Remembering Ernest Gaines by Joe Flaherty

On November 5th, I saw in the New York Times the announcement of the death of the writer Ernest Gaines. Reading his obituary immediately took me back to the time that Gaines had spent in Rochester. It was in March of 2000, the year that Writers & Books launched the community-wide reading program, “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book…” The first book we selected was Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. But, let’s go back earlier in time to have a look at what led up to his appearance here. 

In 1995 the sociologist Robert Putnam published the essay “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” His thesis was that we Americans were no longer joining organizations at the rates we had in the past, that participation in various clubs and organizations such as the Elks, the Rotary, and the Chamber of Commerce were declining due to the inroads that television and the internet had made into our lives. He chose bowling as the signature example of this trend because although the numbers of people bowling had actually increased, those doing so as part of a bowling league had dropped significantly. People were now, as the title of the essay stated, bowling alone. 

At about that same time, we at Writers & Books were seeking ways to use literature as a means to bring people closer together. Reading as an activity was (is) primarily thought of as a solitary activity—the lonely reader communing with the lonely writer—but we believed that literature had a much broader role to play in the creative life of our community. What if we were not only a community of readers, we asked, but a community that read together? Out of that germ of an idea, and conversations with other literary presenters from around the nation, sprang the impetus for launching “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book…”

It has now been nineteen years since Gaines and his book kicked off the program (renamed “Rochester Reads” in 2015). We chose A Lesson Before Dying for a number of reasons. First, it was both deceptively simple and exquisitely well written, and thus accessible to the widest possible audience. Next, the book dealt with a subject—the death penalty—that could generate discussion and personal interaction with people throughout our community. And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, we knew that Gaines would be the perfect writer/ambassador to introduce the idea that writers, and their books, can bring people from very diverse backgrounds together to talk face-to-face. One of our main goals in beginning the program, and one that know we achieved, was to bring together in the same room individuals who would have no other reason to be there than the fact that they had read the same book.

And, it turned out, Gaines was the absolutely best writer we could have selected to launch the program. He was open and generous, always interested in what people had to say, and willing to engage in sharing his thoughts on his writing and how experiences from his own life helped shape the book. He talked about growing up in rural Louisiana and the limited education available to the region’s African-American children. He talked about his own discovery of libraries after he had moved to California at age 15, and the enormous impact reading had on his views of the people around him and of the larger world.

Two events in particular stick out in my mind from his days here. The first took place at the Penfield Library when a white woman stood up to say that this was the first book she had ever read by a Black author, and the only reason she was able to read it was because her two sisters had recently died, because while they were alive they wouldn’t let her read those kind of books. She then added that A Lesson Before Dying was, it turned out, one of the most important books she had ever read.

The second moment transpired at the Central Library in downtown Rochester. In that instance an African-American woman stood up to say that this was the most integrated audience she had ever been a part of at the library and that it was the community reading Gaines’ book that had made that possible. 

For people to stand up and make statements such as these was a real tribute to Gaines and the sense of calm and openness that he projected, as well as a genuine interest in what each and every person he came into contact with had to say. Within that environment people felt safe to speak their minds and to share their thoughts not only on the book, but on the subject of racism in our community. 

Throughout his residency here in Rochester Gaines was accompanied by his wife Diane. He had married late in life, protecting his time and energies to devote to a career of writing and teaching, rather than to the demands of family life. It was obvious when you spent time around the two of them that with Diane he had found a true life’s companion, and she was a great addition to the time we spent together during that week.

Based on the overwhelming success of that first year, Rochester Reads has gone on to present eighteen other writers and their books to the greater Rochester community. But it was through Ernest Gaines, and his stately presence, that we continue his legacy to this day. His writings and wise counsel will be missed in this community and in many others throughout the country.