Places: The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1971

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical realism

Time of work: Mid-1860’s to early 1960’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedBryant plantation

Bryant Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Theplantation. 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

*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.

BibliographyBabb, 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.
Categories: Places