Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman remains Gaines’s best-known work, partly because of Cicely Tyson’s portrayal of Jane in the 1974 televised adaptation of the novel. It is Gaines’s most panoramic and episodic book, tracing the long life of its protagonist from her youthful emancipation to her old age in the 1960’s.
The novel purports to be the recorded history of the protagonist herself, leading many to conclude that she was a real person, but she is actually a composite portrait Gaines drew from several inspirational sources, including his aunt Augusteen Jefferson. Miss Jane’s narrative threads through historic events, providing a backdrop of well-known names and dates against which, through adversity and triumph, Jane grows in stature from an ignorant young slave to a wise old woman.
Her saga begins with no inkling of geographic reality, merely the desire to find the Union soldier who, in dubbing her “Jane Brown,” had removed her stigma as a slave. She quickly learns that freedom means that she must forage for herself, not an easy task in a land full of marauding white people bent on exterminating black vagrants.
She teams up with Ned, a younger boy whose mother has been slaughtered, and together they follow her elusive dream. With the end of Reconstruction and the onset of the Jim Crow era, Ned migrates to Kansas, committed to helping his fellow black people, who have been forced once again into...
(The entire section is 524 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is the life story of Jane Pittman as purportedly told to an unnamed schoolteacher, who edits the interviews into a continuous narrative of life among slaves and other Louisiana African Americans from 1864 to 1963, from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. This editor is a fictional personage whose interests in Jane become a motive for learning about life among poor African Americans in the South. Through the device of the schoolteacher learning about Jane and other African Americans, the book represents the individual trials, hopes, and aspirations of Southern African Americans they battle for dignity and self-esteem long after they were supposed to have been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
The editor negotiates interview opportunities with sixty-year-old Mary Hodges, who looks after Jane. Jane herself is more than one hundred years old (she does not know exactly how old she is, but she thinks that she was ten when she took the name of Jane in 1864). Jane does not seem able to keep her memories straight, so the editor asks neighbors for help in assembling her jumbled memories into a coherent narrative. Jane’s style of speaking is abrupt and halting, sometimes repetitious and discontinuous.
Jane’s story is divided into four parts. The first, “The War Years,” covers the period near the end of the Civil War, when Jane tries to leave...
(The entire section is 447 words.)
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman the heroine and many African Americans in south Louisiana move from passivity to heroic assertion and achieve a new identity. Gaines’s best-known novel is not an autobiography but a first-person reminiscence of a fictional 110-year-old former slave whose memories extend from the Emancipation Proclamation to Martin Luther King, Jr. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman tells her unschooled but adept version of state and national occurrences and personalities (Huey Long, the flood of 1927, the rise of black athletes such as Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis). Her version of history is given to a tape-recording young schoolteacher who wants historical facts; Jane helps him to understand the dynamics of living history, the way she remembers it. Her accounts are loving, sane, and responsible. Her language—speech patterns and pronunciations—is authentic, since Gaines read interviews with former slaves.
Renamed Jane Brown by a Union soldier because Ticey (her original name) is “a slave name,” Jane wears her new designation proudly, as a badge of her identity as a free woman, when she and other former slaves attempt to escape from Louisiana. Many of them are brutally murdered by Klansmen. Jane, who is about ten at the time, escapes along with a small orphan, Ned. Jane becomes Ned’s mother and during Reconstruction she raises him when they settle on another plantation as fieldhands. Ned receives...
(The entire section is 466 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Before Miss Jane Pittman agrees to give a tape-recorded account of her more than one hundred years of life—from before the end of slavery to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s—the editor, a history teacher, has to convince her to do so in order to better teach African American history from the perspective of a black woman who experienced it firsthand. Miss Jane’s story begins at the end of the American Civil War on a southern Louisiana plantation, when she is about ten or eleven. While bringing Yankee soldiers a drink, Miss Jane, then called Ticey, befriends a Yankee named Corporal Brown, who influences her to replace her slave name with that of Jane. Miss Jane decides to adopt the new name and the corporal’s surname. Miss Jane reveals her pride for the first time when she refuses to accept her old slave name ever again, although her mistress whips her until she bleeds.
After the war ends a year later, Miss Jane, determined and proud, decides she is leaving the plantation for Ohio, in search of Corporal Brown, although she does not know the way or what she will eat along the way. When the two dozen other former slaves Miss Jane leaves with begin their journey north, they decide to change their slave names, as Miss Jane did, to declare their independence. They are soon to find out, however, that although they are legally free, they are to be treated no better and perhaps even worse than they had been during slavery. Soon after they leave, they are brutally attacked by a group of patrollers and former Confederate soldiers, who use sticks to beat to death all of those in the group except Miss Jane and a young boy, Ned, who are undetected in the bushes.
The two children bravely continue on alone for what they think is Ohio. The determined children journey until they eventually find themselves back on a southern Louisiana plantation that is very much like the one they fled. On the plantation, Miss Jane works in the field, lives in the old slave quarters, and takes care of Ned as if he were her child. For a short time everything seems to go well: The children and some adults are educated. White hate groups terrorize and kill blacks across the state, but the Yankee who temporarily owns the plantation has the plantation guarded by black troops to protect his workers. Soon, however, the original Confederate owner gets his land back during the deals the North and South are making in an attempt to reunite the country. Life on the plantation returns much to the way it was back in the days of slavery. The black politicians, troops, and teacher are all forced to leave, and the children are educated only a couple of months out of...
