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“Let Miss Jane tell the story”

Claudine Raynaud

II. Poétique de la voix

Knowing what Gnaws: voice, authenticity and tradition in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

Yves-Charles Grandjeat


Cet article voudrait problématiser les notions de voix, d’authenticité et de liberté dans The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Le roman met avant tout en scène une voix, celle de Miss Jane, voix intarissable autant qu’indomptable. Il s’inscrit, comme une part importante du travail de Gaines, dans la continuité de la tradition orale afroaméricaine. Par ailleurs, cette voix, conformément au schéma canonique établi par les « récits d’esclave », raconte un long périple de l’esclavage à la libération, établissant donc en apparence, comme le récit d’esclave, une relation décisive entre la conquête de la voix et celle de la liberté. Pourtant, comme dans le récit d’esclave où la voix de l’esclave se trouve parasitée, guidée, recouverte, voire dérobée par l’abolitionniste commanditaire du récit, le récit de Miss Jane met en scène une voix prisonnière de contraintes multiples qui nous empêchent d’y voir l’expression d’une authentique liberté. La question des codes et conventions hérités de la tradition, qui « cadrent » et gouvernent la voix est encore plus fortement posée à travers les deux personnages de Ned et Jimmy, dont la voix, « authentiquement façonnée », échoue dans son projet émancipateur, contrée par les pesanteurs et les exigences d’une tradition qui pourtant lui demande, paradoxalement, de s’exprimer. La représentation ambivalence du pouvoir et du statut de la voix permet à Gaines d’interroger de façon critique sa propre relation à une tradition littéraire afro-américaine, vis-à-vis de laquelle il reconnaît sa dette, tout en revendiquant une marge de liberté. Le personnage iconoclaste de Joe Pittman, qui s’écarte radicalement du schéma canonique liant l’émancipation à l’apprentissage des compétences langagières en situant sa liberté, au contraire, du côté d’une certaine sauvagerie, incarne cette volonté, chez Gaines, de marquer sa propre liberté en s’affranchissant des codes attendus du récit de libération.

Texte intégral

A) Ringing true: the fictional authenticity of voice

1One of the most striking elements about the fiction of Ernest Gaines is its quality as “sound” –as an ongoing, multivocal oral performance. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a fitting illustration of what Henry Louis Gates has termed “speakerly texts”: texts, primarily centered on the staging of a black voice, whose “rhetorical strategy is designed to represent an oral literary tradition” and which “emulate the phonetic, grammatical and lexical patterns of actual speech and produce the illusion of oral narration” (Gates, 1988, 181). Miss Jane’s voice is certainly her most assertive attribute in terms of both characterization and narrative achievement: it tells a story of survival that covers over a century. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is less phonetically oralized than Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which Gates uses as his case in point. Still, Gaines’s novel, which came close to being entitled “Conversations around Miss Jane” and might have well been entitled “Miss Jane Speaks” does offer the masterful staging of a tireless, feisty black voice which mutates and proliferates into a good many others, just as vibrant, all of them designed to sound “authentic.” “Using first-person point of view, Gaines has to create language that ‘sounds’ authentic while being intelligible to readers,” Karen Carmean points out (Carmean, 1998, 61).

2Incidentally, critics of Gaines’s work have been so sensitive to his use of orality that they themselves have often related their own works to the paradigmatic trope of the voice. There are books of “Conversations” or “Porch Talks” with Gaines, and an emblematic (in this respect) Voices from the Quarters. In the latter, Mary Ellen Doyle, reviewing the genesis of Miss Jane, recalls how Gaines first thought of the book as “just a series of conversations” (Doyle, 2002, 131). Then, following a suggestion from his editor, he decided to “use Jane’s voice” to weave together the many “sketches” of a “folk” history or “folk autobiography” –“‘folk’ in that Jane narrates from memory alone all that she has experienced or heard others say year after year”, thus becoming her people’s “spokesperson” (Doyle, 2002, 132). Of course Gaines himself has repeatedly described his work as primarily shaped by his formative and decisive immersion, as a child, in the oral tradition of story-telling –and this before any contact with books, thus clearly ranking voice as his privileged medium:

I doubt that I read two novels before I went to California. But I come from a long line of storytellers. I come from a plantation, where people told stories by the fireplace at night, people told stories on the ditch bank, especially this time of· year, when you have the sugar cane shuck that you can burn, mix it with some firewood. People sat around telling stories. I think in my immediate family there were tremendous storytellers or liars or whatever you want to call them My aunt was not a storyteller, she was more of a recorder; she could tell about what happened in the past. She remembered quite well. Since Auntie could not go to their place, the old people used to come to ours. They would talk and talk and talk, and I listened to them. (Lowe, 1995, 58)

