One of the most distinctive and immediately impressive things about Ernest Gaines’ novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, is the way the author opens his story with an introduction of a collective of speakers, his cast of character/narrators, so to speak. Gaines weaves his narrative through an interplay between the organizing consciousness of the story, the central voice of the story, and a kind of “chorus” of community voices, whom he allows to announce themselves in brief but immediately sympathetic ways. The respect Gaines shows for each of these collaborative narrators results in a kind of rhetorical coup, a story that moves among many disparate voices without ever becoming lost.
Among these collaborators is a teacher who is depicted as humble and respectful towards Miss Jane but, at the same time, determined to preserve the valuable resources of her experience and persona. These winning details are implicit in the book’s introduction; therefore, the reader is immediately won over to the teacher’s perspective. Similarly, the spirit of Miss Jane herself comes across with immediate appeal, first in her lack of awareness of the value of her story– “she told me there was no story to tell” — and then in the humorous way she gives in to her would-be interviewer’s pressure, since “If I don’t he go’n just worry me to death” (v). Then there are the lovingly protective friends and neighbors, some mentioned by name and others not, who help fill in the gaps of Miss Jane’s memories and who remind the reader from the beginning that this is the story of a people as well as of a person. Once the dramatis personae have been established, they collaborate to focus and sustain the narrative.
In this process, Miss Jane’s account of her life is described as though it were a precious but often heavy burden; indomitable as the elderly woman seems, it is noted that “others carried the story for her” and “someone else would always pick up the narration. Miss Jane would sit there listening until she got ready to talk again” (vii). Meanwhile, as the organizing consciousness, the teacher has burdens of his own. Without complaining, he explains the difficulty of his task, that of following and trying to record faithfully but interestingly the essence of a narration that is meandering, filled with breaks in continuity of voice and recollection as well as with frequent changes of direction. He strongly desires, as any meticulous journalist would, to tie up what he sees as loose ends.
However, as Miss Jane’s friend Mary points out to the teacher, in storytelling as in life, “you don’t tie up all the loose ends all the time.” This warning may be seen as an apt caveat for any writer who runs the risk, for whatever well intended reason, of substituting his own voice for his character’s or trying to impose his own sense of story logic at the expense of hers. As Mary puts it, “if you got to change her way of telling it, you tell it yourself.” Of course, this would mean sacrificing both richness and authenticity; rather than do that, Mary insists the writer humbly listen and record what he hears: “Take what she say and be satisfied” (vii).
And what Miss Jane says is ultimately satisfying. Her account satisfies not only because her story is dramatic and fascinating but also because she is a natural storyteller, with a folksy oral style that is aesthetically pleasing and a wealth of recollected stories, humorous, tragic, even scary ones. Gaines packs a lot into the narrative, weaving the threads of post-slavery personal accounts and the larger cultural tradition that informs them. There are stories within stories, sometimes told in passing on the way to the pertinent plot point, as when Jane goes to visit the “hoo-doo” woman, Madame Gautier. In explaining how Madame Gautier happens to have come into her community, Jane digresses slightly into a superstitious tale about the infamous New Orleans hoo-doo icon, Marie Laveau (92). The fact that this story is a part of Jane’s tale-telling repertoire helps establish her connection to the tradition from which her own beliefs and the beliefs of her community spring. But it also lays the foundation for her serious discussion later with Adeline, the Cajun Albert Cluveau’s daughter, when she begs Miss Jane to take “the hoo-doo off her papa” (122).
It is notable that, in this exchange with Adeline and elsewhere in the novel, although the overall account is Jane’s, the dialogue she recounts is rendered in the style of the person to whom it is attributed. Albert and Adeline’s dialogue sounds distinctly Cajun and fairly uneducated; Madame Gautier’s is tinged with New Orleans French and has a theatrical formality befitting her profession. Ned, as an adult, is a code-switcher and a born teacher, speaking in a way that suggests his past among the illiterate – and his comfort with speaking on their level — as well as his determined path to self-education and enlightenment. Every voice that comes through in this novel, notwithstanding that all are supposedly mediated through the consciousness of one organizer and the voice of one main character, is given its full due in terms of being distinguished by rhythm, diction, and tone.
It is also noteworthy that many people’s stories are told within this “autobiography,” so that it is not simply one woman’s post-slavery slave narrative. Rather, it is a dramatization of the cross-cultural impact of slavery and its aftermath, and more. It is a story about the will to power and the will to freedom, the drive in all people, in some form, to assert mastery over others, over themselves, or sometimes over death itself. So, perhaps Jane is unwittingly right when she asserts to the teacher she has “no story to tell.” The fact is, she has several. Her whole lifetime is a compendiumm of stories, personal and universal, and it is Gaines’ respect for all of the voices Miss Jane’s story comprises that allows readers to hear her voice so clearly.
Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Dial Press, 1971.