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“Let Miss Jane tell the story”

Claudine Raynaud

I. Questions de genre

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman: Some Generic Distinctions

Ada Savin


L’article s’interroge sur les stratégies d’écriture revendiquées par Ernest Gaines dans The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman et examine plusieurs pistes : l’héritage du récit d’esclave, l’imbrication entre fiction et histoire et, enfin, la fusion qui s’opère entre tradition orale et dialogisme. Cette séparation nette correspond à des fins méthodologiques ; l’article s’attache à démontrer l’enchevêtrement de ces influences diverses dans le cadre du roman.

Texte intégral

All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority.
Ralph Ellison

  • 1 “The introduction is fiction just as the novel is [...] I never conducted any formal interviews [.. (...)

1The reader’s first contact with The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is likely to be an intriguing experience: judging by the title, one expects to deal with a woman’s autobiography, yet the cover indicates the author as Ernest Gaines. The “autobiographical pact” which stipulates that the author and the narrator of a first-person literary work is necessarily one and the same person is invalidated from the outset. To further complicate matters, this purported autobiography is framed by a short introduction in which a young history teacher (Gaines’s alter ego) presents the book as a collaborative work, i. e. the edited version of a series of interviews he had supposedly held with a 110 year-old ex-slave, Jane Pittman. But as of Chapter I, the “I” is transferred from the editor to Jane Pittman who, throughout the book, tells the story of her life, allegedly addressing the young man. Even if Gaines dispelled any possible misconceptions about his book,1 the strategies he chose to adopt nevertheless raise a number of questions: What is the significance of calling a work of fiction an autobiography? What are the literary antecedents of Gaines’s ‘method’? Finally, how do historical, autobiographical and oral strategies fuse so as to produce the multi-voiced historical novel called The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman?

2This article suggests some tentative answers by examining the legacy of the slave narrative, the relation between fiction and history and, finally, the blending of oral tradition and dialogism in the book. This clear-cut separation is made for methodological purposes only; the various influences obviously concur in the novel.

A) The slave narrative

3First person writing, whether autobiographical or fictional, holds a prominent place in North American literature. The autobiographical narrative accompanied the construction of the American nation and the American self ever since colonial times. New surroundings, new circumstances –the vastness of the continent, the hostility of the Indians, the inhuman treatment of the slaves, the painful yet exhilarating process of becoming American– elicited new varieties of autobiographical writings: the captivity narrative, the slave narrative and the immigrant autobiography.

  • 2 If autobiography is “a referential genre, a discourse that refers to the past of a real speaker, th (...)

4Antebellum slave narratives were written (or often dictated to white abolitionists) by fugitive slaves with a view to informing Americans (and Europeans) of the horrors of slavery and bringing about its abolition. These narratives have come down to us as the very first testimonies of African-American bondage. As such, they provide the indispensable counterpart to the masters’ version of slavery (e. g. George Fitzhugh’s Cannibals All! Or Slaves without Masters, 1857) and represent invaluable documents for historians of slavery. According to Hazel Carby, “the economic and social system of slavery is [...] a pre-history (as well as a pre-text to all African-American texts), a past social condition that can explain contemporary phenomena.” (1989, 126). But the slave narrative is also the Ur-genre of African-American literature; it has been convincingly argued that the African-American literary tradition “rests on the framework built, by fits and starts and for essentially polemical intentions, by the first-person narratives of black ex-slaves.” (Davis and Gates, 1985, xxxiii) As a body of works that marks the beginnings of African-American testimonial history and literature, slave narratives have become one of the main sources of inspiration for contemporary African American writers. Works like Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845), Narrative of William Wells Brown, Written by Himself (1847) and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861) established some of the paradigmatic features of black literature: the quest for freedom, the emergence of African American identity, the place of the Black self in society. The formula “written by himself / herself” was meant to highlight the ex-slave’s consciousness of having achieved the authorship of both his work and his destiny. Surprisingly enough, some ex-slaves in ante-bellum America preferred to fictionalize their personal experience or other instances of slavery: Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859) and The Bondswoman’s Narrative (circa 1850) by Hannah Crafts use the form of the autobiographical novel2 while William Wells Brown’s Clotel, or the President’s Daughter (1853) tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s daughter by one of his slaves.