(The entire section is 1084 words.)
Book 1, Chapters 1-2 Summary
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) by Ernest J. Gaines is written as if it were being dictated to a man who is interested in hearing Miss Jane’s story. Miss Jane is more than one hundred years old as she recounts all the circumstances of her life as a slave and later as a free woman.
After introducing the story, the novel begins in the voice of the protagonist, Miss Jane, who as a slave was called Ticey. Ticey is serving water to Southern troops who are passing by the plantation on which Ticey lives. The men are completely exhausted; they can barely lift their arms to receive the gourd of water Ticey hands them. They do not even see her, she says. They do not notice if she is a girl or a boy or if...
(The entire section is 554 words.)
Book 1, Chapters 3-4 Summary
The group of freed slaves heads for the swamps. When they get there, no one knows what to do next. Everyone is afraid of taking the lead for fear that they might get everyone lost. From the back of the crowd, a large woman steps forward. They call her Big Laura. She is the mother of two small children, one of whom she carries and the other she leads by the hand. She also has a large bundle that she balances on the top of her head. Big Laura walks to the front of the group and leads them away. After a long walk, Big Laura takes them to a path that winds through the swamp.
When they take their first break, the freed slaves discuss what they want their new names to be. Many take the last name of Lincoln or other white...
(The entire section is 711 words.)
Book 1, Chapters 5-6 Summary
Miss Jane cannot decide which way to go. The river is too wide and too deep to cross, but she does not know if she should turn right or left. She asks Ned to decide, and they follow his suggestion. They walk for a very long time until they hear voices. Miss Jane hides in the bushes again and insists that Ned be quiet. She listens to the conversation, and when she hears the word nigger, she realizes that the voices she is hearing must belong to slaves.
She runs out from the bushes and is amazed at what she finds. There is a large group of black people sitting next to a big wagon filled with furniture. She cannot fathom how slaves could possess that much furniture. Then she sees a white woman and two white...
(The entire section is 609 words.)
Book 1, Chapters 7-8 Summary
As Jane settles in for the night, she begins to more fully sense what freedom might be. She is wearing clean clothes, she has been well fed and washed, and she is about to fall asleep in a comfortable bed. She thinks she could stay at this house for African slave orphans for a long time.
However, her thoughts are shattered when she hears a young boy holler from across the hall—in the room where Ned is sleeping. She jumps out of bed and runs over to the next room to make sure Ned is all right. All the other boys are sitting up in their beds except for Ned and a boy next to Ned. It is the boy next to Ned who has been screaming and sobbing. When a white man appears, he questions the boys and discovers that the boy next...
(The entire section is 634 words.)
Book 1, Chapters 9-10 Summary
Jane is tired of walking but is still determined to make it to Ohio. She and Ned are still walking through the swamps, and Jane must carry Ned much of the time because the water sometimes is as high as Jane’s waist. When they finally leave the swamp, the ground around them looks barren. There are no trees in sight, which means they will have no shade from the sun.
In the distance, Jane sees a small cabin and heads for it. When they get close, they see an old white man, who is not much taller than Jane is. The man sees how tired they are and offers them food. As Jane and Ned eat, the man answers Jane’s questions about where Ohio is. He points out where Louisiana is by going to a map that is tacked to the wall. He...
(The entire section is 702 words.)
Book 2, Chapters 1-3 Summary
The era of Reconstruction begins with Book Two. Jane is still at Mr. Bone’s plantation, and life appears to be going well for her and Ned. Jane works all day while Ned goes to school. She and Ned live in a small cabin with little furniture, but they eat every day and seem happy. Ned’s teacher is a black man whom everyone likes—children and adults. The teacher offers classes for adults at night, but Jane says she is too tired at the end of the day to attend. She is proud of Ned’s progress, though, as he learns to read. Ned demonstrates his skills one night, and Jane says it makes her feel as if he were her own child.
Many politicians come to Mr. Bone’s house for meetings. Mr. Bone prefers the Republican Party,...
(The entire section is 690 words.)
Book 2, Chapters 4-6 Summary
Jane talks about Joe Pittman, a widower with two young children. She noticed him when Ned was still living with her, but she paid little attention to him then. The reason for her lack of interest in the beginning was that she wanted to focus all her attention on Ned. Then after Ned left, she still did not want to let Joe know that she might want to have a relationship with him. She had found out earlier that she was barren, and she did not think Joe would still want her if he knew.
Joe asks Jane to be his wife but she refuses several times. She has grown to like him, but she is still concerned about her barrenness. Eventually, she confesses the reason she has been denying him. Joe does not care about her inability to...
(The entire section is 673 words.)
