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“Let Miss Jane tell the story”

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Claudine Raynaud

II. Poétique de la voix

A Few Aspects of the Poetics of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

Monica Michlin

Résumé

This study tries to highlight crucial aspects of the poetics of the novel, focusing first on how the “speakerly” effect is produced; then on the use of repetition as a structure both of Miss Jane’s speech, and of the plot, and finally, on the use of coded or loaded forms of black speech such as signifying or call and response. Close readings of the text attempt to illustrate how (and why) memory appears “distanced” in Miss Jane’s oral narrative, and to show that while she is often critical of other people’s “retrick”, her own may sometimes seem just as problematic.

Texte intégral

  • 1 For instance, she regards dancing as sinful (AJP, 224).
  • 2 Gaines insists on this in every interview.
  • 3 “When I wrote Miss Jane Pittman, my Bible was Lay My Burden Down, a collection of short WPA intervi (...)

1In the wake of neo-slave narratives written by women, and particularly Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), it is difficult to reread The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman without being conscious of what it is not: a feminine narrative in the meaning of “écriture feminine,” in which emphasis on the body and the story it tells is primordial. This can of course be explained by the narrative frame—Miss Jane, at a hundred and ten, is a somewhat prudish person,1 who is speaking to a young man; the time is the early sixties; and the novel came out in 1971, more than a generation ago. The poetics of the novel thus reflect Gaines’s own sources of inspiration: most notably, his Aunt Augusteen’s stories, her neighbors,’2 and the WPA interviews included in Lay My Burden Down.3 The result is a literary work Barry Beckhman calls “a chat: an episodic, lyrical, informal verbal chronicle” (1978, 103), which gives an impression of “artless art with a strong cumulative effect” (Kirkus, 1971). I will examine the techniques that produce this apparently artless speakerly effect. I will then emphasize the poetics of distanced memory, as opposed to what Toni Morrison calls rememory (the uncontrollable return of the traumatic past), focusing in particular on repetition as a main figure of speech as well as a symbolic pattern within the narrative. Finally, I will try to show how specific forms of black speech such as signifying, or proverbial or religious speech, saturate the text in a deliberate homage to, and authorization of, black culture, and see how Miss Jane comments others’ style and “retrick,” while sometimes failing to analyze her own.

  • 4 See Smith, 1987. Some readers initially thought this interviewer was white, as most of the WPA inte (...)

2The introduction to the novel, in which the history teacher explains that he has interviewed Miss Jane, resembles the white authorization of slave narratives;4 but it also resembles the staging of Langston Hughes’s Tales of Simple, in which the educated narrator is in fact a foil, or a facilitator, for the main character’s colloquial, irreverent, but more obviously black voice—one that has intimate knowledge of black history, and who can perform a great many culturally specific forms of black speech, from signifying to sermons, from song to testifying, from jokes to prophecy. As Beckhman has pointed out, a first essential aspect of the style of the novel is its pretense at being a transcript of oral speech. To create what Barthes called the “effet de réel”, the teacher/editor deliberately misspells a number of words for phonetic effect: Beckhman lists “fiyer”, “Luzana”, “retrick”, “Fedjal Goviment”, “invessagator”, “’lectwicity” (Beckham, 104), to which one might add “sable” for sabre (AJP, 3), “destruck”, AJP, 4), “jecked up” for “jerked” (AJP, 9), “Freedom Beero” (AJP, 35), “chimley” (AJP, 50), “onery” for “ornery” (AJP, 84), “my forrid” (“forehead”, AJP, 90), “Mon Sha” (AJP, 98), “munks” for “amongst” (AJP, 110), “a wahs” (wasp, AJP, 150), and “specalatin”’ (AJP, 205). The deliberately incorrect past participles “gived” or “knowed” are used throughout the novel, as well as “ain’t”, plurals are often in the singular (“they was singing”) and most possessives are dropped, to remind us that Miss Jane is illiterate, and that her storytelling is oral but that her vocabulary has been acquired aurally, too.

3Miss Jane does not, however, speak in black dialect compared to such characters as Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie, Langston Hughes’ Jes Simple, or Toni Cade Bambara’s little Harlem girls: she says “child”, and never “chile”, her final gs are never dropped, there is no elision like ’em. This seems unrealistic, and must be put down to the hybrid form (an edited oral transcript) announced from the introduction. Similarly, the “editor”, not Miss Jane, capitalizes such words as the “Troops” (AJP, 3) as part of the irony surrounding the debacle of the Southern army when Miss Jane’s story starts; and it is he who chooses titles that do not reflect Miss Jane’s vocabulary (“Rednecks and Scalawags”). But she is the one who cuts the “Rebs” (AJP, 6) and the “Secesh” (AJP, 6) down to size through this abbreviation that puts them on a par with the little slave girl they could not even see (“little old black me,” AJP, 4). The ideological aspect of her parroting the voice of white southerners in black dialect (“We the nobles, not them,” AJP, 5), is as much a part of her revenge on the system that oppressed her as a child, as her mimicking the Confederate soldiers’overconfident speech at the beginning of the war (“’Don’t put my food up’, they said,” AJP, 4). Her rephrasing of the cliché “the Southern way of life” in a black dialect translation —“Who they [the Yankees] think they is trying to destruck us way of living?” (AJP, 4)— is the histrionic version of her ideological asides as to historical truth, misrepresentations, and lies, in parody of southern white “gentility”.

  • 5 Somewhat as in Stewart O’Nan’s The Speed Queen (1997), in which Marjorie, a death row inmate, is an (...)
  • 6 Paradoxically, most black novels use the spelling paterollers, for greater phonetic authenticity, e (...)

