Ernest J. Gaines
(Photo by Joseph Sanford, courtesy Ernest J. Gaines Center)
Slidell Little Theatre's production of "A Lesson Before Dying" was adapted for the stage from the novel of the same name, written by Ernest J. Gaines. SLT's production is onstage through March 20, 2016.
By Cheylon Woods
In 1933 a child came into this world with so much potential to learn from, be influenced by, and influence the world around him. As the world was slipping in to political and economic devastation, no one knew that a small boy born on River Lake Plantation in Oscar, Louisiana would become Ernest J. Gaines, One of the most prolific and timeless authors of the 20th century.
Growing up on a plantation gave Ernest J. Gaines a unique type of perspective on life. Gifted with the talent of honest observation, as a child Gaines was able to perceive the crux of complicated social issues such as race, gender and class. He was also able to see how people influenced their world around them and how, in return, they were influenced by the world. As he embarked on his career he used all of the things her learned from River Lake Plantation, adolescence, and San Francisco State University to create honest depictions of how he saw life in the South. Mr. Gaines used the information he gleamed from observing personal interactions throughout his life to create characters that wholly embodied the essence of being alive. Characters like Miss Jane Pittman (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman), Catherine (Catherine Carmier), Louis (Of Love and Dust), and James and Jefferson (A Lesson Before Dying) all embody a realness that draws you deeper into your own awareness about self and the world you live in.
It is this realness that makes the work of Ernest J. Gaines so timeless and pointed. All of his books paint a complex picture of real life filled with love, sadness, hardship, betrayal, mistreatment, and hope that resonates beyond the Civil Rights Era. His novels and short stories strike at the heart of real issues such as racism, oppression of all kinds, miscarriage of justice, gender inequality, while showing us that through it all people can still love, learn, be strong, progress, and care about one another and their places that shaped them.
The topics that can be found in Gaines’ writing are not only as old as humanity, but have been driving forces in shaping civilization, both good and bad, as we know it. To this day some are looking for ways to ensure equality for all while others may be looking to secure their personal power. We still look for love and acceptance while there are those who look to live a life strictly by their own whims, unconcerned with who or what gets hurt in that process. Throughout his work, and throughout his career, Gaines strove to show the world a mirror of itself through a Southern lens. He crafted people from different upbringings, with different interests and peculiarities, and showed us both the good and the bad in all. Readers can find some vestige of themselves in all of his characters, and are reminded that they possess as many complexities as those on the page. His work forces us to think about our own perceptions reality and righteousness and how these ideas actually work in our own communities.
Common themes throughout Gaines’ work are the ideas of justice and accountability. In almost every novel there is some measure of justice and accountability, although often subtle. A Lesson Before Dying is one of his more powerful novels that directly puts these issues in the forefront for the reader. This book not only looks at the idea of justice and the justice system, but it also calls the idea of masculinity, advocacy, reality, and community responsibility to the forefront of our minds. All of the characters are confronted with their ideas of right and wrong through the incarceration of one man, and throughout the book you see how each character comes to some kind of terms with the idea of justice as it relates to the society that they live in. Gaines expertly crafted the story and characters of this book in a way that conveyed the true weight such an incident would have on a small community and community leaders today. In 2016 most people who read A Lesson Before Dying can remember at least one time during their lifetime where something similar happened, and their community (physical community or intellectual community) discussed the ideas of justice and personal accountability.
Ernest J. Gaines has created some of the most moving and accessible pieces of literature of the 20th century. He wrote during a time of social awakening which is reflected throughout his work. He strove to show the humanity in all and all of humanity, and succeeded doing so in such a way that is never dated. His characters are not locked in some era from so long ago, distanced from us by a great cultural chasm of days long gone, but are real, breathing and visible to us today. The plots and the characters created by Gaines so beautifully reflect the complexities that is life and humanity that they still resonate with readers more than fifty years since his career began. This in itself is the mark of a great author, and this is the mark of great literature.
Cheylon Woods is the director of the Ernest J. Gaines Center at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where she is also the Center’s archivist and ULL assistant professor of Library Science. She received an MLIS from LSU and an MA in Heritage Resources from Northwestern State University.