Ernest Gaines won a Wallace Stegner Fellowship to attend a Stanford University writing program in 1958 and 1959. He received the Joseph Henry Jackson Literary Award in 1959, and he published two short-story collections between 1968 and 1971, the year The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman appeared. Many critics have praised the novel, and much has been written about it. The story is best known as a 1974 television film that starred Cicely Tyson in the role of Jane Pittman. The film won nine Emmy Awards, including awards for Tyson’s acting, John Korty’s direction, and Tracy Keenan Wynn’s screenplay.
This powerful novel did not arise without roots. Gaines had studied the fiction of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, and those writers acted as tutors for Gaines’s style, which lets the story tell itself and inhabit a local landscape of imagination. While Faulkner’s works seem most influential on Gaines, from love for a place in the South to preoccupations with memory and time, Faulkner’s vision was still a product of a white experience and was, from Gaines’s perspective, thus limited in what it could communicate of black life in America. It is reasonable to compare Faulkner’s character of Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury (1929) with Jane Pittman, because both are black women of the old South and both are powerful figures of virtue amid vicious brutality. Faulkner, however, does not allow his readers to identify with Dilsey, who remains at a distance from the novel’s imaginative center; Gaines’s character, by contrast, is at the center of his story and his imagination.
More illuminating for appreciation of Gaines’s achievement is a comparison of his work with its predecessors in African American literature. Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) tells the story of Janie Crawford, a black woman of the South who, like Jane Pittman, acquires authority as a storyteller. By way of Frederick Douglass, Gaines takes on the challenge of answering Ralph Ellison’s vision of the black protagonist as an “invisible man.” Ned Douglass takes his name from his great forebear and insists that white society see him in all of his authority; he refuses to take the accommodationist route of Booker T. Washington and disappear into the roles allowed by white power. Gaines refers to such figures from African American cultural history to enrich his novel’s themes of political power and individual integrity. He brings the story of Jane’s life from the time of Frederick Douglass to the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks, with whom Jane Pittman can be compared when she takes her place in the Civil Rights movement at the end of the novel.