The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman’s opening is unique and instantly impressive. Gaines begins the story by introducing his collective of speakers. Gaines weaves a narrative by allowing a “chorus” to speak in incredibly short but sympathetic sentences. Gaines’ respect for the voices of each collaborator results in an impressive rhetorical coup. A story is told by many different voices, but never lost.
The teacher in the story is shown to be modest and respectful of Miss Jane. However, she is also determined not to lose the value and personality of Miss Jane. This winning detail is implicit in the book introduction, which immediately wins the reader over. Miss Jane’s personality is immediately recognizable, from her apparent lack of understanding of the worth of her story (she claimed there was none to tell) to her sarcastic response to the would-be interviewer. Other characters, both named and unnamed, are the caring and protective neighbors and friends who fill the gaps in Miss Jane’s story and remind readers from the very beginning that it is not only a personal story but also a tale of a community. They work together in order to keep the narrative focused and unified. The account of Miss Jane is presented as a precious yet often heavy load. Miss Jane would continue to listen until the time came for her to speak. In the meantime, the teacher is also burdened by his role as organizing consciousness. He does not complain about the difficulties of his job, which is to accurately and interestingly record the essence and the meandering narration with its frequent interruptions in voice, memory, and direction. As any journalist, he is eager to close what he perceives as unfinished business.
Mary says, “If you want to change her way of telling it, then tell it yourself.” Mary says “if she wants to tell the story differently, then you need to tell it yourself.” Mary advises that writers should listen humbly, and not try and change what they hear.
Miss Jane’s story is inspiring. Her account is compelling not just because of her dramatic story, but because she is an excellent storyteller. She uses a style of oral storytelling that is visually pleasing, and has many recollected humorous, tragic and scary stories. Gaines packs in a lot, weaving personal accounts of slavery and their larger cultural context. Jane, when she visits Madame Gautier the “hoodoo”, tells a story within a story. Jane tells an infamous hoo-doo legend of Marie Laveau in New Orleans to illustrate how Madame Gautier ended up in her town. Jane’s telling of the story helps establish a connection between her and the community. It also prepares Miss Jane for the serious conversation she will have with Adeline Cluveau later when she asks her to remove the “hoo-doo of her papa”.
Although the narration of Jane’s dialogue in this exchange is hers, it is done in the style and manner of Adeline. Adeline and Albert’s dialogue is very Cajun, and they are not educated. Madame Gautier has New Orleans French accents and a theatricality that befits her profession. Ned’s adult speech is that of a code-switcher who speaks on the level of the illiterate. It also reflects his desire to educate himself and become enlightened. Each voice is treated with respect in this novel.
The “autobiography” tells the stories of many people, not just that of one woman. It is more of a dramatization about the impact slavery had on different cultures. This is a tale about the desire to be in control, whether it’s over another person, yourself, or even death. Jane, in fact, has a lot of stories. Gaines has a respect for the many voices that Miss Jane represents in her life.
Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman The Dial Press published New York in 1971.