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Post-Plantation and Post-Hawthorne Poputchik Writing: The Peculiarly American Time and Place of Julia Peterkin’s Scarlet Sister Mary

Anna Linzie

Abstract

American writer Julia Peterkin (1880–1961) represents a downhill trajectory in terms of literary prominence, from the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1929 to obscurity now, almost 100 years later. For a few years in the 1920s and 1930s, Peterkin was one among few white American authors who wrote primarily about black American lives and experiences. She can be seen as a temporary ally in relation to the contemporary political and cultural situation of black America. This article focuses on Scarlet Sister Mary (1928), Peterkin’s most famous and controversial novel, and explores what happened to her literary reputation later, in the historical context of the early 1930s and in connection with the publication of Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933). My claim is that Peterkin’s work engages American history and American literary history from a specifically American point in time, post-plantation era and post-Hawthorne, that temporarily allows and even rewards the literary blackface and racial/racist oscillation of Peterkin as a poputchik writer, a fellow traveler in relation to black America.

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  • 1 Peterkin is one of the American authors studied in a collaborative project on literary value that I (...)

1American writer Julia Peterkin (1880–1961) represents a downhill trajectory in terms of literary prominence, from the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1929 to obscurity now, almost 100 years later. At the same time, Peterkin’s life and work position her at an exceptional layered nexus of American time and place that is well worth studying.1 Between 1903, when she married wealthy plantation owner William George Peterkin, and 1961, when she died, Peterkin was the mistress of Lang Syne, a South Carolina cotton plantation near Fort Motte with a population of five white people and five hundred black people (Dietrich). For a few years in the 1920s and 1930s, Peterkin was also one among few white American authors who wrote primarily about black American lives and experiences. She can be seen as an ally in relation to black America, but only for a while.

2In this article, I will focus first on Scarlet Sister Mary (1928), Peterkin’s most famous and controversial novel, and then consider what happened to the author’s literary reputation later, in the historical context of the early 1930s and in connection with the publication of Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933). The temporal setting of Scarlet Sister Mary is a few decades after the plantation era in American history, ending with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 and the ratification of the 13th amendment in 1865, and the novel is situated in literary history roughly the same amount of time after Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: A Romance (1850). My claim is that Peterkin’s work engages American history and American literary history from a specifically American point in time, post-plantation era and post-Hawthorne, that temporarily allows and even rewards the literary blackface and racial/racist oscillation of Peterkin as a poputchik writer, a fellow traveler in relation to the cultural and political situation of black America.

3I have been inspired by Jan Kreidler’s use of the concept literary trickery in “Reviving Julia Peterkin as a Trickster Writer” (2006), but I would like to combine this view with a construction of Peterkin as not only a trickster but also, and perhaps primarily, a poputchik.2 The meaning of the term poputchik, while it originated in a completely different political context, combines the sense of being an ally of the other and supporter of the other’s cause, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, recognition that fellow travelers are marginal, not real insiders, and temporary, left by the wayside once the movement progresses to the next stage. In the American context, this position of revolutionary proximity was particularly salient in the 1920s and 1930s, which was also when Peterkin published her work. Kreidler describes Peterkin’s fate in American literature as follows:

During the 1920s and 1930s, her work was highly acclaimed and extremely controversial because it crossed sensitive racial borders; however, in recent decades, Peterkin's fiction has been neglected because she was an [Anglo-American] writing of a rural Afro-American community, concentrating on folk life. Until now the terms ‘regionalist’ and ‘primitivist’ have diminished Peterkin's reputation and damaged chances for a revival of her important literary works. However, when viewed in the context of trickster literary theory, Peterkin's fiction secures a legitimate and unique place in American literary history due to its revolutionary depiction of African Americans. (468)

4Kreidler goes on to argue that Peterkin can and should be reclaimed as a great American writer due to her use of “trickster writing techniques” (472). Kreidler’s definition of trickster writing is, however, partly questionable in relation to Peterkin: “Authors may be considered trickster writers if their lives and work cross cultural boundaries and confuse the distinctions set by the presiding dominant institutions” (469). This fits, but such border-crossing practice involves “the spirit of cunning and duplicity necessary to survive in a hostile cultural landscape, where one must navigate between two cultures” (469), which seems to suggest that literary tricksters are trapped on the disadvantaged side of the cultural divide, or at least risk falling down on that side. Kreidler indeed maintains that “Peterkin was precariously balanced on the fence between the Gullah culture and her own Anglo-American planter class” (469), but I disagree. A wealthy white plantation mistress, Peterkin is obviously a priori privileged and inhabits the very opposite of a “hostile cultural landscape,” which means that her defining trait as a writer and what makes her stand out in American literary history is that she deliberately positions herself, by means of literary trickery, in the poputchik role of a fellow traveler in relation to black America.

  • 3 Peterkin’s oeuvre includes Green Thursday: Stories (1924), Black April (1927), Scarlet Sister Mary (...)

5Peterkin’s relatively small literary output—three novels, a couple of non-fiction works, and a collection of short stories—is distributed neatly between 1924 and 1934, across the very cusp of time when the Roaring 1920s gave way to the Depression 1930s.3 Peterkin reached her peak of literary recognition in the exact middle of that period through the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for Scarlet Sister Mary, awarded just as booming 1920s America turned a corner to the Wall Street Crash, which in turn ushered in the Depression of the 1930s. Her writing deals with an often overlooked time and place of post-Civil War American life, characterized by divergent historical trajectories, as formerly enslaved black Americans and the descendants of slaves continued picking cotton and living on plantations in the South, even as the Great Migration began, even as New York and Chicago rushed headfirst into the Jazz Age, even as developments in the North started to herald the Harlem Renaissance.

  • 4 The immediate context of Peterkin’s work is the idea of a specifically Southern literature in decli (...)
  • 5 The Roaring Twenties didn’t roar in rural South Carolina. Instead, silence fell across abandoned f (...)
  • 6 In his 1917 essay “The Sahara of the Bozart” (the title ridiculing the Southern pronunciation of “b (...)