3“Talk and talk and talk” is precisely what Miss Jane seems to be doing in this long first-person narrative. In thus choosing to present –or should I say disguise?– a work of fiction –a written novel as a spoken Autobiography– even a “folk autobiography”, however, Gaines performs a number of deft, simultaneous, and complex authorial gestures across a troubled generic line between autobiography and fiction, and an equally busy line between fact and fiction. On the one hand, he endows his fictional voices with the power of authenticity. As Gayl Jones’s study has suggested, the novel can be read as a resounding testimony to the enduring power of the black voice (Jones, 1991). A voice which sounds so true to life that the reader is easily taken in; as K. Carmean, again, suggested: “Gaines’s creation was so successful, his rendering of Jane’s voice so convincing, that many readers came to believe that Jane was a living person, not a fictional character” (Carmean, 1998, 62). Gaines’s fictional editor of Miss Jane’s autobiography plays an important part in this respect, authenticating the voice and inviting the reader to look at the text as a true collaborative oral performance: “(I should mention here that even though I have used only Miss Jane’s voice throughout the narrative, there were times when others carried the story for her [...])” (AJP, vi, vii). The idea of collaboration, with so many witnesses involved, backs up the claim of authenticity: “This is not only Miss Jane’s autobiography, it is theirs as well” (AJP, viii), the “editor” asserts. On the other hand, Gaines prompts the reader to realize that “authenticity” is but a product of the writer’s craft. In other words, he pays back a debt, acknowledging how much his “fiction” owes to the life stories he has heard people in his community tell, or how much of the material he is, has been, and probably will be using is autobiographical. Then, reversing the gesture, he grants that much of this “autobiographical” material is fictional –stressing the extent to which recollection calls upon invention, or “description” calls upon imagination. Gaines has elaborated on this subject in various interviews. Interesting in this respect is the somewhat provocative answer he gave when asked whether his San Francisco “exile” had hampered his ability to write about his native Louisiana:

If I’m writing about something that happened about forty years ago, I can face the wall in San Francisco and see it as well or better than I would if I sat in an apartment of a house in Louisiana. [...] Looking at the blank wall, I can see any kind of world I want to see there. (Estes, 1991, 20).

4One is justified in assuming that what held true for “what happened forty years ago” applies even more to events that happened over a hundred years ago, as is the case in Miss Jane: the blank wall, or the blank page is an ideal support to mix together description and imagination, so that the voice that holds the novel “truly” wavers between the authentic and the fictional. In the novel itself, the intricate relation between truth and imagination is addressed most pointedly in the fourth section through Jimmy, the one character of this novel who comes closest to standing as a figure for the author himself. Indeed, as did Gaines, Jimmy first soaks in the many stories he hears, inheriting the spoken folk history of his people. As Jane tells the reader: “Now he heard this: heard us on that gallery talking about slavery, talking about the high water, talking about Huey Long. He heard me talk about Cluveau and Ned. He heard us talk about Black Harriet and Katie, Tom Joe and Timmy” (AJP, 219). Then, when he can read and write, Jimmy becomes a public letter writer, putting people’s thoughts into writing, as did Gaines. His inventive, creative knack for adorning people’s stories and thus making them into what people really, truly mean, stands in stark contrast to the narrow-minded, short-sighted realism of Monkey Boy, another public writer, who makes a point to stick, to the dot, to what the people say, much to the latter’s annoyance: “’Can’t you make up a little story at times?’ they used to tell him. He used to say, ‘I ain’t no preacher. Let preachers tell them lies.’ Oh, he was evil, that boy. Same when it came to letter writing. Wrote what you told him and nothing else” (AJP, 217).

5Gaines makes it clear here that the path to truth –the truth that he declares himself interested in-far from calling upon the narrative to stick to the sorry, bare facts, involves an ability to adorn, to make up the facts, leading them away from the straight and narrow, heading for the marshes, wending through the bushes, looking into people’s hearts to bring out their cherished fantasies –an act of translation and interpretation which requires a taste for fiction. Jimmy’s generous approach, in one of Gaines’s subtle but undeniable symbolic winks to the reader, enables him, indeed, to “write the best two-page letter you ever read” (AJP, 217). And Miss Jane adds, to press the point, in a telltale aside (Gaines makes a very consistent, strategic use of the parenthesis in this novel, to drop important hints as to the contract he wishes to establish with the reader): “(I always like to fill both pages when I write a letter, you know).” (AJP, 217-218). In other words, there are always two sides to a page, what you see and what you don’t see, what meets the eye and what you have to imagine. Ambivalence is a good path into Gaines’s fiction, into the story of Miss Jane and into her character, despite her apparent single-mindedness. Her determination not to follow Ned when he leaves Colonel Dye’s plantation, follows her equally fierce determination to do exactly the contrary and leave the first plantation against Uncle Isom’s warning, the Yankee rider’s, the hunter’s and the old man’s advice. The voices that carry the novel, including, first and foremost, Miss Jane’s, are just equally ambivalent, particularly as regards their authenticity.