  • 3 In some cases these novels echoed the storytelling style and conventions of the slave narrative so (...)
  • 4 “’Neo-slave narratives,’ that is, contemporary novels that assume the form, adopt the conventions, (...)

5Both slave narratives and these early works of fiction raise crucial questions of authorship. What is the nature and extent of collaboration in autobiographical works (co)signed by ex-slaves? Whose voice(s) do we hear when we read the slave narratives? And what is one to make of pseudo-slave narratives like Mattie Griffith’s Autobiography of a Female Slave (1856), one of several noteworthy antebellum novels about slavery that were written by white abolitionist authors?3 Bearing in mind the vastly different present-day context, these questions are relevant to understanding Gaines’s strategies in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. About a century after the abolition of slavery, African-American writers turned to the slave narrative as a starting point for the re-appropriation of their history but also as a fount of inspiration for their own literary pursuits. The Civil Rights and Black Power movements generated a change in the historiography as well as in the fictional representation of slavery. This decisive shift was also signaled by the rise of New Left social history. As Ashraf Rushdy explains: “Seeing history made from the ‘bottom up,’ New Left social historians began to study it from the bottom up.” (1999, 4). In the midst of these changing strategies for political reform and shifting ideas about the historical representations of slavery, William Styron published The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). The white literary establishment perceived the work as the first novel to adopt the formal conventions of the slave narrative, the first novel to be written “from the slave’s point of view”. Conversely, Black Power intellectuals challenged Styron’s novel on its presumption of assuming the voice of a slave and on its uninformed appropriation of African-American culture. Styron’s book however had another, unexpected effect: it galvanized Black writers into re-appropriating their history and into exploring the past on their own terms, thereby marking a Renaissance in African-American historical fiction. Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966) was the first in a long line of novels about slavery that includes, among many others, Ernest Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971, Alex Haley’s Roots and Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976), Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose (1986), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Charles Johnson Oxherding Tale (1982) and Middle Passage (1990). These historical novels, or neo-slave narratives,4 increasingly abandon the linear progression in the representation of the past and introduce a reflection on the role of the historian. (Raynaud, 2003, 84) If African American writers wanted to salvage the literary form of the slave narrative from external appropriation, they also wished to return to the literary form in which African Americans had first expressed their subjectivity. From a literary point of view, the innovative aspect of neo-slave narratives lies in their marked use of intertextuality. Even if the original slave narrative has undergone numerous transformations in contemporary African American literature, the genre’s leitmotif –the movement from South to North – keeps resurfacing as it re-enacts the paradigm set by “Negro folktales: the road to freedom – the movement upward” (Ellison, 1995, 173).

6The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is no exception. Symbolically, it takes up this very same movement, even though the main character is still in the South at the end of the novel. As Rushdy states:

[The book] exemplifies the links between slavery and the sixties by having its protagonist live out both epochs, by showing the personally experienced connection between the slavery into which Miss Jane Pittman was born and the civil rights movement to which she devotes her final energies.” (Rushdy, 1999, 6)

7Gaines has acknowledged the influence of slave narratives on the creative process of his book. The hybrid nature of the genre – at the crossroads between historical record and literary work and thus apt to blur the boundaries between truth and fiction - made it an obvious starting point for his own enterprise.

8How does Gaines use some of the formal devices of slave narratives for his own purposes? For one thing, the Introduction to The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman can be read as a twist to the Preface or Dedication that accompanied most ante-bellum slave narratives. Written by a white abolitionist, the preface pointed to the biased collaboration between the fugitive, uneducated slave and the white sponsor who invariably put his/her own stamp on the narrative. A few examples will suffice: The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831) was penned by Thomas Gray; The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850) was written by Olive Gilbert, based on information provided by the Black woman; Harriet Jacobs’s narrative, written under the pseudonym Linda Brent, was prefaced by Lydia Maria Child.

  • 5 Many ante-bellum narratives show instances of slaves resorting to tricks and disguises. Harriet Jac (...)