6Peterkin’s literary activities at this threshold in American history, and the ways in which she was read and received, prompt questions about what was achievable for her, in literature, at that particular juncture.4 What construction of American history was available to her or possible to conjure up for her work? What paths of distribution and recognition were open? What readership was awaiting her? What sponsors and promoters could be located? Peterkin was writing from a plantation in rural South Carolina while American literature seemed to happen elsewhere, in two faraway hubs of literary creativity, experiment, even renaissance: Harlem and Paris. As John H. Tibbetts points out, “[the] Roaring Twenties didn’t roar in rural South Carolina.”5 Moreover, in relation to the Southern Renaissance which was in fact underway in the 1920s, partly due to attacks on the provincial and trivial cultural life of the South coming from people like H. L. Mencken, Peterkin allied herself instead with the New York literary crowd and Mencken as one of her most important sponsors.6 From Lang Syne plantation, she sent self-confident letters to people she did not know, included samples of her writing about the Gullah culture of coastal South Carolina, and invited prominent literary figures like Carl Sandburg and Mencken to visit her. Sandburg stopped by. Mencken did not, but soon became Peterkin's literary agent and put her in contact with Alfred Knopf, who published Green Thursday, her first book, in 1924.

7Peterkin was an almost completely isolated literary voice, “a woman with no literary connections, who began writing at age forty from a rural farm in an era with few technological conveniences” (Kreidler 468), but somehow her themes and motifs resonated with the times and seemed closely related to cultural advances elsewhere: “Authentically ‘black-African’ elements turned up in Pablo Picasso’s artwork, in Julia Peterkin’s writings, and made artists like Josephine Baker popular during these years” (Cooper 29). In addition, her outspokenness about women’s sexuality and sexual freedom made her work perfect reading for the flappers of the Jazz Age, although her corner of the world was not at all roaring but boring, and she herself was a middle-aged plantation mistress very far removed from the young urban flapper scene of dance parties and bobbed hair. Despite the odds stacked against her, then, Peterkin turned out to be not only the first South Carolinian but also the very first Southerner to win the Pulitzer Prize for a novel, which in turn made her a literary celebrity.

  • 7 As a white Southerner, Peterkin herself was of course tied up in the racially fraught past of that (...)
  • 8 “From the Jazz Age to the Digital Age: Pulitzer Prize Winners in South Carolina. Celebrating Pulitz (...)

8In her work, Peterkin intentionally avoided the issue of race relations.7 She said that her preference was to present the black community “in a patient struggle with fate, and not in any race conflict at all” (Kreidler 468). It is often mentioned about Peterkin that even black critics were unable to tell if the author of her work was white or black, and this trickery worked for a very long time. Margaret Washington, the Marie Underhill Noll Professor of American History at Cornell and a black scholar, said in a 1916 televised panel discussion that she was tricked, too, into thinking that Peterkin was black when she first read Roll, Jordan, Roll.8 This indicates the powerfully persuasive nature of Peterkin’s literary blackface performance.

  • 9 Later, Peterkin’s stories have sometimes been criticized by some for expressing precisely those pre (...)

9Peterkin’s depictions of plantation life are notable for at least partial avoidance of stereotype and condescension, the customary modes of many white writers writing about black characters.9 Instead, in her own analysis, her representations of black people are based on admiration, even envy: “These black friends of mine live more in one Saturday night than I do in five years. I envy them, and I guess as I cannot be them, I seek satisfaction in trying to record them” (qtd. in Kreidler 471). Very much in line with the stereotypes of Negrophilia and the general fetishization of Black culture after World War I, Peterkin complained that white people’s lives “are not so colorful” (qtd. in Verdelle xxviii) and “so drab compared with others” (qtd. in Cooper 36). Not surprisingly, however, Peterkin’s decision to focus exclusively on black characters caused some confusion and controversy. As Melissa L. Cooper points out, Peterkin “all but erased white people, Jim Crow racism, and oppression from Blue Brook and from the lives of the Gullah folk she imagined. Peterkin rarely wrote about encounters between Blue Brook’s blacks and whites. When she did, these infrequent brushes were depicted as slight inconveniences and annoyances” (21). This approach was understandably somewhat hard to accept in the context of the American South in the late 1920s.

10It seemed outlandish for a white writer to omit white people, and consequently race relations between whites and blacks, from a story set in the South: “At the time, readers were amazed to encounter a community of Negroes independent of the dramatic interference of whites. Some readers were irritated, even threatened, that the oppression of black people does not dominate Julia Peterkin’s story” (Verdelle viii). When Scarlet Sister Mary, very rarely, includes a mention of white people, they typically come from far away and are defined as distant and potentially dangerous: “The white landowners sent poison machines to scatter poison dust over the fields” (188). At the same time, they are powerless in relation to the order of things at the plantation: “Night after night the strange things droned and whined spreading their poison clouds, but the rain always came and washed the fields clean and fresh again. It must have been that the weevils could eat poison and thrive. The stuff that was meant to kill them seemed to make them grow fatter and stronger than ever” (188). On a few occasions, white people are described in Scarlet Sister Mary in strikingly timeless terms: “White people are curious things. They pass laws no matter how fool the laws are, and put people in jail if those laws are not kept” (209). Throughout the novel, however, the black community remains in focus in a new and unusual way:

Reversing earlier literary trends, Peterkin avoids working out the sticky issue of racism by portraying complex, diverse characters of African heritage in an insular Gullah community without [Anglo-American] presence.… she successfully presented American cultural diversity to white, middle-class Americans, sans the “moonlight and magnolia” sentimentality or stereotypical racial caricatures previous Southern writers used to sugarcoat issues such as class, race, and gender. (Kreidler 468-469)

11Despite the success of this literary strategy, many southerners felt that Peterkin betrayed her class and race when she wrote about a world unknown to most wealthy whites. Her willingness to seek out controversy also caused a great deal of concern among family members and friends, regarding her social standing and the family name (see Verdelle xxxi). In a 1922 letter to Sandburg, Peterkin says: “I am plodding on and meeting with fierce disapproval. My brother, my father, my husband, my son are terribly annoyed with me” (Kreidler 471). A 1924 letter hints at the kind of censure she, notably the only female member of the Peterkin household, endured due to her writing: “Evidently, I have made a social breach, and am being disciplined a bit” (Kreidler 471). As Verdelle points out, however, “Peterkin did not openly advocate for blacks; she simply presented them dramatically, theatrically, as people. Her readership acknowledged an introduction to new subjects—Negroes living out their own tales of romance and livelihood within the sacrosanct pages of a white woman’s novel” (xxvii). For a while, this ruse—writing black lives boldly inside the protective covers of “a white woman’s novel”—proved to be successful.

  • 10 “[T]he subject of [Peterkin’s] novel is the internal drama of the society of plantation Negroes. Sc (...)

