The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Places Discussed

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Bryant plantation

Bryant plantation. Louisiana farm on which Jane Pittman is born into slavery with the name Ticey. There she spends the first ten years of her life. Things begin to change when the Civil War reaches the plantation—first when a Confederate army occupies it, then when a Union army arrives. Rejecting her slave identity by insisting that her name is Miss Jane Brown, Ticey is whipped and returned to field work.

After hearing about President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the idealistic Jane expects to find freedom in the North and tries to make her way to Ohio with a younger boy, Ned. She and Ned struggle through swamps and farms burned and devastated by war. After thinking she has reached Ohio, she discovers the bitter truth that she is still in Louisiana.

Bone plantation

Bone plantation. Prosperous Louisiana plantation much like Bryant’s, where Jane lives in a sparsely furnished cabin for about ten or twelve years after she gives up on reaching Ohio. After she enjoys life in an environment safe from post-Civil War Reconstruciton violence and receives some education from an excellent schoolteacher, violence eventually reaches the plantation and her situation reverts to a condition resembling slavery.

Clyde farm

Clyde farm. Place on the Louisiana-Texas border that becomes Jane’s happiest home. There she lives for ten years with her common-law husband Joe Pittman and his two daughters. Joe’s job of breaking wild horses and their meager cash income give Joe a sense of manhood and independence, but Jane still feels like a slave working as Mr. Clyde’s cook.


*Bayonne. Louisiana town near where Jane has a home on the St. Charles River—a site based upon Gaines’s own birthplace near New Roads, Louisiana. There Jane lives with another man for three years and then is rejoined by Ned. The peaceful fishing she enjoys on the river with the sinister Albert Cluveau contrasts ironically with Cluveau’s cold-blooded killing of Ned, whose spots of blood the rain cannot wash away. A threat to the social order in the South, Ned teaches African Americans that their “people’s bones and their dust make this place yours more than anything else.”

Samson plantation

Samson plantation. Louisiana sugar cane and cotton farm on which Jane lives from around 1911 until the 1960’s, when she is interviewed by the novel’s fictional author. The Samson family tries to exert traditional white social control over its black employees, who become increasingly outspoken and assertive as the years go by, and the story concludes with Jane becoming an active participant in the Civil Rights demonstrations of the 1960’s.

Historical Context

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The Civil Rights Movement in Louisiana In 1971, when Ernest Gaines published The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, the United States had just seen a time of great social and political upheaval. Throughout the 1960s, African Americans had been struggling to gain equality. Various types of protests, such as the demonstrations described in the novel, were helping to bring centuries-long practices like segregation and racial discrimination to an end. Civil rights were still in the forefront of many African Americans' minds in 1971. Gaines's home state of Louisiana became famous during the 1960s for two events: the New Orleans school integration crisis and the Bogalusa movement.

In its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools. Nevertheless, by 1960 the New Orleans school board had still made no progress toward integrating its schools. That fall, Judge Skelly Wright forced the board to come up with a plan for integration. Although this plan...

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allowed only four black first-grade girls to attend white schools, opposition from local whites was tremendous. Most parents of white students at the two schools chosen for integration pulled their children out; those who did not were taunted and terrorized by anti-integration neighbors. Politicians who supported the integration were also harassed and threatened, but the worst treatment was suffered by the four young black students. Every day they went to school, they were bombarded by spitting, screaming crowds of angry white faces. Without the bravery of these four first-grade girls and the support of the African-American community and organizations like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the terrorism of these white protesters might have continued to prevent school integration.

Instead, gradual improvements were made in integrating schools and other public facilities across Louisiana. More and more African Americans, inspired by the example of the four girls, began to stand up for their right to equal treatment and an integrated society. Bad publicity about the New Orleans school crisis and a resulting loss of business helped the civil rights movement in Louisiana. Local business people lent their support to integration policies, hoping to drum up lagging business by improving Louisiana's image.

Although slow improvements in civil rights were made in New Orleans and across the state, the racist hatred of many white Louisianians was not easily overcome. In the rural mill town of Bogalusa, for example, movements to register African Americans to vote and to integrate local establishments were met with extreme violence. White and black civil rights workers from the North and politically active Bogalusa blacks were repeatedly threatened, beaten, and even shot by Ku Klux Klan followers. Soon members of Bogalusa's African-American population, many of whom were World War II or Korean War veterans, formed an armed self-defense group to protect themselves from the KKK threat because local police would not. This corps eventually attracted enough national attention to force President Lyndon Johnson to declare "war on the Klan." This finally provided Bogalusa and other Southern towns and cities with the military and legal support to enact and enforce civil rights laws.