Book 2, Chapters 7-9 Summary
Jane and Joe make enough money over the years to buy a small farm of their own, but Joe tells Jane that he does not like farming. What he does best is breaking wild horses, and that is what he wants to do. Joe’s reputation grows. People come from all around to watch him ride some of the meanest horses, which no one else could ride.
Jane is worried about Joe. She starts to have dreams of his death. She is afraid every time he breaks one of the horses that he is going to have a terrible accident and be killed. She tells Joe about her fears. She wants him to stop riding the wild horses but Joe will not hear of it. He tells her he feels that God put him on earth to ride horses. So that is what he must do.
(The entire section is 647 words.)
Book 2, Chapters 10-12 Summary
Albert Cluveau is a white man who kills people. He often goes fishing with Jane, eats food she fixes for him, and drinks her coffee. He talks about fishing and farming, but mostly he likes to discuss the details of how many people he has killed, both white and black. Albert Cluveau disgusts Jane, but she continues to tolerate him. Then one day, Cluveau tells Jane that Ned is in trouble. There are some white people who want Ned dead.
Jane goes to Ned’s house to warn him. It is late at night and Ned is teaching in his home. When he is finished, Jane thinks Ned looks too tired to hear or heed her warning. So she goes home without telling him about what Cluveau has said.
A few days later, Cluveau is back at...
(The entire section is 579 words.)
Book 2, Chapters 13-14 Summary
Jane exclaims that she knows Ned is dead before she is told. She is lying in bed when she sees a light flash through her room. She sits up in bed and knows someone shot Ned. So she runs to his home, where she is met by one of the boys who had been with Ned and witnessed the shooting.
As the word spreads of Ned’s death, everyone in the community comes out to mourn him. Jane makes the statement that even though these people did not support Ned’s school, they came to his house to grieve for him. Jane tells them all to go back home. She does not think all the noise they are making is good for Ned’s widow, Vivian. Jane makes Vivian go to bed and leaves a woman to watch over her. Then Jane asks to be alone with Ned. She...
(The entire section is 533 words.)
Book 3, Chapters 1-3 Summary
Jane moves about eight miles down the road from her house to a different plantation called Samson. She has wanted a change of scene in the hopes that it would help her get over missing Ned. She considered moving farther away, but a friend told her she could never move far enough to get away from her memories. So when a position opens up at Samson, she applies and is hired.
She will be working in the field again, something she loves. The outdoors make her feel good. The work is difficult but she believes she can do it, and she proves herself worthy once again. After she is at Samson for a good while, the owner offers her a house in the kitchen. Although she does not want to leave the outdoors, she realizes that the...
(The entire section is 669 words.)
Book 3, Chapters 4-6 Summary
Jane discusses Huey P. Long, who was once the governor of Louisiana. Long promoted the rights of poor people and wanted to support them by taxing the rich. His ideas were popular with the poor but obviously not with the rich. He was assassinated. Jane makes references to Long in her story, saying that she believes it was the rich white folks who were responsible for Long’s death. She thinks Long was determined to help poor folks, white and black, by providing them the means of a good education.
She then discusses various teachers during that time who come to her community, determined to teach basic skills to the people who live there. One of the teachers is Miss Lilly. Jane offers part of her quarters for Miss Lilly...
(The entire section is 469 words.)
Book 3, Chapters 7-9 Summary
Creoles (people of mixed races such as African and white French) live not too far from the Samson plantation where Jane now works in the kitchen. The Creole people are reluctant to mix with people who live outside of their culture. Blacks from the plantation are not welcomed, and if a Creole ever leaves the village, he or she is not allowed to return.
There is an incident in which two young men from Samson decide to crash a party in the Creoles’ territory. Adults warn the two men to stay away, but the men want to mix with the pretty Creole women and will not be deterred. When they arrive, several Creole men greet them and ask who invited them. The two Samson men, Sappho and Claudee, say Jacques invited them; this is a...
(The entire section is 609 words.)
Book 3, Chapters 10-11 Summary
Tee Bob is supposed to be at the party at his house to celebrate his engagement to Judy Major. But he wants to be with Mary Agnes more than ever before. So he leaves his family house and drives his car to what is referred to as the “quarters,” a cluster of cabins in which some of the black workers live. He pulls up to the cabin Jane shares with Mary Agnes.
Mary Agnes is inside, packing her suitcase for a trip to New Orleans. She is startled by the sound of knocking at her door. Before she opens the door, she guesses it might be Clamp, a young boy who often catches the bus to the city with her on weekends. But it is not Clamp. It is Tee Bob, who pushes his way inside. Mary Agnes is worried about his manner and leaves...
(The entire section is 672 words.)
Jane tells the story of Jimmy. Jane begins by saying that in her community, people are always looking for someone to lead them. Every time a child is born, she says, the elders look into the baby’s face and to themselves ask if this child is the One who will help them, or save them, or at least lead them out of their misery. Jimmy, Jane says, was that One.
He is born to Shirley Aaron, but she, like many of the other young mothers, spends most of her time in the big cities now, working for better pay than she would receive on the plantation. So Jimmy is put under the care of his great aunt Lena Washington. The population on Samson at this time is primarily made up of young children and old people. Jane is very old by...
(The entire section is 697 words.)