12In Scarlet Sister Mary, the main character inhabits a strangely insular post-slavery world consisting of an abandoned (that is, abandoned by white people) plantation in the American South, shaped by the social codes, superstitions, and religious practices of the black community running it.10 Mary’s indecencies and sexual transgressions constitute the central controversy of the story, exacerbated by her unwillingness to repent or be sorry. Maum Hannah’s reaction when she sees her young relative naked and noticeably pregnant just before her wedding to July marks the beginning of the main crisis in the text:

‘May-e, you an’ July is been a-havin sin, enty?… I raised you to know right from wrong, enty? An’ you went an’ let July make you have sin? … Lawd, dat July is a case. A heavy case in dis world.’
Mary wanted to say that July was not all to blame, but her breath fluttered and spilled the words.
‘I see now why Satan sent dat rat to gnaw a hole in you weddin-cake. Satan knowed you b’longed to him an’ not to Jedus.’….
‘Wha dat I done so awful bad, Auntie? Me an’ July is gwine marry to-day.’’.…
‘….Why couldn’ you wait for de preacher to read out de book over you an’ make you July’s lawful wife?… Some sin is black, an’ some ain’ so black, but dis sin you had is pure scarlet.’ (35–36)

13The dialogue between the two women, in dialect, is supplemented with a comment in the narrator’s voice, in standard English, and the latter is not only omniscient in relation to what is going on in Mary’s mind and explicit about Mary’s awareness of her own sexuality and desire, but also unmistakably on her side. At the wedding party, right after this eruption of blame and the labeling of her transgression as a “scarlet sin,” Mary is “almost sorry that she [is] a church-member” (52), watches July dance with her rival Cinder, and finally gives in and joins in the forbidden act of dancing: “With her eyes half closed and her blood tingling hot, she whirled and twisted…” (55). After the wedding and the trance-like dancing which enrages July and shocks the crowd, the novel goes on to trace the life trajectory of Mary as she is quickly identified and categorized as a sinner in her community: “A scarlet sin is a blab-mouth thing” (38). The salient point here, however, is that “sin… agreed with her” (182). Thanks to a love charm that she receives from Daddy Cudjoe after July has abandoned her for Cinder, Mary is able to seduce any man she wants: “Her charm did nothing but draw the men she liked to her, and hold them as long as she wanted them, no more than that” (224). Due to passages like the following, Scarlet Sister Mary was considered obscene and banned by various libraries, north and south, most notably the local library in Gaffney, Georgia (see “The Press: Scarlet in South Carolina”):

If she did fail to get a spell laid on [Andrew], it made no difference. Plenty of other men were in the world, and the difference between one man and another does not amount to a very great deal. There had been a few men she preferred to all the rest for a day or a week; some as long as a year, because they were kinder or stronger or maybe weaker and more in need of what she had to give, but not one of them had ever satisfied her long at a time. Not one, although she had always picked the best.
Men are too much alike, with ways too much the same. None is worth keeping, none worth a tear; and still each one is a little different from the rest; just different enough to make him worth finding out. (248)

14As a consequence of this attitude and the way she lives her life, Mary gives birth to a number of illegitimate children. Thanks to Daddy Cudjoe’s charm, however, she stays young and strong and happy even though she is poor and relegated to the margins of the community. Mary’s capacity for work, unusual even among the inhabitants of Blue Brook Plantation, is part of the magic that sustains her, even though she remains branded a sinner and an outcast: “Field work was no hardship to her.… Hoeing cotton was no more than a game” (74). She is portrayed as endowed with superhuman strength, both in relation to work in the field and in relation to the labor of childbearing and childbirth. “I don’ mean to brag,” Mary says, “but birthin a baby ain’ no trouble to me. It don’ even gi me a backache.… I can birth a child easy as I can pop my finger” (212–213). Due to these traits and habits, Mary’s relationships with other women are strained. “When you gwine to stop a-sinnin, Si May-e?” Doll complains, worried about her husband Andrew (see the quote above for hints about the reason for her concern). Mary gleefully responds: “When I get tired seein pleasure. A lot o mighty fine men round here ain’ so awful satisfied wid dey wives. I might try one more round befo I stop fo good” (257–258). This attitude of pride and audacity is privileged throughout the text, and the narrator never disciplines or punishes the protagonist.

15Mary’s wayward love life is the scarlet sin of the oxymoronic moniker “scarlet sister” which combines a reference to sin and a reference to inclusion in a religious community, but the most shocking crime is her attitude towards the rules and her own transgressions. Mary’s unwillingness to accept the conventional Christian definition of sin, which is obvious already in her conversation with Maum Hannah quoted above, grows into a more radical view of gender, sexuality, and relationships between men and women later on in the novel: “Thank god, she knew men at last, and she knew that not one of them is worth a drop of water that drains out of a woman’s eye” (191). When she meets Cinder again, after July has abandoned her, too, Mary explicitly embraces her fate and delights in the opportunities that she is free to enjoy as a woman guilty of a “scarlet” sin: “Deep down in Mary’s heart she thanked God for all the other strong men that were in the world. July was not the only one. And June was not either” (191). Mary later explains her way of thinking about relationships as a desire for challenge and variation: “I like to shoot down de ducks as dey rise” (258). Again, this attitude, presented as clearly non-feminine in the text, is favored, supported, and never undermined by the narrator.

16Sister Mary—problematic, promiscuous, perhaps protofeminist but still impossible protagonist—lives and loves at a point in historical time a few decades after what has traditionally been seen as the plantation era in American history, ending with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 and the ratification of the 13th amendment in 1865, and her story is situated in literary history roughly the same amount of time after Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: A Romance (1850). “One could argue,” Verdelle points out, “that Scarlet Sister Mary is Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, transposed into black” (ix). In relation to Hawthorne’s adulteress protagonist, Mary’s similarly wicked and sinful fictional forerunner Hester Prynne, Mary is not only black but also (and consequently) represents proliferation and excess. Hester’s adultery results in Pearl only, while Mary, unrepenting, goes on to have a brood of illegitimate children (between seven and ten, depending on how you count them) by the end of the story (and never says she is done sinning).

  • 11 “The novel does not date itself explicitly, but throughout the story, the characters leave and retu (...)

17Hawthorne’s masterpiece deals with the Puritan past two hundred years before the time of publication, while Peterkin’s Mary and her community inhabit an undefined recent past, in the early 1900s, when the rundown houses of slaves are deteriorating but still possible to inhabit, when slavery is precisely as far removed backwards in time as the civil rights movement is there awaiting in the future.11 What Peterkin gets from Hawthorne as her literary precursor is not only the major themes of sin and punishment, adultery and social expulsion, but a particularly productive literary combination of myth and realism, dream and reality, which allowed Hawthorne before her to write about American matters without taking an explicit stand in relation to American politics.

  • 12 For a recent discussion of the paradoxical nature of early 20th-century Southern literature, see fo (...)