A History of Black Struggle Inspired by African Americans' gains in civil rights in the 1960s, Gaines sought to relate the long, hard history of oppression that led to these triumphs. Although the slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation at the end of the Civil War, the transition to independence was difficult. In fact, the prospect of leaving home to start a new life was often too much for former slaves. While some moved out of the South, many chose to stay in the same area—sometimes even on the same plantation—where they had worked as slaves; others returned after failed attempts at starting anew. Although these freedmen and freedwomen often performed the same functions they had before emancipation—plowing fields, picking cotton, cooking meals, caring for white children—they were paid for their work (in land, harvest, or wages) and were expected to pay for their food and shelter. To many former slaves, however, these differences seemed insignificant.

Nevertheless, blacks worked to improve their lot by gaining land, education, and equal civil rights. Meeting in churches and schoolhouses, African-American groups provided training and education for one another, published newspapers, and got involved in politics. In Louisiana, African-American political action was especially effective in the decade from 1867 to 1877. During that time, newly elected black lawmakers and community leaders led a successful fight to outlaw segregation in public schools, streetcars, bars, and hotels.

Unfortunately, passing laws against segregation did not make it disappear. With the victory of anti-integration, Democrats in Louisiana's 1877 elections and the 1896 "separate but equal" Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, even the political gains made by Louisiana's African Americans were canceled out. Thus, while many African Americans in Louisiana tried to exercise the new rights granted to them by law, the risk of violent responses from angry whites kept most from crossing the color boundaries erected by white society.

Ironically, since they were no longer the valuable property of white slave owners, blacks often faced worse violence than they had when they were enslaved. As a result, during Reconstruction African Americans were often the victims of savage, even deadly, attacks by angry and demoralized white Southerners. The fictional massacre described by Miss Jane in the novel is no worse than many real attacks reported in the South in the decades following the war. Although attacks like this were technically illegal, few Southern whites were punished for crimes against blacks. The white culture of violence was far more powerful in the postwar era than laws, judges, or Freedmen's Bureau officers, who were appointed by the federal government to ease the transition from slavery to freedom. As a result, white witnesses to such crimes were more inclined to protect guilty fellow whites—especially those who demanded such protection with threats of violence—than to stand up for the rights of African Americans. African-American witnesses were also subject to violence if they spoke out against whites, and they faced major legal obstacles as well.

Violence against African Americans became formalized in groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camellia. These hate groups were founded by white Confederates who turned their anger and shame at being defeated by the Union into violence against former slaves. Many members of these groups feared a black revolt against the white people of the South and concluded that the way to prevent it was to beat, maim, or lynch those blacks who contradicted a white person or otherwise sought to exercise their political rights. Although these acts of terrorism became much less common after a federal crackdown in the 1870s, the Ku Klux Klan experienced a huge revival during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Louisiana's Unique Culture Although Louisiana of the late 1800s and early 1900s was a typical Southern state in many ways, it possessed a unique culture made up of four distinct groups: whites, blacks, Creoles, and Cajuns. Cajuns, who were white, came from an earlier settlement in French Canada to settle in the area. They influenced Louisiana with their language, food, and customs. During the one hundred years portrayed in the novel, however, most Cajuns were poorer and less powerful than other white Louisiana residents. They were often hired to do the dirty work for more powerful whites; Albert Cluveau, for instance, must kill Jane's adopted son Ned or face threats to his own safety. Creoles were people of mixed African and European ancestry who shared some of the French heritage of the Cajuns. They usually looked different, however, because of their mixed ancestry. Nevertheless, some Creoles, such as the teacher Mary Agnes LeFabre, were light enough to pass for white. (Note: While the novel uses the term "Creole" for those with mixed French and African heritage, it has also been used as a term for the exclusively white descendants of Louisiana's original French and Spanish settlers.) The mixed-heritage Creoles generally kept away from Cajuns as well as other whites and from African Americans, speaking their own French-based language and maintaining a unique, sophisticated culture. Before the Civil War, most free people of color were Creole. At the bottom of the Louisiana social ladder during this century were African Americans like Jane Pittman, whose dark skin marked them as inferior in the eyes of most whites, Cajuns, and Creoles. These cultural distinctions often play a pivotal role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and give it the special regional flavor that has been praised by so many critics.

