The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman Critical Overview
by Ernest J. Gaines

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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

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,...

(The entire section is 844 words.)