The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Jane Pittman

Was the story of Miss Jane Pittman a real one?

I love history, and I want to know more about her.

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The narrator in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is not a real person. The life stories the narrator describes, however, are based on actual events that occurred throughout the 100 plus years of her fictionalized life, spanning from the 1850s to the 1960s. In these years, she experiences life as a Southern black woman born into slavery, the continued struggles of her people after emancipation, and her final act of independence as a participant in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.  Her first-person narration blended with historical and cultural reality creates a strong visual narrative style.

The author, Ernest J. Gaines, was born on a Louisiana plantation and spent his early years attending rural schools and working in the fields. The oldest of twelve children, he was raised by his disabled great-aunt Augusteen Jefferson, until his mother remarried. Mr. Gaines joined his mother in California, but the memories of his strong great-aunt and the characters of other strong black women helped formulate the persona that became Miss Jane Pittman.

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There was never a woman named Miss Jane Pittman, at least not the particular one that narrates the novel.  In fact, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is classified as historical fiction.  As such, the characters are fictional but their stories are set in a real place and time and often recount situations that actually happened.  In this case, these actual situations revolved around African-American women, the Civil War era and the institution of slavery.

Originally known as "Ticey" when a young girl, Jane Pittman is told by a Union Soldier to exert her independence over her slave master.  When Ticey does so, she is beaten so very badly that she is unable to have children.  Eventually, she takes the name "Jane Brown" and eventually becomes "Miss Jane Pittman" when she falls in love and lives with the horse trainer having the last name of Pittman.  Due to her extreme independence, Jane does not marry Mr. Pittman even though she does take his name, as a result she remains "Miss Jane Pittman" her entire life.  When she narrates her story, Jane is over 100 years old.  She has been enslaved, freed and now experiencing racism. 

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.

Even though Miss Jane Pittman does not exist, she represents all of the determined and courageous African-American women in the Deep South willing to independently resit slavery and racism at the hands of whites.

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No, there was no real person named Jane Pittman whose autobiography is recorded in Gaines' fictional historical novel.  However, Ernest J. Gaines did develop the principal character in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman because of the influence of a real person, his Aunt Augusteen Jefferson, a disabled woman who raised him until he was fifteen and moved from her care in Louisiana to California. While in Louisiana, Ernest Gaines himself worked in the potato fields of a plantation for fifty cents a day while Aunt Augusteen cared for the children.

Gaines's aunt had a powerful influence upon him, and he incorporated strong black female characters such as Jane Pittman into his novels because of her. To make The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman seem more authentic, Gaines chose to have the character of Jane tell her story herself.  This method is in keeping with the oral tradition of African-American storytelling.

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