B) Boxed in by legacy

6The matter of authenticity is made all the more complex by the generic legacy the novel claims from slave narrative and black autobiographies. As Karen Carmean writes: “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman draws on the tradition of the slave narrative and its creative branch, the fictional autobiography” (Carmean, 1998, 59). And Mary Ellen Doyle reminds us that, at the time when he started thinking about Miss Jane, Gaines “had read Booker T. Washington’s autobiography and was aware of three desires of ex-slaves: name change, movement, and learning to read; he would begin with a young girl moving from a plantation”. At the same time, Gaines was “reading and ‘hearing’ the WPA narratives of ex-slaves” (Doyle, 2002, 131). This gives value to the claim that Miss Jane should be read in the light of the tradition of slave narratives. Although Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery (first published in 1901) is not strictly speaking, to follow Henry Louis Gates’s and Thadious Davis’s distinction, a slave narrative since it was written and published well after slavery was abolished (Davis and Gates, 1985), it draws as much from the conventions of the success story as it does from those of the slave narrative. Yet it is often cited as an example of the thriving progeny of the genre. Although the considerable span of one hundred years or so covered by Miss Jane’s narrative, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights, only briefly concerns itself with slavery per se, there is no denying that Gaines’s novel grew from the slave narrative. To quote Miss Jane’s perception of life on the Dyer plantation during Reconstruction, after Emancipation: “It was slavery again, all right” (AJP, 72). Book One, “The War Years”, actually presents the reader with several of the standard episodes identified by James Olney as making up “the master outline” of a typical slave narrative, including “description of a cruel master, mistress, or overseer”, “an account of one extraordinary strong, hardworking slave –often ‘pure African’–who, because there is no reason for it, refuses to be whipped”, “description of patrols, of failed attempt(s) to escape, of pursuit by men and dogs”, etc. (Olney, in Davis & Gates, 1985, 153). In addition, “The Quarters” at the Samson place in Book Four are not much different from what they were in the days of slavery.

  • 1 As James Olney once wrote: “The Afro-American literary tradition takes its start, in theme certainl (...)

7This paper does not aim at reviewing the many elements which support linking up Miss Jane to the great generic tradition which virtually every critic sees as the founding stone of the Afro-American literary tradition.1 What concerns me is more specifically how this link problematizes the significance of voice and voicing in Miss Jane. On the one hand, indeed, one often meets the argument that the former slave’s ability to tell his tale is the symbolic test and hallmark of his newly acquired freedom: narration offers him an opportunity to gain symbolic mastery over the life on which he formerly had no control. As Valerie Smith puts it: “Narrators master their subject by imposing narrative order upon it; this privilege results from the ability to manipulate language whether orally or in writing” (Smith, 1987, 5). Robert Stepto can even argue that:

The strident, moral voice of the former slave recounting, exposing, appealing, apostrophizing and above all remembering his ordeal in bondage is the single most impressive feature in a slave narrative. [...] The slave’s acquisition of that voice is quite possibly his only permanent achievement once he escapes and casts himself upon a new and larger landscape. (Stepto, 1979, 3)

8Although Frederick Douglass’s Narrative is most often summoned up to illustrate the link between freedom and literacy (reading and writing rather than speaking), Smith’s argument enlarges the perspective to include spoken as well as written competence: “the unlettered person who can manipulate the meanings and nuances of the spoken word might also be considered literate” (Smith, 1987, 4). As for Stepto, his perspective also directs attention to Douglass’s account of the liberating power of his voice as experienced in the first speech he gave at an abolitionist meeting: “I spoke but a few moments, when I felt a degree of freedom, and said what I desired with considerable ease” (in Stepto, 1979, 26, emphasis mine). In this specific instance, Stepto qualifies his initial contention that the primary “pregeneric myth for Afro America is the quest for freedom and literacy”, an argument also elaborated on at length by Henry Louis Gates. Like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Stepto here chooses to honor Douglass’s voice rather than his pen.

  • 2 As it does for instance in Naipaul’s The Mimic Men (1967).

9This emphasis on voice comes as little surprise in the light of Douglass’s ironic admission that his awareness of the importance of literacy is –albeit unwittingly– handed out to him by his master: «I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master» (Douglass, 2004, 36-37). The master remains the “instructor”. The rest of the learning itself is gained from imitating white kids tricked into writing on the sidewalk, then in stealing his young master’s school notebook and copying the latter’s hand to perfect his own handwriting: “I used to spend the time in writing in the spaces left in Master Thomas’s copy book, copying what he had written. I continued to do this until I could write a hand very similar to that of Master Thomas.” (Douglass, 2004, 46). Of course this striking case of “mimicry” can arguably be redescribed as “trickstery”, a trick of the Signifyin(g) Monkey which bespeaks, rather than alienation,2 appropriation and displacement of the master’s discourse by “dissembling slaves” who, to quote Valerie Smith again, under a pretense of imitation and obedience “learned to read their super-ordinates’ expectations while themselves remaining inscrutable» (Smith, 1987, 5). There is lingering uneasiness, however, in drawing a neat line between appropriation and alienation in this case.

10Indeed, the rest of Douglass’s narrative, despite the frequently made critical claim that it “elude(s) the domination of received generic structures and conventions” and thus “achieves autonomy” (Smith, 1987, 26) can also be shown to bear blatant testimony to the power of the prevailing ideological and literary norms of the time and this rather predictably: how could it be otherwise? As Smith puts it: “As Houston Baker, Jr., and Annette Niemtsow have argued, Douglass is entrapped by the very rhetorical and ideological structures he seeks to undermine” (Smith, 1987, 27). Further, Smith points out that “the plot of the narrative offers a profound endorsement of the fundamental American plot, the myth of the self-made man” (Smith, 1987, 27). The question here then is to assess to what extent, Miss Jane manages to circumvent the very same trap and achieve autonomy from the same constraining, dominating ideological and narrative conventions it necessarily pays homage to when inscribing itself in the tradition of the slave narrative. To what extent –if at all– can this narrative of liberation turn into a liberated narrative, sidestepping the strictures of convention –conventions upheld and imposed by a white readership?

