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“Let Miss Jane tell the story”

Claudine Raynaud


Claudine Raynaud

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1Ernest’s Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) is an unlikely book for the agrégation syllabus. Representative of popular and regional culture and emblematic of the production of “minority” literature in the United States, Miss Jane is also included in the canon of African American literature and figures in Henry Louis Gates’s Norton Anthology. Its author, Ernest Gaines, has just published a collection of short-stories, conversations and essays, Mozart and Leadbelly (2005), and his recognition as a major African American writer is gaining momentum, unfortunately at the end of his writing career.

2The author of six novels and a collection of short stories, Gaines began writing in the Sixties and never moved away from a single goal: writing a chronicle of the people he knew, relating the stories he had heard in his native Louisiana. Indeed, if he was overlooked, it might have been because he did not follow the grand tradition of Richard Wright and James Baldwin. Moreover, the regional setting of his stories, together with his emphasis on black manhood, made him a stranger to the African American renaissance of the 80s dominated by women writers (Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Gloria Naylor, Gayl Jones, Mary Helen Washington, to name a few).

3The novel written in the guise of the oral narrative of a fictional ex-slave covering over a century of American history has been eclipsed by the 1974 film. It is classroom material rather than matter for textual poetics. The task of the critics was then both to reinstall this work within the continuum of African American literature and to underline its specificity: the oral or “speakerly” quality of the text, as well as its dramatic tensions. Among other things, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) can thus be revisited and the slave narrative tradition revalued if Miss Jane is considered as one of its contemporary avatars.

4The eight articles included in this volume address the core issues that literary critics face when confronted with a work whose aesthetic status and definition as literature are problematic. The instability of the generic status of the text, a mock collaborative autobiography, is a preoccupation of all the essays, for even when dealing with voice or space, the question of genre, the link between history and story, resurface. This initial difficulty soon gives way to an exploration of a falsely simple textual imaginary. The construction of the novel has been carefully plotted. The central characters have been elaborated in pairs and in opposition. The four Books serve different narrative strategies. The voices that intermingle speak the dialects of Louisiana and tell the live stories of the Creoles, the Cajuns, the Blacks and the Whites of that southern land.

5Although not bearing solely on The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Michel Fabre’s article, originally published in the May 1978 Callaloo issue devoted to Gaines, has been included in this volume for it contrasts Gaines and Faulkner. It also gives a broader sense of Gaines’s imaginary geography, its coherence and its scope.

6I would like to thank the contributors for the effort made to uphold the tradition of scholarly excellence that Michel Fabre initiated in our country. My hope is that this volume bears witness to the dynamism of this field of study in France.

7P. S. The edition used throughout the volume is the current Bantam edition. It has been abbreviated as AJP followed by the page number.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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