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The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a 1971 novel by Ernest J. Gaines. The story depicts the struggles of African Americans as seen through the eyes of the narrator, a woman named Jane Pittman. She tells of the major events of her life from the time she was a young slave girl in the American South at the end of the Civil War.

Historical NovelThe novel and its main character are particularly notable for the breadth of time and history and stories they recall. In addition to the plethora of fictional characters who populate Jane’s narrative, Jane and others make many references to historical events and figures over the close-to-a hundred years Miss Jane can recall. In addition to its obvious opening in the American Civil War, Jane alludes to the Spanish-American War and her narrative spans across both World Wars and the beginning of the Vietnam War. Jane and other characters also mention Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Jackie Robinson, Fred Shuttlesworth, Rosa Parks, and others. Miss Jane’s sharp and engaged voice give these historical meditations a kind of “setting the record straight” mood to the storytelling presented in this novel. For instance, an entire section is dedicated to Huey P. Long in which Miss Jane explains “Oh, they got all kinds of stories about him now …. When I hear them talk like that I think, ‘Ha. You ought to been here twenty-five, thirty years ago. You ought to been here when poor people had nothing.’”[1]

[edit] Gaines and the ProtagonistBook four of the novel, “The Quarters” is entirely the story of young Jimmy. Jimmy as a character bears many similarities to Gaines. Gaines was born in January 1933. Though it is not explicitly stated, markers in the book suggest that Jimmy was born circa 1938. Like Jimmy, Gaines’ parents worked as sharecroppers on a plantation. After an intermittent education on the plantation school, Gaines eventually moved to California where he attended school full time. Gaines quickly took to reading and writing, just as Jimmy does in the novel. Additionally, Gaines also returned to his childhood communities both physically as a professor and homeowner in Louisiana but also in his work, as Louisiana is a familiar setting in his writing.

[edit] Motifs[edit] Slavery AgainThe novel which begins with a protagonist in slavery, being freed, and leaving the plantation only to return to another plantation as a sharecropper stresses the similarities between the conditions of African Americans in slavery and African Americans in the sharecropping plantation. The novel shows how formerly enslaved people lived after freedom. It shows how the patrollers and other vigilante groups through violence and terror curtailed the physical and educational mobility of African Americans in the south. Access to schools and political participation was shut down by plantation owners. Between physical limitations, not having money, and having to deal with ambivalent and hostile figures, Jane and Ned’s travel don’t take them very far physically (they do not leave Louisiana) nor in lifestyle. At the end of the chapter “A Flicker of Light; And Again Darkness,“ Miss Jane remarks of Colonel Dye’s plantation, “It was slavery again, alright”. In the depiction of Miss Jane’s telling of the story, Jim, the child of sharecroppers parallels if not resoundingly echoes the earlier story of Ned, the child born on a slave plantation. Through these stories the novel further highlights the conditions of Louisiana sharecropping in relationship to the conditions of slavery.

[edit] Fighting BackFighting back is a key motif in the novel. Characters including Miss Jane start off initially leaving home only to return home with a resolve to stay and take care of the people around them. Ned goes away to Kansas, fights in the war, but eventually returns with a family. When his life is threatened for teaching the children, instead of running away, he preaches harder, urging the people to remember that “This earth is yours and don’t let that man out there take it from you”, even though he knows that he will be killed for saying so. His death brings the community together. Similarly Jimmy goes away to school in New Orleans; when he returns, he begins organizing the people to help bring Civil Rights movement demonstrations to the Louisiana area. Like Ned he is also shot, but even in his death his efforts help bring the people together when as the novel’s concludes, Miss Jane and other residents of Samson go onto Bayonne to protest even without Jimmy.

[edit] Film AdaptationThe book was made into an award-winning television movie, broadcast on CBS in 1974. The film holds importance as one of the first films to deal with African-American characters with depth and sympathy. It preceded the ground-breaking television miniseries Roots by three years. The film culminates with Miss Pittman joining the American civil rights movement in 1962 at age 110.

The movie was directed by John Korty and the screenplay was written by Tracy Keenan Wynn. It starred Cicely Tyson in the lead role, as well as Michael Murphy, Richard Dysart, Katherine Helmond and Odetta. The film was filmed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.[2] The movie was notable for its use of very realistic special effects makeup by Stan Winston and Rick Baker for the lead character, who is shown from ages 23 to 110. The Television movie is currently distributed through Classic Media.

[edit] Differences Between the Novel and FilmPreceding Alex Haley’s iconic miniseries Roots, the film was one of the first films to take seriously depictions of African American in the plantation south. The film, like the book, also suggests a comparison between the contemporary moment of the Civil Rights Movement and the plight of African Americans at various points in history. The film, however, has some noticeable divergences from the novel. In the film the person who interviews Miss Jane is white. There is no indication of the interviewer’s race in the novel. In fact after the first couple of pages the interviewer completely falls out of the frame of the story though he continues to appear between flashbacks in the film. The film also opens with the book’s final story about Jimmy coming to an almost 110 years old Miss Jane to ask for her participation in a Civil Rights demonstration. The film appears to be a series of flashbacks that happen during this time of Jimmy’s Civil Rights organizing. In the novel, Colonel Brown gives Jane her name. Originally she had been called Ticey. The Corporal exclaims that “Ticey” is a slave name but then also ironically declares “I’ll call you Jane” after his own girl back in Ohio. In the film however, Corporal Brown only suggests the name “Jane” as one option in a list of potential names, so that it is Jane who says “I like ‘Jane’”. The film is littered with such discrepancies between it and Gaines’ novel.

[edit] AwardsDirectors Guild of America Award

Nine Emmy Awards[3]

Actress of the Year (Cicely Tyson)

Best Directing in Drama

Best Lead Actress in a Drama

Best Music Composition for a Special Program (Fred Karlin)

Best Writing in Drama (Tracy Keenan Wynn)

Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design (Bruce Walkup and Sandra Stewart)

Outstanding Achievement in Makeup (Stan Winston and Rick Baker)

Outstanding Special – Comedy or Drama

Nominated for a BAFTA award

[edit] References^ Gaines, Ernest. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Dial Press Paperbacks, 2009

^ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, New York Times.

^ IMDB Awards

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