Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.)

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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 (Society and Self, Critical Representations 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.)