9The incipit of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman plays on the uncertain status of authorship, itself a sign of the slaves’ condition. Gaines’s take-off on the slave narrative is highly ambivalent: even as it subverts the slave narrative tradition, the Introduction pays homage to the Black community whose members provided him, the African-American writer, with the material and the voices he “transcribed” in the novel. Moreover, by presenting his novel in the guise of an autobiography, Gaines also takes up and refashions the Afro-American tradition of disguise. Fraught with danger, the slave’s road from confinement to freedom often meant concealing his/her identity. This deeply-rooted necessity to pretend, to wear a mask is present at various levels and stages throughout African-American writings.5

10Last but not least, Gaines needs to resort to a trick to make his story credible: via this pseudo-collaborative, “simulated autobiography” (Bjornson, 1972, 16) he establishes a person-to-person relationship as it were with his 110-year-old protagonist, Miss Jane Pittman who would have been unable to tell her life story on her own; hence the necessity to prepare the reader for her language and to incorporate other voices in the narrative. Indeed, the term “simulated autobiography” more aptly characterizes The Autobiography of Jane Pittman than “fictional autobiography” which conflates the lives of its writer and narrator. Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother and The Autobiography of My Mother clearly fall into the latter category.

B) History and Fiction / History as Fiction

History is no less a form of fiction than the novel is a form of literary representation.
Hayden White

11From Antiquity until the French Revolution, historiography (i. e. the narrative presentation of history) was generally considered a literary art. It is only in the 19th century that historians established a clear-cut dichotomy between history and fiction: history supposedly deals with facts, hence it approaches truth; conversely, fiction which pertains to the domain of imagination is rather a hindrance to the understanding of reality, to the grasping of truth. Twentieth century intellectuals and scholars have restored the balance: facts do not speak for themselves; they need “interpreters”, in other words, historians and novelists who give discursive integrity to fragments of the past in the process of writing. One can know the actual only by contrasting it with or likening it to the imaginable (White, 1978, 99). Hayden White insists:

The process of fusing events, whether imaginary or real, into a comprehensible totality [...] is a poetic process [...] “What is at issue is not, “What are the facts?”, but rather, “How are the facts to be described in order to sanction one mode of explaining them rather than another? (White, 1978, 125; 134)

  • 6 “If scholars want to know the hearts and secret thoughts of slaves, they must study the testimony o (...)

12White convincingly argues that the discourse of the historian and that of the imaginative writer often overlap, resemble or correspond with each other. His argument can be transposed to the case of African-American historiography and fiction. Given the scant archival material related to slavery, historians and writers alike are obliged to rely on oral testimonies6 as well as on their imagination. This is precisely the method Gaines followed when he set out to write The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman:

There are certain things that you can capture both in terms of language and situations that historical texts could never really render in terms of what actually happened. That’s where the imagination plays its role. I read a lot of slave narratives, a lot of biographies, and a lot of history by both blacks and whites, by both Southerners and Northerners. Then I listened to rural blues and listened to sermons by ministers. I read so much and digested it all. Then I listened to the old people. I spent a lot of time in Louisiana and I kept talking and kept asking questions. Then I said, “Okay, I’ve gotten all this thing in me now. Imagination must take over.” (Ferris, 1998)

  • 7 “I read quite a few interviews performed with former slaves by the WPA during the thirties and I go (...)

13Even as he acknowledges the importance of consulting historical materials,7 Gaines is fully aware that history books can only provide the facts, the raw material. To achieve the effect of truthfulness the writer is after, he has to capture the language of the Louisiana people, that combination of English, Creole, Cajun, Black - in other words, its spirit.

14Since Gaines views history as participatory and inclusive, it is storytelling originating in the community rather than written documents, that are the pivots of his fiction. The Autobiography of Jane Pittman is actually the Bildungsroman of an entire community, one that includes the author. “Gaines posits a narrator who looks for the truth only to lose himself among kin.” (Beavers, 160-161) Miss Jane and many of her friends have experienced one hundred years of history - slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Civil Rights movement, and a nascent period of black power - without ever leaving Luzana (Louisiana in folk speech). Through the contrast between the long span of time covered by the narrative and the spatial immobility of the characters, the narrative foregrounds the role of place in the community’s life but also the burden of history in its uphill battle for civil emancipation.