Literary Style

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Narration and Dialect Much of the critical acclaim awarded to Gaines for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman centers around his narrative creation—Miss Jane Pittman. Jane's first-person ("I") account of one hundred years of her life in America brings a uniquely personal perspective to this historical novel. An important part of her narration is the use of dialect—a variation in language particular to a region or culture. Jane's retelling is recorded in her own rural black dialect, in this instance the language of Gaines's native Louisiana. This use of dialect brings a realism to both the characterization of Jane and the Louisiana setting of the book. In addition, by allowing Jane's unrestrained frankness to take charge of the story, Gaines maintains the feeling of the conversation of her telling. The novel is experienced more as something heard than as something read.

Jane's frank narrative style also serves to highlight one of the themes of the book, that the ordinary individual can make a difference. For example, she says:

"Jimmy I have a scar on my back I got when I was a slave. I'll carry it to my grave. You got people out there with this scar on their brains, and they will carry that scar to their grave. Talk with them, Jimmy."

In this little speech she bypasses the "retrick" of fancy education as well as any moralizing that might have impeded her story. She simply talks and talks and talks her life to the recorder—Gaines. In turn, he presents her without the "retrick" of social commentary that would have made her into an obvious symbol of history instead of an individual. By allowing Jane Pittman to speak for herself and about herself, Gaines creates an African-American experience more powerful than any chronological history might have done. This story told by an old woman as if it were fact recovers a lost history that is as important as the one students read in history books.

Setting In the history of African-American literature, Gaines's novel is very important in terms of its setting. Popular literary works by black authors immediately preceding Gaines set their novels in the locale of big industrial cities. Works like Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God were set in rural America, but they gained little notice until the 1970s. Gaines used his Louisiana home as background for his novel and stayed within that setting. In this fashion he could fill in the background of black heritage: the inheritance of plantation life after the Civil War. As Gaines explained to an interviewer from Essence magazine, not all blacks immigrated to the North. They might have tried, but, like Jane, never made it as far as the county line. More important, he said, "a lot happened in those 350 years between the time we left Africa and the fifties and sixties when [black writers like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison] started writing novels about big-city ghettos.... We cannot ignore that rural past or those older people in it. Their stories are the kind I want to write about. I am what I am today because of them." Consequently, many of the novel's metaphors are rural symbols, such as the repeated reference to the power of the river and its tendency to flood, or Joe Pittman's battle with the horse.

Symbolism and Metaphor Jane touches on many symbols to summarize the experience of her life. When she "gets religion," she testifies before the church of her travels. Her salvation testimony is a metaphor—an image or story that has a deeper meaning beyond its surface—about crossing a river. Jane uses other symbols to explain why her community is not rising up against racism as other African Americans have done in other places. She speaks of a black quilt blinding people to the truth. A quilt has long been held to be a symbol of southern feminine life because the quilt, made and added to over generations, records the stories of whole families. Jane tells Jimmy that the older people "must one day wake up and push that black quilt off his back. Must tell himself I had it on too long." She also uses the metaphor of scar tissue to explain why people are so reluctant to demonstrate; scarred by fear, they do not want to risk being hurt again.

Joe Pittman's job breaking wild horses can also be seen as a symbol or metaphor of a larger theme. His lonely struggle against the powerful forces of nature parallels the individual's struggle against a similarly powerful racist society. His death by wild horse parallels Ned's and Jimmy's deaths by bullet. All three were challenging society in the way they knew best. After all, Joe had to stand up for his right to be free to go and challenge the greater strength of nature. Nature proved to be more powerful, but he earned the legend of being a great horse breaker—skin color not withstanding.

Another powerful symbol is the river. When Jane speaks of the flood of 1927, it provides one of her few moments of obvious sermonizing. Whether a man builds dirt levees or dams of concrete, it amounts to the same thing—a futile attempt to control the power of nature. Eventually the levees break and the water destroys; it "will run free again" says Jane, "You just wait and see." It is the same story with the human spirit, or so Gaines would like us to understand. That spirit can be enslaved, scarred, and beaten but, like the river, it will break through the levees and run free. In this reflection on the river, Jane has also foreshadowed, or hinted at, the coming triumph of spirit in the last section of the novel.

