Critical Analysis of Ernest J. Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

Inspired by the strong, determined character of his Aunt Augustine Jefferson, to whom the novel is dedicated, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman draws on the tradition of the slave narrative and its creative branch, the fictional autobiography. Slave narratives are essentially stories of enslavement, suffering, endurance, and escape. A formula for organizing the telling of stories by slavery’s victims was devised by abolitionists, who used personal testimonies of escaped slaves to influence public opinion. Most accounts remained oral, but several notable exceptions were published in the nineteenth century, especially the narratives of Frederick Douglass (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, My Life and Times, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass). The artistry of his account continues to give depth and insight to the slave experience. Women’s stories were also a part of this literary tradition, specifically Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. Quite early at least one writer chose to tell her story in ‘‘fictional’’ form. Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig (1859) draws on the slave narrative tradition and closely follows the factual details of Wilson’s life but asks readers to believe the story is fiction. Prior to Gaines’s work, James Weldon Johnson had written his powerful Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1910), a novel posing as another genre. These accounts speak for a group through the experience of individuals, testifying to the remarkable ingenuity of the oppressed and often drawing upon deep religious convictions. So one can readily see how deeply rooted the related literary traditions of personal and fictionalized narrative are for African American writers. Gaines has said that he found the proper approach for his novel when he read Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (Lowe, 303). Trying to create an authentic ‘‘voice’’ while writing The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman Gaines studied the language of slave narratives, collected in WPA interviews with former slaves in Lay My Burden Down (Gaudet, ‘‘Miss Jane and Personal Experience,’’ 30). His novel draws together the voices and actions of a displaced population at the end of the Civil War to weave a strong fabric of community and commitment alive with the colors and textures of human endurance.

Ernest Gaines at his home library in Oscar, Louisianna. (Paul Kieu, The Advertiser)

POINT OF VIEW

The key to understanding this novel’s strategy is found in the ‘‘Introduction,’’ a literary pose which foregrounds the text. During the summer of 1962, a fictional historian in south Louisiana approaches Miss Jane Pittman asking to tape-record her story. Initially reluctant, Miss Jane agrees to talk only after the historian explains that he believes her story will ‘‘help . . . explain things to my students, things that aren’t in’’ the books he uses to teach. The trouble with these books, he continues, is that ‘‘Miss Jane is not in them’’ (vi), suggesting pointedly that she should be. His initial certainty of completing the project in two weeks fades as over the next nine months he continues to accrue material. The historian quickly discovers that constructing a life isn’t a simple, straightforward process, as friends of Miss Jane fill memory lapses, correct errors, and add stories, stories the historian finds increasingly out of control. Instead of a neat, linear narrative, what emerges is increasingly messy, frustrating the historian, who ultimately sees the wisdom of Mary Hodges’ explanation that ‘‘you don’t tie up all the loose ends all the time’’ (vii). Thus, when he reconstructs the story in his role as editor, the historian pays homage to all of the people who contributed because ‘‘Miss Jane’s story is all of their stories, and their stories are Miss Jane’s’’ (viii).

Although Gaines initially employed multiple points of view for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, envisioning a ‘‘series of conversations after Miss Jane has died’’ (Lowe, 61), he was disappointed with the result. In rewriting from a first-person perspective, he encountered the usual limitation that angle of narration automatically creates: how one person can plausibly know all kinds of information. The solution to his problem lies in the creation of the historian/editor of the novel’s ‘‘Introduction,’’ a character who explains how the entire community comes to share Miss Jane’s story, making it their own.

Using first-person point of view, Gaines has to create language that ‘‘sounds’’ authentic while being intelligible to readers. He therefore has Jane pronounce certain words as she hears them: ‘‘sable’’ for ‘‘sabre,’’ ‘‘beero’’ for ‘‘bureau,’’ ‘‘whas’’ for ‘‘wasp.’’ More often, he depends upon syntax and colloquialisms to flavor the language, giving Miss Jane’s voice a distinctive sound that readers do not question. Wanting Miss Jane to be intelligent and informed but aware of the limitations she would naturally have, living when she did, Gaines devised a method of digesting large amounts of historical information. His research while writing this novel included reading histories, black folklore, and interviews with former slaves, information that Miss Jane might be aware of though she would remain illiterate. Describing his character as ‘‘very knowing from a folk, non-educated point of view,’’ Gaines knew he needed a ‘‘verbal format’’ and thus decided to use the idea of a tape recorder (Lowe, 139).

What happens over the course of the novel is quite interesting because the book includes vivid details from Jane’s experiences—for example, the first scene when she waters both Confederate and Union troops, the massacre in the woods which she and Ned survive, their subsequent wanderings toward Ohio, her attempts to save Joe Pittman’s life, and her metaphorical travels when she gets religion. Then there are instances where a tape recorder seems to run as Jane’s voice becomes that of the entire community. The ‘‘we’’ of Book IV is a collective point of view. This tape recorder also serves another purpose, allowing access to actions Jane couldn’t possibly witness such as Robert Samson’s accusation of Mary Agnes and Jimmy’s attempted seduction of Eva. As Jane ages, she naturally becomes more observer than actor. Living in a small, isolated community where news, usually focused on the private details of others’ lives, is routinely passed around, Jane would naturally become a living repository of these kinds of details. In the end, her narrative perspective becomes a kind of filter and conduit as information passes through her. Gaines’s creation was so successful, his rendering of Jane’s voice so convincing, that many readers came to believe that Jane was a living person, not a fictional character (Gaudet, ‘‘Miss Jane and Personal Experience,’’ 24).