11The most effective strategy, fully available to Gaines in 1971, and definitely not there for Douglass in 1845, involves, precisely, shaping the style and mode of the narrative in keeping with the standards of black speech, rather than asking them to ape or emulate –sometimes, indeed, to the point of caricature– the defining features of the great genres of the Western canon. This is what has led Afro-American writers and critics to locate a black cultural specificity in the powerful mark of the oral and more generally –to include singing– vocal tradition, as opposed to the written medium. Miss Jane is again an appropriate case in point and her narrative, rather than representing an attempt to “write oneself into being” (Gates, in Davis & Gates, 1985, xxiii), to use Gates’s famous phrase, is a largely successful written attempt to speak oneself into being. The episode when Bone asks young Jane to sign up as a worker on the former plantation clearly positions her outside the world of writing:

I stuck the point of the feather in my mouth and leaned on the table to make a cross. After I made it it looked so correct I just stood there looking at it a long time. I started to add another curve or a dot or something, but Bone took the feather and paper from me. “I said a mark, not a book”. (AJP, 64)

12In the same way as her experience of the land has made her a total stranger to the white man’s geography, she is kept away from the written word by the white man’s power and, more generally by the constant pressure of necessity. She, however, makes up for this, from beginning to end, by flaunting her voice as evidence of her unflagging resolve.

13Or does she? Perhaps one should not rush to equate voice and freedom. One may even discuss the contention that the representation of the slave’s voice –let’s not forget that it is represented in writing– is less alienated than is his pen to the dominant codes framing the narratives of the time –whatever the time. Houston Baker has aptly problematized the question of authenticity in slaves’ “autobiographyical acts”: “The voice of the unwritten self, once it is subjected to the linguistic codes, literary conventions, and audience expectations of a literate population, is perhaps never the authentic voice of black American slavery” (Baker, 1980, 43). Even though one senses here that Baker hopes that such an “authentic voice” might still lurk somewhere out there, the very notion of authenticity is under question. One can take the argument one step further and point out, as do Davis and Gates, that just as “no written text is a transparent rendering of historical reality, be that text composed by master or slave” (Davis & Gates, 1985, xi), no spoken testimony provides direct access to the bare truth either. As a fictional autobiography indebted to slave narratives, Miss Jane is an interesting experiment in grappling with these issues and seeking ways either to avoid being “boxed in” by tradition, or to turn the “box” into a means of escape –as did Henry “Box” Brown, the runaway slave who hid in a box on a wagon from Richmond to Philadelphia. Indeed, Gaines shows that there are limits to what Jane’s voice can achieve in terms of self-assertion as, in several respects, she is shown to neither own nor control that voice. The same applies to Jimmy whose voice is, if not framed, at least tightly channeled both by the white world and by a black tradition cast in rather dubious light: both as nurturing and as disabling. In the same way as the literary tradition, or rather, traditions from which Gaines draws, are tried, teased and tested in the narrative, then, the voices that rise from the latter are much more complex and ambivalent than they might seem to be.

C) Speaking back

14From the beginning, Jane is consistently characterized as a cheeky little girl who speaks but and, mostly, speaks back, thus leaving the initiative of speech to the other. There is power and danger in using one’s voice, as Jane can measure early in the narrative when her mistress warns her: “And you watch your tongue when they get there, too. You say anything about your master and the silver, I’ll have you skinned.” (AJP, 6). And in the end, again, Jane has Robert Samson grumbling: “’You asking me?’, he said. ‘I didn’t know I still running Samson. I thought you was. I thought it was up to you to tell me when you wanted to move and where’” (AJP, 213). Nothing, however, in Book One, can stop Jane from letting her big, loud mouth get her into trouble again and again, from the time when she is whipped by her mistress for having “sassed her in front of the yankees” (AJP, 9).This is only the first in a long series of incidents which make Miss Jane a perfect fit for the type of the “sassy” heroine of the female slave narrative identified by Joanne M. Braxton in her reading of Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861): “The many references to ‘sass’ and ‘impertinence’ underscore the importance of its use in gaining self-esteem; they also suggest a feminine reflection of the trickster figure” (Braxton, 1989, 30). Jane may be of small built but Gaines designed her as a warrior of the tongue. She fits the rebellious, sassy type more convincingly than Linda Brent, whom J. Braxton thus compares with Douglass: “Linda uses sass the way Douglass used his fists and his feet as means of resistance” (AJP, 32). In Book One, Jane gets into verbal scuffles with virtually every one she meets –mostly other black characters such as a black driver, black soldiers, or the hunter, whose rabbit she devours then sharply dismisses: “I didn’t ask you for your old rabbit” (AJP, 47). Jane is not always quite as talkative, however, when she interacts with figures of white power, as the colonel, whom she quietly leaves as he stares at the map on his wall. The episode can be seen as illustrating that what matters to Jane, even more than talking, is acting. Talking is there as evidence of her unwavering will to keep walking or acting despite contrary or confusing signals sent to her by more literate or better informed characters.