4Because Miss Jane is telling the story, there are occasional reminders of the time of narration. From the initial “it was a day something like right now” (AJP, 3), to her occasional asides on the benefits of eating greens and fish and walking every day —“Plenty walking, that’s good. People don’t walk no more” (AJP, 107)—or wondering about a precise date—“Timmy left here when? Let me think, now, let me think. 1925 or ‘26” (AJP, 154)—we are made to feel that this is a live voice. Although some of these intrusions remind us that Miss Jane’s story is in part carried by her neighbors, who prompt her memory—“When did Long come in? Long came in when? After the high water—yes” (AJP, 154), they also point to a subtext of Q&A, in which the interviewer’s questions have been erased.5 For instance, when Miss Jane explains that the freed slaves were not prepared: “Yes, we had heard about freedom, but we never thought we was go’n ever see that day [...] That’s why we hadn’t got ourself ready” (AJP, 15); or when she details what little clothes each person had in slavery (AJP, 15), or defines the word “patrollers6”: “Patrollers was the poor white trash that used to find the runaway slaves for the masters. Them and the soldiers from the Secesh Army was the ones who made up the Ku Klux Klans later on.” (AJP, 21). This pattern is carried out when she defines the terms “Freedom Beero” (AJP, 35) or explains why the North abandoned the blacks in the South (AJP, 71). The interviewer’s questions are echoed in Miss Jane’s answers, when she speaks of Jimmy’s being “the One”:

“Why did we pick him? Well, why do you pick anybody?” (AJP, 212)
“Oh no, no, no, no, we didn’t say it exactly like that.”
(AJP 212)
“No, we never said anything to him.”
(AJP, 214)

  • 7 I will return to this point in the last section of this study.

5Towards the end, she involves the interviewer, by questioning him: “Do you know Bayonne at all? You done drank from that fountain in the courthouse, used that bathroom in there? Well, up to a year ago they didn’t have a fountain there for colored at all.” (AJP, 243). By implicitly having the interviewer verify the reality of the fountain in Bayonne, Miss Jane reauthorizes every detail so far, taking away any suspicion that she either remembers faultily or invents, the word “story”, which she often uses for an anecdote, necessarily carrying that ambiguity7. Because the “you” also implicitly includes the readers, it creates an additional reality effect for anyone who had indeed been to Bayonne circa 1971.

  • 8 “(I forget that teacher’s name, but I think he said Gamby)”, and then “(I’m almost sure he called t (...)
  • 9 “Mr Isaiah was probably the best carpenter the state has ever seen [...] but he’s dead now” (AJP, 1 (...)
  • 10 For instance, when she announces: “I want to tell you a little story just to show how these people (...)

6As to the apparent digressions, they allow our narrator the empowerment as that her life has continually denied her. When she declines to tell an episode, she demonstrates that she is the editor of her story: “I can tell you about all the things we went through that week, but they don’t matter. Because they wasn’t no different from the things we went through them first three or four days” (AJP, 57). When she insists on recovering specifics,8 or digresses about a secondary character9, she highlights her choices as to the blend of story and backdrop, as to which characters deserve memorializing, as to the montage of drama and comic interlude, and quite simply, as to the pace of her narrative.10 Pace is a fundamental concept, because of the imposed pace (walking, picking cotton, hauling water) that has defined most of her existence. A reflexive image of this appears after her genealogy of the black families of the Samson Quarters (AJP, 219), and her conclusion that she is determined to survive, and more:

But now just a few of us left [...] Well, I got news for them [white people]: these old bones is tired, and that’s true, but they ain’t about ready to lay down for good yet. [...] Till then I will have some of them children read me the Bible, read me the papers, and I’ll do all the walking I can. And I will eat vanilla ice cream which I loves and enjoys. (AJP, 219)

  • 11 The racial symbolics of eating vanilla ice cream being part of the signifying on having survived wh (...)

7This apparently trivial comment on ice cream is just as loaded, politically, as the rest of the text. Through these saturated black images of laying down one’s weary bones (spirituals imagery of the weary traveler), Miss Jane is reminding us of all the walking she did just to survive in the first book of the novel,11 and signifying on the fact that she now walks for her pleasure and can eat sweets instead of surviving for days on end on apples (AJP, 13), potatoes (AJP, 25), greens and cornbread served without a spoon (AJP, 51), or “pot liquor that had been round a couple of days” (AJP, 59).

  • 12 This also allows each reader to call up her or his revolutionary heroes in a mute chorus to Jane’s (...)

8These digressions and narrative intrusions frequently serve a didactic purpose too. Such techniques as emphatic commentary—“it was slavery again, all right” (AJP, 72)—make Miss Jane a conscious and ideological witness of a century of black history. Her summarization of the North’s postwar sacrifice of black people is all the more powerful because of its concision, its use of parallel structure, present tense, and blunt vocabulary: “And that was the deal: the Secesh get their land, but the Yankees lend the money” (AJP, 71). She feels free to revise all of official US History, for instance, concerning the reviling of Huey Long as racist populist: “Oh, they got all kinds of stories about him now. He was a this, he was a that.” (AJP, 158), telling the interviewer and the readers that although Long’s speech might have been racist on the surface, he was killed for trying to empower poor people, whether white or black, and claiming, in self-authorization, “all the poor people know that” (AJP, 159). When she closes this History lesson with the proverbial form “Look like every man that pick up the cross for the poor must end that way” (AJP, 159), she not only recasts Huey Long as a modern-day Christ, but she connects him to the similar, intimate figures in her own story—Ned and Jimmy—while, over her head, Gaines also alludes to Martin Luther King, who had been assassinated just three years earlier when the book came out.12

  • 13 Because of the lyrical expression of her strength, and her role as leader, Big Laura necessarily ca (...)