PLOT DEVELOPMENT AND STRUCTURE

Miss Jane’s story is divided into four books entitled ‘‘The War Years,’’ ‘‘Reconstruction,’’ ‘‘The Plantation,’’ and ‘‘The Quarters.’’ As the narrative moves forward in a fairly orderly manner, other movements transpire within the text. Moving from national expanses of time and political upheaval into the relatively small Quarters, the book titles seem to narrow as the novel’s action broadens, moving away from Jane into the voices and actions of others. This seems logical given that the hero of this novel is 110 years old. Another way of viewing the book’s structure is in seeing it centered not only around Jane but also around the four men in her life: Ned, Joe Pittman, Tee Bob, and Jimmy. This double perspective does not relegate Jane to any reduced significance; rather, it helps readers to see her as a character whose unconscious and unplanned leadership emerges, illustrating the truth of Miss Jane’s words to Jimmy late in the novel, ‘‘People and time bring forth leaders’’ (228). Seen from this angle, the novel’s moral center remains the character of Jane while the male characters illustrate challenges to social positions. The male characters, then, provide one example of leadership while Miss Jane provides another.

The title of the first book, ‘‘The War Years,’’ seems initially misleading since the novel quickly moves into the postwar period. But in south Louisiana, the war continues long after the cessation of shooting. Actually, only one chapter of the novel transpires during the Civil War, and it’s quite revealing of images and phrases which will recur. At this time, ten- or eleven-year-old Jane is called Ticey, and is commanded by her mistress to draw water for troops, first the retreating Confederate soldiers and then the advancing Union army. When the ‘‘Secesh Army’’ arrives, Jane recalls the ragged dress and exhaustion of the troops. One phrase she overhears particularly strikes her; one of the Confederates says, ‘‘Just left to me I’ll turn them niggers loose’’ (4), suggesting a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the enlisted man. But when the Confederates leave, Jane’s mistress cries, ‘‘Sweet, precious blood of the South’’ (5). For Jane’s white mistress, whose husband hides in a nearby swamp with their family silver and slaves, only the blood of white nobles has value. Soon after the Union army departs, this same character will demand Jane’s blood for her insistence upon her new name. And this character’s attitude will echo through successive personages and time periods as African Americans begin to claim first their selfhood and then their place in this country. More blood will be shed during the novel—much of it by slavery’s victims—and all of it precious to someone.

The ‘‘Introduction’’ also injects one of the novel’s dominant and recurrent images, a man on a horse. An emblem of the old South, this image is fraught with suggestive possibilities that recall the chivalric tradition so much a part of southern mythology. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! uses this image extensively, trying to reconcile the heroic Thomas Sutpen with the flawed mortal he is. Mounted figures in art and literature often suggest authority, as they do in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. The horse helps to distinguish social position, and in many instances indicates attainment of some sort of leadership position. Often, the type of horse suggests something essential about the mounted figure, stallions having particularly emblematic significance. Generals, for example, are not depicted astride mares or draft horses. For nineteenth-century men—especially southern men—the ability to ride well was evidence of manhood. Gaines gives readers another view of this image, one tempered by experience of those who don’t ordinarily ride.

In Book I the significant image of a man on a horse will appear in the mounted Patrollers who massacre Jane’s party of newly freed people. In Book II, as the people begin to literally reconstruct their lives, this image will take the shape of Joe Pittman in his chosen role of ‘‘Chief’’ wrangler. Joe’s insistence upon his manhood automatically puts him at risk. Only by attempting the most hazardous of tasks can he gain respect, but his life is a price he’s willing to pay rather than accept lesser status. His death by a black stallion signifies that the time has not yet come for his survival on those terms.

President Obama presents the 2012 National Medal of Arts to Ernest J. Gaines in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House/Achievement.org

Book III, ‘‘The Plantation,’’ focuses attention on ‘‘Two Brothers of the South,’’ Timmy and Tee Bob. Both sons of plantation owner Robert Samson, Timmy must nevertheless accept lesser status because his mother, Verda, is black. So even if everyone on the plantation knows who his father is, despite his physical resemblance to his father, although he is athletically superior to his younger, frailer half-brother, and rides a horse while Tee Bob rides a pony, Timmy must ride behind his brother. Conversely, the prank both boys play on Jane in this chapter will feature a runaway horse, with Jane’s position as rider invoking laughter, not respect. Though Jane does ride, her position commands no respect because of gender.

The man on a horse will reemerge later in the section when Tee Bob falls in love with Mary Agnes LeFabre. Now a young man, Tee Bob remains partially oblivious to the unspoken rules of southern class and caste. Smitten by the beauty and bearing of Mary Agnes, he courts her while riding his horse. As long as he maintains the illusion of superiority (Tee Bob riding his horse while Mary Agnes walks beside), no one interferes with their relationship. But when Tee Bob goes to Mary Agnes, orders her to ride beside him in his car, signifying a sense of equality, and offers his name through marriage, he threatens the social order.

By Book IV, the image fades as horses are replaced by automobiles— even in the Quarters. The disappearance of this image also signals a shifting social climate since Book IV focuses on the creation (and need) for a leader as the people begin to claim their civil rights. In the end, both Robert Samson and Miss Jane are standing on level ground looking at each other. Jane’s choice of language indicates a position of equality when she says, ‘‘Me and Robert looked at each other there a long time, then I went by him’’ (246). In positioning the pronoun ‘‘me’’ before Samson and by using only his first name, Jane’s language does not defer to Samson’s status. More significant, though, is what happens. When Jane moves past Samson, she indicates a complete lack of fear. In the end, his position no longer threatens her.

