Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Bryant plantation. Louisiana farm on which Jane Pittman is born into slavery with the name Ticey. There she spends the first ten years of her life. Things begin to change when the Civil War reaches the plantation—first when a Confederate army occupies it, then when a Union army arrives. Rejecting her slave identity by insisting that her name is Miss Jane Brown, Ticey is whipped and returned to field work.
After hearing about President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the idealistic Jane expects to find freedom in the North and tries to make her way to Ohio with a younger boy, Ned. She and Ned struggle through swamps and farms burned and devastated by war. After thinking she has reached Ohio, she discovers the bitter truth that she is still in Louisiana.
Bone plantation. Prosperous Louisiana plantation much like Bryant’s, where Jane lives in a sparsely furnished cabin for about ten or twelve years after she gives up on reaching Ohio. After she enjoys life in an environment safe from post-Civil War Reconstruciton violence and receives some education from an excellent schoolteacher, violence eventually reaches the plantation and her situation reverts to a condition resembling slavery.
Clyde farm. Place on the Louisiana-Texas border that becomes Jane’s happiest home. There she lives for ten years with her common-law...
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The Civil Rights Movement in Louisiana
In 1971, when Ernest Gaines published The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, the United States had just seen a time of great social and political upheaval. Throughout the 1960s, African Americans had been struggling to gain equality. Various types of protests, such as the demonstrations described in the novel, were helping to bring centuries-long practices like segregation and racial discrimination to an end. Civil rights were still in the forefront of many African Americans' minds in 1971. Gaines's home state of Louisiana became famous during the 1960s for two events: the New Orleans school integration crisis and the Bogalusa movement.
In its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools. Nevertheless, by 1960 the New Orleans school board had still made no progress toward integrating its schools. That fall, Judge Skelly Wright forced the board to come up with a plan for integration. Although this...
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Narration and Dialect
Much of the critical acclaim awarded to Gaines for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman centers around his narrative creation—Miss Jane Pittman. Jane's first-person ("I") account of one hundred years of her life in America brings a uniquely personal perspective to this historical novel. An important part of her narration is the use of dialect—a variation in language particular to a region or culture. Jane's retelling is recorded in her own rural black dialect, in this instance the language of Gaines's native Louisiana. This use of dialect brings a realism to both the characterization of Jane and the Louisiana setting of the book. In addition, by allowing Jane's unrestrained frankness to take charge of the story, Gaines maintains the feeling of the conversation of her telling. The novel is experienced more as something heard than as something read.
Jane's frank narrative style also serves to highlight one of the themes of the book, that the ordinary individual can make a difference. For example, she says:
"Jimmy I have a scar on my back I got when I was a slave. I'll carry it to my grave. You got people out there with this scar on their brains, and they will carry that scar to their grave. Talk with them, Jimmy."
In this little speech she bypasses the "retrick" of fancy education as well...
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Compare and Contrast
1870s: The Emancipation Proclamation ends the legal sanction of slavery. However, many blacks remain in the South either as sharecroppers or subsistence wage laborers.
1950s and 1960s: The Civil Rights movement slowly spreads across the South. The biggest scenes surround the bus boycotts and marches led by leaders like Martin Luther King. Elsewhere in the South, however, Jim Crow laws remain unchallenged but changing.
Today: Several federal Civil Rights Acts allow persons unfairly treated due to color, sex, or creed full recourse of the law.
1870s: The sudden disruption to Southern life and identity caused by the release of the slaves and defeat in the Civil War leads to the emergence of terror groups like the KKK. These groups prevent the full implementation of Reconstruction, the realization of equal rights, and the timely integration of African Americans into society.
1950s and 1960s: Unsatisfied with the rate of progress and inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's campaign in India nonviolent measures were adopted and sit-ins staged in "Whites Only" establishments across America. Other groups, like the Black Panther Party, were formed and became more direct when progress did not happen immediately.
