Today in Literary History – October 31, 1880 – Julia Peterkin is born

Another undeservedly forgotten writer for “Today in Literary History.” Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Julia Peterkin was born into a wealthy South Carolina family on October 31, 1880. She earned a Masters degree and taught school before marrying, William Peterkin, a cotton plantation owner.

She lived with her husband on the 2,000 acre plantation that he inherited on the Gulf Coast of South Carolina called Lang Syne. The plantation had about 500 black field hands and servants whose lives were little different than they had been under slavery.

As one historian said, somewhat apologetically, of life on Lang Syne, “Blacks received wages, food, clothing, and shelter for their labor, while in turn they expected the white landowner to fulfill a number of roles from nurse to judge to banker.”

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Most of the the labourers on the plantation spoke the Creole language Gullah, just as writer Pat Conroy discovered 75 years later when he taught school on a nearby Gulf Coast island, the basis of his book, The Water is Wide. (I first heard of Peterkin through Conroy mentioning her.)

Peterkin had been raised by a black Gullah speaking nanny and said, “I learned to speak Gullah before I learned to speak English.”

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Peterkin began writing stories about the plantation workers, one of the first white authors to explore African-American themes, and peppered her fiction with Gullah words and phrases. She sent her early work to poet Carl Sandberg and editor and critic H.L. Mencken.

Mencken was instrumental in getting Peterkin a publishing contract from his friend Alfred Knopf. She won two O Henry Short Story prizes and a Pulitzer Prize in 1929 (the first Southerner to do so) for her novel Scarlet Sister Mary.

One writer said of Peterkin, “She not only brought the Gullah to a wide audience but was noted for being among the first white writers to portray blacks with virtues and vices common to all people.”

Several of her novels are still in print from the University of Georgia Press.

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