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.)