Compare and Contrast

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1870s: The Emancipation Proclamation ends the legal sanction of slavery. However, many blacks remain in the South either as sharecroppers or subsistence wage laborers.

1950s and 1960s: The Civil Rights movement slowly spreads across the South. The biggest scenes surround the bus boycotts and marches led by leaders like Martin Luther King. Elsewhere in the South, however, Jim Crow laws remain unchallenged but changing.

Today: Several federal Civil Rights Acts allow persons unfairly treated due to color, sex, or creed full recourse of the law.

1870s: The sudden disruption to Southern life and identity caused by the release of the slaves and defeat in the Civil War leads to the emergence of terror groups like the KKK. These groups prevent the full implementation of Reconstruction, the realization of equal rights, and the timely integration of African Americans into society.

1950s and 1960s: Unsatisfied with the rate of progress and inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's campaign in India nonviolent measures were adopted and sit-ins staged in "Whites Only" establishments across America. Other groups, like the Black Panther Party, were formed and became more direct when progress did not happen immediately.

Today: White supremacist organizations still have a vast following. The membership of the KKK per se is not as large, but together with its many branches, sympathizers, and imitators, the number of avowedly racist Americans is worrisome. Fortunately, wherever the KKK appears for membership drives, groups like Can the Klan, remnants of the Black Panther Party, and Amnesty International rally to show opposition to the Klan's hate-filled message.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

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Gaines's successful use of the dialects and tones of rural southerners of all races has invited comparisons to Faulkner, and specifically Miss Jane to Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury (1929). Any list of comparable southern white writers should also include Eudora Welty. As a writer of historical fiction, Gaines can also be compared to William Styron, whose Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) recounted the course of a slave rebellion, though Gaines's work has an authenticity that Styron's appears to lack. The same might be said of Gaines's white predecessor, Harriet Beecher Stowe; Gaines has the advantage of having lived the life he describes. Black writers to whom he is invariably compared are James Baldwin, John A. Williams, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. Contrasts are often drawn between Gaines's work and so-called "protest" writers, whose works read in a more polemical way. He has also been distinguished from Wright, Baldwin, Eldrige Cleaver, and other "city" writers because he prefers to set his fiction in the rural Louisiana he knew so well.

More than one critic has also acknowledged the mythic proportions of Miss Jane's character, comparing her to Odysseus and other narrators of epics in her role as a narrator of her people's history. Her age adds to the mythical aura created by her tale. By ascribing such an important role to a character of humble origin, Gaines achieves a startling meld of epic and folk-ballad traditions, a unification sought by the romantic poets but never successfully achieved, perhaps because they did not live the lives they wished to exploit fictionally. The reader's understanding and appreciation of Gaines has perhaps been impeded by critics looking for technical tricks rather than for the innovative use of time-honored fictional methods, and by critics who relegate him to the category of "black writer." Like most writers, Gaines use of techniques is often so appropriate to his purposes that it escapes notice. A refusal to be dramatic and flamboyant appears to be a technique in Gaines's works, as in the ending of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, when she simply walks by Samson. Dramatic encounters between characters, especially between Miss Jane and others, are often left to speak for themselves, with minimal interpretation by Miss Jane.

Gaines's influences are not merely literary. Gaines attests to, and critics reiterate, the influence of Lay My Burden Down (1945) a book of interviews with former slaves published by the Works Projects Administration (WPA) as part of the Federal Writers Project. Gaines himself grew up with the oral tradition which this book captures. He implies that the illiteracy of older people on the plantation ironically kept the oral story-telling tradition alive, enabling him to make use of it in his fiction. Folk customs, beliefs, medicine, and stories show up often in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and his other books, giving his fictional environment a unique character and enhancing the sense of time and place. The successful use of Miss Jane as the voice of her culture and of the struggle of black people in America — a struggle of epic proportions — makes The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman a masterpiece of technique and scope.


