Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 844

The majority of critics have noted that Ernest Gaines made an unforgettable contribution to American literature with The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman . Gaines has been seen as a historian, as he pretends to be in the introduction of the novel, who has created "a metaphor of the collective...

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The majority of critics have noted that Ernest Gaines made an unforgettable contribution to American literature with The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Gaines has been seen as a historian, as he pretends to be in the introduction of the novel, who has created "a metaphor of the collective black experience," according to Jerry Bryant in the Iowa Review. In serving as this metaphor, Jane Pittman is the story of rural African Americans since 1865. Her final moment in the narrative represents this one hundred-year period as a victorious slow march to freedom. As Josh Greenfield writes in Life magazine: "Never mind that Miss Jane Pittman is fictitious, and that her 'autobiography,' offered up in the form of taped reminiscences, is artifice. The effect is stunning."

The novel has been so celebrated that the difference in critical views is often limited to the way reviewers praise the novel. Often, this praise has been for Gaines's ability to integrate historical events and political changes without writing an angry "protest novel" of the type that often appeared in the 1960s. As a result, note these critics, the novel focuses on the literary qualities of the story rather than its message. The ability to avoid outrage and self-pity, according to a Times Literary Supplement review, stems from the technique Gaines uses to tell the story. Because many of the events Jane remembers are years past, the graphic pain they inspire is somewhat faded. As the reviewer explains: "Cheerfully free of self-pity or dramatics, taking for granted unspeakable persecutions and endurances, faded into matter-of-factness by the suggestions of old age remembering, the record's implicit revelation of wickedness is nevertheless so hard that one would like to turn away from such truth." Fortunately, not all critics have been so nervous.

Novelist Alice Walker for example, confronts the issue of "politics" in Gaines's work in her review for the New York Times Book Review. "Because politics are strung throughout the novel, it will no doubt be said that Gaines's book is about politics. But he is too skilled a writer to be stuck in so sordid, so small a category." Walker says Gaines is best compared to writers such as Charles Dickens and W.E.B. DuBois, rather than Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright because his preference is for the story over politics. That is, she says, he "claims and revels in the rich heritage" and customs of the Southern blacks of Louisiana. As a result, Gaines's work is "open to love and to interpretation."

In another early review of the novel for Time magazine, Melvin Maddocks calls Gaines a "country-boy writer." He uses this term not only because Gaines writes about rural Louisiana, but also because his stories are set down as if planted, "spreading the roots deep, wide and firm. His stories grow organically ... with the absolute rightness of a folk tale." Maddocks also enjoys the way Gaines does not demand immediate change through revolution. Instead, "he simply watches, a patient artist, a patient man, and it happens for him" in the final moment when Jane walks past Robert. Nevertheless, the novel captures the essence of an entire people, states Martin Amis in New Statesman. "Miss Jane's story is a bloody slice of life, a protracted blow-by-blow battle with the moonish ignorance and bestiality of the white Southerner." Because Jane has come out of her cycle victorious, the critic observes, there is no self-pity to reduce the effectiveness of the story. Amis also compares Jane's story to Thomas Berger's novel Little Big Man. That tale similarly captures the history of an entire people, the Cheyenne tribe of the Great Plains, through the narrative of a 111-year-old witness. The difference between the two is that Gaines avoids a mythic sweep and simply tells the tale of an individual woman.

In her CIA Journal review, Winifred Stoelting examines the characters inhabiting Gaines's literary universe. These characters are "caught in the movement of the changing times, they must make choices, the results often unpredictable, the consequences sometimes tragic." Accordingly, Stoelting continues, these characters embody Gaines's belief in the individual: "the world his characters live in values the independence of the human spirit to survive and change."

Picking up the refrain of praise, Addison Gayle summarizes the formula of Gaines's historic novels in his 1975 work The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America: "Realization precedes action, recognition of the truth of history is a prelude for rebellion and revolution." Gayle also dwells on the influence of Nobel Prize-winner William Faulkner on Gaines's writing. Faulkner wrote of the men trapped, like Samson or Raynard, by the old patterns of the white South. In comparing Faulkner's universe to Gaines's, Gayle says: "to endure in Faulkner's universe is to accept predominance of guilt and redemption, and, thus, to accept too the inevitability of fate. To endure in Gaines' universe is to minimize such themes, concentrate upon people, and, thus, to struggle endlessly against fate." As a result, the critic concludes, Gaines can focus on character yet create "a novel of epic proportions."

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