15Jane’s narrative is set between two major historical signposts: the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement. Significantly, the teacher/editor begins interviewing Jane Pittman in the summer of 1962, at a time when Civil Rights activity in the South is beginning to gather momentum. A staunch believer in the value of oral testimony, the young man is eager “to save’ the information provided by the 110-year-old Jane Pittman on tape, as long as she is willing to structure her tale so as to accommodate his own authorial purpose.

16The evolution of the editor’s approach to the narrative recaptures the ideological shift in the approach to history that occurred in the 1960s; at the time, many historians and writers dissociated themselves from the neat, linear “official history” writing and embraced a different vision of history: narrating historical events meant recording or recapturing the fragmented, random and chaotic nature of history. In this light, the editor’s original intention to encompass the past through the story of a single narrator who would tell events in a linear narrative, betrays the failure to recognize that his desire for chronological unity merely replicates the principle of exclusivity that characterizes the history he has set out to revise.

There were times when I thought the narrative was taking ridiculous directions. Miss Jane would talk about one thing one day and the next day she would talk about something else totally different. If I were bold enough to ask, “But what about such and such a thing?” she would look at me incredulously and say: “Well, what about it?” And Mary would back her up with: “What’s wrong with that? You don’t like that part?”...I would say, “I just want to tie up all the loose ends.” Mary would say, “Well, you don’t tie up all the loose ends all the time. And if you go to change her way of telling it, you tell it yourself. Or maybe you done heard enough already?...Take what she say and be satisfied” (AJP, vii).

17Faced with the community’s antagonistic attitude, the young man is led to amend his method. For one thing, he is forced to alter his expectations and to accept the whimsical, random character of oral testimony and of history, for that matter. Just as the levees built by white men could not confine the river (“Like you can tell water where to go,” AJP, 156), so Jane’s story, and African-American history, cannot be channeled into an ordered discourse, through outward intervention. Having ‘edited’ the book, the author comes to realize, as if in a circular movement: “This is what both Mary and Miss Jane meant when they said you could not tie all the ends together in one neat direction. Miss Jane’s story is all of their stories, and their stories are Miss Jane’s.” (AJP, viii) The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is concerned with the gains that accrue from memory’s revision of history. Jane herself can be regarded as a lieu de mémoire:

[R]ipe for the promulgation of cultural memory and African ancestry, as represented by her skill at oral rather than written transmission or analysis of her story, her history [...] She contains that history, carries it in her memory. Her larger historical participation makes her a metaphor of the witness of the past. (Dixon, 1994, 22)

18Beginning with Chapter I, the editor passes over the material as it were to his main informant, Jane, who takes possession of the narrative; she ‘silences’ the editor, renders him quasi invisible. “As an imaginary contemporary historian, the editor does for historiography what Gaines does for the novel; he uses the oral tradition to advance the narrative possibilities of history” (Callahan, 1988, 201). An integral part of the narrative, the Introduction frames the novel and also closes it, symbolically at least. If the book starts in medias res, with an episode from the Civil War (Chapter I), it ends with many “loose ends” left untied. Gaines’s vision of history as an ongoing dynamic process prevents him from bringing his novel to a state of closure.

C) A Multi-Voiced Novel

...language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else’s.

Mikhail Bakhtin

  • 8 “Italics and exclamation points are but feeble indicators; and how can one express by printers’ sig (...)

19As inheritors of a rich oral tradition, African-American and Native American writers are faced with the challenge of “conjuring the spoken word into symbolic existence on the page.” (Callahan, 1988, 14)8 Ernest Gaines has a special gift of re-oralizing the written word with the immediacy of oral storytelling or, as he puts it, he knows how “to grab this oral voice and put it on paper.” This peculiar form of written call elicits a paradoxical response from the reader who is led to oralize the act of reading. (Ong, 1983, 75)

  • 9 In an earlier draft, Gaines had a group of old people tell Miss Jane’s story on the day of her buri (...)