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Topics for Further Study
Ernest Gaines has remarked that modern literature and histories tend to focus on grand events and large cities. Research what he calls the "rural past" and explain how ordinary Americans outside of the city have affected history. Possible time periods to investigate include the American Revolution the building of the American West, and the eras of World War I the Great Depression World War II and the Vietnam War.
Explain how the person who is "recording" Jane's story succeeds in making history more exciting. How does Jane's story make it easier to explain what happened from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement?
Do some research into the period of American history known as Reconstruction. Which efforts to rehabilitate the South failed and why? Why were men like Colonel Eugene I. Dye allowed to return to their plantations?
Jane Pittman tells of her fondness for Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play major league baseball. Research the history of African American participation in professional and Olympic sports and write a paper connecting milestones on the playing field with milestones in civil rights for African Americans.
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Techniques / Literary Precedents
Gaines's successful use of the dialects and tones of rural southerners of all races has invited comparisons to Faulkner, and specifically Miss Jane to Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury (1929). Any list of comparable southern white writers should also include Eudora Welty. As a writer of historical fiction, Gaines can also be compared to William Styron, whose Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) recounted the course of a slave rebellion, though Gaines's work has an authenticity that Styron's appears to lack. The same might be said of Gaines's white predecessor, Harriet Beecher Stowe; Gaines has the advantage of having lived the life he describes. Black writers to whom he is invariably compared are James Baldwin, John A. Williams, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. Contrasts are often drawn between Gaines's work and so-called "protest" writers, whose works read in a more polemical way. He has also been distinguished from Wright, Baldwin, Eldrige Cleaver, and other "city" writers because he prefers to set his fiction in the rural Louisiana he knew so well.
More than one critic has also acknowledged the mythic proportions of Miss Jane's character, comparing her to Odysseus and other narrators of epics in her role as a narrator of her people's history. Her age adds to the mythical aura created by her tale. By ascribing such an important role to a character of humble origin, Gaines achieves a startling meld of epic and folk-ballad...
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The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was preceded by two novels, Catherine Carmier (1964) and Of Love and Dust (1967), and the collection of short stories, Bloodline (1968). Gaines's most successful novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman treats very convincingly, though sometimes not as dominantly, the themes of his previous works. It experiments with narrative styles employed in the earlier works. Gaines uses an omniscient narrator to expound his tale of thwarted love across the color barrier in Catherine Carmier. This theme is developed in the relationship between the Creole Mary Agnes and Tee Bob in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Except for the startlingly brilliant creation of Raoul Carmier, the overpossessive Creole father of Catherine, the characterizations in the earlier book suffer from its omniscient narrative. Gaines wisely lets characters speak for themselves in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and later in A Gathering of Old Men (1983).
In Of Love and Dust, Gaines uses a successful first person narrator, Jim Kelly, an ordinary black field worker, who has risen to the position of tractor driver on the plantation. Like Jane in her older years, Kelly is rather conservative. He feels that the rebellious young Marcus, who aspires to elope with the boss's wife, is too hot-headed to survive (a hunch which the plot sadly bears out.) Kelly's voice is effective both because it is conservative and because of the subtle change in...
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The video production of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman aired on CBS television on January 31, 1974. Cicely Tyson stars as Miss Jane from young womanhood onward (Miss Jane as a young girl is played by Valeria Odell). The screenplay was written by Tracy Keenan Wynn, and the movie was directed by John Korty. Other notable acting talents in the production are Richard A. Dysart as Master Bryant Dye, Katherine Helmond as the Lady of the Plantation, Michael Murphy as Quentin, Odetta as Big Laura, Rod Perry as Joe Pittman, Roy Poole as Master Robert Samson, and Thalmus Rasulala as Ned at forty-two. The genius of make-up artists Stan Winston, Rick Baker, and Marvin Westmore also deserve mention for their work in changing Tyson's appearance from that of a young to an old woman. Critics noted important differences between the novel and the film — its substution of a white reporter for the black teacher/historian, some changes in the plot, and the revised ending where Miss Jane actually talks back to Samson and then goes to Bayonne and drinks from the fountain. Although some of these changes were decried as a whitewashing of the novel, Gaines himself does not seem to have been much bothered by them, and despite the changes, the movie maintains the power of the original. The white reporter serves as an example of a concerned, deeply affected human being whose own humanity, not his race, is his reason for profound interest in the suffering of African Americans. One...