15Jane’s stubborn determination to defeat the odds and reach Ohio, however, is not just there to testify to her iron will. It leaves her in a predicament suggesting that stridency is not enough, particularly when the voice keeps rehashing what it picked up from a bragging, passing white man acting the part of the liberator in a somewhat careless way that sends former slaves to a disastrous fate. As Albert Wertheim points out, Corporal Brown, whose voice puts the dream of Ohio in Jane’s head, is representative of those Yankee soldiers who “abrogated the system of slavery; they gave the slaves a new name, freed men and then they rode off into the sunset saying: ‘call us if you need us’” (Wertheim, in Bruck & Karrer, 1982, 221). Those soldiers, of course, never came back. Corporal Brown’s parting words to Jane: “’And if any of them ever hit you again, you catch up with me and let me know,’ he said. ‘I’ll come back here and I’ll burn this place’” (AJP, 9), bring about the subsequent tragic and, eventually, totally useless ordeal of her flight. Because Jane has taken his word for it and then keeps repeating his name and the word Ohio, as reassuring mantras on her vain quest, she is still, at this point, a creature of the white man’s word. This, of course, is also clearly brought out in Jane’s utter passivity and speechlessness in the episode when she receives her name from the Yankee soldier. Although the name-giving ritual is carried out with good intentions, it is, in this respect, an act of symbolic violence, subjecting Jane’s position as speaking subject and her very identity in language to the white man’s whimsical, confusing authority: “That’s right, I’ll call you Jane. That’s my girl’s name back there in Ohio. [...] Well, from now on your name is Jane. Not Ticey no more. Jane. Jane Brown. Miss Jane Brown’” (AJP, 8). Jane’s stubborn belief that she can and must walk all the way to Ohio to find her “Mr. Brown” is sheer foolishness: like a parrot repeating “Ohio, Ohio,” she is not in possession of her voice. Someone has to shut her up before she can stop speaking back and start speaking out.

16The first instance in which Jane is silenced is the section in which her voice is drowned out by the stupendous verbal outpour produced by the Old Man. Her somewhat dispirited query: “’You trying to tell me I’m still in Luzana?” (AJP, 50) triggers off a wild sequence of topographical coordinates: “’Yep. Ohio—38, 41 lat; 80, 84 longi. Iowa, let’s see—where you at there, Iowa?—here you is you little rascal. Trying to hide from me and I ain’t done you nothing, huh? Iowa—40, 44 lat; 90, 96 longi. Yep, that’s where Iowa at, all right... ’” (AJP, 51) which further confuses her. The old man then launches into a rambling, raving monologue covering three pages, in which he imagines a delirious, journey from Louisiana to Ohio over the course of thirty years. Reacting with a mere “Well, we’d better head out”, Jane is clearly stunned. The old man –and, it bears pointing out, a white man– acts as a trickster figure, playfully eluding definition: “’I might be a secesh,’ he said. ‘Then I might be a friend of your race. Or maybe just an old man who is nothing. Or maybe an old man who is very wise’” (AJP, 53). This figure of ambivalence and indeterminacy introduces Jane, precisely, to the other side of her so far one-way vision. The Old man teaches Jane the ability to imagine she might be wrong. In other words, this grotesque creature straight out of a fairy tale is the first “helper” to show Jane the way to a two-sided world, and to the ambivalence of language. Jane then appears defeated by what she is beginning to realize she can neither encompass intellectually, nor overcome through sheer physical and psychological stamina. She realizes there are limits to what determination alone can achieve, this time, in the face of broad historical forces. She becomes aware of what lies outside her singular vision, her way of looking at the world and her way of speaking back to the world.

D) Questioning the power of literacy

17From then on, the quest for voice is mostly carried out by other characters. “Reconstruction”, the title of Book Two, refers of course to the period in Southern history following the Civil War. But it can also be read as referring to the reconstruction of Miss Jane, after her dreams of Ohio and Freedom have been shattered, like idle fantasies born from a white man’s words. Jane’s reconstruction of a meaningful world is rather ironic, it seems, since it involves further tragedies: namely, the loss of the two men Jane cherished most, Joe Pittman, and Ned. Something is learned from these losses, particularly if we go back to reading the novel as problematizing the process of finding a voice. Ned is indeed cast in the traditional mold of the former slave constructing an identity for himself through language –Jimmy, in Book Four, is the other embodiment of this type. An interesting reversal occurs from Book One to Book Two in terms of speech. Over the 63 pages of Book One, Jane rambles on while Ned remains speechless, except for one single word: “Fiyer”, uttered on page 34. In Book Two, Ned first acquires command of reading and writing, renames himself after Frederick Douglass, becomes bookish –“he always had some kind of book round the house” (AJP, 76)–, involves himself with a committee encouraging blacks to leave the South, leaves, writes letters –although we should probably mention in passing that these letters get lost, another symbolic hint at the tricky quality of literacy– becomes a soldier, then a teacher, then, twenty years later comes back to the South to teach as “Professor Douglass”. His life then culminates with a great radical emancipatory speech by the river, eventually calling on the young black men listening to him to “show them, warriors, the difference between black men and niggers” and “set fire” to the South, if need be, to resist white racial violence (AJP, 117).