18In the famous introduction to the Scarlet Letter, “The Custom-House,” Hawthorne describes “a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet” (35). The scene he presents concerns what is required for the literary imagination to work: “Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet, and showing all its figures so distinctly… is a medium the most suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests” (35). Everything that is everyday and well known “is now invested with a quality of strangeness and remoteness” and “[g]hosts might enter here without affrighting us” (35-36). Hawthorne goes on to talk about the fire, emitting a “warmer light [which] mingles itself with the cold spirituality of the moon-beams” and taking the writer “one remove further from the actual, and nearer to the imaginative” (36). Writing three quarters of a century after Hawthorne explained romance and the literary imagination this way, Peterkin seems to combine the intellectual light of the moon—“so white”—and the warm, deeply emotional glow of the fire to create a literary world, ”Blue Brook Plantation,” that signifies both dream and truth, the Actual and the Imaginary: “A great empty Big House, once the proud home of the plantation masters, is now an old crumbling shell with broken chimneys and a rotting roof. Ghosts can be heard at sunset rattling the closed window-blinds upstairs, as they strive for a glimpse of the shining river that shows between the tall cedars and magnolias” (12–13). In this specifically Southern literary world, where the Gothic and Hawthorne’s type of romance played a much greater part at the time than in the North, in between the historical truth of slavery and the dreamlike space of ghosts and remainders/reminders, time seems to work differently: “Years go by without leaving a mark or footprint” (13).12 Mary’s relationships with men even suggest an imaginary calendar with the months of the year progressing backwards as her husband July abandons her and his brother June for a while becomes her lover.

  • 13 As Cooper points out, the “quasi-African primitiveness” of Peterkin’s characters “freed them to exp (...)

19The way in which Blue Brook survives and seemingly disregards the impact of natural disasters—“the old plantation is swift to hide every scar made by all this wickedness”—appears to reflect the way in which Peterkin’s text handles slavery: “New chimneys are quickly built and houses mended; trees thrust up young branches to fill empty spaces…” (13). The ability of the black community to persevere, highlighted in the first few pages of the novel, can be seen as blueprint for Peterkin’s attempt to write about blacks as people from her impossible position as a white plantation mistress in the American South in the 1920s: “strange miracles are wrought as youth rises out of decay and death becomes only another beginning” (13). It seems miraculous indeed in the novel that cotton-picking is presented more as a pastime than as hard work with a function and symbolic significance in American history as the quintessential form of slave labor, the mainstay of the “peculiar institution” of the American South: “The picking is easy. Nimble fingers move quickly. Every boll is left clean. Eyes glance up to meet other eyes. Musical voices flow into one another. Cotton-picking time is the best of the year. Every work-day is a holiday.” (60) In itself and if it had been uttered by Peterkin “herself,” this description of cotton-picking would strike us, and perhaps even contemporary readers, as an unacceptable expression of oblivious privilege and a plantation owner’s view of black workers as primitive.13 D. L. Lewis has indeed called Peterkin a “professional primitivist” (99), and Nghana tamu Lewis argues that Peterkin, “a white black writer,” in fact tried to uphold the dying plantation system:

The rather revealing problem inherent in her enduring status as a white black writer is that she was, in fact, a conservative white southern woman writing on black subjects. Regardless of her concern for the black people who lived with and worked for her, Peterkin's fiction constructs an upwardly mobile black southern population that threatened her status as a modern plantation mistress. (606) 

  • 14 Peterkin’s literary treatment of the Gullah has been questioned later as stereotyping (see Cooper 2 (...)

20However, this passage in the novel is framed by descriptions, certainly primitivist but also celebratory, of the women of the black community as strong, independent, and capable, and the assessment of what cotton-picking means belongs to them: “Bright-turbaned women, deep-chested, ample-hipped and strong, bent women with withered skin and trembling uncertain fingers, little gay chocolate-colored children who played as they worked…” (59). Significantly, moreover, the historical ignorance and outrageous privilege of the white plantation mistress, which seem to lurk beneath the surface of the text like the ghosts that roam the Big House, are offset and deferred by the wisdom and modesty of the black women characters, particularly Maum Hannah: “She knows all about Africa, that far country over the water” (60).14

21In addition to indications like these that the text is on the side of the black characters rather than the white author, an explicit rejection of the written word and books as a “white” domain dominates a key passage in the text which follows upon Keepsie’s accident. Keepsie is one of Mary’s children. One of his legs is cut off by “that newfangled hay-press,” described as “a blind contraption made by white men” (195). Keepsie later wants to go to school, but his mother is against it: “The same white people who made the hay-press made newspapers and books. Such things were dangerous” (196). For black people, according to Mary, “[s]poken words are safer” and Keepsie “would do better to learn how to read other things: sunrises, moons, sunsets, clouds and stars, faces and eyes” (196). Mary’s reasoning is presented convincingly, and in this way the text itself undermines and questions the idea of “the sacrosanct pages” of a white woman’s novel: “Book-learning takes people’s minds off more important things” (197). Again, the novel signals the solidarity and sympathy of a fellow traveler.

  • 15 Adapted into a play, Scarlet Sister Mary was indeed staged as a blackface performance in 1930, and (...)

22One part of Peterkin’s project was using dialect to portray Gullah characters. “Speaking through an improvised spelling of Gullah dialect,” Kreidler says, “Peterkin offers a rare literary example of the master using the slave's language” (468). This is a remarkable act of ventriloquism which can be and has later been seen and critiqued as a kind of blackface literary discourse.15 In a letter to Peterkin, Mencken applauded her for making “these darkeys real” (qtd. in Cooper 34), which indicates what it meant to be a white writer writing about black characters in the 1920s. As Cooper points out, Peterkin’s work did contain “the imprint of racial caricatures” and her Gullah characters “were certainly rooted in race fantasies that had dominated the nation’s imaginary long before she began to write” (22). Cooper associates Peterkin’s work with the kind of primitivism that allowed modernist writers to distance themselves from the Victorian era, while still using blacks to elevate themselves:

This fascination with the carefree, unfettered, primitive black ‘other’ was not a departure from racist civilization discourse, but instead was an adjustment of the discourse. Peterkin, and others like her, projected their fantasies onto nonwhite primitives—like their ideological predecessors did their savages—and used them to settle their own inner turmoil and clarify their humanity similar to the way that Victorians used their savages to bolster their sense of racial superiority. (29)

  • 16 Referring to When Harlem Was in Vogue by D. L. Lewis, Kreidler paints a different picture which may (...)