CHARACTERIZATION

In creating Jane’s character, Gaines drew upon the moral strength of his Aunt Augustine, whose courage in the face of physical challenges continues to command his admiration. When he speaks of Miss Augustine Jefferson, Gaines invariably cites her physical endurance, her gritty determination, and an absolute lack of self-pity—characteristics he gives to Jane. From the very beginning, Jane’s character shows a stubborn determination that will not be broken, though her owner tries. Soon after the Union troops leave, the recently renamed Jane refuses to answer to Ticey, her slave name. Asserting that she will now be addressed as ‘‘Miss Jane Brown,’’ she adds that if the Mistress doesn’t like it, Jane will call back Corporal Brown (9). For her act of insolence, Jane will suffer a terrible beating, but she clings, nevertheless, to her new name. This stubborn determination will lead her away from this plantation immediately after freedom is announced, and will sustain both Jane and Ned during their wanderings ‘‘North’’ in a futile attempt to reach Ohio. Her tenacity is responsible for Jane’s being able to accept countless hardships without lapsing into self-pity. Another of Jane’s most significant characteristics is her sassiness. Meekness simply isn’t a factor in her character. Thus, Jane will talk back to her owner, insist on going to Ohio without knowing how to get there, take on women’s work before she is twelve years old, and speak out on her behalf and others to those who would prefer silence or humility.

Of course, in order to survive, Jane must learn the all-important lesson of listening. She has refused to hear the wisdom of others who point out her lack of experience, her youth and ignorance, even the dangers of the journey she has undertaken. After days of wandering with Ned, though, Jane recognizes her error when an old man tries to show her where Ohio is on a map: ‘‘All of a sudden it came to me how wrong I had been for not listening to people’’ (48). Fortunately for readers, Jane doesn’t immediately mend her ways, for to do so would not simply be out of character, it would deprive readers of one of the novel’s finest scenes as the old man procedes to show Jane the way to Ohio, taking into consideration her refusal ever to turn south or move east through Mississippi. Patiently accepting her objections, the old man addresses Jane’s question of how long their journey will take, pointing out that Ned won’t survive and Jane will be thirty years older before she gets to Cincinnati. Even then Jane refuses to take his answer seriously. Another week of wandering with Ned without any real progress will finally drive the lesson home. Then she decides to listen to what other people have to say.

Learning to listen helps Jane become more flexible, another significant survival trait. After this, she will make decisions based on practical options rather than blind desires, and she will bend in the face of brutal authority rather than break. Knowing that she lacks both the physical strength and political status to take on the Ku Klux Klan and a selfserving legal establishment after various threats and Ned’s murder, Jane seems to yield. But it’s important to note that she neither succumbs to the views of a prejudical ‘‘justice’’ system nor becomes a cynic.

Jane illustrates her strength of character throughout the novel, particularly when she glosses over her inability to bear children, her legacy of slavery. Jane’s barrenness almost prevents her acceptance of Joe Pittman’s proposal, but it also spurs her into becoming a mother figure in a much broader sense than having physically given birth. In many respects she becomes a mother to the community, sharing her material goods, experiences, perceptions, energy, and love. We see this literally when she assumes the mothering role of Ned. Later, she will be a stepmother to Joe Pittman’s two daughters.

But this part of Jane’s life receives scant attention, and the focus is placed instead on Jane’s larger role as community mother. Without calling attention to herself, Jane provides a source of humor, wisdom, and acceptance, as changes gradually occur over decades. Though her title as church mother is rescinded because of her refusal to temper her language, Jane is the one Jimmy turns to for support. He knows that she is the moral heart of her community. Despite her age and increasing infirmity, Jane can see the value and the urgency of Jimmy’s request that she be a part of their protest. Without pushing herself forward, she announces that she will be present at the demonstration—even when authorities have learned of the planned protest and arrested the young woman chosen to drink from the ‘‘whites only’’ water fountain. Her internal monologue addressed to Jimmy underscores her understanding of community resistance to protest. Nevertheless, Jane sees the importance of Jimmy’s plan and insists upon keeping her promise—regardless of danger. Her quiet example of leadership becomes evident as people join her on the morning of the protest, though she gives Jimmy the credit. Even Robert Samson’s announcement of Jimmy’s murder fails to deter her. In fact, this announcement inspires her final triumph.

Jane’s is not a flashy conflict resulting in Samson’s acknowledgment of defeat or indeed any conscious recognition that she represents a just position. That’s far too unrealistic for Gaines. Instead, Jane’s victory is tempered by Gaines’s recognition of the limits of social progress as white society has gradually come to recognize the civil and social rights of African Americans. But when Jane looks Samson in the eye, suggesting a sense of social equality, and then moves past him, she illustrates that his threats and commands no longer carry valid authority. In the end, Robert Samson loses his strength because Jane refuses to fear him. Her courage goes beyond words, and her leadership proceeds without bluster.

Gaines draws Jane’s character with memorable fullness and depth, imbuing her with the flaws and virtues of a whole people. As for the male characters of this novel, they are more thinly drawn. Nevertheless, they do carry a good deal of thematic weight. Ned, for example, appears only in small scenes, but his character is rich with significance. After his mother and baby sister are murdered by the patrollers, Ned carries the flint and iron that Big Laura has brought with her. This fire-making capacity is both literal and figurative, for later Ned will try to enlighten people so that they can improve their lives. His work with a committee informing poor blacks of ways to escape the de facto slavery of Louisiana attracts Klan notice and threats. Instead of retreating, Ned moves to Kansas, gains more education, and resolves to return to carry forward his plan to educate. His return will pose an even greater threat to an entrenched social system dependent upon ignorance.

