When Ernest J. Gaines was growing up, it was against the law in Louisiana for a black person to walk into a public library.
At the age of fifteen, Gaines left his home in Point Coupee, Louisiana to reunite with his mother and stepfather in California, entering his first library when he was sixteen. He attended San Francisco State University and later won a writing fellowship to Stanton University. Gaines has won numerous awards, has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and recently retired from regular teaching at the University of Southwestern Louisiana at Lafayette.
Professor Gaines presented an instructive and enjoyable lecture to a packed auditorium at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville on the night of November 8, 2005. The author of such novels as A Lesson Before Dying, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, Bloodline, and a new collection of essays and short stories called Mozart and Leadbelly, Gaines spoke on the art and craft of writing and read selections from A Lesson Before Dying to bring his teaching to life.
A Lesson Before Dying takes place, as do most of his novels, on a sugarcane plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, which is where Gaines was born. Set in the 1940’s, it is the story of a young black man, named Jefferson, wrongly accused of murder. Far from building a competent case for the man’s innocence, the white public defender tells the jury that Jefferson is not smart enough to premeditate a murder. The lawyer says that to execute Jefferson would serve no more a purpose than putting a hog in the electric chair. The jury sentences the young man to die, anyway. It becomes the reluctant goal of a black schoolteacher named Grant Wiggins, pressed into action by his aunt and Jefferson’s godmother, to visit the jail and convince Jefferson that he is more than an animal so he can die with dignity.
Ernest Gaines’ fascinating insights and anecdotes on the construction of this novel made this lecture a valuable learning experience. During the Question and Answer opportunity, an audience member asked Gaines if he always knows the ending of a novel while he is writing it. He answered with an analogy about taking a train from San Francisco to New York. When you board the train, there are certain things you know. You know meals will be in the dining car. You have a good idea of the number of hours you will sleep each night. Other things cannot be anticipated – the weather, who you might meet, or unexpected stops. Therefore, you start with what you do know and what you intend to do, and let it happen. You usually reach New York, but occasionally, you might end up in Philadelphia instead. Gaines said that if he always knew everything that was going to happen in a one of his novels, “I’m afraid it would be boring.”
Case in point: Gaines was not sure if Jefferson would actually die at the end of the book. “The governor could have granted him a reprieve,” said Gaines. While writing the novel, one of Gaines’ students introduced him to an old man who had been the defense attorney for a seventeen-year-old boy. The jury had found teenager guilty and sentenced him to die. The first attempt to carry out the execution failed when the electric chair malfunctioned. The authorities returned the prisoner to his cell, only to bring him back to die some months later, when the chair worked properly. According to Gaines, the elderly former-attorney wept when he recounted the event, including a chilling description of the portable electric chair – the kind of wood it was made from; the time of day a flatbed truck arrived at the jail to deliver the chair with its own generator; the way they had to test the apparatus before the actual execution. You could hear the hum and crackle of electricity two blocks away, the man said. When Gaines heard these details, he knew they were too dramatic to leave out and all the more effective because they were true. Gaines’ fictional condemned man, however, gets a reprieve from neither the governor nor faulty wiring. Either of those possibilities was too unrealistic for a poor black man in a small plantation town in the 1940’s.
Two other devices in the novel that Gaines says he did not anticipate were the radio and the notebook. He needed a way for the teacher, Grant Wiggins, to connect with Jefferson. It had to be gradual and realistic. The two men only saw each other once a week for several weeks. We assume that Jefferson is pondering his situation constantly, but conveying the gradual shift in his thought process could gave been overcomplicated or tedious. On the other hand, a sudden change of heart would not be very convincing or realistic. Gaines decided that Grant would buy Jefferson a portable radio. Listening to the radio all day and night, said Gaines, Jefferson formed a subliminal bond with Grant that did not require much explanation or exposition. The radio is something tangible to carry the reader through the changes. Grant also gave Jefferson a notebook and pencil to record his thoughts. These notebook pages become windows into Jefferson’s mind. We read Jefferson’s feelings after he has formed them and written them down, thus implying the thought process.
Another audience member asked Mr. Gaines why he chose to write his novel A Gathering of Old Men from the viewpoint of several different people.
“Using different voices was Faulkner’s technique,” said Gaines. “And, I like doing the different voices.”
Gaines went on to explain that in A Gathering of Old Men, each character had subtleties a single narrator would not “pick up on”. He said he was going to have the character Lou Dimes tell the whole story, but Lou Dimes would not have observed, for example, that when the child Snookum is running from house to house, he is pretending to ride a horse, “spanking” his own butt “the way you spank a horse when you want that horse to run fast.” On the other hand, Gaines had originally planned to write The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman from different character’s viewpoints, but that didn’t work. That book turned out to be Jane Pittman’s story from beginning to end.
A young writer, musician, and UNF student named Chris Pringle asked Mr. Gaines if he listens to music when he writes, and if so, what type of music does he find conducive to writing.
“I like quiet chamber music,” Gaines replied. “I don’t listen to Beethoven when I write because, well, Beethoven demands that you listen to him. Mozart, yes. Mozart adds to the writing process. I also like Bessie Smith. I like blues and jazz.”
While introducing Ernest Gaines, English Professor Kathleen Hassall compared him to three writers: Welty, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare, because of Gaines’ capacity for “empathetic projection” – the ability to inhabit other people in his writing. “All of Ernest Gaines’ books address the question of the hero,” says Hassall. “His heroes are not necessarily the iron man or the warrior, but rather, the good father; the teacher; the good leader, who accepts the weight of his powers.”