9This is one of the most striking aspects of Miss Jane’s story, as a personal and as a collective story: its patterns of repetition, and, most notably, the assassination of liberating figures, in a somber picture of regress rather than progress for black people of the South, or, at best, of largely illusory progress and actual stasis. This overall pattern, which is punctuated by the deaths of such figures as Big Laura,13 Ned, or Jimmy, is translated, at the micro-textual level, by the use of repetition as a fundamental figure of speech. I will quickly show a few of the meanings repetition takes on. The first is to translate grueling hard work: at the outset of the novel, Jane has to haul “buckets after buckets after buckets” (AJP, 4) of water, first for one army, then for the other, in the same day. It is also the syntactic expression of slow and painful progress in the bayous of “Luzana” as Jane tries to reach Ohio: her journey North is saturated with the reflexive repetition of endless walking:

“We walked and walked and walked.” (AJP, 17)
“We walked and walked and walked and walked and walked. Lord, we walked. I got so tired I wanted to drop.”
(AJP, 20)
We walked, we walked, we walked.”
(AJP, 41)

10There is no monotony, however, for the reader, because of the subtle use of antithesis to vary this pattern—“Walking fast, but staying quiet” (AJP, 17) —and because of the various events that intervene between two uses of this deliberate redundancy.

  • 14 Miss Jane likes comparisons: “his hand was rough as ‘cuda legs” (AJP, 12), “he looked more like a w (...)

11Another of its purposes, when applied to adjectives—“dusty dusty” (AJP, 3), or “red red” (AJP, 50), for instance—is to convey what an adverb, a more precise adjective, or a simile14 might convey. While Miss Jane only mentions primary colors and their simplest combinations, this does not preclude other poetic effects, for instance when she describes the “high water” of ’27 (the expression is itself a simple but beautiful image for the flood):

The sun was out, the sky was blue, and you said to yourself: ‘Thank the Lord: over at last.’ But that was before you looked over your shoulders. You turned. What’s that? A sea. A whole sea creeping up on you. (AJP, 157)

  • 15 To reread this paragraph in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans certainly gi (...)

12This manner of implying the reader through the use of “you”; the literal twist, on the phrase “you turned”; the direct question, in the present tense; and the metaphor of the sea (with the echo of “seeing” this), put the emphasis not so much on the description of the landscape, but on the illusory feeling of relief, and the flood of fear that opens up once again at the end of this short paragraph.15

13Fundamentally, however, Miss Jane repeats to convey intensity, rather than describing in detail as a scene unfolds: in the massacre scene, for instance, she uses the iterative to describe the white patrollers hounding her group—“When they spotted somebody, a bunch of them would move somewhere else.” (AJP, 22)—and then summarizes the massacre itself with two, relentlessly repeated, verbs: “Now you heard screaming, begging; screaming, begging; screaming, begging—till it was quiet again.” (AJP, 22). This minimalism is surprising (although it perfectly reflects the child’s situation of hearing without seeing); despite Gaines’ insistence that he doesn’t know “any other black writer who has written a scene that showed the brutality of the system any more” than he did this scene (see Rowell, 1978, 45-46), there are graphic scenes of institutional racial violence in Richard Wright’s or James Baldwin’s stories and Langston Hughes’s poems. When Miss Jane narrates what the hunter tells her—“Earlier that day he had cut a man down and buried him that the Secesh had hung. After hanging him they had gashed out his entrails” (AJP, 46)—this is a distinctly muted version of lynching, when compared to the song “Strange Fruit”, and to the reality of the castration (as much as the gutting) of black men.

14Because contemporary neo-slave narratives are much more explicit as to the violence committed against the black body in the system’s effort to kill the black soul, readers see the true violence of the novel not in what it portrays, but in what it withholds: emotion. In this sense, the true violence lies in the constant parataxis, the clipped sentences, and the minimalism of Jane’s comments on the unspeakable. She explicitly rules out pathos: “I didn’t cry, I couldn’t cry. I had seen so much beating and suffering; I had heard about so much cruelty in those ‘leven or twelve years of my life I hardly knowed how to cry.” (AJP, 24). And again, in her conversation with the white plantation owner who tries to convince her not to go to Ohio: “’Ravishing, ravishing, ravishing. I been trying to cry, but I done already cried myself dry. Not a drop in me nowhere’. ‘No need to cry, I said. ‘Just got to keep going, that’s all.’” (AJP, 28). In fact, Jane’s summary of how her mother died is so succinct that it is more brutal than any graphic description (AJP, 29); and when she summarizes all of her story up to that moment to the Federal Investigator in four short sentences: “We ain’t got no people. My mama been dead. Overseer killed her. Secesh killed his mama yesterday” (AJP, 33), the effect is more violent still. Parataxis and minimalism, then, achieve as much violence as pathos or extreme detail might—but with a difference. Jane clearly appears to be what some post-traumatic stress specialists call “numb survivors”.

15This explains why her resilience is shot through with self-destructive choices, which may seem grimly comical, but which lead to a repetition of trials for her and Ned. For instance, she cannot hear the sympathy in others’ voices, whether in the repetition “Child, child” that saturates the white woman’s speech page 30, or in the black hunter’s “My Lord, my Lord” (AJP, 44). Although both try to convince her that “there ain’t no Ohio” (AJP, 30), and although this scene is repeated with the old man (in the eponymous chapter), Jane only briefly glimpses at the subconscious drive within her: “All of a sudden it came to me how wrong I had been for not listening to people. Everybody, from Unc Isom to the hunter, had told me I was wrong. I wouldn’t listen to none of them.” (AJP, 51). But despite this, she once again refuses to hear reason: “The boy’ll never make it,’ he said. ‘You? I figure it’ll take you about thirty years. Give or take a couple.’ ‘Well, we’d better head out’, I said.” (AJP, 57) This happens again when she distrusts Madame Gautier, and by attempting to rid herself of the black stallion on her own, directly causes Joe’s death (AJP, 102). Interestingly, although Jane makes a point of underlining her refusal of advice in a flashback, later on—“But after I had gone I still didn’t listen to her advice.” (AJP, 128)—she bizarrely never expresses guilt nor grief at the fact that her last contact with Joe was his knocking her down, in anger as much as haste, when she let the horse loose, and he rode to his death pursuing it. This suppression of emotion is distinctly anomalous; but trauma and loss are expressed precisely through this lack of expression, and the expression of emptiness or absence. Here are two examples: what Jane feels on Big Laura’s death, and then, on Ned’s:

I took the baby out her arms. I had to pull hard to get her free. I knowed I couldn’t bury Big Laura—I didn’t have a thing to dig with—but maybe I could bury her child. But when I looked back at Big Laura and saw how empty her arms was, I just laid the little baby right back down.” (AJP, 24)

  • 16 Because of the cliché on white Southern women fainting easily, no black woman faints in this novel. (...)