18Ned is explicitly patterned after Frederick Douglass and his abiding belief in the liberating power of language, particularly that of literacy as a means of enlightenment, as Ned’s speech makes clear: “even when he raise the gun of the axe of anything else he might use I won’t blame all white men. I’ll blame ignorance. Because it was ignorance that put us here in the first place. Ignorance on the part of the black man and the white man” (AJP, 123). However, his tragic murder at the hands of the white Cajun rednecks’executioner, Albert Cluveau, points to the limits of the liberating power of emancipatory rhetorics –be they moderate, as they are in the early phase of Ned’s speech, or radical, as they are at the end– in the face of overpowering historical forces armed with murderous guns. Witnessing this, Miss Jane may be said to receive a twofold lesson. On the one hand, Ned’s indomitable, uncompromising stand as rebellious speaker might, in the long run, feed a historical process of liberation which is only beginning. Jane’s description of “The People”’s response to the murder (AJP, 122) does not offer much, however, to substantiate this. Ned’s articulate, lonely, angry black voice can only clamor in the desert. It is still entirely determined and imprisoned by historical circumstances which allow it no space to be. The voice of the lone angry black freedom fighter is smothered by the hostile white man. From a broader perspective, then, Ned’s fate turns the established pattern of the slave narrative upside down, raising questions about the viability of this traditional literary form to the production of a liberated black voice. One reason is, of course, white violence. The other is black passivity in the face of such crushing violence. Even though Ned is an articulate speaker –in keeping with Stepto’s figure of the “articulate hero” (Stepto, 1979, 26), his voice only meets with defiance from wary black folk: “They didn’t want go near him when he was living, but when they heard he was dead they cried like children” (AJP, 122). Ned’s voice is full of what has kept him silent for so long: the memory of his mother’s murder at the hand of the white patrollers, a tragic scene that has kept haunting him and which he then refers to for the first time. But Ned fails to rise above this. Violence repeats itself, with Ned, this time, as muted victim: the pattern of liberation through literacy set by the slave narrative is invalidated, as it will be, although to a lesser extent, again, in Book Four, through the story of Jimmy, some sixty years later.

19Like Ned, Jimmy learns to read and write, becoming, as has been mentioned, a public reader and writer –an intermediate between speech and print: reading newspapers to Jane, Jimmy puts the written world into verbal expression while, as a letter writer, he puts her words into written form. As a go-between traveling back and forth from an oral to a written culture, Jimmy is of course a figure for the author himself, whose book mediates between these two traditions. But Jimmy’s story, interestingly, also communicates Gaines’s wariness towards either tradition. Not just the tradition of the slave narrative but, from a broader perspective, and somewhat surprisingly perhaps, black traditional culture in general. Jimmy’s predicament first stems from the tremendous pressure applied by those who are determined to control his voice-and, further, his life. These are not white people intent on keeping black people down: these are black people intent on squeezing Jimmy into a mold they have decided was right for him: “But the people here at Samson wasn’t the only ones wanted Jimmy to be the One. Colored all over the parish wanted him to be the One” (AJP, 228, emphasis mine). The psychological and even physical violence is relentless: Jimmy is trained hard to meet people’s expectations of his behavior as “the One” –“We didn’t allow him to play cards for fun or pecans. We didn’t want him to play marbles or ball like all the other children did” (AJP, 224). The child is held hostage to the community’s nagging demands: “We wanted him to get religion that year, too, the year he made twelve years old. The Master started when he was twelve, if you will remember” (AJP, 223); “we started on him early”, “After he got baptized we wanted him to preach...” (AJP, 227), etc. Interestingly, there, Jimmy finds himself in the position of the slave or former slave of the slave narrative, asked by his white editor, his abolitionist sponsors and, more generally, his abolitionist readers to conform to their expectations of what a slave narrative should be. Except that here, the alienating request comes form Jimmy’s own people.

20In both cases, the speaker is dispossessed of his voice as words are put into his mouth and conventions dictate what he should say: Jimmy, as we have just seen, is expected to get religion at the age of twelve, as The Master” did, and is thus fully mastered by tradition. His life is meant to repeat a “master outline” in the same way as, to quote from James Olney, “the conventions for slave narratives were so early and so firmly established that one can imagine a ‘master’ outline drawn for the greater narratives and guiding the lesser ones” (in Davis & Gates, 1985, 152). Jimmy’s voice and his life are held captive of those who want to make him into a liberator, in the same way as the black voice of the slave narrative was held captive of those struggling for Emancipation –an irony not lost on James Olney: “Thus in one sense the narrative lives of the ex-slaves were as much possessed and used by the abolitionists as their actual lives had been by the slaveholders” (in Davis & Gates, 1985, 154). Jimmy’s position acutely reiterates and amplifies that of Miss Jane herself facing her interviewer who, like the typical editor of the slave narrative expects and requests a story: “I told her she was over a hundred years old, she had been a slave in this country so there had to be a story (AJP, v, emphasis mine). Although there is no comparing the two forms of enslavement, physical and symbolic, it is possible to argue that Gaines is here using the character of Jimmy to convey something of his own misgivings about the expectations and requests he has had to deal with, coming from the keepers of the black literary tradition. The link to so-called narratives of emancipation is felt to be a chain fastening the writer to narratives of symbolic imprisonment.