The fire Ned carries signifies light, and his choice of name signifies his role of leader. Readers are told that Ned changes his name from Ned Brown to Ned Douglass to Ned Stephen Douglass, indicating a choice of political perspective. The threat Ned carries is in his language, for the education he brings with him isn’t limited to reading and writing. His convictions regarding the place of Americans of African descent run counter to the political and social attempts to keep these same Americans marginal and landless. Ned’s subsequent sermon by the river, reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount, develops the idea of shared responsibility. He emphasizes the need for mutual respect, because ‘‘America is for all of us . . . and all of America is for all of us’’ (109). Though Ned doesn’t denigrate Booker T. Washington’s strategy of social appeasement through vocational education and social separation, he clearly supports W.E.B. Du Bois’s more radical position of equal rights and opportunities (see Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Address and The Souls of Black Folks). Concluding his remarks, Ned acknowledges that he will be killed for his convictions, but he’s not afraid to die.

Ned’s strength of character, his need to claim his own life in a nation that denies him this right, and his insistence upon expressing his integrity are again reflected in the character of Joe Pittman. While Joe has a limited appearance in the story, his name and spirit are a major part of the novel. He exemplifies what black men must face in affirming their independence and manhood. The issue of manhood frequently occurs in works by male authors, and often predominates in those of African American writers, probably because respect for black manhood has long been denied. Accorded a subservient status, black men have historically had fewer employment opportunities, been paid less, accorded less authority, and have been given less respect in the work place than other male workers. Joe Pittman refuses to accept this status, and his character illustrates both the risk and the price black men take in affirming their independence and manhood. Eager to escape the despotic Colonel Dye, Joe literally purchases his freedom with money advanced by Mr. Clyde. This act, which Keith Byerman says is Joe’s means of holding ‘‘clear title to himself,’’ frees him to develop himself as he sees fit, not as others would have him. (‘‘Historical Fiction,’’ 110). His position as a wrangler on Clyde’s ranch earns him status based on ability, not race. Joe is proud of his title, ‘‘Chief,’’ recognizing it as a sign of respect since he must face injury—even death—in riding the most dangerous horses. During their ten years on the Texas-Louisiana border, Joe remains impervious to Jane’s pleas that he quit to become a farmer. He is no good at farming, and besides, as Chief he doesn’t take orders from anyone, he insists.

The black stallion Clyde and his crew capture in Texas signifies an untamed natural spirit virtually all the men admire. Jane takes one look at the horse, has a premonition of Joe’s death, and goes to visit Madame Gautier, a hoodoo, who explains the horse to Jane in these words: ‘‘Man must always search somewhere to prove himself. He don’t know everything is already inside him’’ (95). Jane’s subsequent attempts to save Joe’s life prove futile because her stubborn strength of character is matched by his own, and he believes he must ride this stallion. Though the stallion kills Joe and is ultimately broken by another wrangler, the memory of the horse’s free spirit—a spirit reflective of Joe Pittman—remains. Throughout her life, Jane carries Joe’s name, showing her continuing love and respect.

Tee Bob Samson might seem an unlikely hero, but his presence in the novel is an essential part of Gaines’s fictional fabric. Appearing in Book III, Tee Bob first illustrates the theme of brotherhood in his devotion to his half-brother, Timmy. Gaines provides a good deal of comedy in this section, exploiting the gap between what people actually know (that Timmy is Robert Samson’s son by the black woman, Verda) and what they can publicly acknowledge (that Timmy is Verda’s son—without mention of his father). Robert Samson clearly believes in the old system of which he seems to be master, and his wife, Miss Amma Dean, appears to be accepting of his position. That Timmy is a mirror image of Robert while Tee Bob (‘‘Tee’’ is a shortening of ‘‘petite,’’ meaning ‘‘little’’) more closely resembles his mother, however, signals a movement toward change.

Small, delicate, and sensitive, Tee Bob as a child is drawn to Jane, carrying her cotton sack or urging her to warm herself. He orchestrates Jane’s move from field worker to cook, seeing in her a friend he needs. Tee Bob also loves his brother, Timmy, and is both bereft and confused when Timmy is sent away from the plantation after he fights Tom Joe, the overseer. Though the entire family—with the exception of his father— attempts to explain the social dynamic at work, Tee Bob doesn’t understand. But Robert, believing that these unspoken rules and expectations of behavior based on race are ‘‘a part of life, like the sun and the rain . . . and Tee Bob would learn them for himself when he got older’’ (147), never attempts to articulate why a brute like Tom Joe is privileged over his own son.

Gaines expands his characterization of Tee Bob by interjecting two significant chapters. These apparent digressions, placed between his childhood and young manhood, give readers both history and metaphor for the events that will follow. In the chapter entitled ‘‘Of Men and Rivers,’’ Jane recalls the dreadful and historic flood of 1927, noting that it was caused by human attempts to control water. This observation leads Jane to recall how the old people and Indians had worshipped the water, recognizing its power and nobility. Refusing to respect the river’s nature, white men insist upon harnessing its energies for their purposes through a levee system which ultimately intensifies the flood damage. In their need to control, white men refuse to listen to or respect the nature of other forces, a trait that has additional, similarly disastrous consequences. Their blindness leads to destruction on a massive scale during the floods of 1912, 1926, and 1927. On a personal level, it leads to the disaster of Tee Bob’s falling in love.

