Today in Literary History – August 10, 1961 – controversial Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Julia Peterkin dies

Julia Peterkin, the controversial Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist died on August 10, 1961, at the age of 80.

Peterkin was born as Julia Mood in South Carolina and earned a Masters Degree from Converse College (an unusual achievement for a woman at the tine) before she married George Peterkin in 1903.

George Peterkin owned a vast 1500 acre cotton plantation on South Carolina’s Low Country coast, called Lang Syne. Peterkin and her husband lived on the plantation, which had 500 black workers and very few other white people nearby.

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The plantation’s workers were Gullah people, descendants of slaves who had lived mostly in isolation on the coast of North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

The original slaves were from various parts of Africa and spoke different languages; over time they developed their own distinctive Creole language, known as Gullah, which is still spoken today.

Peterkin had a son in 1904, but the delivery was complicated and she nearly died. Her father, a surgeon, delivered the baby and then sterilized Peterkin. Her inability to bear further children weighed heavily on her in a time and place when procreation was an important role in a woman’s life.

Peterkin had a long period of convalescence where she was cared for by Gullah women to whom she became very close, particularly to Lavinia Berry, a former slave who drew Peterkin into the community of Gullah women who lived and worked on the plantation.

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“Plantation novels” were very popular at the time that Peterkin began writing, but Peterkin took a different approach. Her novels didn’t feature stereotypical black “Mammies” or white-suited Colonels.

Instead, she wrote about the lives of the Gullah people she knew and used their own voices and Gullah words and phrases in her novels about them.

In a letter to H.L. Mencken, who became her champion and convinced Alfred Knopf to publish her first book of short stories, Green Thursday in 1924, she wrote bitterly that her by then adult son told her he couldn’t understand why she didn’t write about “beautiful white men and women, not niggers.” She told Mencken “No beautiful white people live in my head.”

Her third book, Scarlet Sister Mary, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929, but not without enormous controversy. It is is about Mary, a black woman plantation worker who loses her true love and then lures various men into sexual encounters with her using a love potion.  She then joyously bears children from each of them.

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The Pulitzer committee was deeply divided about awarding the prize to Scarlet Sister Mary, and it’s dissenting chairman resigned. Some criticcs found it to be obscene. One Chicago newspaper complained “A promiscuous Negress with seven illegitimate children can hardly be regarded as falling under the ‘highest standards.’”

W.E.B Du Bois, on the other hand, wrote “Peterkin is a southern white woman, but she has the eye and the ear to see beauty and know truth.”

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Endpapers for the first edition of Scarlet Sister Mary.

For unknown reasons, Peterkin stopped writing in 1933 and destroyed all of her personal papers. By the time of her death she was a mostly forgotten figure.

Scarlet Sister Mary and some of her other books are still in print but unfortunately Julia Peterkin and her novels have fallen into obscurity today.

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