Charles Nailen/The Hoya Ernest Gaines, author of A Lesson Before Dying, spoke to the freshman class in Gaston on Saturday.

Ernest Gaines, author of A Lesson Before Dying, spoke to freshmen at the annual Academic Workshop Saturday about what influenced him to write his best-selling novel about an African-American man in the 1940s.

While Gaines was unable to fly into Washington due to last week’s airport closings, he insisted on honoring his commitment and drove over 20 hours in order to make the event at Gaston Hall.

“This is the making of a novel,” Gaines began his speech.

He described what he called his “creative process,” outlining the events and incidents that shaped A Lesson Before Dying. Gaines, who was born on a plantation in Louisiana in 1933, drew on many of his own experiences in writing his book.

He highlighted the creation of his novel from idea to completion, twice reading passages from the book.

A Lesson Before Dying takes place in a Louisiana community in the 1940s. It tells the story of Jefferson, a young African-American man who witnesses a liquor store gunfight leaving three men dead. As the only one left standing, the innocent Jefferson is convicted of murder by an all-white jury and sentenced to death.

A Lesson Before Dying is also the story of Grant Wiggins, a plantation-school teacher frustrated by the oppressiveness of society. Grant visits Jefferson in prison, in an effort to share with Jefferson a sense of self-respect and human dignity. Ultimately, both men grow and change through their association, as they learn how to defy expectations.

Gaines said in his original formation of the novel, it was to be set in the early 1980s. However, he learned about a real-life case that took place in the mid-1940s, where a young black man in Louisiana was convicted of murder and event

Gaines was careful to point out that he had not wanted to simply write a story about a man waiting to be executed because it had been done before. Thus he developed his character, Grant Wiggins, as a man who was as much a prisoner as Jefferson, trapped by society and the limited options available to educated African-Americans in the South at that time.

Gaines went on to describe many of his experiences that he incorporated into the novel, including a meeting with the defense lawyer for the case that inspired Gaines to set his story in the 1940s. The lawyer described to Gaines a traveling electric chair that was taken from parish to parish in Louisiana. The image of this chair is used at the end of A Lesson Before Dying.

Gaines compared the process of writing a novel to traveling from San Francisco to New York on a train. He said that similar to a train trip, some things surprised him along the way, and the route was never certain. After all, he said, one can board a train to New York and end up in Philadelphia.

In preparation for this event incoming freshmen were asked to read A Lesson Before Dying and to write a one-page reflection on the novel. This was the first year that students of all schools, not just the College, were required to participate. This year the Academic Workshop was used as a forum to discuss complex issues about race and the unique American identity.

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Comments are closed.