Many Americas

Ernest J(ames) Gaines (1933-    )

A Lesson Before Dying


  • Born in 1933 in Oscar, Louisiana [some sources cite River Lake Plantation, near New Roads, Pointe Coupee Parish, LA, the Bayonne of his fiction].
  • One of twelve children; moved with his family to California at age 15 in order to get an education (1940s Louisiana law prohibited Blacks from attending high school or entering public libraries).
  • Attended Vallejo Junior College, San Francisco State University (B.A., 1957), and Stanford University (1958-59).
  • Served in the U.S. Army, 1953-55.
  • Married to Dianne Saulnety Gaines, an lawyer who served as Assistant Dade County Attorney from 1980-1996.


  • Has served as writer-in-residence and/or professor at several universities, including Denison University, Stanford University, and Whittier College; since 1981, has been Professor of English and writer-in residence at University of Southwestern Lousiiana, Lafayette.
  • Received the National Book Critics Circle, Southern Writers' Conference, Louisiana Library, John Dos Passos, and Amistad awards for his most recent novel, A Lesson Before Dying.
  • Subject of the film Louisiana Stories: Ernest Gaines; an excellent film version of A Lesson Before Dying premiered on HBO in 1998-99.
  • A past selection of Oprah's Book Club.

Major Writings

Catherine Carmier (1964)
Of Love and Dust (1967)
Bloodline (short stories) (1997)
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971)
In My Father's House (1978)
A Gathering of Old Men (1983)
A Lesson Before Dying (1993)


  • Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. by John Lowe, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson), 1995.
  • Interview discussing film version of A Lesson Before Dying

Critical Sources and Reviews

  • Biographical and critical information in the following Gale publications: Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Volumes 6 and 24, Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 7, and Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volumes 3, 11, 18,  and 86.  Gale Literary Database (Contemporary Authors Online) can be accessed online through a subscribing library at   (All volumes above contain portrait.)
  • Other print sources for biographical and critical information:

            Ernest Gaines, Valerie-Melissa Babb, Twayne, 1991.
    Wrestling Angels Into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan
            McPherson, by Hermann Beavers.  Philadelphia, 1995.
    Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion, by Karen Carmean.  Greenwood, 1998.
            Contemporary Southern Writers. Edited by Roger Matuz.  Detroit, 1999. 

  • Other review sources:
    African American Review, fall 1994; February 1998.
    Chronicle of Higher Education, May 11, 1994.
    Washington Post Book World, March 28, 1993; May 23, 1993.
    Writer,  May 1999.

Retired Discussion Series

Debbie Sturman, Director
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