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The video production of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman aired on CBS television on January 31, 1974. Cicely Tyson stars as Miss Jane from young womanhood onward (Miss Jane as a young girl is played by Valeria Odell). The screenplay was written by Tracy Keenan Wynn, and the movie was directed by John Korty. Other notable acting talents in the production are Richard A. Dysart as Master Bryant Dye, Katherine Helmond as the Lady of the Plantation, Michael Murphy as Quentin, Odetta as Big Laura, Rod Perry as Joe Pittman, Roy Poole as Master Robert Samson, and Thalmus Rasulala as Ned at forty-two. The genius of make-up artists Stan Winston, Rick Baker, and Marvin Westmore also deserve mention for their work in changing Tyson's appearance from that of a young to an old woman. Critics noted important differences between the novel and the film — its substution of a white reporter for the black teacher/historian, some changes in the plot, and the revised ending where Miss Jane actually talks back to Samson and then goes to Bayonne and drinks from the fountain. Although some of these changes were decried as a whitewashing of the novel, Gaines himself does not seem to have been much bothered by them, and despite the changes, the movie maintains the power of the original. The white reporter serves as an example of a concerned, deeply affected human being whose own humanity, not his race, is his reason for profound interest in the suffering of African Americans. One important fictional gesture that may be submerged as a result of choosing a white recorder, however, is that the black teacher is an example of a strong black male who survives oppression; all others in the book are murdered. It seems that this important character is needed for artistic balance and acts as a significant author analogue within the novel.

Media Adaptations

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The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was adapted as a television drama in 1974 by Tracey Keenan for Tomorrow Entertainment Inc. The adaptation aired on CBS, starring Cicely Tyson in the lead role. The drama was highly acclaimed and received nine Emmy awards. It is available on video through Prism Entertainment.

The novel has also been recorded several times into audio-book format. The first time was in 1974 when Claudia McNeil read the work for Caedmon Records. Then in 1987, Roses Prichard read the work for Newport Beack Books on Tape. More recently, Prince Frederick Recorded Books produced a reading by Lynn Thigpen in 1994.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Martin Arms, "MacPosh," in New Statesman, September 2, 1973, pp. 205-206.

Jerry H. Bryant, "From Death to Life. The Fiction of Ernest L, Gaines," in the Iowa Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1972, pp. 106-120.

Addison Gayle, Jr., "The Way of the New World Part II," in his The Way of the New World. The Black Novel in America, Doubleday, 1975, pp. 287-310.

Josh Greenfield, in a review of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in Life, April 30, 1971.

Melvin Maddocks, "Root and Branch," in Time, May 10, 1971, pp. K13-K17.

"Southern Cross," a review of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in Times Literary Supplement, March 16, 1973, p. 303.

Winifred L. Stoelting, "Human Dignity and Pride in the Novels of Ernest Gaines," in CIA Journal, March 1971, pp. 340-358.

Alice Walker, in a review of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in New York Times Book Review, May 23, 1971, pp. 6, 12.

For Further Study Valerie Melissa Babb, Ernest Gaines, Twayne, 1991. See chapter five in particular, in which Babb examines the role of a woman as narrator. Includes an annotated bibliography of Gaines criticism (including articles, reviews, and interviews) up to the mid-1980s.

Herman Beavers, Wrestling Angels into Song. The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. In the fifth chapter, Beavers contends that Gaines re-envisions William Faulkner's alienated South by promoting storytelling as a power for social rejuvenation and as a means to reinforce community.

B. A. Botkin, editor, Lay My Burden Down, A Folk History of Slavery, University of Chicago Press, 1945. A collection of interviews with ex-slaves conducted by the Work Projects Administration in the 1930s and 1940s. Gaines made use of this text in creating an authentic speech pattern for Miss Jane and other characters in her autobiography.

Keith E. Byerman, "A 'Slow-to-Anger' People. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman as Historical Fiction," in Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines, edited by David C. Estes, University of Georgia Press, 1994, pp. 107-123. Byerman, in part responding to Babb (see above), contends that Jane's actions should be understood in terms of her instinct for survival rather than for resistance.

John F. Callahan, in the African-American Grain. The Pursuit of Voice in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction, University of Illinois Press, 1988. A wide-ranging study of speakers and voices in the tradition of African-American storytelling.

Mary Ellen Doyle, "Ernest J. Gaines: An Annotated Bibliography, 1956-1988," Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 24, No. 21, Spring 1990, pp. 125-151. The most comprehensive annotated bibliography at the time of its publication.

David C. Estes, editor, Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines, University of Georgia Press, 1994. A collection of critical essays by various authors on Gaines' s major fiction. Includes an extensive bibliography on Gaines and African-American studies to 1994.

Ernest Gaines, in an interview in Essence, April 30, 1971. Gaines rationalized the setting of his novel in rural Louisiana, by saying that 350 years of black experience has occurred in this rural setting. This cannot be ignored, but not much has been written about it. Conversely, authors such as Ralph Ellison Ann Petty Langston Hughes and Richard Wright have already captured one hundred years of experience in ghetto narratives.

