The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
© 1982 Ernest Gaines
A young girl carries water for both exhausted rebels and the jubilant army chasing them. An elderly lady who has seen sorrow after sorrow visited on herself and her loved ones witnesses a final tragedy, but one that carries with it hope for the future. These two women, nearly a century apart, are one and the same: Miss Jane Pittman. Her Autobiography, while fictional, is a fascinating way to experience a century of history, in the life of a ‘Luzana’ girl born into slavery, who sees her people failed time and again by themselves and the government, but always picking up and carrying on.
Experiencing a century of American history through the eyes of one person is a fascinating premise to me, though Gaines errs on the side of plausibility rather than letting his premise dominate the novel. Jane isn’t some Gilded Age Forrest Gump, wandering from the plantation into various highlights of the late 19th and early 20th century. Following the end of the war, young Jane attempts to migrate north with a handful of other freedmen, headed toward Ohio; most of the group runs afoul of some proto-Klansmen, brigands and ex-slave patrollers who are out to harass roaming blacks, but Jane and another young child escape, navigating by night and taking help as they can and avoiding snares. Eventually they find a safe haven, and from there the narrative shifts into more domestic and personal drama. “History” is still rolling along, witnessed as people debate the merits of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, but it becomes more like scenery rather than the driver. The personal and historical come together at the very end, when Jane sees a young man she’s helped nurture become a Civil Rights martyr. (Don’t get terribly attached to any of the characters besides Jane.)
The novel is framed as being based on interviews with Jane, and is rendered largely in her voice, with lots of vernacular; think of Huck Finn’s narrative style. Gaines and Jane offer the reader much to think about along the way. One of the more poignant chapters in the book details unrequited love with a tragic ending, and Jane reflects on how everyone, black and white, is trapped by the past, perpetuating its mistakes. I found much to appreciate here, from little bits of folklore — Jane’s skeptical use of a ‘hoo doo’ (witch) , old marriage customs, that sort of thing — to seeing the evolving black struggle for membership within the American nation.
This is a unique work in American literature, one well worth reading for understanding one aspect of the American story.