Tee Bob’s choice of love interest, Mary Agnes Le Fabre, carries a good deal of racial history, for her immediate family descends from a grandmother, purchased at an octoroon ball in New Orleans by a wealthy white man named Le Fabre. This union apparently becomes a loving one, resulting in the continuence of Le Fabre’s name as well as his providing for his nonwhite family by leaving them property, including slaves. But Mary Agnes, in trying to compensate for her slave-holding ancestors, chooses to leave her Creole family to teach black children on the Samson Plantation. Her willingness to sacrifice for her convictions costs her the support of her family.

Ernest Gaines/Achievement.org

Struck by Mary Agnes’s beauty, Tee Bob finds himself pulled to her despite the various obstacles present, including his commute from Baton Rouge, Mary Agnes’s job, Jane’s active discouragement, and Mary Agnes’s emotional distance. As long as Tee Bob doesn’t announce his love, he and Mary Agnes are left alone, though their activities are closely observed. But when he confesses his feelings to his best friend, Jimmy Caya, Tee Bob violates the white male social code. Jimmy asks him, ‘‘Don’t you know who you are? Don’t you know what she is?’’ [emphasis mine] (173). His pronoun choices reveal centuries of prejudice in which only white people are accorded human status while black people are reduced to things. Moreover, in Jimmy’s mind, a mind reflective of the prevailing social conscience of the time, Mary Agnes is ‘‘a nigger’’ who, despite looking white, has ‘‘Africa in her veins’’ (173). He suggests that Tee Bob’s sexual use of her is acceptable, but not his recognition of her as a partner in marriage. Tee Bob reacts with uncharacteristic physical violence, hitting his friend, who nevertheless goes on to emphasize the generally unspoken social codes regarding black women and white men. In articulating a racist code, Jimmy Caya damages Tee Bob’s innocence but fails to convert him.

Rather, it’s Mary Agnes’s refusal to elope with Tee Bob that seems to drive him over the edge to despair and suicide. In appearing to confirm Caya’s views, Mary Agnes destroys Tee Bob’s hope. As she attempts to explain the code, she recognizes his essential innocence. Readers are told that she talks to him ‘‘the way you talk to a child’’ (176). But her language also indicates Tee Bob’s unconscious observations of racial strictures. ‘‘That’s why,’’ she notes, ‘‘you never asked me to get in there [the car] before. . . . That’s why you never asked me to get on the horse with you . . .’’ (176). Tee Bob’s subsequent sexual assault so unnerves him that he returns to his home, locks himself in the library, and commits suicide. One might speculate that his physical response to Mary Agnes merely confirms what Caya has described as Tee Bob’s ‘‘right,’’ but apparently his recognition of what his action says about him becomes the ultimate cause of his death. He elects not to live at all rather than live the life that social convention dictates. His letter to his mother confirms Mary Agnes’s innocence. However, without the intervention of Jules Reynard, Mary Agnes would simply become another innocent victim, blamed by a biased system for a murder she doesn’t cause.

Only Jules Reynard has the moral courage to stand against Robert Samson’s simplistic view of ‘‘justice,’’ and he threatens Robert with public exposure if he tries to harm Mary Agnes. Extracting a chain of events from Jimmy Caya, Reynard hears Caya justifying his advice to Tee Bob, in these words: ‘‘I didn’t tell him no more than what my daddy told me. . . . What my daddy’s daddy told him. . . . No more than the rules we been living by ever since we been here’’ (190). Later, Reynard will add the rest of the community as being culpable in Tee Bob’s death. Everyone is involved in a virtual conspiracy to get rid of Tee Bob. Thus, Tee Bob’s character suggests more than one might think from a casual reading. In his ability to remain innocent of ‘‘rules’’ based on a medieval idea of the lord of the manor having the right to sexually appropriate any lowerclass woman of his choosing, Tee Bob unwittingly threatens an entire social system. Just like the flood of 1927, his emotions overflow an elaborate system of unspoken rules, proving too strong for any artificial boundaries. The resulting disaster leaves its mark on the land and the hearts of those involved.

Tee Bob’s character clearly signals change in the system, change that concludes in the character of Jimmy, who appears in Book IV. Jane begins her narrative in this section by referring to a need for a leader, perhaps a savior. Her language indicates a certain mystery, referring to this leader as ‘‘the One’’ (199). Coupled with the enigma of Jimmy’s father, readers quickly recognize a connection between Jimmy and Christ—at least as it exists in the minds of the community. Jane acknowledges that the people in the Quarters select Jimmy ‘‘because we needed somebody’’ (200). As that ‘‘somebody,’’ Jimmy becomes a symbolic character who is a representative of community need, of communal salvation.

Therefore, the chapters featuring Jimmy have more to do with his training than with him as an individual. It’s the 1930s when, in a highly symbolic victory for African Americans, black heavyweight boxer Joe Louis knocks out the reigning champion, Max Schmeling. Jimmy is selected on the heels of this victory to signify challenge and hope. Chastised for any perceived wrongdoing, forbidden to fight, corrected for naturally unruly behavior, Jimmy is embraced and nurtured by the adults of the Quarters, who use Christ as their model. Forbidden expression of his sexual development, he becomes a young man bearing the weighty expectations of his community.

While Jimmy grows, the plantation system changes, becoming more mechanized, resulting in the displacement of field hands. More and more people are forced off the land, including Jimmy’s mother. Jimmy joins her shortly after Washington passes a desegregation law (this is probably a reference to the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954) in order to continue his education. Away from his community, Jimmy seems to change, becoming more politicized instead of religious. Jane’s narrative reveals that while the South experiences a social upheaval during the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s, the white people of south Louisiana remain arrogantly certain that racial change will not affect their territory. Jimmy’s reappearance will shake this illusion.