21It is significant that Jimmy should break away from the community and leave the quarters behind before he can find his voice and play his part as leader in the struggle for Civil Rights, against his community’s expectations then, largely, against their resistance and even their opposition. Throughout Book Four, Jimmy is recurrently portrayed as the loner staring out the window, lost in thoughts, a stranger to his kin. In the same way, Gaines must look away from the demands of tradition, including that of the slave narrative, to achieve his own voice. People’s resistance to Jimmy’s plea that they join the struggle for equal rights largely stems from their wish not to disrupt the existing order and risk losing the small territory tradition has handed them: “We would like to die in our homes, have our funerals in our church, be buried in that graveyard where all our people and love ones are” (AJP, 239). Or course the graveyard is the link to tradition. Perhaps we would be justified in seeing Jane’s conciliatory position, mediating between tradition and change, as indicative of Gaines’s own stance, since she is the main protagonist of the story. We can also assume that the author’s perspective combines all of those which he has chosen to represent in the novel, with a preference for those of the characters he is closest to. Jimmy certainly ranks first in the latter category, for reasons we have already alluded to. It is also significant, in this respect, that Jimmy does not just mediate between the culture of writing and the oral tradition, and between belonging and alienation. He is also torn between language, literacy, on the one hand, and a sort of primitive, brute force, on the other, which makes him deviate abruptly from the figure of the “articulate hero”. Jimmy is only a child when he first refers to the fierce, wild force subjugating him, in a conversation with Jane:

“Miss Jane, I got something like a tiger in my chest, just gnawing and gnawing and want come out. I want rip my chest open and let it free. [...] I want run in the woods and beat my head against the trees. I want go down to the bottom of the river and stay there and stay there.” (AJP, 227)

22The imagery –the tiger, the woods, the river– makes Jimmy into a creature of the wilderness.

E) The wildness that gnaws

23The image is taken up again when Jimmy confesses: “’It’s burning up in here, Miss Jane,’ he said, touching his chest. ‘I got to do something’” (AJP, 242). The motive of fire connects Jimmy and Ned as a child (whose one and only word in Book One was “fiye”) then as a mature speech maker, calling on fellow black “warriors” to “set fire” to the country if need be. As for the animal motive of the tiger, it connects Jimmy back with Joe Pittman, a man similarly possessed by his need to relate to wild animals, the one and only black man –“he was a real man, Joe Pittman was” (AJP, 81) in Jane’s words– and we know, from all of Gaines’s work, what “manhood” means to the author. Joe is the only person with whom Jane experienced fulfillment as a woman, to the extent that she has kept his name: “No man would ever take his place, and that’s why I carry his name to this day” (AJP, 103). Now Joe Pittman’s story is interestingly wedged, in terms of narrative structure, between the first and second half of Ned’s story –between the “Ned Leaves Home” and “Professor Douglass” sections. This makes it a sort of parenthesis set at the heart of Ned’s story, and we have seen how Gaines ironically uses parentheses as an emphatic pointer. Jane hardly says a word about her ten years with Joe, apart from her fears of his getting himself killed: those ten years of happiness and, yes, freedom, do not call for a narrative. Neither do they fit the geography of the slave narrative, taking the characters away from the South-North axis, on a wild tangent to the west, into the narrative world of the western. This black horseman, “Chief Pittman”, certainly does not fit conventional types either. And although Gaines has him break horses for a living, he also makes him more than a little ambivalent about his job. Joe Pittman doesn’t like breaking horses as much as he likes riding them: “He didn’t want do no more farming. No, he wanted to ride horses. He was good at it and he liked it” (AJP, 93). Even more than Jimmy, Joe dismisses expectations of what a black man is supposed to do.

  • 3 “I thought of the fishes of the water, the fowls in the air, the wild beasts of the forest, all app (...)

24It is interesting to note in passing that Gaines has made the stallion which kills Joe a black one. This black stallion, which Jane sees as a creature of the devil, is more convincingly presented by Madame Gautier as the very epitome of wildness, a wildness which a man must ride, not matter what, for wild reasons of his own which make him a man: “That’s man’s way. [...] And he’s always proving how foolish he is. Some go after lions, some run after every woman he sees, some ride wild horses” (AJP, 97). That black stallion, of course, is the exact antithesis of the articulate, literate black hero who does his utmost to prove that he is poles apart from the animal world in which slave-holders tried to confine him as chattel, and from the dangerous wild beast which pro-slavery advocates made him into, arguing that only slavery could and should tame him. Here, however, as in some slave narratives –that of Henry Bibb is a case in point3– wildness and the wilderness are symbols of freedom. The black stallion is Joe’s animal alter ego.

  • 4 The price of such repression may be gauged by Frederick Douglass’s recollection, in his narrative, (...)

25As dangerous an argument as it may be, given the prevailing ideological discourse pitting humanity against wildness and given how such discourse influenced the debate on slavery, then on segregation, Gaines is taking chances and suggesting that repressing one’s wildness is as dangerous as denying one’s humanity.4 Which takes us very far from the world of literacy. Joe is not much of a talker, actually, but he sure likes to do his own thing, thus identifying with the black stallion, who is just as fiercely independent as he is: “breaking horses, I don’t take orders from a soul on earth” (AJP, 93). Even Jane realizes the beauty and power of that horse: “He walking inside the corral like he was some kind of majesty” (AJP, 101). Joe’s death, in this respect, does not represent defeat. As Madame Gauthier, the clairvoyant, well saw, this was the only and the best fate he could meet. What had really “killed” Joe, figuratively, was his success at catching the wild black beauty: “Joe said after they had caught him every last man there look hurt» (AJP, 95). It is then difficult to agree with A. Weirtheim’s contention that “the horse clearly comes to represent the incarnation of hostile forces that try the strength of, and, in this case, defeat the black man” ((Wertheim, in Brack and Karrer, 1982, 225). Joe Pittman willingly, knowingly meets his fate roped to the horse, in the bushes, at peace with nature. Gaines might have meant to show that by breaking the horse, Joe had raptured a vital part of himself, knew he had and had to pay the price. Miss Jane’s later deprecating remarks on man’s foolish, arrogant tampering with natural forces, damming the Mississippi “like you can tell water where to go” (AJP, 229) are enough to suggest that, in Gaines’s perspective, framing, containing and otherwise repressing wildness, including the wildness in man, including in the black man, is not a good idea.