They didn’t want leave me alone, but I told them I was all right, and they went out. I sat down side Ned and held him close and started talking to him like he was still alive. I can’t recall what I said to him—just little talk; I can’t recall when I fell on him, but I remember people pulling me off the bed and my clothes soaking wet with his blood. (AJP, 123)16

16This pattern of deliberate understatement also affects Jane’s recounting of her bodily suffering. When she is whipped at the beginning of the novel for refusing to answer her “slave name,” she does not describe the pain. It is the white “master’s” voice which signals it indirectly: “He told her that was enough, I was already bleeding.” (AJP, 9).

17Whether this beating is the one that scars Jane for life or not, she refers to a scar on her back twice, late in the novel, first, in the present of narration, to the interviewer, and second, within the story, to Jimmy:

I’ll take the memory of it [of the brave children who faced mobs during school desegregation] to my grave just like I will take this scar upon my back to my grave. (AJP, 231)

‘Jimmy’, I said. ‘I have a scar on my back I got when I was a slave. I’ll carry it to my grave. You got people out there with this scar on their brains, and they will carry that scar to their grave. The mark of fear, Jimmy, is not easily removed’. (AJP, 242)

  • 17 See the unbearable photograph of what an 1862 whipping did to the man named Gordon, in Lest We Forg (...)
  • 18 This is true even when the novel is read alongside its contemporary, Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (196 (...)

18Readers of Beloved will contrast this either flat, or allegorical “telling” of the scar with the sustained imagery of the chokecherry tree Sethe carries on her back; those familiar with the photographs of survivors of slavery17 with the unbearable pictures of mutilated flesh. Perhaps Gaines feared sensationalism or voyeurism; even when Jane tells us that she is barren, she speaks in euphemisms (“I told her how my body act and didn’t act.” [AJP, 80]). While this allows a beautiful understated response combining the literal and the symbolic meanings of “hurt” on Joe’s part, when he answers Jane with “Ain’t we all been hurt by slavery?” (AJP, 81), it also implies an erasing of the body as locus of speech.18

19Memory is thus likewise repressed—Miss Jane’s narrative always keeps pain at a distance. Not only does she never break down as she narrates, or ask for a suspension of the interview, but within her narrative, events do not open up chasms of uncontrollable emotions. Harshness, bordering on alienation, is frequent, for instance when she describes those who tried to escape slavery through the bayou: “The dumb ones tried to wade over, and that’s when they got caught. That bayou got more people in it than a graveyard.” (AJP, 74). Luckily, the fact that her voice records other (mainly black) voices verbatim throughout the novel allows Gaines to compensate for her own “no-need-to-cry-just-got-to-keep-going” aesthetics. While the episodic structure reflects them, since the narrative moves on as if there were no space in which to grieve, it also allows a non-didactic introduction to various forms of Southern (and mainly black) culture. As Miss Jane includes others’ voices by performing entire conversations, dialogues, sermons, or transcribing songs for us, her narrative resonates with the emotions of other black voices, and with such culturally specific forms as signifying or call and response.

  • 19 Go to http://wfmu.org/playlists/shows/3368 to hear the Highway QCs’ version. (I did not find this a (...)

20Let us start with the inclusion of song. The spontaneous collective singing of “We free” (AJP, 11) is transcribed in extenso, to ground the black voices in the text where they had hereto been silenced, and to underline that the “simple” text is the bare but total expression of something that is made real by the “performing” of it, beyond the white master’s declaration “y’all free” (AJP, 10). Later, when Jane “gets religion,” the text insists on the fact that conversion is yet another form of “travel” (AJP, 144), and the spiritual “Done got over” is transcribed as the congregation sings for her (AJP, 144-45). While Miss Jane’s version is strictly religious, other versions of this spiritual are far more emotional, repeating verses like “I don’t have to cry any more because I done got over,” or “I love everybody because I got over.”19 The spiritual revives an earlier passage in the book, when Miss Jane narrates how she carried Ned through the bayou as they fled the patrollers, and she exclaims “How I made it over only the Lord knows.” (AJP, 49). This seems an allusion to the famous spiritual “How I Got Over” (“You know my soul looks back in wonder/ How did I make it over?”), which, like other spirituals, was explicitly about escaping slavery into freedom, as much as about being “saved” in a religious meaning. Gaines plays on this religious vocabulary for secular freedom in the chapter “Exodus,” which describes black people’s desperate attempts to escape through the bayou during slavery, reactivating, through this title, the religious subtext of the Exodus from Egypt, while Jane’s final line “the people went” calls to mind the song about the Exodus, “Go Down Moses,” and its chorus “Let my people go.”

21Other specific forms of oral black culture are relayed through Miss Jane’s “performing” voice, turning Gaines’ text almost into a recital of oral black culture; the most obvious one is signifying, in the sense of ironic repartee. This rhetorical ability defines Jane as a child, but also, as an old lady: from her rejoinder “If I ain’t nothing but trouble, you ain’t nothing but Nothing” (AJP, 11), to her verbal sparring with Robert Samson when she decides to go back to living in the Quarters (AJP, 213), she is constantly “sassy” or “smart” (AJP, 47), which makes for entertainment. This is especially obvious in that Miss Jane relays others’ witticisms too: the hunter’s “Well, how was Ohio?” (AJP, 48); the black Democrat’s “I’d rather be a Democrat with a tail than a Republican that ain’t had no brains” (AJP, 69), right up to the signifying between her and Just on religion (AJP, 237-238), or even Robert Samson’s brutal acceptance of Yoko being buried on his plantation: “Robert said he didn’t care one way or the other long as she didn’t carry on no demonstrating in that graveyard.” (AJP, 235).

