The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

by Ernest J. Gaines

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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 economic subjugation. Jane enters into a common-law marriage with Joe Pittman, a sharecropper and the great love of her life. They move near the Texas border, where Joe has a job breaking horses, but after Joe is killed, Jane settles near Bayonne, the epicenter of Gaines’s fictive world.

Ned returns to Louisiana, rekindling in Jane a hope that had dimmed with Joe Pittman’s death. Teaching the need for justice and change, he is soon marked for death. Within a year, Ned is gunned down by a Cajun assassin, Albert Cluveau, who, ironically, had befriended Jane.

In the final parts of the narrative, Jane’s focus shifts from episodes in which she is the main participant to stories of other people living on the Samson plantation, her last home. She describes the various teachers who come to the one-room black school, including Mary Agnes, a Creole who inspires an ill-fated love in Robert Samson, the son of the white plantation owner. Jane also reflects on black heroes, including Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, and other public figures, including Huey Long. Her main focus, however, is on Jimmy, who, like Ned before him, goes away to be educated, returns to preach against segregation, and is killed by lawless white people. It is his spirit that lives on in Miss Jane, who, at the novel’s end, plans to carry on against racial injustice.

In Miss Jane, Gaines etched a compelling literary character who penetrates socially sanctioned wrongs with brash innocence. Yet her attraction lies less in that than in her wonderful earthiness and irrepressible determination to survive. She is an authentic, poignant, and engaging character who has left an indelible imprint on American literature.

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