Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

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(1971). Widely praised as Ernest J. Gaines's best book, this historical novel builds upon fugitive slave narratives as well as the oral tradition. The first-person narrator, some 110 years old, is one of the most memorable characters in all African American fiction. Set in rural Louisiana, the novel is divided into four parts—The War Years, Reconstruction, The Plantation, and The Quarters—that progress from the 1860s to the 1960s. It is the immediacy and authenticity of Miss Jane's voice, the book's greatest literary achievement, that enable the author to unify the text's panoramic sweep and its highly episodic structure. Jane is both an effectively realized individual and a representative figure, a spokesperson for the African American experience from slavery times to the era of the civil rights movement. Gaines's “Introduction” presents her story as the outcome of a series of interviews by the novel's ostensible editor not only with Jane but with other members of her community, and Gaines thereby stresses both the centrality of the oral tradition in African American culture and the interdependence of the individual and the group. The popular oral history methodology of the time of the novel's composition recognized that people like Miss Jane had been excluded from traditional histories. Gaines thus perceived his book as filling a void in the historical record, as embodying what he termed “folk autobiography.”

The opening chapter, in which Jane abandons her slave name, Ticey, and refuses—despite a beating—to relinquish her new name, testifies to Gaines's concern with identity, a major theme in African American literature generally and in the autobiography as a genre. This episode also demonstrates qualities in Jane's character that persist throughout the book, helping to establish her heroic stature: determination, personal integrity, self-assertion, endurance. Much of the novel focuses on the violence with which such attempts at African American self-determination are met by whites: the massacre of the newly emancipated slaves in book 1; the assassination of Ned (whom Jane adopts after his mother is killed in the massacre) in book 2; and the murder of Jimmy Aaron, a civil rights worker, at the end of book 4, an act that fails, however, to prevent Jane from joining the protest march with which the novel closes. The deaths of Ned and Jimmy highlight the book's pervasive religious elements, for both characters are depicted as Christlike figures, men whose blood is shed to redeem their people. In book 3, significantly, Gaines portrays the white Tee Bob in similar terms when Tee Bob commits suicide because southern mores preclude his marrying a Creole. Gaines thus reveals the destructive consequences of racism for the entire South, indeed for all of American society. Written in the years immediately following the civil rights era, Miss Jane's narrative, more than any other single book, helped Americans understand the personal experiences and emotions, as well as the historical events, that had produced the revolution in U.S. race relations during the 1960s.

Keith E. Byerman, Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction, 1985.John F. Callahan, In the African-American Grain: The Pursuit of Voice in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction, 1988.


Subjects: Literature.

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