20The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman starts out with a call for storytelling, a call requiring a response. After showing some resistance, Jane agrees to tell her story, albeit on her own terms: she requires the presence of other members of the community who will act as both fellow narrators and respondents.9 In fact, the “conditions” set by Jane are none other than those related to traditional oral storytelling and singing —a communal participatory experience in which call and response forms entail a caller who ‘raises the song’ and the community chorus who respond, or ‘agree underneath the song.’ Traditional African societies have developed high aesthetic and ethical standards for participating in and judging accomplished oral storytelling performances—and audience members often feel free to interrupt less talented or respected performers to suggest improvements or voice criticisms. The implicit and explicit dialogue underlying Miss Jane’s narrative is reminiscent of this tradition imported from pre-slavery West Africa:

Slave versions of history [...] were enhanced by the manner of their delivery. The oral inventiveness of good storytellers [...] was a source of delight and stimulation to their audiences. Their narratives were interlarded with chants, mimicry, rhymes, and songs [...] And through the entire performance the audience would comment, correct, laugh, respond, making the folktale as much a communal experience as the spiritual or the sermon. (Levine, 1977, 88-89)

21Through their content and manner of delivery, oral slave tales evoked the past but also made it part of the living present. Language was used diachronically, to excavate stories from the past and synchronically, to reach out to the audience and invite it to participate in the tale. As he prepares the setting for the novel, the editor (alias Gaines) resorts to a very similar technique: “...even though I have used only Miss Jane’s voice throughout the narrative, there were times when others carried the story for her.” (AJP, vii). Given Jane’s old age and status, she is the one who approves or dismisses the others’ interventions. The ‘definitive’ version of the narrative incorporates the voices and the contrasted reactions of the community. “Though it is Miss Jane’s voice that ‘narrates’ her story...she participates in an historical chorus embodying numerous points of view.” (Beavers, 1995, 146) To pursue Beavers’s line of thought, I would suggest that Jane not only participates in this chorus; she is a resonance chamber for the voices of the others.

22Drawing upon a rich oral tradition, the African-American writer is confronted with the task of conveying onto the page a variety of dialects, of languages, of voices. The Introduction to The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman provides a significant clue to the shift of the narrative strategy from a unitary voice to a multi-voiced discourse; in other words, from a monologic to a dialogic narrative. As the novel progresses, it multiplies the points of view, includes a variety of registers, from Miss Jane’s narrative ‘edited’ in quasi faultless English to the dialogues among semi-literate ex-slaves.

  • 10 The trope of the Talking Book refers to “the paradox of representing, of containing somehow, the or (...)

23In the past few decades, Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogic theory of language and literature has focused the scholars’ attention to the simultaneous presence of two or more voices within a literary text (as well as in everyday language). Given the prominence of multi-voiced participation in ceremonies and in oral storytelling, Bakhtin’s theory has had a wide resonance in African American Studies. For scholars like Henry Louis Gates, there are obvious parallels between the fundamental trope of the African American tradition —the Talking Book,10 i. e. double-voiced texts that talk to other texts— and Bakhtin’s dialogic vision of language which postulates that every utterance is part of a constant state of intentional and value-laden dialogue. Language expresses the collision between differing points of view on the world, largely deriving from the speaker’s position in society at a given place and time. Since every utterance is by definition intertextual, it follows that all discourse implies at least two subjects, and is a potential dialogue:

’Le style c’est l’homme’; mais nous pouvons dire: le style c’est, au moins, deux hommes, ou plus exactement l’homme et son groupe social, incarné par son représentant accrédité, l’auditeur, qui participe activement à la parole intérieure et extérieure du premier. (Todorov, 1981, 98)

24In Bakhtin’s view, the novel is the most complex literary genre as it allows for the incorporation of other genres, both artistic (poems, lyrical songs, dramatic scenes, confessions) and extra-artistic (everyday language, scholarly discourse). Given this inherent heterogeneity, the novel is the perfect vehicle for the dialogization of language and discourse (Bakhtin, 1986, 321). If we consider that history is a dynamic phenomenon and as such cannot be brought to a favorable state of closure, the relevance of Bakhtin’s reflections to the process of fictionalizing history is apparent.

