Over the past couple of posts, I have written about the role of history and literature in countering prevailing myths about the past and the present. Today, I want to continue that discussion by looking at a couple of scene from Ernest J. Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971). On Thursday, I will finish this series by looking at a section from Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970). Both of these novels are important in their own respects, especially considering the moment when they first appeared.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman appeared in 1971, only two years after the first Black Studies Program at San Francisco State University and in the midst of the Black Power and Black Arts Movement. Even though Gaines had been working on the novel for close to a decade, the cultural moment in which it debuted was one that worked to counter the prevailing myths of the past, specifically in regard to African American and Black Diaspora history.
Julius Lester, in Look Out Whitey! (1968), put it this way: “Now blacks are beginning to study their past, to learn those things that have been lost, to re-create what the white man destroyed in them . . . and to destroy that which the white man put in its stead.” This is what history does, recreating and challenging the past that the dominant powers construct and perpetuate via textbooks, media, sites of memory, and elsewhere.
Peter Burke, writing about the study of history as a whole, states essentially the same thing when he writes in Varieties of Cultural History (1989),
Writing and print are not powerful enough to stop the spread of myths… What they can do, however, is to preserve records of the past which are inconsistent with the myths, which undermine them – records of a past which has become awkward and embarrassing, a past which people for one reason or another do not wish to know about, though it might be better for them if they did…
What Lester and Burke both present is history that challenges, in the hopes of recreating, the historical and national myths. Burke feels that “[w]riting and print” cannot necessarily do this because they “are not enough.” However, I would posit that they can, especially literature such as Gaines’ novel. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, like all of Gaines’ work, seeks to “preserve records of the past” that do not appear in the dominant narrative.
The entire framing of Gaines’ novel highlights his move to have the voices of those he knew recorded, in some form, as a counter to the prevailing narratives. Pittman, essentially, is a history teacher’s transcript of his interviews with Miss Jane and some of the others in the community. The unnamed teacher appears at the beginning of the novel, as a framing device, in the “Introduction.” After this section, he fades into the background and we do not hear from him again.
Miss Jane and those around her, specifically Mary, wonder why this history teacher wants to interview her. He has attempted, for multiple years, to get her to tell his story, but each time she tells him that she has no story to tell. When he informs her that she is over 100 years old, she still declines. Finally, in 1962 he visits her and tells her he wants to get her story down before school opens in September and he will not take “No” for an answer.
Even with his persistence, Miss Jane and Mary wonder why the teacher even wants her story, and he has to explain the importance of chronicling Miss Jane’s life.
“What you want to know about Miss Jane for?” Mary said.
“I teach history,” I said. I’m sure her life’s story can help me explain things to my students.”
“What’s wrong with them books you already got?” Mary said.
“Miss Jane is not in them,” I said.
The teacher begins by telling Mary that Miss Jane’s story can help his students understand history better because she has lived to see the past century from Emancipation to the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. Along with this, the history that appears in for his students is not Miss Jane’s or that of the Black rural population in Louisiana. It is a narrative that eliminates her, and the teacher’s students, from the narrative.
The teacher wants to add Miss Jane to that narrative, to preserve her story and to present his students with a voice and perspective of someone like them, from their state, from their position. His comments highlight that he understands the importance of representation and voice for his students, and he wants them to see themselves within the history that he teaches.
Considering the teacher’s comments and the framing of the novel, we need to think about the ways that The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, like the WPA interviews that Gaines read for research while writing the novel, serves as a testament to the importance of her story. Even though Miss Jane died after the teacher interviewed her, her story remains because he chronicled it for his students and others. The other consideration we need to think about is the teacher as editor. Even though there are not indications where he cuts or elaborates on the narrative, he edits the text and shapes it for his students. In this manner, he is constructing, even he says he is leaving everything as she or others in he community relayed it, the narrative. This is something we need to explore further.
Gaines sums up the importance of Miss Jane’s story at the end of speech he gave about the novel. He told the audience,
To anyone who might ask why should I read about someone who did not fight war, make laws, marry a great politician or Statesman or writer, or doctor, I would say read about Miss Jane because she survived with strength, dignity, love, and respect for man, God, Nature, baseball, and vanilla ice cream, during the most demanding hundred years of American history.
Miss Jane’s story may not “stop the spread of myths,” but it does present readers with a narrative and history that lets them “learn those things that have been lost [and] to re-create what the white man destroyed in them.” This is the importance of historical novels such as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and of the materials that Gaines used when researching it, specifically the WPA interviews in Lay My Burden Down.
Next post, I will continue by looking at another scene from The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and then moving on to similar scenes in The Third Life of Grange Copeland. Until then, what are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.
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