The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman Essays and Criticism
by Ernest J. Gaines

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Essays and Criticism

(Novels for Students)

Jane's autobiography gives a detailed, interior view of a familiar epoch, and the uniqueness and veracity of her voice compel the reader into an imaginary union with her historic vision. Her choice of words, selection of details, and inclusion of many asides allow her to capture general, regional, and personal histories. Her recalling the series of teachers employed to instruct the black children of her plantation is an example. As she reviews the nature of education on her plantation, Jane digresses momentarily to tell the story of the Creole family, the LeFabres. By placing a family's experience, views, and values in the middle of a general history of black education on a postbellum plantation, she gracefully includes a supplementary component, the color division within Creole society, that gives her story a distinct Louisiana flavor. Jane also employs temporal markers specific to her Louisiana world to lend order to the diverse events of her history. In recalling larger events, such as the institution of sharecroppmg and the fight for civil rights, she uses signposts, such as the election and death of Huey P. Long and the floods of 1917 and 1927, as narrative guides. Both her asides and her markers are traditional devices used to structure oral narrative, but they are crafted to give history a regional and personal perspective. Jane's memory unfolds an alternative to the standard and reminds us that history is made up of diverse individuals. Slavery Reconstruction, and the beginnings of the civil rights movement are all documented through the language, art forms, mythology, spirituals, and folk sermons of one woman and her immediate community.

Book 1 of the narrative of this singular woman begins with the era that has most influenced African-American experience in the United States, slavery. Entitled "The War Years," this section of the work is given over to Jane's concrete descriptions of her life as a bondwoman. The horrendous details of barbarity and dehumanization present in other accounts of the slave system are present here, but Jane's treatment of these details is somewhat different. She reveals not only the facts of slavery but also her personal thoughts and reactions to the experience of bondage. Her account is given greater power by comments and analyses depicting both slavery's inhumanity and the manner in which slaves sought to overcome dehumanization. Every facet of "the peculiar institution" is individualized within Jane's narrative, and historic wrongs against a mass of people that might have remained abstract in other historical documents become keenly felt, immediate wrongs against a character so real she seems alive. Her vivid portraits render the horrors of slavery even more abhorrent because they occur to a character whose psyche we know so intimately.

Jane's descriptions reveal an acute, active mind that immediately counters the stereotype of the ignorant, unfeeling slave. In recounting her experience while bringing water to Confederate soldiers, she articulates a slave's perception of the lack of significance chattel status imposes: "They couldn't tell if I was white or black, a boy or a girl. They didn't even care what I was." Jane's matter-of-fact tone as she details the casual denial of her presence constitutes a vivid reminder that the disavowal of a slave's humanity was routine. A subsequent description of a similar encounter contrasts sharply to this earlier episode in which Jane is objectified. In this account Jane brings water to a thirsty Union legion, and soldiers unsympathetic to her status as a human being are replaced by those who acknowledge her existence. One even confers a symbolic token of that acknowledgment, a name. Through Jane's joy, we see what the act of choosing a name comes to symbolize: the possibility of defining identity. She is so taken with the name and the gallantry of the Union soldier who gives it to her that both become representations of the distant ideal of freedom she...

(The entire section is 3,233 words.)