Here’s a timed quiz for you: name a memorable African-American female character living in the post-Civil War era from American Literature published before the Civil Rights Movement that wasn’t either a mammy, a prostitute or an ill-fated jazz singer. You have exactly 24 hours. Kidding, of course, but most people probably would need at least a day to come up with a single example and a great deal of others likely would require even longer. That particular absence in the canon of the American fictional narrative is exactly one of the driving motivations behind Ernest Gaines deciding to pen The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
Slap the word “autobiography” in the title of your book and count on it being found at least occasionally sitting on shelves in the non-fiction section. Although the character of Jane Pittman is based on the Aunt to whom his novel is partially dedicated—Augusteen Jefferson—and although the authenticity of its first-person narrative makes Oliver Stone’s JFK look by comparison like the science fiction tale it actually is—the book is a work of fiction. Proof enough that when an author does it right, historically-based fiction doesn’t require the typically pointless introductory device often appropriated to lend it greater weight: “Based on a true story.”
In fact, so authentic is Miss Pittman’s story told in her own specific dialect that perfectly preserves the rhythm and intonation of actual human speech that Gaines could well have jettisoned the device of the narrator of a history project which he uses to thrust readers into that personal narrative. Although Gaines makes no claims toward any of the events in the novel representing historical fact outside the known historical context—a distinct divergence from the similarly confused narrative of Alex Haley Roots which for a time could actually be found on non-fiction shelves in bookstore by design. Just as Roots is work of historical fiction, however, so is The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Another similarity between the two works is that both books received significantly boosts in awareness, sales and popularity through adaptations into teleplays.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman aired as a special TV-movie event three years before Roots made history as a miniseries to huge ratings before collecting an unprecedented nine Emmy Awards. The success of the TV movie brought widespread attention to a breakthrough novel that had been enjoying on mild success. Since then, the novel has become recognized as one of the essentials reading choices for understanding the issue of civil rights in America.