23It is true that primitivism, including aspects of stereotype and prejudice, is part of Peterkin’s literary imagination. In her first couple of novels, nevertheless, Peterkin apparently did literary blackface so well, so fearlessly, and with such insight into and empathy for the lives of the Gullah that she was received as an “unlikely heroine of modern fiction” and celebrated as “a favorite of the Harlem Renaissance” (Plumb). The Harlem Renaissance embraced white writers treating race issues seriously, and compared to previous attempts by white writers to portray black characters, Peterkin’s work stood out. The fact that her Blue Brook Gullahs differed from the stock black characters that had previously dominated the work of white southern writers was “enough to earn the praise of the New Negro intelligentsia” (Cooper 34). Langston Hughes approved, W.E.B. Du Bois approved, and Alain Locke approved to the point of saying that Scarlet Sister Mary was “a masterpiece that demonstrated a ‘new attitude of the literary South toward Negro life.’”16

  • 17 Examples of works by white modernist authors about black American characters include Gertrude Stein (...)

24Other white writers writing about African American life were embraced by the black community in the 1920s and 1930s,17 and some black writers—for instance Jean Toomer—also used primitivist aesthetics to depict the American South. Still, Peterkin stands out as an exceptional case. It may seem strange today that her work was received among black writers and intellectuals as progressive, even revolutionary, in the late 1920s. Her writing is not in any way explicitly political. As Cooper points out, “Blue Brook blacks’ poverty and their struggle to survive, and the fact that they were relegated to tenant farming on the old plantation, had nothing to do with the structures of racism” (22). On the contrary, in Peterkin’s work and the work of other writers like her, Cooper argues, “the use of black subjects… was a vehicle for rebellion and…, at times, a form of romantic racism” (29). However, Peterkin’s usefulness as a fellow traveler in this context was that she refused to be part of the tradition of white writers writing “plantation stories” with stereotyped and/or humorous black characters. Tibbetts points out that Peterkin’s black characters “are shown as thinking, feeling people with universal desires, joys, and sorrows. This was revolutionary at the time. Almost without exception, blacks had been portrayed in southern fiction only as loyal servants or as buffoons for comic effect.” (Tibbetts) Similarly, Terry C. Plumb notes:

Reviewers were taken by Peterkin’s ability to capture the Gullah dialect of Lowcountry blacks and to convey their customs and superstitions. Although plantation stories had long been a staple of Southern writers, black characters typically had been treated condescendingly or as humorous caricatures, such as Uncle Remus in works by Joel Chandler Harris. (Plumb)

25Peterkin’s novel is often funny because it is drastic and surprising, but already from the very first page, the tone is serious and there is an emphasis on the self-confident, strong, proud outlook of the Gullah:

The black people who live in the Quarters at Blue Brook Plantation believe they are far the best black people living on the whole ‘Neck,’ as they call that long, narrow, rich strip of land lying between the sea on one side and the river with its swamps and deserted rice-fields on the other. They are no Guinea negroes with thick lips and wide noses and low ways; or Dinkas with squatty skulls and gray-tinged skin betraying their mean blood; they are Gullahs with tall straight bodies, and high heads filled with sense. (11)

26This opening may seem “racist” in a very blatant way, but it is devoid of white standards as an external explanatory framework for the distinctions between different groups of black people. When Mary towards the end of the novel sits alone in the garden of the big abandoned mansion at the plantation and thinks about history, her perspective is similarly foregrounded, even as the text is outspoken about what slavery was and did:

The plantation owners had lived there many a year, ruling the land… as firmly as they ruled the black people whom they bought and sold as freely as they did the mules… Black people used to make up part of the plantation’s wealth the same as the carriage and saddle horses with their well-rubbed, shining hides.
They were valued according to their strength and sense. The weak and stupid were sold. Only the best were kept. A good thing. Mary could see it now. The white people were gone. The forest had taken back many of their fields, the river had swallowed their rice-fields, but the black people were used to hardship and they lived on here and throve. Her mother had been born here and her grandmother and all the other women before them right back to the first ones who were brought long ago up the river from the town where a slave market gave them and other black people to the rice- and cotton-fields. She had got her health and strength and vigor from them. (250–251)

27In this passage, Mary recognizes slavery for what it was, but also makes this history her own through observing the absence of white people and celebrating her own strength and the excellence of all the black women before her.

  • 18 The complicated racial relations in America at the time are indicated in an alternative anecdote to (...)

28Due to her ability to treat black characters seriously and respectfully, Peterkin was received by black writers, critics, and intellectuals with respect. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) recommended her work, and W.E.B. Du Bois famously said, “Peterkin is a southern white woman, but she has the eye and the ear to see beauty and know truth” (qtd. in Plumb). Expectations concerning the “truth” about black people in general and the Gullah in particular seem to emerge as an effect of Peterkin’s work and the reception of it. Before the publication of Scarlet Sister Mary, a New York Times article “Peterkin Writes Again of Gullah Negroes” announced her third book as fact, not fiction (Cooper 35). Cooper complains: “By the time that Peterkin’s beloved primitives won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1929 for Scarlet Sister Mary, the black press had also started describing Blue Brook as if it were a real place populated by real black people” (35). As a result of this type of attention, Peterkin was included in different contexts not only as an ally but also as an expert in relation to black American literature. Her “innovation and celebrity” meant “a kind of specialist status regarding Negroes,” and she was for instance invited to review Fine Clothes to the Jew by Langston Hughes in 1927 (Verdelle xxix).18

29Plumb points out that, above all, Peterkin was right on time in relation to what was going on in American literature and society at the time:

Peterkin’s popularity benefited from auspicious timing. During the third decade of the century, America was becoming increasingly sensitized to the plight of Southern blacks. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan in national politics, race riots in major cities and frequent reports of grisly lynchings contributed to the belief that Southern writers lived in a romanticized dream world. (Plumb)

30Cooper explains Peterkin’s rise to fame as a question of history and timing as well:

The literary musings of a self-professed tortured white plantation mistress from South Carolina would have fallen flat, and failed to capture the attention of the nation’s littérateurs, had it not been for the nation’s growing obsession with ‘primitives’ in the 1920s and 1930s. The nation’s imagination was ripe for Peterkin’s tales. The carnage that took place during World War I critically ruptured white Victorian thinkers’ assumptions about the superiority of European civilization, inspiring new interest in people once deemed backward and savage among Modernist writers, artists, and intellectuals searching for new ways to understand human society after the Great War. (25-26)

31According to Cooper, the obsession with “primitives” at this point in time is a result of World War I. This account provides a philosophical and literary context for Peterkin’s focus on the living and loving of the Gullah, as a primitivist, proto-modernist revolt against Victorian prejudice: “For Peterkin, Gullah folk were the perfect primitives” (29). In very concrete terms, Peterkin’s use of Gullah characters and Gullah dialect secured a large readership for her work at a time characterized by demographic upheaval as more than one million black Americans moved from the South to the North during the Great Migration (see Cooper 32).