He returns having found his own voice, having recognized the limits of his strength, and having been convinced of the need to fight. His character fuels a communal conversation among church members expressing real dangers and justifiable fears. But his character also impels action. Approaching Jane, Jimmy appeals for her personal help. He draws her into a plan to demonstrate the degree of racial injustice present as well as its casual acceptance. Knowing that any black person will be arrested for drinking from the ‘‘whites only’’ water fountain, Jimmy secretly arranges for a young girl to perform this gesture of defiance. Comparing her to Miss Rosa Parks, Jimmy wants to use the anticipated overreaction for its public exposure, and he needs Jane to bear and to bring witnesses.

That Jimmy is more spirit than character is suggested by both his absence from the action and his presence in the minds of the people who inhabit the Quarters. Alive, Jimmy provides hope in speculation about his role in the future; dead, he illustrates where the strength lay all along. As Jane concludes, ‘‘Just a little piece of him is dead. . . . The rest of him is waiting for us in Bayonne’’ (245). His martyrdom having solidified the shaky resolve of some, Jimmy’s character now inhabits everyone. They begin to claim legal rights as citizens.

THEMATIC CONCERNS

Because Gaines’s characters carry so much thematic weight, separating character development from the ideas they dramatize can be both artificial and misleading. But for readers looking for a distinct discussion of the main ideas, it may be helpful to point out that The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman consolidates many of the issues of Gaines’s earlier works, making it almost comprehensive in scope.

As already mentioned, manhood is a significant theme in its personal and political importance. In his novel, Gaines explores the meaning of full manhood by encompassing the possibility of developing a whole, harmonious sense of belonging. Gaines positions his male characters against a cultural standard of behavior, exhibiting its false destructiveness. For example, there is the comparative case of Tee Bob and his father, Robert Samson. Robert has embraced an ideology affirming his superiority on the basis of gender, race, and wealth. His lack of reflection about the real consequences of this belief, however, results in his ultimate defeat. To uphold a system based on race he must exile the son who most resembles him. That Timmy has fought for his own integrity and in self-defense is, in Robert’s mind, inconsequential in comparison to the challenge of his actions. Similarly, Robert must deny Tee Bob’s expression of his love, again on the basis of race, for to acknowledge the feelings that clearly motivate his son would destroy any justification for the exploitation that has been ongoing. All the while Robert is shoring up this eroding levee, the flood waters of human nature eat away at its base. In Tee Bob’s alignment with his mother, Mary Agnes, and Jane, he commands more respect than does his father. This respect, the novel suggests, is rooted in Tee Bob’s inability to collude in the corrupt social system that imposes such strict and artificial standards of behavior on its members.

In fact, one could say that in all of the male characters associated with an admirable form of manhood, there clearly resides a spirit of self-sacrifice, a trait normally associated with females. Joe Pittman, Ned, Tee Bob, and Jimmy are all willing to die rather than conform to any preconceived standard of behavior. By making their own plans, they pose a direct threat to both conventional notions of manhood and race. Consequently, their deaths are expressions of integrity, not gestures of defeat.

Allied to the theme of manhood is the issue of brotherhood. One can look at the theme of brotherhood in its literal, narrow sense, but to do that would be to ignore the more comprehensive sense of human community. From the novel’s beginning, we see human connections among people of both races as well as denials of responsibility. Exemplifying true brotherhood, Corporal Brown offers his sister’s name to Jane, Big Laura provides leadership for the fleeing free people and defends Jane, and Jane assumes responsibility for Ned. On the other hand, there are those who blame the enslaved for the Civil War and the good ‘‘Christian’’ who can express only hatred. In Book III, ‘‘The Plantation,’’ Gaines compresses the issue of brotherhood into the poignant tale of Timmy and Tee Bob.

Timmy and Tee Bob’s relationship summarizes and presents the paradox of blood kinship in a culture that simultaneously values ‘‘family’’ even as it denies it. By choosing the most intimate and common instance that occurred on many southern plantations—the sexual appropriation of black women by white men—Gaines exposes the multiple hypocrisies and denials involved. Holding himself above any social criticism, Robert ties his horse in front of Verda’s house, announcing his presence. Everyone, including his wife, knows and understands his reason for being there. His son by Verda inherits the looks, temperament, and gestures of his father. Still, in Robert’s mind, Timmy is black, and thus not related to him. As he says to Amma Dean when he sends Timmy away, ‘‘There ain’t no such thing as a half nigger’’ (146).

The price of Robert’s denial of his link to Timmy is the ultimate dissolution of his own legacy. Much like Thomas Sutpen in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Robert destroys the very goal of his existence: an heir to carry on his name and his way of life. In the end, there is no heir, and Robert’s once supreme authority proves ineffectual against the moral authority of a frail, 110-year-old woman. Unlike Jane, Robert never acknowledges either his connection to the people on his land or his dependence on them. The tragedy here is not so much in Tee Bob’s suicide but in the continuing denial of interdependence, of emotional and economic kinship.

Related to themes of manhood and brotherhood is that of the struggle of an entire race toward recognition and place. Gaines says that he had to do a good deal of historical research when he wrote this book. At the same time, he had to be very careful not to include detailed recall of dates or events because Miss Jane would hardly have access to that kind of information. Still, he wanted his title character to remain alert to signals of racial progress because he wished to submerge in her narrative a virtual history of African Americans. While analytical knowledge is unnecessary to comprehend the turn of events, knowing the general history will help readers to construct a chronology and mark significant changes. Some movement toward social acceptance is accurately reported through Jane’s recalling athletic events broadcast over the radio such as the Louis/Schmeling boxing match of 1938; Jackie Robinson’s appearance as the first black major league baseball player in 1947; Rosa Parks’s defiance of custom on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus in 1956; or Authurene Lucy’s brave attempt to integrate the University of Alabama in 1957. At other times, Jane will refer to specific events, including the violence that accompanied school integration in Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas in the late 1950s and the house bombings of civil rights workers Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.

