The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest James Gaines

The author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Ernest J. Gaines, is a male African American author who has taken full advantage of his culture by writing about rural Louisiana. His stories mainly tell the struggles of blacks trying to make a living in racist and discriminating lands.

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Many of his stories are based on his own family experiences. In Ernest J. Gaines’ novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, four themes that are displayed are the nature of leadership, the struggles of racism, the effects of choices and their consequences, and the act of bold disobedience. The author uses this book to help todays society to understand the many tough choices and consequences African Americans had to face in the time of slavery and the civil rights movement. He developed many themes using the effects of that time period.

Ernest J. Gaines was born on January 15, 1933 on River Lake Plantation in Oscar, Louisiana (“Ernest J. Gaines Biography”). His parents, Manuel and Adrienne, worked as sharecroppers on the same plantation their ancestors had labored as slaves. “Ernest was the oldest of seven children and eventually the oldest of 12 children due to his mothers remarriage” (Tolly, Victor). At the age of nine, he joined his parents in the field and dug potatoes for fifty cents a day. Gaines was highly influenced by his aunt who cared for him and his siblings even though she was disabled. Then, at the age of fifteen, Gaines was taken by his mother and stepfather to Vallejo, California, who were searching for work. The education there would be much better for him due to the fact that he wanted to be a writer someday. “He took advantage of this education, which had been denied for him in Louisiana, and he graduated from high school in 1951”(“Ernest J. Gaines Biography”). After graduating from Vallejo Junior College in 1953, Gaines was drafted into the U.S. Army. He spent those next two years serving in both the U.S. and Guam. After he was discharged from the army, he began to focus more on his education (Andrews, William L.).

Gaines returned to California after being discharged from the army and continued his education at San Francisco State College (Andrews, William L.). He earned a bachelors degree in 1957 at San Francisco State College. “During his studies there, he wrote several short stories, and they were published in the college literary magazine Transfer” (“Ernest J. Gaines Biography”). Eventually, he ended up entering Stanford University’s graduate creative writing program. Soon after his writing skills improved at Stanford, Gaines withdrew from school and dedicated himself to writing full time.

Ernest J. Gaines found his voice and was established as a literary master of American fiction. Between 1960 and 1963, he had a large number of short stories published. “His first novel, Catherine Carmier, was published in 1964 and his second novel, Of Love and Dust, was published in 1971” (Babb, Valerie). Gaines received some critical analysis for these works, but after the publication of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman he received a large amount of praise for his talents. This book, which was based on historical events, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and eventually was made into a movie which aired on CBS. Gaines received his second Pulitzer Prize nomination with his book A Lesson Before Dying. The film version of this book won the 1999 Emmy Award for best movie (“The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”).

Ernest J. Gaines is married to Dianne Saulney, and they have homes in both Louisiana and San Francisco. They built a house on the plantation where Gaines’ ancestors had been slaves, and the church he grew up in was moved to their property (“Ernest J. Gaines Biography”). He met his wife, Dianne Saulney, when he returned back from California to the native south to visit his family, and to this day they are still happily married.

Ernest J. Gaines is currently 85 years old. “He has been a Writer-In-Residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette since 1983, and he continues to teach creative writing classes” (Tolly, Victor). As of November 2013, he is currently living peacefully with his wife on Louisiana Hwy 1 in Oscar, La. They are living in the house they built on the old plantation property that Gaines grew up on. He says that he used to spend a large amount of time each day dedicated to writing. He specifically stated that he spends “about five hours per week writing instead of five hours per day” (“Ernest J. Gaines Biography”). Throughout his entire life, Ernest J. Gaines has had many great accomplishments and has reached his goals, but it’s all due to his hard work and dedication.

The novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, is set in the time period of slavery and the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement occurred in the time period of 1954-1968. It was a long, organized movement which had the goal of enforcing legal rights for African Americans (“Civil Rights Movement Timeline- History”). These rights were already available for other races of Americans, particularly whites. “The civil war had abolished slavery, however it didn’t end the discrimination against blacks” (“Civil Rights Movement Timeline-History”). One event that occurred during the movement was when Rosa Parks got arrested after sitting in the seats at the front of a bus, which were the seats the white people wanted. Her arrest ignited outrage and support, and Parks became “the mother of the modern day civil rights movement” (“Civil Rights Movement Timeline-History”). Other important activists in the movement were Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. After a large amount of time passed, the civil rights movement and all of its activists brought about legislation to end segregation, employment discrimination, and much more. Throughout his novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Ernest J. Gaines uses his own personal experiences and the experiences of others to accurately portray the time period of slavery and the civil rights movement.

In Ernest J. Gaines’, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, four themes that are displayed are the nature of leadership, the struggles of racism, the effects of choices and their consequences, and the act of bold disobedience (Johnson, Jeannine). The author uses this book to help todays society to understand the tough choices and consequences African Americans had to face in the time of slavery and civil rights movement, and developed many themes using this history. One important theme that Gaines portrays is the nature of leadership. This theme is shown primarily through the main character, Jane Pittman. Jane and the people in her community were desperately seeking someone to lead them out of bondage. Jane stated in the story, “‘We ain’t giving up,” I said. “We done gone this far.’” (Gaines,Ernest J.). This quote can connect to the theme of leadership because she held her head high in front of everyone and did not let anyone give up. Jane decided that she needed to take control of the situation and her life. Therefore, she showed the nature of leadership and led herself and others on a journey to a better life. This is a theme because it shows that if people take control of their situation and be a leader, they will do great things in life.

In the novel, the racism is a major and vastly covered theme. This theme is portrayed using the storytelling of the time period that the novel is set in. The novel shows how the transition of blacks from slavery to freedom was not easy. The difficulty of the transition was due to the fact that the white community felt they were superior to blacks because of skin color. In the novel itself, Jane Pittman, who is the main character, tries to restart her life but the whites still continued to degrade her and others. “Her transition to freedom was not an easy one and caused many problems as a result” (Babb, Valerie). She eventually found a better life despite the ongoing discriminations. Although the goal was for racism and slavery to end as the years went on, the reality is that they are still existing and remaining widespread. Racism is a theme in this novel because it shows the treacherous and miserable experiences that blacks had to go through and still are going through today (“The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”). Therefore, this novel should help people to try to make a change for racism and slavery to end for good.

Another theme that is displayed in the novel is the effect of choices and their consequences. In this novel, freedom means the ability to make personal decisions, and it includes a part that gives the slaves a choice- to stay or to go (Gaines, Ernest J.). Those who chose to go soon realized that freedom was not easily attained. Jane Pittman soon realized this herself. She was aware from the moment of her proclamation that she was free to leave; however, she noticed that being a slave is very different from being free. This is a theme because Jane’s choice to exercise her new freedom validated her entire life (Babb, Valerie). It opened doors for her and taught her many life lessons that she would not have learned if she would have chosen to stay. This can show people to go with the choice that in the end would be the best for them, no matter the consequences.

The last theme that is displayed in the novel is defiance, when means bold disobedience. From the beginning of the novel, the main character, Jane Pittman, refused to give up and continued to hope for a better future. She pursued her dreams and refused to accept the idea of safety in the search of freedom (Johnson, Jeannine). She knew that she had to do whatever it took to get what she wanted. She continued to follow her dreams, and it all payed off for her in the end. This is a theme because it can show people that if they really want something, they should try as hard as they possibly can to get it. It can also show them to never accept giving up, just as Jane did not give up although her journey was tough.

Overall, Ernest J. Gaines’ award winning novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, has served as a successful way to display the time period of racism, slavery, and the civil rights movement. Ernest J. Gaines himself has lived a very fulfilling and successful life that should be celebrated. “His unique writing and own personal experiences caused his novels to become much more powerful on the topics that they show” (Babb, Valerie). He used this book to help today’s society to understand the many tough choices and consequences African Americans had to face in the time of slavery and civil rights movement, and developed many important themes using this history.        

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