32However, Peterkin was not only read for content, but also praised for style and originality. As we have seen, Mencken, “the South’s most acerbic critic” (Plumb), was a prominent voice in the choir of people complaining about the political, cultural, and literary situation in the South. His endorsement of Peterkin and her fellow South Carolinian DuBose Heyward as two emergent Southern writers who might have something more up-to-date and useful to offer prompted mainstream critics to take interest, but Peterkin was also noticed and appreciated by black intellectuals (see Plumb). In his 1931 essay “The Negro in Art,” Alain Locke, professor of philosophy and philosophical architect of the Harlem Renaissance, talks about “the paradox… that some of the most important exponents and protagonists of Negro art are white writers and artists… concerned with the artistic development of Negro materials” (100). Locke lists Peterkin’s Black April and Scarlet Sister Mary among works by white authors that are “intimately Negro in source and inspiration”, and continues: “And important as is the question of the development of the black artist and an internally active race culture, it is perhaps best and fitting that the formal inauguration and vindication of Negro art should come so largely at the hands of the white American artist, who in this way dispenses poetic justice along with artistic good” (101). Locke’s recognition of the valuable contribution that white writers like Peterkin may make to black culture is a central part of his approach to culture, and he also advocated a version of strategic primitivism as a way to recognition for black artists.

33It is clear, then, that Peterkin’s literary blackface was an effective method for her short stories and first two novels, which established a position for her as an ally of black America. However, literary taste changed during the Depression and Peterkin’s next novel after Scarlet Sister MaryBright Skin (1932), was attacked for some of the things for which her earlier fiction had been praised, including her refusal to talk explicitly about racial conflict or condemn the plantation system. As the 1930s went on, she quickly lost her position as one of the greatest Southern writers. For her second-to-last publication, Peterkin used the voice of the white plantation mistress to talk about the Gullah from a distance, and this turned out to be a rhetorical, ideological, and ethical downfall—the end of her relevance as a poputchik.

  • 19 Roll, Jordan, Roll is “a rare collector's item currently fetching over $6,500 US for a first editio (...)

34A few years before Walker Evans and James Agee famously set out to document poor rural Depression-era Americans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), Peterkin collaborated with celebrity photographer Doris Ulmann on a volume called Roll, Jordan, Roll, published in 1933. In text and photographs, this rare and out-of-print work, which has been hailed as one of the most beautiful books in existence, describes the religious life and community of the Gullah.19 It has been argued later, as Peterkin’s reputation faltered, that the original idea for the book was Ulmann’s and that her photographs should be considered as artworks that function independently of the text. The latter claim is supported very concretely by the fact that the pictures have been placed differently in relation to the text in different copies. In other words, the text does not provide captions for the photographs, and the photographs do not illustrate the text.

35In terms of legacy, Ulmann’s photographs prevailed triumphantly, and Peterkin’s text failed miserably. Two quotes can be used to illustrate the confusing and contradictory effect of Peterkin struggling to talk about black people consistently and reliably as people in Roll, Jordan, Roll. On the one hand, Peterkin expresses awareness of the way in which racism operates through generalization and dehumanization: “It is absurd to place all Negroes in one great social class, mark it ‘colored,’ and make generalizations about its poverty, ignorance, immorality. Negro individuals differ in character and mentality as widely as do people with lighter skins” (16). On the other hand, Peterkin also blatantly and it seems unthinkingly recycles old-fashioned racist stereotypes: “White Southerners with generations of contact with Negroes behind them show markedly the influence of negro ways and ideas. They are infected with the negro will to please, the wish to live with a minimum of labor, and the willingness to discard ambition for contentment and enjoyment” (19). Already in Scarlet Sister Mary, Peterkin oscillated between these poles of awareness and respect, on the one hand, and condescension and prejudice, on the other. The first chapter which begins inside the black community at Blue Brook Plantation and its pride in being “far the best black people” compared to other black people in the region, as quoted above, goes on to describe the history of that excellence in terms that are strikingly mitigating regarding slavery: “The old owners of Blue Brook must have been careful to buy slaves that were perfect, for they built up a strain of intelligent, upstanding human beings, just as they bred race-horses and hunting dogs that could not be excelled” (11–12). It is true that Southern whites, too, are described dehumanizingly in class-related terms that place Peterkin firmly in the classist attitudes of the old South: “the house and body servants came into close contact with masters and mistresses who were ladies and gentlemen and not common white trash, or poor buckras” (12). But of course, as always in Peterkin’s story, white people are marginal and unimportant in relation to the foregrounded account of black characters, which oscillates rapidly between the extremes of extolment and disrespect.

36Kreidler’s analysis of Peterkin’s ambivalence and her fate in literary history is based on the idea that she herself towards the end of her career as a writer lost sight of the “cause” that had fueled her early work:

Peterkin fell from the heights of international celebrity, in part, by choice. She was working and living within a system that astringently adhered to colonial fantasies to uphold the power structure, and unfortunately, she could not escape her cultural heritage entirely. As she aged, she regressed to the very thinking she had objected to in her writing. Peterkin’s career ended when she began believing the old Southern myths[.] (472)

37Other scholars, notably Cooper, argue that Peterkin’s work was never truly progressive, that her primitivism and focus on black characters should be seen as selfish at best, and that it was a mistake to celebrate her work as supportive of the black cause:

Some black journalists and some members of the New Negro intelligentsia mistook Peterkin’s primitivism as a statement of her commitment to racial equality… But the idea that Peterkin’s race views were progressive was overstated and exaggerated. Peterkin did not intend to use her writings to challenge the South’s racial hierarchy. She worried about provoking the Ku Klux Klan and attracting the scorn of southern whites. And while she was at times privately critical of white supremacy and its adherents, when in South Carolina, she lived her life like other affluent white conservative southern women did. (Cooper 36)

38Cooper’s verdict, based on truths such as “[Peterkin] never committed to any actions to halt lynchings in her home state” (37), is convincing if Peterkin’s work is judged in accordance with 21st-century standards for what counts as progressive and anti-racist. My claim, however, is that the peculiarly American time and place of the South in the 1920s, coupled with an understanding of Peterkin the writer as not only a trickster but also a poputchik, a temporary fellow traveler, allows us to move away from a present-day rejection of her as trapped in the position of an “affluent white conservative southern [woman].” Precisely as this type of woman (writer) in her particular historical and geographical context, Peterkin appears strikingly radical.