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The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was adapted as a television drama in 1974 by Tracey Keenan for Tomorrow Entertainment Inc. The adaptation aired on CBS, starring Cicely Tyson in the lead role. The drama was highly acclaimed and received nine Emmy awards. It is available on video through Prism Entertainment.
The novel has also been recorded several times into audio-book format. The first time was in 1974 when Claudia McNeil read the work for Caedmon Records. Then in 1987, Roses Prichard read the work for Newport Beack Books on Tape. More recently, Prince Frederick Recorded Books produced a reading by Lynn Thigpen in 1994.
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What Do I Read Next?
Harriet A. Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by herself was first published in 1861. Since then, it has remained the classic example of the slave narrative genre. The autobiography tells of her life as a slave and her escape to the north in the 1830s.
In order to answer the doubt that he was ever a slave Frederick Douglass wrote his autobiography in 1845. He rewrote this in 1881 as The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. The book has since become a classic of American literature and a source of inspiration to countless American youths.
The South's most celebrated author is William Faulkner who told stories of a mythical Mississippi county called Yoknapatawpha. The 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury is a most powerful tale of the South's decline, partially narrated by a mentally impaired man named Benjy Compson.
Zora Neale Hurston recorded as much of the cultural experience of black Americans in the South Eastern United States as she was able. Her most acclaimed novel was her 1937 work Their Eyes Were Watching God. The story is that of a woman named Janie who struggles to find equal treatment of others. For a time she has this, but the story ends tragically.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Martin Arms, "MacPosh," in New Statesman, September 2, 1973, pp. 205-206.
Jerry H. Bryant, "From Death to Life. The Fiction of Ernest L, Gaines," in the Iowa Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1972, pp. 106-120.
Addison Gayle, Jr., "The Way of the New World Part II," in his The Way of the New World. The Black Novel in America, Doubleday, 1975, pp. 287-310.
Josh Greenfield, in a review of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in Life, April 30, 1971.
Melvin Maddocks, "Root and Branch," in Time, May 10, 1971, pp. K13-K17.
"Southern Cross," a review of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in Times Literary Supplement, March 16, 1973, p. 303.
Winifred L. Stoelting, "Human Dignity and Pride in the Novels of Ernest Gaines," in CIA Journal, March 1971, pp. 340-358.
Alice Walker, in a review of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in New York Times Book Review, May 23, 1971, pp. 6, 12.
For Further Study
Valerie Melissa Babb, Ernest Gaines, Twayne, 1991.
See chapter five in particular, in which Babb examines the role of a woman as narrator. Includes an annotated bibliography of Gaines criticism (including articles, reviews, and interviews) up to the mid-1980s....
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Babb, Valerie Melissa. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A clear critical analysis that devotes one chapter to each of Gaines’s major works, including a detailed chapter on The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman that discusses the novel’s historical and cultural accuracy, use of oral history, themes, and character development.
Bell, Bernard W. “The Contemporary Afro-American Novel, Two: Modernism and Postmodernism.” In The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Examines Gaines’s fiction as an example of Afro-American postmodernism, which differs from white postmodernism by exploring the power in folk tradition rather than rejecting fictional tradition.
Byerman, Keith E. “Negotiations: James Alan McPherson and Ernest Gaines.” In Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Reviews Gaines’s fictional productivity and compares his use of folk tradition with the urban tales of James McPherson. Finds in Gaines’s stories possibilities for black resistance to white oppression.
Callahan, John F. “A Moveable Form: The Loose End Blues of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” In In the African-American Grain: The Pursuit of Voice in Twentieth-Century...
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