2010 Aspen Prize for Literature: Louisiana writer, Ernest J. Gaines.

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The Aspen Writers’ Foundation (AWF), a program of the Aspen Institute, is honored to present the 2010 Aspen Prize for Literature to Louisiana writer, Ernest J. Gaines. Mr. Gaines will accept the award during the AWF’s 34th annual Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival, to be held June 20-25 at the Doerr-Hosier Center on the Aspen Institute campus. The theme of this year’s conference is “Crossroads: A Literary Intersection of the American South.”

“There was no contest in selecting this year’s candidate for the Aspen Prize for Literature,” says AWF executive director, Lisa Consiglio. “Ernest Gaines – who represents the absolute best of Southern writing today and is revered by writers and readers alike – was at the top of our list from the very beginning. We are honored that he has chosen to accept this award.”

Mr. Gaines is considered an American literary legend and the elder statesman of Southern letters. He is best known for his 1993 novel, A Lesson Before Dying, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won the Best Fiction Award from the National Book Critics Circle, the Southern Writers Conference, and the Louisiana Library Association. It is the story of a young black man wrongly condemned to Louisiana’s electric chair by a white jury in 1948 and of the teacher who tries to help him meet his death – as a man and not as “a hog,” the
characterization given him by his defense attorney’s summation to the jury.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) named A Lesson Before Dying part of its 2008 Big Read National Reading Program. The NEA states, “His works tackle the issues of manhood for men of color, the breakdown in personal relationships as a result of social pressures, the history and folklore of a distant past, and illustrate the thirty years before the civil rights era.”

Many of his novels are set in the plantations of the Deep South and offer understanding for readers of all colors, backgrounds and classes. Among his bibliography of nine works of fiction are the critically acclaimed novels The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Gathering of Old Men. His most recent publication is Mozart and Leadbelly, a collection of stories and essays on writing.

Mr. Gaines has been credited with “the ability to convey through his work the insidious effect of racism – without moralizing” and “the utter lack of overwrought emotion with which questions of race relations are treated.” His work has been aptly described by his longtime publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, as “capturing the soul of a black community whose circumstances make even the slightest assertion of self-respect an act of majestic – and sometimes suicidal – heroism.”

Gaines was born on January 15, 1933 on the River Lake Plantation in Oscar, a hamlet in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, which is the Bayonne of all his fictional work. He was raised by his maternal aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, who served as the principal role model for his best-known character, Miss Jane Pittman. Since there was not a high school he could attend in Pointe Coupee Parish and because it was against the law in Louisiana in the 1940’s for people of color to enter public libraries, Gaines joined his mother and step-father in California to continue his education at the age of fifteen.

Mr. Gaines visited a public library for the first time at age 16. He says, “I discovered the Russians, Turgenev, Gogol, who spoke of the peasants. Then the French, Flaubert, Maupassant, Zola. But no one was telling me the story of my people. Thus, a teenager, I decided to write. At San Francisco State University I continued reading, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. I studied creative writing at Stanford University with Wallace Stegner and worked and worked.”

Today the author makes his home in Louisiana with his wife, Dianne Saulney, an attorney. He is currently the Writer-in-Residence Emeritus at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, which is in the midst of establishing the Ernest J. Gaines Center that will be an international center for research and scholarship on Mr. Gaines and his work. In 2000, then-President Clinton bestowed Mr. Gaines with one of the highest honors the United States can confer: the National Humanities Medal.

Mr. Gaines will appear on stage via live videoconference during the award event, “Stories From the Front Porch: A Tribute to Ernest Gaines,” on Tuesday, June 22nd at 5:30pm. Joining him will be fellow Southern authors Dorothy Allison, Robert Bausch, Nikky Finney, Randall Kenan, Ron Rash, and Kathryn Stockett, who will pay tribute to Mr. Gaines by telling stories in his honor. On that evening, Mr. Gaines will join the elite order of authors who have received the Prize since its inception five years ago: Paul Muldoon and Edna O’Brien (2005), N. Scott Momaday (2006), Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Wole Soyinka (2008), Salman Rushdie (2008), and Ron Carlson (2009).

Editor’s Note: For press passes to the Festival, please contact Nicole Hernandez at nicole@aspenwrtiers.org or 970-925-3122, ext 2#.

The Details
Aspen Summer Words Festival passes (guaranteed entry to all Festival events) are $150 for retreat students and members of the AWF and Aspen Institute, and $200 for the general public. Passes may be purchased through the Belly Up box office: http://www.bellyupaspen.com/ 970-544-9800. For a list of currently confirmed speakers, schedule of events, and passholder information, please visit http://www.aspenwriters.org.

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