Binding these concerns is a spiritual theme, a theme Gaines presents in both its secular and religious forms. Throughout the novel, Jane notes—both in herself and others—an admirable stubborn spirit of perseverence. We see this, for example, in Jane’s journey ‘‘north’’ with Ned, in Big Laura’s fight to the death, and in Black Harriet’s competitive nature, among others. All of these women demonstrate their value through direct action. But as the episode about Harriet illustrates, direct action can also lead to self-destruction, a lesson Jane eventually embraces.

On the heels of her tale of Harriet, Jane relates her religious ‘‘travels.’’ The root of this word originates in the French ‘‘travail,’’ meaning ‘‘to work,’’ and the resulting religious convention asks that an individual tell her or his journey to redemption through Christ. Jane’s journey is farfrom easy, reflecting the fact that her life until Ned’s murder has contained more than enough difficulty. Still, after his death her religious struggles increase. Relocated at Samson, Jane seems surrounded by friends released from the burden of resentment through their religious commitment. When faith comes to Jane, she feels ‘‘like a big load just fell off my shoulders’’ (136). Her highly metaphoric account of her travels parallels her life’s events as Ned, Joe, and Ned’s murderer, Albert Cluveau, appear. Jane’s struggle beyond their appeals and threats and her refusal to shift her burden to someone else win for her an emotional rebirth in which she feels ‘‘light and clean and good’’ (138). Relieved of remorse and resentment, her life moves forward with a renewed willingness to forgive.

Jane’s religious conversion neither increases her humility nor makes her judgmental of others’ actions. She seems to accept the example of Christ in its embracing form, suggesting a generosity of spirit lacking in more ‘‘respectable’’ church members like Just Thomas, who criticizes Jane for listening to baseball games and for arguing with him. This character may claim the moral high ground, but Jane’s religious beliefs move beyond him. Instead of a pious, censorious form of religion, narrow in its views and critical of others, Jane’s religion takes a typically flexible, sometimes disputatious and inclusive form, one leaving judgment to God.

In celebrating the spiritual strength of African Americans, Gaines realistically renders the role religion has played. At the same time, however, he doesn’t credit the church with the power to change the social system. Just Thomas’s expression of fear is both legitimate and typical, his resentment over being encouraged to risk personal safety suggestive of the church’s initial reservations regarding political activism. More to the thematic point, however, may be the spiritual impetus moving characters like Jane, Ned, Joe, and Jimmy forward, an impetus undeterred by death as others assume the task of becoming part of human history.

A NEW HISTORICIST READING

New historicism is a critical lens attempting to focus a wide angle of vision. Beginning with the assumption that no text can be dealt with in isolation from its historical context, practitioners of this critical approach generally select from among many historical, psychological, socioeconomic, linguistic, and biographical frames of reference. Many practitioners will reveal in their analyses how an ideology—usually that of the ruling class—works to influence its readers. In general, new historicists look at history in much the same way Gaines’s historian in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is forced to look at her story: not as a set of fixed facts proceeding in an orderly progression but rather as a discourse (or conversation) in need of interpretation. Further, most literary texts represent a diversity of differing voices, voices that speak for the power structure and voices expressive of other perspectives. History, then, cannot be used simply as a background for a text. Instead, it provides one of several possible beginning points of interchange between a creative work and other texts, institutions, even literary genres. A favorite word employed by new historicists to explain this interrelationship is ‘‘negotiation.’’ In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, one can discover examples of such ‘‘negotiations,’’ and thus it seems ideal for a new historicist approach.

From a biographical perspective, a critic might look closely at Gaines’s life, recalling his Point Coupee childhood, especially the role his Aunt Augustine played in his life. Gaines has often recalled how she drew their small community to their home and how his life was shaped in part by the stories visitors shared. Other biographical parallels exist between the author’s life and text—for example, Gaines’s role, like Jimmy’s, in reading and writing letters for people as well as the physical closeness of the community. These details, when added to such facts as Louisiana demographics, racial composition and ratio, average income, and educational opportunities provide deep background.

A new historicist might take into account not only the novel’s inception but its reception as well. First published in 1971, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was issued in paperback the following year. Shortly thereafter, it was made into film for television and broadcast by CBS in 1974. To this day, it remains Gaines’s most popular and best-known novel. Published on the heels of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman helped to explain why African Americans demanded recognition. Other writers had treated the struggle, but not as memorably as Gaines, whose timing, moreover, seemed perfect for a nation attemping to compensate for widely recognized and legally sanctioned racism. The film version not only helped popularize a relatively unknown writer, it also personalized a struggle in a touching dramatic performance. Instead of images of burning buildings and riots, Americans witnessed the humane and often humorous perspective of Jane, brought to life by actress Cicely Tyson. For many viewers, impersonal resistence now had a name and a story they could embrace.

