Biography 100). His aunt Augusteen Jefferson took care of him throughout his childhood when his mother and stepfather moved to California (Magill’s 8). Besides the fact that the main influential character in the novel is named Jefferson, Gaines’s aunt also has parallels in personality to Grant’s Aunt Lou in the novel. Aunt Lou pushes Grant to teach Jefferson “to be a man” in order to bring him dignity before his death (Gaines 5). In comparison, Gaines’s aunt Augusteen instilled in him values of heroism in ordinary life as well as courage and respect for other people (Scribner Series ). Mrs. Jefferson has an impact on the female characters as a whole in the novel as well. Most of the black women are very close to their Christian faith and are older women, which is a close relation to Mrs. Jefferson (Magill’s 86). Also, throughout the novel, Grant compares the women to things such as “oak,” “cypress,” and “boulder,” showing that they are solid, strong people and Grant has a great deal of respect for them (Carmean 1). By the end of the novel, Gaines stresses the importance that a single influential person can have on others and the hope and pride he or se can inspire despite hardships and obstacles (Carmean 10).

Gaines himself also has a personal influence on the novel. His life has a very close connection with his fictive character Grant Wiggins. Like Grant, Gaines went through something very similar in his transformation from doubting his importance and influence to a realization of his feelings and past stubbornness to convey them and understand himself (Magill’s 0). In A Lesson Before Dying, as well as other novels written by Gaines, there is a young and educated black man seeking purpose in his life while an older, black woman is pushing him to do what is morally right no matter how difficult the situation (Magill’s 87). Gaines’s life has parallels with these things, and he used them as inspiration for his fiction. Gaines’s purpose for writing was originally to help with his own need for personal identity, which reflects on the characters in his novels (Scribner’s Series 6). His characters represent “the truth of his experience and imagination” (Carmean 18).

Although a novel is written as a work of fiction to entertain the reader, some truth can usually be found in it. The author writes to entertain the reader and will therefore write what he or she can describe best. Ernest J. Gaines was raised in rural Louisiana and expresses his closeness to the land and people through his writing. His purpose as a fiction writer is not only to entertain the reader but also to show him or her a lifestyle that is perhaps different from that which he or she is accustomed. A Lesson Before Dying through the setting and characters that are based on Gaines’s life teaches the reader life lessons that Gaines himself learned through living them, and he portrays them in a way that causes the reader to feel as if he or she is a part of the novel and therefore a part of Gaines’s life.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume American Novelists Since World War II, First

Series. Ed. Jeffrey Helterman and Richard Layman. 178. The Gale Group, 178.

March 00. http//galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/LitRC? .

The Scribner Writers Series. 11. Charles Scribner’s Sons. March 00.

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Carmean, Karen. Ernest J. Gaines A Critical Companion. Westport, CT Greenwood Press, 18.

Magill’s Survey of American Literature. Ed. Frank N. Magill. Vol. 7. New York Salem Press, 14.

Contemporary Authors Online. 1 Feb. 001. The Gale Group, 001. March 00.

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Contemporary Black Biography. Ed. Barbara Carlisle Bigelow. Vol. 7. Detroit Gale, 14.

Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying. New York Vintage Books, 14.

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