Marcia Gaudet, "Miss Jane and Personal Experience Narrative: Emest Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," in Western Folklore, Vol. 51, No. 1, January 1992, pp. 23-33. Gaudet observes that Gaines uses his experience in oral traditions to create for Jane a truly authentic voice.

Blyden Jackson, "Jane Pittman Through the Years: A People's Tale," in American Letters and the Historical Consciousness: Essays in Honor of Lewis P. Simpson, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy and Daniel Mark Fogel, Louisiana State University Press, 1987, pp. 255-73. Blyden asserts that Gaines records Jane's life as the history of an entire race.

Gayl Jones, Liberating Voices. Oral Tradition in African-American Literature, Harvard University Press, 1991. Jones demonstrates Gaines's ability to create distinct, authentic voices for Jane and other characters and his commitment to the literary possibilities of Afncan-Amencan linguistic traditions.

John Lowe, editor, Conversations with Ernest J. Gaines, University Press of Mississippi, 1995. A collection of interviews with Gaines by various persons, 1964-1994.

Lee Papa, "'His Feet on Your Neck' The New Religion in the Works of Ernest J. Gaines," in African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer 1993, pp. 187-94. Papa examines Gaines's African-American reinterpretation of Christianity in his novels. He argues that Gaines's characters develop a very personal interpretation of religion which allows men to make and understand self-sacrifice and to establish a deeper relationship with their community.

Anne Robinson Taylor, Male Novelists and Their Female Voices: Literary Masquerades, Whitston, 1981. A general study of the ways male authors use, create, and alter the voices of female narrators.

H. Nigel Thomas, "The Bad Nigger Figure in Selected Works of Richard Wright, William Melvin Kelley, and Ernest Gaines," in CLA Journal, Vol. 39, No. 2, December 1995, pp. 143-165. A study of the ways in which Wright, Kelley, and Gaines revise and complicate the figure of an unpredictable, dangerous, or uncompromising African-American male character.


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Babb, Valerie Melissa. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A clear critical analysis that devotes one chapter to each of Gaines’s major works, including a detailed chapter on The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman that discusses the novel’s historical and cultural accuracy, use of oral history, themes, and character development.

Bell, Bernard W. “The Contemporary Afro-American Novel, Two: Modernism and Postmodernism.” In The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Examines Gaines’s fiction as an example of Afro-American postmodernism, which differs from white postmodernism by exploring the power in folk tradition rather than rejecting fictional tradition.

Byerman, Keith E. “Negotiations: James Alan McPherson and Ernest Gaines.” In Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Reviews Gaines’s fictional productivity and compares his use of folk tradition with the urban tales of James McPherson. Finds in Gaines’s stories possibilities for black resistance to white oppression.

Callahan, John F. “A Moveable Form: The Loose End Blues of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” In In the African-American Grain: The Pursuit of Voice in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Focuses on the novel’s use of the teacher as an oral historian editing his material. Callahan analyzes the art of the novel with reference to historiography and folk autobiography.

Carmean, Karen. Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Critical overview of Gaines’s work and its importance to African American and southern literary history.

Doyle, Mary Ellen. Voices from the Quarters: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002. Focuses on Gaines’s achievement in capturing the oral traditions and the linguistic cadences of African American culture. Argues that the varied voices of his characters combine to generate the unique voice of the author himself.

Gaines, Ernest. Interview by John O’Brien. In Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973. An important text for appreciating Gaines’s sense of himself as an artist as well as a son of the South who re-creates his past through his artistry.

Gaudet, Marcia, and Carl Wooton. Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer’s Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. A brief introduction to Gaines’s life and works and a lengthy series of interviews of Gaines, with a heavy emphasis on The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

Hogue, W. Lawrence. “History, the Black Nationalist Discourse, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” In Discourse and the Other: The Production of the Afro-American Text. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1986. Examines the novel as a product of the Black Nationalist movement of the 1960’s. Sees Gaines as celebrating black history and correcting literary caricatures of African Americans by such white writers as Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Wertheim, Albert. “Journey to Freedom: Ernest Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971).” In The Afro-American Novel Since 1960, edited by Peter Bruck and Wolfgang Karrer. Amsterdam: B. R. Grüner, 1982. Analysis of the novel’s theme of finding freedom. Contains a detailed review of the book’s narrative structure.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide