The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971)

by Ernest Gaines

Ernest Gaines's technique in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was to present a novel in the guise of oral history. He was a supposed editor who spent several months in 1962 interviewing a black woman whose life spanned more than a century. Speaking in her colorful vernacular about events in her own life, Miss Jane Pittman relates a parallel history of African Americans in the South from the Civil War to civil rights.

In her earliest recollections Miss Jane, then called Ticey, is about 10 years old and a slave on a Louisiana plantation during the Civil War. A Union soldier suggests she should have a name that's not a slave name — like Jane. When the war ends, she and a group of former slaves leave for the North, but all but Jane and a boy named Ned are killed by "Secesh" soldiers.

Jane and Ned don't even make it out of Louisiana. Jane spends her life on plantations, working in the fields and the houses of white landowners still called "master." She has a common-law marriage to Joe Pittman, who is killed breaking in horses, but no children because the beatings she endured as a slave left her barren. Ned, though only a few years younger than Jane, grows up with her like a son.

Jane is a resourceful, courageous character, finding work and shelter as a newly freed slave when she was just a child. Although she doesn't stand up to protest "her place" until the very end, she is spirited and determined. She is a support figure to two black men, one her beloved Ned, who attempt to lift the community and lose their lives in the struggle.

Miss Jane Pittman lived through some of the country's most turbulent events. Her opinionated recollections bring history home more vividly than textbook accounts of reconstruction, sharecropping, carpetbaggers, and the burgeoning civil rights movement. This novel is both engrossing and educational, suitable for high schoolers on up.



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