Julia Mood Peterkin was a southern writer best known for her sympathetic portrayals of black folklife in the South Carolina Low Country, where she was born 31 October 1880. Her novel Scarlet Sister Mary won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1929.

Early reviewers focused on her depiction of black culture rather than on her literary techniques. Black intellectuals in particular, such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and Walter White, praised her avoidance of the racist stereotypes common at the time among white writers, North and South. W E. B. Du Bois said of her, "She is a Southern white woman, but she has the eye and the ear to see beauty and know truth."

Scholars continue to find in her delineation of the worldview of a black community and in her depiction of its creole language, Gullah, a near-native sensitivity and richness of texture. She may, in fact, be regarded as a native speaker of the language. Raised by a Gullah-speaking nurse after the death of her mother, she wrote, "I learned to speak Gullah before I learned to speak English."

Folklorists have praised Peterkin's "primary knowledge" of Afro-American folk culture. Her explanation was that "I have lived among the Negroes. I like them. They are my friends, and I have learned so much from them."

The literary establishment, after its initial enthusiasm, ignored her writings for more than,a generation. Not until the late 1970s were the literary aspects of her work -- its scope and themes, characterization and narrative techniques -- examined. Now literary scholars rank her fiction high, and recognize that she, like Joyce and Faulkner, was more interested in individual human beings in timeless and universal struggles than in local color. Although many of the incidents in her books she had personally witnessed on her plantation, Lang Syne (near Orangeburg, S.C.), the physical setting -- Sandy Island, Heaven's Gate Church, and "Blue Brook" (Brookgreen) plantation -- is often the Waccamaw region of Georgetown County, her summer home.

Peterkin's narrative technique grew out of the southern storytelling tradition (with the Gullah necessarily simplified to accommodate the limitations of her readers). She did not attempt, as did Hemingway, Dos Passos, Faulkner, and many of her other contemporaries, to borrow experimental styles from such modern European masters as Joyce. Unlike those of most writers, her male and female characters are equally well drawn and credible. Her vivid characterization owes much more to reality and the burdens of the immoderate past than to literary influences. There are no literary counterparts to her God-haunted, courageous, and compassionate black heroes and heroines -- Scarlet Sister Mary, Black April, Cricket, Maum Hannah, and Killdee Pinesett, whom a modern critic calls "one of the most moving, one of the most admirable characters in modern fiction."

Among her most important works are the mythic Green Thursday (1924), a story-cycle like Go Down Moses and Dubliners; her classical tragedy Black April (1927), which has been called "perhaps her most powerful work of fiction"; her feminist comedy Scarlet Sister Mary, and her magisterial work of non-fiction, Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933).

-- Charles Joyner, University of South Carolina, Coastal Campus

SOURCE: The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture

Julia Peterkin, South Carolina
Black April (1927)