  • 20 In her final, lyrical rejoinder as she walks past Robert Sampson, she signifies that Jimmy’s soul k (...)
  • 21 Since it simultaneously refers to Jane’s imaginary progress on the map and to her reasserted will t (...)

22This inclusion of voices that Jane opposes20 or that she does not trust is part of Gaines’ charged use of theater: it is entertaining, but always with a political thrust. The Old Man’s “reading” of Jane’s travels on the map, which is the longest monologue in the entire book, is a masterpiece of signifying, as well as a mise en abyme of signifying, since it is Gaines’ alternative, inset Biography of Miss Jane Pittman to boot. Through the present tense, the pun “Still going?” (AJP, 55),21 the constant accumulation of obstacles (water moccasins, a bad dog, red ants, green berries, men black and white, jail time), the use of loaded questions and hypotheses, and the multiplication of puns (“You got a hundred Browns in Cincinnati. Some white Browns, some black Browns, even some brown Browns.” [AJP, 56]), the old man demonstrates the futility of Jane’s quest. This relentless reductio ad absurdum of her intended travels ends in bathos, on the missed date with a dead man who was probably the wrong one besides:

And the only white Brown people can remember that even went to Luzana to fight in the war died of whiskey ten years ago. They don’t think he was the same person you was looking for because this Brown wasn’t kind to nobody. He was coarse and vulgar; he cussed man, God and nature every day of his life (AJP, 56)

23A similar scene of verbal theatrics, but with the obvious goal of “performing” black culture, is introduced with the visit to Madame Gautier (96-100). The hoodoo’s voice, in its blues-like combination of seduction, mystery, advice, comfort, and pragmatic realism is, in itself, spectacular. The deferring of her answer to Jane’s question; her ominous warning “there’s only one answer” and her dramatized use of French (oui) when she finally gives that answer; her pitying address “Mon sha, mon sha” and the flamboyant reassertion of her own identity as ultimate titre de noblesse and proof of her infallibility; her manipulation of the proverbial (“Man is foolish”) and her use of pleonasm (“grippe is grippe”), as well as her final dismissal of Jane’s feeble rationalizations (“I know, mon sha, I know, she said. That’ll be a dollar if you don’t mind.” [AJP, 100]), make this scene almost pure theater. While Gaines nods to magic as being part of black folk culture, one notices that hoodoo is limited, in his novel, to the power of speech, and prophecy, since Miss Jane finally refuses to use the (magical?) powder she has bought, but Madame Gautier turns out to have been correct.

  • 22 This leitmotif is so deliberate that when Miss Jane feels “something funny” in the air (AJP, 255-6) (...)

24Rather than including magic, Gaines chooses the poetics of repetition of dreams, and the brooding on that repetition within Miss Jane’s speech, as creating an atmosphere of anxiety. Every time Jane dreams, it is of death, and these dreams always come true.22 In Ned’s case, the text plays on the overt heralding, by Albert Cluveau, but also by Jane herself, as narrator: “And a year later, almost to the day, Albert Cluveau shot him down.” (AJP, 103); “Two weeks before Ned was killed he gathered us at the river.” (AJP, 111).

  • 23 Another culturally charged form of black speech: testifying as to having found religion takes up pa (...)
  • 24 The chapter “Professor Douglass” itself recalls the “self-naming” ceremony performed the emancipate (...)
  • 25 This seems Gaines’ transtextual allusion to Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die” “If we must die, l (...)
  • 26 Women’s place is clearly to listen (AJP, 109): this aspect is reinforced by the casting of Vivian a (...)

25The point of this technique, as much as it is about reinforcing Ned’s characterization as Christ-like martyr, is to make us particularly attentive to his last words—the Sermon by the River, in which his voice takes over the text. Couched in colloquial black speech, is a perfect example of the combination of oratorical and political, Ned being both the black liberator (Douglass), and the black messiah in his lyrical celebration of the land as being black people’s, because their ancestors’ “sweat and blood done drenched this earth” (AJP, 112). For readers, this is the response to an earlier scene in which young black men testified23 as to why they were leaving the South right after Emancipation: “They got blood on this place and I done stepped in it. I done waded in it to my waist.” (AJP, 15). In a speech performative of black pride, Ned claims that blood as the most precious heritage of all—this is later enacted, when he dies, and everyone wants to touch his blood (AJP, 121-122). Gaines dramatizes, through Ned’s sermon, the opposition between Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass,24 implying that the opposition still carries relevance to readers of 1971. As Ned calls upon the (male) children to stay in the South and fight for their birthright as “warriors” and be neither “niggers” (AJP, 117) nor hogs (AJP, 114),25 the systematic use of antithesis in verbal forms (“I say to you now, don’t run and do fight”), as well as in nouns (the opposition between “nigger” and “a Black American”), the saturation with declaratives, imperatives, and loaded questions, turn this “Sermon by the River” into an epic text, which culminates in a call to guerilla warfare. Though this speech resonates with Gaines’ masculinist emphasis on being a man—a theme that lies at the heart of A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before26it is clearly meant to be an inspiration to all black readers. Besides, as Miss Jane reminds us in the next chapter, the only way to keep heroic black memory alive is through reciting and keeping the flame alive (“We want [the children] to know a black man died many years ago for them”, AJP, 118)—this is exactly what her narrative does. She also makes the political point that black heroes subvert and displace the white version of Southern history, when she explicitly opposes Ned’s celebration of the blood of black people to her “old mistress’s” lament for “the precious blood of the South” (AJP, 118), in a politically charged reminder the first scene of the novel (AJP, 5).

