A Lesson Before Dying is Ernest J. Gaines's eighth book, and is in some ways his most autobiographical. Many aspects of the novel are drawn from Gaines's personal experiences growing up in Oscar, Louisiana. For example, the plantation school where Grant Wiggins teaches is based on the elementary school Gaines attended. Bayonne, the fictional town in Louisiana in which the novel is set, is based on Gaines's hometown; it is also the setting for several of his other books, including his early success, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
The novel is set in 1948, ten years before the Civil Rights Movement would first begin to appear. The problems and successes of African-Americans during this period are often overshadowed by the dramatic events of the Civil Rights Movement, but several important events at this time laid the groundwork for later developments. The Supreme Court began to take steps toward desegregation that would ultimately lead to the pivotal Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 1944, the Court ruled that political primaries could not exclude voters on the basis of race, and two years later, the Court banned segregation on interstate transportation. And in 1948, around the time of the events of A Lesson Before Dying, segregation in public universities was outlawed--a decision that greatly affected African-Americans like Grant and Vivian, who sought education and professional training.
A Lesson Before Dying was received with praise when it was published in 1993. The New York Times described the novel as "moving and truthful," and Gaines was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for the second time. However, the novel did not assume its seminal place in American fiction until 1997, when it was adopted by Oprah's Book Club and became a national bestseller. The novel has since been adapted into a television movie, and has been used in book clubs and English courses throughout the country.