In writing this novel, Gaines’s goal was to compose a ‘‘folk history,’’ a point he makes clear in his use of the historian/editor he creates and in his blend of voices. Telling the story of a marginalized people, Gaines opens a discourse (negotiation) between those who have claimed to form culture (e.g., Robert Samson), and those who endure, perhaps prevail, within it (e.g., Jane). Jane’s representative struggle for recognition, representation, and legal rights is a significant part of this novel. Interestingly, it’s a historical tale that had rarely been voiced before the 1970s, particularly as a tale focusing on a group instead of an individual or events. Readers of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman may not learn which Civil War battle led to a Confederate defeat in Louisiana, but they receive a vivid impression of the kinds of guerrilla tactics that terrorized people of color and forced them to submit to the de facto slavery system that persisted well into the twentieth century. The latter facts had generally been omitted from formal, traditional histories. Similarly, Gaines’s folk history will not recount major events in the Civil Rights movement, such as passage of particular bills and Supreme Court decisions. Rather, his work will detail the extraordinarily common events of daily struggle. Told from the perspective of people who routinely deal with a civil and social system in which the unwritten and unspoken are more important than words on paper, this story constantly negotiates between the silent and the understood.

Another quite fascinating aspect of Gaines’s novel is his use of radio and athletics as cultural markers. A new historicist might explore the relationship between history and popular culture, noting how the references to such cultural icons as Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson work to shape character and theme. Another approach would focus readers’ attention on how specific figures come to represent social changes. Looking at history from the angle of popular culture instead of a more formalized historical perspective indicates how ordinary people ‘‘read’’ events.

Mixing large events with small, this novel suggests their elaborate similarities. While a civil rights historian might confirm the numerous factual events noted in the fiction, a new historicist will show how, from the perspective of millions of nameless victims and heroes, less politically significant events held equal importance. One might explore the intricacies of southern power politics, noting how poor whites and poor blacks are pitted against each other while others profit from this created antipathy. For example, the power behind Albert Cluveau, Ned’s murderer, is acknowledged if unnamed. Cluveau is simply an instrument of sustained oppression. Jane will also counter historical accounts regarding Huey P. Long; most often dismissed by traditional histories as a southern demagogue, Long will be praised by Jane as an advocate for the impoverished. Whatever scandals historians may attribute to Long, and regardless of personal gossip tainted by racism, Jane asserts that Long is assassinated for his attempts to alter the social structure. After looking at such documented facts as the income of Louisiana residents in the 1920s and 1930s, the number of public schools, the average education of blacks and whites in the state, the length of the school year, and the primary industry, as well as other factors, a new historian might ask readers to consider how threatening the social changes advocated by Long were.

Over and over, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman asks readers to negotiate between history and fiction, literary forms, representations of language, the unexpressed and the spoken, and among numbers of named characters whose voices merge to become a seemingly unified story. This text, placed in its various contexts, should provide a new historicist critic with a wealth of material from which to choose.

WORKS ABOUT ERNEST GAINES
Babb, Valerie Melissa. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twain, 1991.
Bevers, Herman. Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.
Bryant, Jerry H. ‘‘Ernest J. Gaines: Change, Growth, and History.’’ Southern Review 10 (1984): 851–64.
———. ‘‘From Death to Life: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines.’’ Iowa Review 3:1 (1972): 106–20.
Byerman, Keith E. Fingering the Jagged Edge: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Estes, David C., ed. Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Folks, Jeffrey J. ‘‘Ernest Gaines and the New South.’’ Southern Literary Journal 24.1 (1991): 32–46.
Greene, J. Lee. ‘‘The Pain and the Beauty: The South, the Black Writer and Conventions of the Picaresque.’’ The American South: Portrait of a Culture. Edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
Hicks, Jack. ‘‘To Make These Bones Live: History and Community in Ernest Gaines’s Fiction.’’ Black American Literature Forum 11 (1977): 9–19.
Lowe, John, ed. Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.
Rowell, Charles H. ‘‘Ernest J. Gaines: A Checklist, 1964–1978.’’ Callaloo 1.3 (1978): 125–31.
———. ‘‘The Quarters: Ernest Gaines and the Sense of Place.’’ Southern Review 21 (1985): 733–50.
Shelton, Frank W. ‘‘A Gaines Gold Rush: A Review Essay.’’ The Southern Quarterly 34.3 (1996): 149–51.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Andrews, William L. ‘‘ ‘We Ain’t Going Back There’: The Idea of Progress in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.’’ Black American Literary Forum 11 (1977): 146–49.
Beckman, Barry. ‘‘Jane Pittman and Oral Tradition.’’ Callaloo 1.3 (1978): 102–9. Byerman, Keith E. ‘‘A ‘Slow to Anger People’: The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman as Historical Fiction.’’ In Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Callahan, John E. ‘‘Image-Making: Tradition and the Two Versions of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.’’ Chicago Review 29.2 (1977): 45–62.
Doyle, Mary Ellen. ‘‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman as a Fictional Edited Autobiography.’’ In Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Fuller, Hoyt W. Review of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, by Ernest J. Gaines. Black World, October 1971: 87–89.
Gaudet, Marcia. ‘‘Black Women: Race, Gender, and Culture in Gaines’ Fiction.’’ In Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1994.
———. ‘‘Miss Jane and Personal Experience Narrative: Ernest Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.’’ Western Folklore 51 (1992): 23–32.
Giles, James P. ‘‘Revolution and Myth: William Melvin Kelly’s A Different Drummer and Ernest Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.’’ Minority Voices 1.2 (1971): 39–48.
Maddocks, Melvin. Review of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Time, 10 May 1971.
Pettis, Joyce. ‘‘The Black Historical Novel as Best Seller.’’ Kentucky Folklore Record 25 (1979): 51–59.
Walker, Alice. ‘‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.’’ New York Times Book Review, 23 May 1971: 6.
Wolff, Geoffrey. Review of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Newsweek, 3 May 1971.

Source: Carmean, Karen. Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998



Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, New Historicism, Novel Analysis

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