  • 27 This prophecy or curse is also a horrible play on words within Miss Jane’s text, since Jimmy’s stat (...)
  • 28 Gaines pays homage to the heroic figures of the Civil Rights Movement, Reverend King (AJP, 239, 241 (...)

26Ned’s story repeats itself with Jimmy: once again, in Miss Jane’s narrative, a young black man takes over direct speech in a double address to the black community in the story, and the readers of Miss Jane’s/Gaines’s text. The accumulation of omens around this “Termination Sunday” speech--the fact that to “carry the cross” evokes the fatal carrying of the cross for the poor, evoked in the Huey Long chapter (AJP, 160); the allusion to meeting across the Jordan after death (AJP, 235); and Just’s mean-spirited prophecy (“Another dead one,” AJP, 240)27 —make it clear that Jimmy’s speech will be his legacy to the community. On the surface, it is rhetorically the opposite of Ned’s, saturated as it is with references to his being “weak” without the collective strength of the people (AJP, 235); but he too insists “We have to fight” (AJP, 238), and determinedly projects the continuation of the struggle, including its dangers in a modalization (“Some of us might be killed...) but denying fear all the same. The antithesis between living crippled or fighting for one’s rights (AJP, 239) calls to mind the oratory of Martin Luther King;28 but Jane contrasts it with Jimmy sidekick’s, whom she sarcastically calls “a little fellow with a big mouth” (AJP, 240).

27Indeed, Gaines uses Miss Jane as an “authentic” black spokesperson, in her cutting and amusing critique of Jimmy’s companion’s use of call and response as a political gimmick. In a mise en abyme of signifying, Miss Jane first criticizes the boy’s dressing in a “folksy” way on a day people in the Quarters dress up (AJP, 240), implies her contempt for his fraudulent “countrification” (“Oh, good country lemonade,” [AJP, 241]), and finally, shows great impatience at his butting into her conversation with Jimmy through a systematic use of “response” when there has been no “call” for it. She finally clearly expresses in an aside to us that she is “fed-up” (AJP, 243) and proceeds to take the boy down a peg:

’They teach you to talk like that?’ I said.
‘Ma’am?’
I just looked at him.
‘That’s retrick’, he said.
‘Well, I can do without your retrick here’, I said. ‘If you can’t say nothing sensible, don’t say nothing.’ (
AJP, 243)

  • 29 Alice Walker in “Everyday Use” and Toni Cade Bambara in “My Man Bovane” also set “authentic” black (...)

28The very misspelling of “rhetoric” is doubly significant, as being merely a trick of language, and as being “mutilated” by the boy even before Miss Jane puts him down.29 This is all the more amusing because Miss Jane is not above “retrick” herself.

29In fact, these scenes are saturated with rhetorical figures. As Jimmy holds forth on the need to bring the struggle to the Quarters (AJP, 239), Miss Jane thinks “Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy” (AJP, 241), a repetition to express pain at his illusions. This specific repetition of Jimmy’s name is used again to the point of saturation of the text pages 248 and 249, concluding with: “Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, I thought there in the dark. The people, Jimmy? The people?” (AJP, 249). Although one might miss the pun on being in the dark, when half of the Quarters finally show up for the demonstration despite the risk, Miss Jane’s skepticism is suddenly shown to be unfounded. The words “the people” are then revealed to mean that the inhabitants of the Samson Quarters have joined The Black People, allegorically, on the march towards freedom yet again. As Miss Jane recognizes the power of Jimmy’s speech to move others to action, she uses the same repetition of his name, but this time, in celebration, and awe: “Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy. Look what you’ve done, Jimmy. Look what you’ve done. Look what you’ve done, Jimmy.” (AJP, 257).

  • 30 She also reverses the correct term and the racist one in speaking of Italians, although she profess (...)
  • 31 On the representation of black people in television and film over this period, see Classified X (19 (...)
  • 32 It took a womanist --Alice Walker via her character Shug-- to revise this in The Color Purple (1982 (...)
  • 33 Sometimes, it is clear that Gaines is having a little fun at Miss Jane’s expense, when she indulges (...)

30One might read an ambiguity in “look what you’ve done”, which is more often accusatory than admiring. Ambivalence cannot be precluded since Miss Jane does not have perfect insight as to her choice of words or “retrick,” as some episodes show. One of her blind spots, in illustration of Franz Fanon’s analyses in Peaux noires, masques blancs, is that she often uses images that reflect internalized racism30. Because racial stereotyping was rampant in every cultural form even in 1971,31 the “ugly as a monkey” comparison she uses for a black boy (AJP, 217), for instance, are disturbing. These can, however, be put down to her slow progress towards political consciousness, one that also causes the word “nigger” to recede from her vocabulary as the narrative unfolds. Similarly, while she continues to think of God as white and male,32 she does go from calling him “Master” (AJP, 23), to “Lord” or “God”, although she uses the term again, once, in her verbal duel with Just (AJP, 238).33

31I will end this study on an apparently involuntary stylistic weakness of this speakerly novel: that so many different voices turn to the same rhetoric. For instance, repetition of an address is constant from character to character: from the white woman who sighs “Child, child” (AJP, 30), to the black hunter’s “my Lord, my Lord” (AJP, 44) to Madame Gautier’s “mon sha, mon sha” (AJP, 98), to Jimmy Caya’s “Robert, Robert, Robert” (AJP, 182), to Miss Jane’s “Lord, Lord, Lord” (AJP, 195) or “Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy” (AJP, 248), all of these characters sound like one. The white plantation owner seems to have almost as little grammar as Jane herself; and the Freedom Bureau investigator, of whom Jane says “He didn’t sound like a Secesh at all. I had never heard nobody talk like him before” (AJP, 33), sounds suspiciously like all of the other speakers (he too says “Luzana” (AJP, 34) despite being from New York). Since Gaines undoubtedly realized this as he wrote, the only explanation is that all the voices turn into one because we hear them through Miss Jane’s ventriloquizing, and that he exhibits this dimension by having Miss Jane modify these other voices as she supposedly echoes them.

