Keys to the Archive: Miss Jane Pittman


When Ernest J. Gaines published The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in 1971, it became the first neo-slave narrative authored by an African American writer (Rushdy 6). With emancipation a hundred years past and the Civil Rights Movement coming to an end, the novel came into a world eager to understand the legacies of chattel slavery in the United States. Gaines’s contemporaries would figure the on-going relevance of that traumatic past in various ways. Alex Haley represented the lasting grip of enslavement in a family lineage (Roots 1976). Octavia Butler dramatized it through time travel (Kindred 1979). Most famously, Toni Morrison figured it as a form of haunting (Beloved 1987). Gaines showed readers the closeness of slavery with a single woman, Miss Jane, who left the planation where she was enslaved as an adolescent only to navigate life under Lynch Law, the debt slavery of sharecropping, and Jim Crow segregation. The premise of the novel reminds readers that, a century after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, they could plausibly still speak with someone reared under the institution of slavery.

Miss Jane’s experience comes to readers through an act of storytelling. She tells her story to a history teacher who records it for posterity, adding an element of what Alaine Locke once called “social document fiction” to Gaines’s historical realism (240). Gaines knew well how storytelling functioned as a form of historical transmission. He participated in it as a child growing up in Louisiana. As an adult, he returned to Pointe Coupee Parish several times in the 1960s and used those visits to talk with the people who still lived in Cherie Quarters on Riverlake Plantation, gather their stories, and take photographs. Gaines began writing Miss Jane’s story in 1968, but not from her perspective. The first draft of the novel was titled “A Short Biography of Miss Jane Pittman” and it began after her death. Her funeral became the occasion for other members of her community to tell stories about her life as a sort of memorial. That idea for a multi-voiced narrative produced a novella-length manuscript. By Gaines’s own account, however, that narrative method grew too complicated. “I thought a single voice, Miss Jane’s, would keep the story in a straight line,” he explained later (“Miss Jane and I” 37).

Miss Jane’s single and singular voice became a point of celebration among critics. (See, for example, Barry Beckhman, “Jane Pittman and Oral Tradition.”) Many considered the authenticity of her voice to be the novel’s great accomplishment, conveying a perspective of American history otherwise occluded. Indeed, only a year after the novel came out, George P. Rawick began publishing his expansive, multi-volume collection of slave narratives under the title The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Those volumes included interviews conducted by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s, some of which Gaines had encountered in an earlier volume titled Lay My Burden Down (Botkin 1945). That reading became an important supplement to Gaines’s field work. Library research helped him develop Miss Jane’s voice and imagine the historical context of her life. By populating his novel with historical events and figures—the Civil War, Reconstruction, the great floods of 1912 and 1927, Booker T. Washington, Huey Long, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson—Gaines did for fiction what historians and folklorists were doing for American memory: remembering the everyday experience of suffering, survival, and perseverance that marked a century of emancipated life.

Given the novel’s concern for rendering history from unexamined points of view, readers might approach it as a meditation on the question of how the people of Cherie Quarters could achieve freedom. The sharecroppers who lived and worked on Riverlake Plantation in the 1960s made their homes in slave cabins; they labored in the same fields their enslaved ancestors cultivated before them; their toil still benefited white landowners. Those circumstances existed across the Deep South where sharecropping persisted into the late twentieth century. The promise of emancipation hardly appeared actualized. Would the Civil Rights Movement fulfill those promises through social and legal action? The novel offers an equivocal answer. Miss Jane participates in a Civil Rights protest to desegregate Bayonne, but we learn from the novel’s introduction that she lives out the end of her days in the Quarters. And the novel ends with Jimmy’s murder, continuing the pattern of lethal anti-Black violence that begins the novel. If Miss Jane cannot tell a story of ultimate liberation, she can narrate the complicated relationship between emancipation and the push for civil rights. The narrative through line draws a picture of survival under shifting forms of economic exploitation and white supremacy.

The literary archives held at the Ernest J. Gaines Center in Dupré Library document the work Gaines did to represent those historical shifts through Miss Jane’s eyes. The scope of the collections on The Autobiography cover the entire lifecycle of the novel, with materials from what genetic critic Pierre-Marc de Biasi identifies as compositional, prepublishing, publication, and postpublication phases of the novel’s existence (“What Is a Draft?”). The collection begins with a manuscript draft of “The Short Biography” and runs to a set of news clippings related to the CBS television movie adaptation staring Cicely Tyson. That series occupies over a hundred file folders, far more than this project features. Here we have featured archival materials that help illuminate aspects of the novel discussed in the keyword entries. Those seventeen entries make up the heart of this project and provide a synthesis of literary criticism, explication of particular scenes, and an overview of relevant archival holdings. In addition to the keyword entries, we have gathered the archival documents in a series of media galleries that display them in viewer-friendly sequences. The timeline following this introduction features primary materials and events that provide historical context for Miss Jane’s narrative, while the bibliography points readers to useful published materials.

In response to an early draft of the novel, Gaines’s editor at Dial Press, Bill Decker, offered several pages of feedback. He concluded those notes by acknowledging that the editorial process often leaves authors disappointed. “I have to do this,” he wrote, “and even if it makes you mad, I hope it will be a tiny little bit helpful.” We echo his sentiment with our hope that this project proves a tiny little bit helpful to anyone interested in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

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