39I have suggested that Scarlet Sister Mary refers back to American history and American literary history from a peculiarly American point in time, post-plantation era and post-Hawthorne, that temporarily enables and even rewards the literary blackface and racial/racist oscillation of Peterkin as a poputchik writer, a fellow traveler in relation to black America. Peterkin’s protagonist Mary is granted a semi-happy ending, since she is finally accepted back into the community as a church member and a seemingly repentant sinner. The twist of the final passage in the novel is that she still insists on keeping her good-luck charm, the mark of promiscuous magic, the trickery which will keep her young forever and ever. Peterkin’s career as a writer, meanwhile, ends abruptly and not very happily after a decade of work which was transgressive in a positive way and then turned reactionary in a negative way. For a brief period of time, Peterkin’s work made her a poputchik, a fellow traveler, or, in Locke’s words, a white American artist who dispensed poetic justice along with artistic good. By the early 1930s, that moment in history was over, and her magic was gone.

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Bibliography

Cooper, Melissa L. Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination. U of North Carolina P, 2017.

Dietrich, Kevin. “Remembering Julia Peterkin, who brought Gullah to the masses.” 2015. Accessed March 2, 2024. https://southcarolina1670.wordpress.com/2015/05/17/remebering-julia-peterkin-who-brought-gullah-to-the-masses/#more-16018.

Evans, Walker and James Agee. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Houghton Mifflin, 1941.

“From the Jazz Age to the Digital Age: Pulitzer Prize Winners in South Carolina. Celebrating Pulitzer Novelist Julia Peterkin.” Televised SCETV panel discussion moderated by Beryl Dakers, with Gayla Jamison, Susan Millar Williams, and Margaret Washington. May 19, 2016. Accessed March 2, 2024. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNqv1joPfUk

Hawthorne, Nathaniel, “The Custom-House.” The Scarlet Letter (1850). The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, vol. 1, ed. by William Charvat et al, Ohio State UP, pp. 1962-1997.

Hinrichsen, Lisa. Possessing the Past: Trauma, Imagination, and Memory in Post-Plantation Southern Literature. Louisiana State UP, 2015.

Kreidler, Jan. “Reviving Julia Peterkin as a Trickster Writer.” Journal of American Culture, vol. 29, no. 4, 2006, pp. 468-474.

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. Penguin, 1997.

Lewis, Nghana tamu. “The Rhetoric of Mobility, the Politics of Consciousness: Julia Mood Peterkin and the Case of a White Black Writer.” African American Review, vol. 38, no. 4, 2004, pp. 589-608.

Locke, Alain. “The Negro in Art.” Christian Education, vol. 15, no. 2, 1931, pp. 98-103.

Mencken, H. L. “The Sahara of the Bozart.” New York Evening Mail, Nov 13, 1917. Accessed March 2, 2024. https://thegrandarchive.wordpress.com/the-sahara-of-the-bozart/.

Peterkin, Julia. A Plantation Christmas. Houghton Mifflin, 1934.

---. Black April. Bobbs Merrill, 1927.

---. Bright Skin. Bobbs Merrill, 1932.

---. Green Thursday: Stories. Alfred Knopf, 1924.

---. Scarlet Sister Mary (1928). U of Georgia P, 1998.

Peterkin, Julia, and Doris Ulmann. Roll, Jordan, Roll. R.O. Ballou, 1933.

Plumb, Terry C. “Two unlikely heroines of modern fiction.” Accessed March 2, 2024. https://www.pulitzer.org/article/two-unlikely-heroines-modern-fiction.

“The Press: Scarlet in South Carolina.” Time, June 10, 1929. Accessed March 2, 2024. https://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,751953,00.html.

Tibbetts, John H. “The Lowcountry’s Jazz Age: Gift of Story and Song.” Coastal Heritage Magazine, vol. 24, no. 2, 2009, pp. 3-10.

Verdelle, A. J. Foreword. Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin [1928]. U of Georgia P, 1998, pp. vii-xxxv.

Wilson, James Southall. “Back-Country Novels.” Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 8, no. 3, 1932. Accessed March 2, 2024. https://www.vqronline.org/back-country-novels.

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Notes

1 Peterkin is one of the American authors studied in a collaborative project on literary value that I am currently working on together with Anna Forssberg. Peterkin represents the American side of one of our comparative Swedish-American case studies where we trace the ups and downs of literary valuation on either side of the Atlantic between 1900 and 1970.

2 Soviet statesman Anatoly Lunacharsky coined the term poputchik (“one who travels the same path”) and Leon Trotsky later popularized it as a label for the indecisive intellectual supporters of the Bolshevik government. In the U.S., the European term fellow-traveller was used for persons who sympathized with, but were not members of, the Communist Party. I would like to thank Fredrik Krohn Andersson for pointing out to me the usefulness of the poputchik concept in this context.

3 Peterkin’s oeuvre includes Green Thursday: Stories (1924), Black April (1927), Scarlet Sister Mary (1928), Bright Skin (1932), Roll, Jordan, Roll (with Doris Ulmann, 1933), and A Plantation Christmas (1934).

4 The immediate context of Peterkin’s work is the idea of a specifically Southern literature in decline, as lamented by Mencken and many others. A 1932 piece by James Southall Wilson called “Back-Country Novels” begins by decrying the sorry state of Southern fiction: “There is a new South in fiction... Its inhabitants are the Negro, the mountaineer, the poor-white, and the degenerate,” Wilson complains. The problem, he says, is that “the newest writers to arrive in the land of the magnolia, the jessamine, and the julep show no… kinship to its literary tradition” (Wilson). However, Wilson then goes on to praise Peterkin and puts the blame for any degeneration of Southern fiction on her followers. In fact, he not only commends Peterkin as part of the true literary tradition of the South, but also ranks her alongside Faulkner as an equally prominent and pioneering literary genius. “The latest development of realism in the South has its most individual exponents in Julia Peterkin, Thomas Wolfe, and William Faulkner,” Wilson proclaims, still in 1932 ranking Peterkin among the greatest writers of the period. Peterkin’s greatness was not of the lasting kind, however, and her genius, unlike Faulkner’s, did not earn her a secure place in the canon of twentieth-century American literature. Verdelle suggests that Scarlet Sister Mary did in fact grant Peterkin a place in the canon (xxxiii), but I am not convinced. My impression is that Peterkin is largely forgotten.