  • 34 Miss Jane does not care for the literal text: she praises the embroidering and invention that Jimmy (...)

32Indeed, for all of its oralization, this story is about the love of the written word, too. Almost all of the main characters in Miss Jane’s story are teachers—Ned’s teacher she falls in love with (AJP, 67), Ned himself, Mary Agnes—or natural-bom writers, like Jimmy, who embroiders both on what he reads and what he writes, to Miss Jane’s delight. Although as a recently emancipated child, she says “ABC and numbers was something I wasn’t ready to start on yet” (AJP, 39), she is intensely moved when she hears Ned reading aloud for the first time, and with that pride feels she is his mother for the first time: “I felt like I had born him out of my own body” (AJP, 68). When she has to sign her work contract with a mark, she tries to embellish34 “her cross,” prompting the plantation owner to protest: “I said a mark, not a book” (AJP, 64). This book, of course, is her mark: only as a finished written object does it partly escape her, through the editor’s framing voice.

33As a conclusion, then, all of the poetics of the novel revolve around the oralized text, and the choice of a single narrator, who performs other voices, incorporating entire scenes of dialogue to her story, in what is, indeed, a “folk autobiography,” combining the personal and the collective recitation of black History. The strikingly distanced form of memory that the chronicle form allows may seem strange to readers of more recent neo-slave narratives in which polyphony, jumbled chronology, the flooding of voice with trauma create a more intimate reading contract, one in which the readers are made to feel, and to empathize. Miss Jane’s almost systematic refusal of pathos and her extreme reticence on a number of topics preclude intimacy with her; but then again, the narrative frame conditions the telling of the story completely. Just as the didacticism of the story is carefully protected by the interconnection of Miss Jane’s life and Black people’s history over a hundred years, so is its apparent stylistic simplicity founded on a number of rhetorical tricks. This “retrick” allows Gaines to play on multiple registers of emotion and speech; and by pretending that his ancient narrator can “replay” all voices verbatim, like a one-woman orchestra, he turns his “folk autobiography” into an a half-spiritual, half-blues celebration of black resistance and black culture, told by the one who survived, so that all of those who died in the struggle, known and unknown, might not be forgotten.

Bibliographie

Works Cited

Andrews, William L. 1977. “’We Ain’t Going Back There’: The Idea of Progress in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Black American Literature Forum. December; 11(4): 146-149.

Beckhman, Barry. 1978. “Jane Pittman and the Oral Tradition.” Callaloo May 1(3): 102-109.

Bell, Bernard W. 1987. The Afro-American Novel and its Tradition. Amherst: U of Massachussetts P.

Botkin, B. A., ed. [1945] 1989. Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery. New York: Delta.

Callahan, John F. 1988. “A Moveable Form: The Loose-End Blues of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. In the African Grain: The Pursuit of Voice in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 189-216.

Chapman, Abraham, Ed. Black Voices. [1968] 1979. New York: Mentor.

Davis, Charles T. and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Eds. 1985. The Slave’s Narrative. New York: Oxford UP.

Gaines, Ernest. 1998. “I heard the voices... of my Louisiana people: A Conversation with Ernest Gaines. Humanities: The Magazine for the National Endowment for the Humanities. July.

—. 1978. “Miss Jane and I.” Callaloo May 1(3): 23-38.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Black Literature and Literary Theory. New York: Methuen, 1984.

Gaudet, Marcia. 1992. “Miss Jane and Personal Experience Narrative: Ernest Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Western Folklore. January 51(1): 23-32.

Gwaltney, John Langston. 1980. Drylongso: A Self-Portrait of Black America. New York: Random House.

Kirkus Reviews. 1971. A Review of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Feb 15, 39(4): 190.

Laney, Ruth. 1974. “A Conversation with Ernest Gaines” The Southern Review January 10(1): 1-14.

Lepschy, Wolfgang. 1999. “A MELUS Interview: Ernest J. Gaines” MELUS March 24(1): 197-208.

Levine, Lawrence W. 1977. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: New York: Oxford UP.

Oliver, Paul. [1960] 1990. Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rowell, Charles H. 1978. “’This Louisiana Thing That Drives Me’: An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines”. Callaloo May 1(3): 39-51.

Smith, Valerie. Self-discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Stepto, Robert B. 1979. From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: U of Illinois Press.

Thomas, Velma Maia. 1997. Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa to Slavery and Emancipation. NewYork: Crown Press.

Yetman, Norman. 1984. “Ex-Slave Interviews and the Historiography of Slavery” American Quarterly June 36(2): 181-210.

Notes

1 For instance, she regards dancing as sinful (AJP, 224).

2 Gaines insists on this in every interview.

3 “When I wrote Miss Jane Pittman, my Bible was Lay My Burden Down, a collection of short WPA interviews with ex-slaves recorded during the 30s. I used that book to get the rhythm of speech and an idea of how the ex-slaves would talk about themselves. Remember I wanted a folk autobiography.” (Rowell, 1978, 46-7).

4 See Smith, 1987. Some readers initially thought this interviewer was white, as most of the WPA interviewers were; others never doubted he was black even before Gaines explained this in his interviews. See Norman Yetman’s “Ex-Slave Interviews and the Historiography of Slavery” for an in-depth analysis of the bias created by white interviewers or historians interviewing black people.

5 Somewhat as in Stewart O’Nan’s The Speed Queen (1997), in which Marjorie, a death row inmate, is answering on tape a list of questions about her life (this is on the night of her execution): we “hear” her answers, and can easily guess what the question was. This is a book that pushes the book as transcript as far as it can go: it does not have chapters, but labels: Tape II Side A.