25It is impossible to deal extensively with the applications of Bakhtin’s theory to Gaines’s work within the framework of this article. I would only like to point to some narrative strategies that illuminate Gaines’s own dialogic imagination. Through the intertwining of orality and literacy in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, the call and response tradition becomes a springboard for the elaboration of multivoiced discourse. Miss Jane’s narrative is the social and historical “battleground” (to use a Bakhtinian term) of multiple, competing voices. While the author stands at a certain distance from the language that constitutes his material, he distributes like a playwright, various types of discourse to the characters, including his alter-ego. These different voices, dialects and registers come into dialogue with each other, ultimately forming a dialogic system of languages, of styles. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman owes its novelistic status largely to Gaines’s juggling multiple voices:

For about a year I used this multiple point of view, but I was not getting what I wanted. I put it aside and started over from her point of view. I already had a lot of voices coming from all directions. So I suppose her voice was not very hard to concentrate on. I had been concentrating on different voices before then, so I just got her. (Ferris, 1998)

26Multi-voiced discourse in African American writings can be traced back to the slave narrative in which the ex-slave and his/her white sponsor speak /write in vastly different voices. Gaines’s use of the voices of black people in Louisiana highlights the ideologically different nature of double-voicedness in contemporary African American writings. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman proceeds through a succession of embedded dialogues and narratives. If the editor’s voice is inaudible, his intervention is palpable in the structuring of the novel: there are four books and numerous chapters that bear the stamp of “the editor’s voice” (e. g. “The Travels of Miss Jane Pittman”, “Of Men and Rivers”, “The Sermon at the River”). The teacher/editor is also the addressee in a virtual dialogue with the firstperson narrator, Jane Pittman, whose narrative is addressed to herself, to the audience surrounding her and to the reader. “Timmy left here when? Let me think now, let me think. 1925 or ’26...When did Long come in? Long came in when? After the high water-yes...” (AJP, 154) The narrative is told in the voice of someone who both participates in the action and tells it; hence the illusion of a double conscious time of things happening and perceived happening, simultaneously. Like Jane Pittman’s sinuous tribulations and motley human encounters, the narrative progresses through digressions, it grows through additional voices, and thus encompasses past and present. The jagged, tortuous form of the narrative, often interrupted by short dialogues, mirrors Jane and Ned’s fear, disorientation, and lack of direction during “The War Years”. The leitmotif of the relatively ‘static’ yet turbulent exodus of the liberated slaves is arguably the overarching trope of the novel.

27To conclude, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was definitely “written by himself”, by Ernest Gaines, the African American writer who has complete authorial control over his novel. Ralph Ellison once wrote that the Black experience is not just “folksy or “low-down”, that “it represents an important segment of the American experience-not lying at the bottom of it, but intertwined, diffused in its very texture.” (Ellison, 1953, 172) Gaines’s novels have undoubtedly become part of this ever-more intricate texture.


Works cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. [1981] 1986. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Beavers, Herman. 1995. Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan Mc Pherson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Callahan, John F. 1988. In the African-American Grain: The Pursuit of Voice in 20th Century Black Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Carby, Hazel. 1989. “Ideologies of Black Folk: The Historical Novel of Slavery” in Slavery and the Literary Imagination. Eds. A. Rampersad and D. McDowell. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University, 125-143.

Cohn, Dorrit. 1999. The Distinction of Fiction, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University.

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

Dixon, Melvin. 1994. “The Black Writer’s Use of Memory” in History and Memory in African-American Culture. Eds. Geneviève Fabre and Robert O’Meally. New York: Oxford University Press: 18-27.

Ellison, Ralph. [1953] 1995. Shadow and Act. New York: Vintage Books.

Ferris, Bill. 1998. “I heard the voices... of my Louisiana people”: A Conversation with Ernest Gaines. Humanities: The Magazine for the National Endowment for the Humanities, Vol. 9 (4) July/August.