5 The Roaring Twenties didn’t roar in rural South Carolina. Instead, silence fell across abandoned fields and farmsteads. While New York and Chicago scaled heights of Jazz Age prosperity and extravagance, South Carolina was visited by calamities that shattered its agricultural economy” (Tibbetts 3).

6 In his 1917 essay “The Sahara of the Bozart” (the title ridiculing the Southern pronunciation of “beaux-arts”), Mencken lamented the genteel tradition in American literature and the provincialism of American intellectual life through attacking the South as the most provincial region: “That vast region south of the Potomac is as large as Europe.… And yet it is as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert. It would be difficult in all history to match so amazing a drying-up of civilization” (Mencken). Kreidler emphasizes the significance of Peterkin’s association with Mencken as “compelling evidence that her writing was seditious in its time. Peterkin's work was offensive to the elite whites because it was a reminder of their exploitative, feudal rule, and considering Afro-Americans as human would be an indictment against their beliefs and bigotry which lingered in the rural South during the 1920s. Mencken's professional involvement with Peterkin placed her at the center of controversy, as they both stirred up the Southern elite and paved the way for Southern admission of cultural hybridism” (470).

7 As a white Southerner, Peterkin herself was of course tied up in the racially fraught past of that region: “Her views on race were likely conflicted by the fact that her grandfather’s ancestors had opposed slavery on religious grounds and had illegally taught slaves to read, while her grandmother was descended from a long line of wealthy slave holders” (Dietrich)

8 “From the Jazz Age to the Digital Age: Pulitzer Prize Winners in South Carolina. Celebrating Pulitzer Novelist Julia Peterkin.”

9 Later, Peterkin’s stories have sometimes been criticized by some for expressing precisely those prejudiced attitudes that seemed to be missing from her work at the time. A. J. Verdelle’s foreword to the 1998 edition defines the problem from a late 20th-century perspective: “There is nothing romantic about picking cotton” (xi). “Peterkin’s views of the Negroes she employed do not stand up to time,” Verdelle says, and comes to a conclusion which belongs to the 1990s: “Peterkin portrayed African Americans as people and was stuck nonetheless in the racism of her day” (xxxii).

10 “[T]he subject of [Peterkin’s] novel is the internal drama of the society of plantation Negroes. Scarlet Sister Mary is the story of those who stayed, that vast, partisan army of workers who did not, once freed, leave the South, but rather remained on the familiar estates, continuing to live in the slave shacks, continuing to work out among the crops” (Verdelle, xiv).

11 “The novel does not date itself explicitly, but throughout the story, the characters leave and return to the plantation at will. This seems to place the novel temporally during Reconstruction, or during the subsequent sharecropping years. Some of the blacks presented in Scarlet Sister Mary, by virtue of their age and the past it suggests, could easily have been slaves on the very acres Peterkin ‘mistressed’” (Verdelle, x).

12 For a recent discussion of the paradoxical nature of early 20th-century Southern literature, see for instance the chapter on Katherine DuPre Lumpkin in Hinrichsen’s Possessing the Past, an exploration of cultural paradoxes that also concern Peterkin as a Southern writer.

13 As Cooper points out, the “quasi-African primitiveness” of Peterkin’s characters “freed them to express themselves sexually, but their childlike nature, which predisposed them to give into base impulses, and their tendency toward emotionalism, was the reason why superstition, fear, and ‘frenzy’ seemed to dictate their lives. Blue Brook blacks’ passions always ran high” (22). Cooper connects Peterkin to “a new strand of primitivism [which had] gained momentum among American artists and writers” and argues that “Peterkin’s certainty that blacks could be useful in whites’ quest to understand themselves was not simply a reflection of her own obsession, it was an expression of this primitivist tendency” (28). This is a largely compelling analysis, but at the same time a white writer like Peterkin could—for a while—be “useful” to the cause of black America. She has for instance been credited with paving the way for realistic novels by up-and-coming African-American writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Claude McKay and for enabling a market for a new kind of fiction about black people, written by black writers.

14 Peterkin’s literary treatment of the Gullah has been questioned later as stereotyping (see Cooper 23). At the same time, Peterkin’s work contributed certain kinds of information about the real-life Gullah which has made it readable as a form of knowledge production, even as “invaluable to American cultural studies” (Kreidler 469).

15 Adapted into a play, Scarlet Sister Mary was indeed staged as a blackface performance in 1930, and flopped. “In a review titled, ‘Colored Sister Barrymore,’ Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times scoffed at the spectacle of white actors performing in black-face. The show closed in December 1930 after 34 performances” (Plumb).

16 Referring to When Harlem Was in Vogue by D. L. Lewis, Kreidler paints a different picture which may indicate the way in which Peterkin’s work, poputchik-style, was seen as helpful for a while, and then put aside as the black American literary scene developed: “To the black bourgeoisie, work like Peterkin's harmed the fight for racial equality.… Peterkin’s work is an example of ‘right thing said by the wrong person’” (473).

17 Examples of works by white modernist authors about black American characters include Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha (1909), Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven (1926), Fannie Hurst’s The Imitation of Life (1933), and Waldo Frank’s Holiday (1923).

18 The complicated racial relations in America at the time are indicated in an alternative anecdote to qualify this story of solidarity and interracial literary connections: “In 1931, while [Langston] Hughes was on one of his signature literary tours of the South, he went to Julia Peterkin’s Lang Syne Plantation, and was neither announced not admitted. Hughes’s biographer reports that the eminent poet was dismissed at the door, ‘rudely turned away by a white man’” (Verdelle xxix-xxx).

19 Roll, Jordan, Roll is “a rare collector's item currently fetching over $6,500 US for a first edition, jacketed trade issue and up to $50,000 US for a deluxe edition. Each of the 350 signed, numbered deluxe copies includes ninety copperplate photogravures of Gullah residents from Peterkin’s plantation” (Kreidler 468).

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References

Electronic reference

Anna Linzie, Post-Plantation and Post-Hawthorne Poputchik Writing: The Peculiarly American Time and Place of Julia Peterkin’s Scarlet Sister MaryEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 19-2 | 2024, Online since 07 June 2024, connection on 24 July 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/21922

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About the author

Anna Linzie

Anna Linzie is a researcher, literary scholar, translator, and senior lecturer in English literature at Karlstad University, Sweden (Kau). She is also a member of the Research Group for Culture Studies (KuFo) at Kau. She is currently doing research on the ups and downs of literary value in Swedish and American literature 1900-1970 in a collaborative project with Anna Forssberg (Comparative Literature, Kau). Her previous research efforts primarily concern American twentieth-century modernist writing, specifically American expatriate writers and their autobiographies, intertextuality, and collaborative writing.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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