26The wildness in Jimmy the tiger that gnaws” at him as much as what he knows from the books he keeps around the house– is what keeps him going, empowering him to shake the yoke of tradition and move on. It is the restless, disturbing growling of the tiger in his voice that gives it the means to break free from the fastidious repetitiveness of norms and conventions. Miss Jane is definitely a novel about the power of the black voice. But if that voice is to sound true, it must repeat neither what the white abolitionist nor what the sheepish black parishioners urge it to repeat. The character, Miss Jane, sharp-tongued as she may first be, discovers this quickly enough. As her voice keeps carrying on the narrative, it ponders and reassesses the value of speech as a means to assert one’s true identity. Ned and Jimmy, who both use language and learning as paths to Emancipation, also learn the hard way the limits of speech when the latter is framed, “boxed in” or dammed by the codes of the slave narrative. Only by “signifyin(g)” on those codes can the narrative achieve some degree of freedom. The theme of wildness is then taken up twice, in two sections that significantly-and importantly break the otherwise rather predictable thread of the “up from slavery” narrative of emancipation –two asides: “Man’s Way”, which tells of Joe Pittman’s fatal encounter with the black stallion, and “Of Men and Rivers”, which tell of the 1927 devastating flood. These two deceptively minor episodes are neatly spaced out in the narrative, which they appropriately breach, temporarily straying from the beaten path as they broach a theme starkly at odds with the standard ideological discourse underpinning narratives of emancipation. By stressing the value of wildness and pointing to the need to respect it, including in the way it resists or alters the score laid out in advance to guide the vocal performance, it sounds a voice wary of any contract, keeping to the swamps and the bushes, well away of the road, hugging the river, on the lookout for a chance to break free.


Works cited

Baker, Houston. 1980. The Journey Back. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bibb, Henry. 1849. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave. Quoted in STEPTO, 1979.

Braxton, Joanne M. 1989. Black Women Autobiography. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Bruck, Peter and Wolfgang. karrer. 1982. The Afro-American Novel since 1960. Amsterdam: Grüner.

Carmean, Karen. 1998. Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion. Wesport, Conn: Greenwood Press.

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

Dixon, Melvin. 1987. Ride Out the Wilderness. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Douglass, Frederick. [1845] 2004. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. New York: Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books.

Doyle, Mary Ellen. 2002. Voices from the Quarters. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Estes, David C., ed. 1994. Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Gaines, Ernest J. [1971] 1972. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books.

—. [1983] 1992. A Gathering of Old Men. NewYork: Random House, Vintage Books.

Gates, Henry Louis. 1988. The Signifying Monkey. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jones, Gayl. 1991. Liberating Voice: Oral Tradition in African American Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Olney, James. 1985. “’I was born’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature,” in Davis & Gates.

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

Stepto, Robert. 1979. From Behind the Veil. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Wertheim, Albert. 1982. “Journey to Freedom: Ernest Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” in Bruck and Karrer.


1 As James Olney once wrote: “The Afro-American literary tradition takes its start, in theme certainly but also often in content and form, from the slave narratives. “(in Davis & Gates, 1985, 145), thus echoing Ama Bontemps’s claim that “consciously or unconsciously, all of (the major black writers) reveal in their writing a debt to the (slave) narratives.” (Davis & Gates, 1985, xx)

2 As it does for instance in Naipaul’s The Mimic Men (1967).

3 “I thought of the fishes of the water, the fowls in the air, the wild beasts of the forest, all appeared to be free to go where they pleased, and I was an unhappy slave” (quoted in Dixon, 1987, 23).

4 The price of such repression may be gauged by Frederick Douglass’s recollection, in his narrative, of his response to slave songs, “those rude and apparently incoherent songs”: “the hearing of these wild notes always depressed my spirit and filled me with ineffable sadness” (Douglass, 2004, 34).


Depuis 1992 professeur de littérature américaine à L'université Michel de Montaigne-Bordeaux 3 où il codirige, depuis 12 ans, l'équipe « Cultures et Littératures d'Amérique du Nord ». Auteur de très nombreux travaux sur la littérature américaine contemporaine, en particulier des « minorités », il a beaucoup écrit sur les littératures hispaniques et afro-américaines, ainsi que sur les écrivains postmodernes et, plus récemment, les écrivains de la nature. Dans le domaine afro-américain, il est entre autres l'auteur d'un ouvrage et de plusieurs articles sur l'écrivain John Edgar Wideman et d'articles sur Jean Toomer, Charles Johnson, Walter Mosley et John Williams.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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