'Lesson Before Dying' Author Ernest Gaines Gives Inaugural Library Lecture

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    Ernest Gaines, author of A Lesson Before Dying and seven other novels, answers audience questions after delivering the inaugural Ferguson-Clark Author Lecture to benefit Baylor libraries.
    Jason Raddin / Baylor Photography
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    Author Ernest Gaines reads an emotional passage from his novel, A Lesson Before Dying, during the inaugural Ferguson-Clark Author Lecture to benefit Baylor libraries.
    Jason Raddin / Baylor Photography
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    Baylor students who are helping facilitate the "One Book, One Waco" reading program meet with author Ernest Gaines, whose novel A Lesson Before Dying is the inaugural book in the program.
    Jason Raddin / Baylor Photography
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    Author Ernest Gaines autographs one of his novels for Pearl Beverly, Baylor's coordinator of multicultural activities.
    Jason Raddin / Baylor Photography
Oct. 21, 2002

by Lori Scott Fogleman

A diverse and appreciative crowd heard author Ernest Gaines read passages from his critically acclaimed novel A Lesson Before Dying and reflect on his contributions to American literature, as he delivered the inaugural Ferguson-Clark Author Lecture Oct. 17 at Baylor University.

Earlier that day at Waco High School, the author led a lively discussion of A Lesson Before Dying and A Gathering of Old Men with more than 100 advanced placement English students and members of the National Honor and Edwards Literary Societies, who had all read at least one of the books.

In an answer he repeated at the evening lecture at Baylor, Gaines told aspiring young writers that the best way to learn about the craft is to "read, read, read, write, write, write" and then "read, read, read, read, write, write, write, write." He also advised both audiences to read the classics as he did, such as Shakespeare, Chekhov and Faulkner, among others.


With a commanding yet unassuming stage presence, Gaines riveted his audience at a sold-out Jones Theater by reading from his own copy of A Lesson Before Dying. The novel, set in the 1940s in southern Louisiana, tells the wrenching story of an unjustly condemned man named Jefferson as he attempts to define himself during his last days, and Grant, the teacher who befriends and helps him in the struggle.

An opponent of the death penalty, Gaines read the emotional passage about the arrival of the electric chair and a generator to the county courthouse, witnessed by townspeople going about their daily business.

"'Two men got out of the cab of the truck and climbed up onto the bed and began rolling back the tarpaulin cover. Then Melvina saw it, a high-backed wooden chair with leather straps, and it took all her strength, she said later, to remain on her feet,'" Gaines read.

During both visits, Gaines was asked if he knows the end of a novel as he begins writing, such as in A Lesson Before Dying if Jefferson, who is sentenced to death for a crime he didn't commit, will be executed. The author described that novel and others like a train trip from San Francisco to New York. He knows the facts - which states he will travel through, the meals he will eat in the dining car and the relaxation he will find in the club car - but there is much to be learned along the way.

"What I don't know is how the weather's going to be the entire trip. I don't know who will get on the train...and where they'll sit," Gaines said. "I don't know all the different colors of nature, the color of the leaves on trees, the color of the different crops in the different fields. I don't know all the turning and twisting of the rail or when the train will make a sudden stop. In other words, 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.

"When I started the novel A Lesson Before Dying, I knew that Jefferson would be sentenced to die. Would he be executed? I did not know for certain."

In addition to A Lesson Before Dying, Gaines is known for seven other novels, including The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Born in southern Louisiana where most of his novels take place, Gaines' family moved to California when he was 15. He graduated from San Francisco State University in 1957 and won a post-graduate creative writing fellowship to Stanford. In 1981, Gaines was named visiting professor of creative writing at The University of Louisiana at Lafayette and became Writer-in-Residence in 1983.

Since his Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman caught the nation's attention in 1971, Gaines' works have been translated into many languages and made into films. His acclaim increased in 1993 when A Lesson Before Dying was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award and in 1997 when the novel was named an Oprah Book Club selection. His additional honors include a National Humanities Medal in 2000, the National Governors Association Award for Lifetime Contribution to the Arts in 2000 and a Southern Book Award for Fiction in 1994. He was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 1993 and designated Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in 1996 by the government of France.


Only three days before Gaines' visit to Baylor, Baylor and city of Waco officials announced that A Lesson Before Dying will be the inaugural book in "One Book, One Waco," a reading program to promote unity and literacy in Waco.

Chosen for similar reading programs in Houston, Seattle and Buffalo, Gaines' novel was selected by a nine-member committee of Waco citizens and city leaders "because of its literary merit, themes relevant to the Waco community, and the potential for developing community programs centered around the book," said John Hill, a Baylor senior and student body external vice president.

"Ernest Gaines deals with how people treat one another, a very difficult topic at times," said John Wilson, associate professor, documents librarian and library development coordinator. "No matter how far we think we have come as a nation regarding race relations, there is always more to say and take action upon. Ernest Gaines is capable of making the reader know what it is like to be African-American, if only for a moment. He gives clear voice to the African-American community."

The actual events surrounding "One Book, One Waco" will take place throughout the month of April. Possible events include essay and art contests, discussion groups, movie presentations and guest speakers. The events will be listed on the "One Book, One Waco" web site at http://www.waco-texas.com/onebook.htm as they are scheduled.


At the end of Gaines' appearance, the Baylor Libraries announced that David McCullough, the author of the best-selling biography John Adams and the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Harry S. Truman, will deliver the Ferguson-Clark Author Lecture on Oct. 9, 2003, at Baylor.

The Ferguson-Clark Author Series Endowment was established in 2001 by Mr. Collen A. Clark of Tyler in honor of his mother, Carla Sue Ferguson Garrett. Clark received a bachelor's degree from Baylor in 1986 and a juris doctor in 1990. He practices law in Tyler and Dallas.

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