Gaines, Ernest. 1971. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books, 1971

—. 1978. “‘This Louisiana thing that drives me’: An Interview with Ernest Gaines” Callaloo 1, no. 3 (May 1978).

Griffith, Mattie. [1856] 1998. Autobiography of a Female Slave. Banner Books: University of Mississippi, Jackson.

Levine, Laurence. 1977. Black Culture and Black Consciousness. Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ong, Walter. 1983. Orality and Literacy: The Technology of the Word. New York: Methuen.

Petersen, Dale. 1993. “Response and Call: The African American Dialogue with Bakhtin” American Literature, 65(4) December 1, 761-775.

Raynaud, Claudine. 2003. « Ecritures noires: miroirs et masques », Les Littératures des minorités aux Etats-Unis. Dir. Marie-Claude Perrin-Chenour. Paris: Editions du Temps: 57-109.

Rushdy, Ashraf. 1999. Neo-Slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Valerie. 1987. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Todorov, Tzvetan. 1981. Mikhaïl Bakhtine: Le principe dialogique. Paris: Seuil.

White, Hayden. 1978. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.


1 “The introduction is fiction just as the novel is [...] I never conducted any formal interviews [...] Everything is created except the fact that there has been slavery in America and that there was a war.” (Ferris, 1998).

2 If autobiography is “a referential genre, a discourse that refers to the past of a real speaker, the first-person novel, at least in its classical guise of fictional autobiography, is the deliberate artificial simulation of this referential genre.” (Cohn, 1999, 30).

3 In some cases these novels echoed the storytelling style and conventions of the slave narrative so convincingly that they were mistaken for actual autobiographies of former slaves.

4 “’Neo-slave narratives,’ that is, contemporary novels that assume the form, adopt the conventions, and take on the first-person voice of the antebellum slave narrative.” (Rushdy, 1999, 3)

5 Many ante-bellum narratives show instances of slaves resorting to tricks and disguises. Harriet Jacobs’s spent years in “the loophole of retreat” and Henry Box Brown literally shipped himself to freedom in a box. Passing for a white person, James Weldon Johnson’s ‘ex-colored man’ is out to turn his condition into “a practical joke on society” in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912).

6 “If scholars want to know the hearts and secret thoughts of slaves, they must study the testimony of blacks... Consequently, whether we focus on the slave or the master, we must systematically examine both black and white testimony. But, just as there are some topics on which only the masters can provide reliable information, there are some questions which only the slave can answer.” (Blassingame, 1977). Blassingame’s seminal The Slave Community (1972) led many African-American writers to adopt the neo-slave narrative genre.

7 “I read quite a few interviews performed with former slaves by the WPA during the thirties and I got their rhythm and how they said certain things.” (Ferris, 1998). Journalists and other writers employed by the Federal Writers Project, part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), gathered the American Slave Narratives during 1936-1938. Over 2,000 interviews with ex-slaves were collected during these years of the Great Depression and eventually compiled by George P. Rawick (1979).

8 “Italics and exclamation points are but feeble indicators; and how can one express by printers’ signs the significance of what is not said? A significance conveyed by manner or by quietness of intonation, of which a good storyteller is master.” (Levine, 1977, 89).

9 In an earlier draft, Gaines had a group of old people tell Miss Jane’s story on the day of her burial. He eventually discarded the multiple points of view narrative and thus A Short Biography of Jane Pittman became The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

10 The trope of the Talking Book refers to “the paradox of representing, of containing somehow, the oral within the written...” (Gates. 1988, 131).


Professeur de civilisation et études américaines à l'Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. Ses recherches concernent l'évolution des rapports inter-ethniques dans l'histoire et la société américaines ainsi que leur représentation autobiographique et fictionnelle. Elle a publié entre autres, Etrangers dans leur propre pays ? Les Chicanos aux Etats-Unis, l'Harmattan, 1998, Villes d'exil (direction d'ouvrage) l'Harmattan, 2003. Elle vient de publier un recueil d'essais intitulé Journey into Otherness : Essays in American History, Culture and Literature, Amsterdam University Press, 2005.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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