6 Paradoxically, most black novels use the spelling paterollers, for greater phonetic authenticity, even when they are not oralized novels.

7 I will return to this point in the last section of this study.

8 “(I forget that teacher’s name, but I think he said Gamby)”, and then “(I’m almost sure he called that teacher Gamby)” (AJP, 182).

9 “Mr Isaiah was probably the best carpenter the state has ever seen [...] but he’s dead now” (AJP, 171).

10 For instance, when she announces: “I want to tell you a little story just to show how these people [the Creole] looked at things, and this story is true. People here at Samson right now can back me up” (AJP, 167), in a triple move of digression, authorization, and testimony.

11 The racial symbolics of eating vanilla ice cream being part of the signifying on having survived white power and exploitation.

12 This also allows each reader to call up her or his revolutionary heroes in a mute chorus to Jane’s statement.

13 Because of the lyrical expression of her strength, and her role as leader, Big Laura necessarily calls to mind the heroic figure of Sojourner Truth and her famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech.

14 Miss Jane likes comparisons: “his hand was rough as ‘cuda legs” (AJP, 12), “he looked more like a wild animal” (AJP, 18), “the trees looked like black posts, no leaves, no moss, no limbs” (AJP, 41) (with the additional effect of the negative inventory and the tragic mutilation in this last example).

15 To reread this paragraph in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans certainly gives it greater impact yet; and to have seen the black poor abandoned in the city while the vast majority of whites were evacuated echoes the novel’s chronicling of never-ending racial injustice.

16 Because of the cliché on white Southern women fainting easily, no black woman faints in this novel. When Jimmy is killed, his Aunt Lena does not “faint” either: “And then she fell.” (AJP, 259). The subtext is that these are strong women, not faint of heart, just battered by one horrible injustice after another.

17 See the unbearable photograph of what an 1862 whipping did to the man named Gordon, in Lest We Forget, 17.

18 This is true even when the novel is read alongside its contemporary, Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966), or its predecessors, Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) or Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Intimacy is pointedly shown by the refraining from contact—when Miss Jane and Joe finally find themselves alone, in their new home, they are too happy for anything more than “just grinning”: “No touching, no patting each other on the knee, just grinning.” (AJP, 88). The same expression has already been used for the overwhelming joy Jane felt as a child at being renamed by corporal Brown (AJP, 8)

19 Go to http://wfmu.org/playlists/shows/3368 to hear the Highway QCs’ version. (I did not find this austere version, but am not certain that Miss Jane has censored the song to fit her world view).

20 In her final, lyrical rejoinder as she walks past Robert Sampson, she signifies that Jimmy’s soul keeps marching on: “’Just a little piece of him is dead’, I said. ‘The rest of him is waiting for us in Bayonne.’” (AJP, 259).

21 Since it simultaneously refers to Jane’s imaginary progress on the map and to her reasserted will to go, and to keep on going, despite the explained obstacles.

22 This leitmotif is so deliberate that when Miss Jane feels “something funny” in the air (AJP, 255-6) we already know, even before she identifies this as a feeling of death, that Jimmy will die.

23 Another culturally charged form of black speech: testifying as to having found religion takes up pages 141-144.

24 The chapter “Professor Douglass” itself recalls the “self-naming” ceremony performed the emancipated slaves at the beginning of Jane’s story (AJP, 18). There are, remarkably, very few nicknames in this novel, as if Gaines had not wanted to trivialize (?) black names. For a radically opposed political and literary choice, see Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

25 This seems Gaines’ transtextual allusion to Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die” “If we must die, let it not be like hogs/ Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot...” (in Chapman, 1979, 372)

26 Women’s place is clearly to listen (AJP, 109): this aspect is reinforced by the casting of Vivian as Mary Magdalene (she wishes to wipe Ned’s brow, AJP, 114) and of Miss Jane as Mary to Ned’s Christ.

27 This prophecy or curse is also a horrible play on words within Miss Jane’s text, since Jimmy’s status as leader, or as the Chosen, is reflected in the community’s secretly calling him “the One”.

28 Gaines pays homage to the heroic figures of the Civil Rights Movement, Reverend King (AJP, 239, 241), and Miss Rosa Parks (AJP, 241); this allows a parallel between the legendary figures, and of Jimmy and Miss Jane as their anonymous “doubles”, Jimmy and Miss Jane paradoxically seeming more immediately real to us, since they are the characters whose story we know best.

29 Alice Walker in “Everyday Use” and Toni Cade Bambara in “My Man Bovane” also set “authentic” black women who know their roots, against their recently-converted-to-black-pride intellectual (and somewhat insensitive) sister or children.

30 She also reverses the correct term and the racist one in speaking of Italians, although she professes to like them: “Madame Orsini and her husband [...] Everyday dagoes as far as I’m concerned, but they said Sicilians, and they was very nice to colored.” (AJP, 244).

31 On the representation of black people in television and film over this period, see Classified X (1998), the Mark Daniels documentary written and narrated by Melvin Van Peebles.

32 It took a womanist --Alice Walker via her character Shug-- to revise this in The Color Purple (1982).

33 Sometimes, it is clear that Gaines is having a little fun at Miss Jane’s expense, when she indulges in one of her pseudo-logical asides about which trees bear talking to and which don’t (AJP, 154-55), and other such moments of authorial irony.

34 Miss Jane does not care for the literal text: she praises the embroidering and invention that Jimmy brings to his newspaper reading and letter writing (AJP, 216), which of course might raise issues of the veracity of details in her own narrative.

Auteur

Maître de Conférences à l’Université de Paris-IV où elle enseigne en littérature et en civilisation américaine. Ses principaux champs d’étude sont les inégalités économiques et sociales dans la société américaine contemporaine, notamment en ce qui concerne les minorités et les femmes. Sa recherche en littérature porte sur les représentations littéraires de la voix, notamment chez les écrivains de minorités ethniques, les femmes, et les auteurs lgbt.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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