Julia (Mood) Peterkin Essay - Critical Essays

Peterkin, Julia (Mood)


Julia (Mood) Peterkin 1880–1961

American novelist and short story writer.

Peterkin is known primarily for her humane and realistic depiction of the Gullahs, black Americans who lived and worked on South Carolina plantations during the first decades of the twentieth century. Peterkin, the wife of a plantation manager, used her experiences with the Gullahs to fashion stories that are often violent or macabre. She has been praised for her accurate rendering of the Gullah dialect and folklore. Peterkin was initially recognized for her portrayal of the Gullahs as complete, meaningful characters, which undermined the stereotypical view of blacks during the 1920s and 1930s. Her reputation waned, however, when increasing awareness and understanding of black culture made her works seem to degrade the Gullahs as inferior or primitive. Several scholars recently have defended Peterkin, claiming that her works have been unfairly treated and that they are valuable as a record of a transitional period in American race relations.

Peterkin's first book, Green Thursday (1924), is a series of sketches and stories tied together by a narrative that centers on a black plantation family. As in all of Peterkin's works, the major characters of Green Thursday are blacks who have virtually no contact with white society. Much of the action is violent and the situations sordid: one child dies, a second is maimed, and the father's sexual interest in an adopted daughter finally splits the family. Critics applauded this work, praising Peterkin for her poignant portrayal of the Gullahs. In later years, however, some have pointed to Green Thursday as evidence of the way in which Peterkin depicted blacks as uncivilized and self-destructive. Black April (1927), her next work, is the story of the plantation foreman, a heroic figure who is brought to ruin by a combination of physical illness and social circumstances. Critics considered this work more unified than Green Thursday and praised Peterkin's blend of picaresque detail with tragic elements. Scarlet Sister Mary (1928) was Peterkin's greatest success. This novel relates the story of Mary Pinsett from the dissolution of her marriage and her many subsequent love affairs through her resolve to follow spiritual rather than physical yearnings. Scarlet Sister Mary was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Some recent critics have faulted this novel for suggesting that black families are basically unstable.

Collected Short Stories of Julia Peterkin (1970) renewed critical debate on Peterkin's importance. Some critics maintain that, in addition to her often demeaning portrayal of blacks, Peterkin unrealistically avoided racist themes by describing a world that was filled entirely with black characters. Others suggested that Peterkin should be considered an important social historian and regional writer.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 102 and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9.)

The New York Times Book Review

Mrs. Peterkin of South Carolina is one of the first to write a book unaffectedly about negroes, without conscious or uncon-scious belittling mockery in view of superior white advancement.

"Green Thursday" is a collection of short narratives—sketches almost, so slight is the thread of action—dealing with the vicissitudes of the family of a negro husbandman on a small South Carolina farm. With sincerity, simplicity, delicacy and sympathy the author reveals glimpses of the life of Kildee, his wife Rose, his children, the little maid-servant …, and the life of the negro community…. [A] constant thread of toil emerges in Kildee's manful struggle with the soil. There are broad splashes of color; a house that burns, the time that Baby Rose is burned to death, the time the red rooster picks out the eye of another child. Tragedies conceived of simple elements, yet poignant and deep as nature itself. Dialect, thought, action is perfectly convincing and charming. Nothing is hidden—anti-kink lotion, outlandish costumes, superstition, emotion, poverty, ignorance, seasoned with fragments of negro lore as sound and earthy as the loam from which they spring.

The book is neither a novel nor a series of short stories. They are brief descriptive pieces that might answer to the description of sketches were it not for the fact that together they form an integral whole that paints a picture of negro peasant life in the South, as exemplified on one small farm in one small community. Mrs. Peterkin has shown herself in "Green Thursday" as a literary artist, without any prejudice except the saving artistic predilection for unity and coherent form. Into the mold of the graceful form she has chosen she pours the distillation of a rich, human observation of the secret life of a people who have not yet been understood by the whites, because the whites have always found it easier to laugh at it than to attempt to comprehend it.

"Again a Serious Study of Negroes in Fiction: 'Green Thursday'," in The New York Times Book Review, September 28, 1924, p. 8.

John W. Crawford

["Black April"], concerning life among the negroes on an isolated South Carolina coastlands plantation, at first sight seems to fall into the category of the traditional modification of a picaresque novel—picaresque, that is, not only for its treatment of a man outside the ordinary laws, but for its structure of thinly connected episodes. Certainly the figure of black April, the foreman of Blue Brook plantation, who gives the book its title, is of the heroic, almost grandiose, mold of the legendary protagonists of fiction. Mrs. Peterkin's story flares with some of the incidents into a compellingly vivid intensity, too high-pitched to be sustained; succeeding passages all but falter into a complete break of the mood….

Mrs. Peterkin is treating of the darkies variously called "Gullah" or blue-gum, who inflect the English language as if it were a tribal dialect of Africa. While Mrs. Peterkin has not transcribed the speech of these negroes with … [scholarly accuracy], she has by no means distorted it to a purely literary artifice. What she has accomplished is a lucid, yet idiomatic, racy speech for the mouths of her negroes, retaining the full-bodied integrity of the original without divorcing it from the comprehension of those unfamiliar with the source….

There are, thus, three factors which might well contribute to an alienation of the reader's sympathies from Mrs. Peterkin's story. She is writing of negroes in a strange and special social mode of being, whose erotic impulses move freely and untrammeled within the customarily forbidden confines of consanguineal relationship, and whose speech is almost unknown outside the...

(The entire section is 686 words.)


In many respects [Black April], Mrs. Peterkin's second published volume of fiction dealing with the negroes in the South, must stand as the most genuinely successful attempt yet made to capture the soul of these people. This book is put down with the feeling that one stands nearer to truth than one has stood before, in a field of fiction the surface of which has been often scratched, and the rich depths seldom upturned.

Mrs. Peterkin makes one singularly happy stroke. There are no white people in this book. From first to last it is the story of the negroes' lives in relation to each other. That is quite a different thing from negro life in its relation to another race, or even with the presence of white people and the existing social system as a background constantly present. It is a device which assists in Mrs. Peterkin's search for truth. Nor does she contrive this setting for her story mechanically. The black people of her pages are the hands on an isolated South Carolina plantation on the coast, visited by its owners only in the shooting season. April, the foreman, is a negro; and though the "big house" is there, the story is of the plantation quarters, a community of the black people, indeed isolated….

Mrs. Peterkin's rich store of understanding knowledge of the negro shows itself on every page. But this insight is not more remarkable than the honest art with which she tells her story. It is the reality of simple truth. One is not conscious of the art, nor of the writer. The story flows from life itself, and not from one to be observed observing life. The negro's superstitions, morals, humor, mind, customs are what they are. Mrs. Peterkin throws them into no relief against anything or anyone else. Other fiction of negro life seems false in the light of Mrs. Peterkin's achievement.

Charles McD. Puckeite, "On a Carolina Plantation," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. III, No. 34, March 19, 1927, p. 660.

John R. Chamberlain

["Scarlet Sister Mary"] all but cries with color, scent, sound. It has the rich fragrance of a hot candied yam. Mrs. Peterkin rings all the changes of season and weather to build up the world of Scarlet Sister Mary, and she does it in a style that is a happy combination of solidity, brilliance and pure beauty. Sometimes her story sags with too much beauty, but to err in that manner is superhuman and quite easily forgiven.

So real, so arresting to the five senses, is the sub-tropical world of the Blue Brook plantation—a fruitful sector in the sea-island country of the South Carolina lowlands—that Mary's lusty, fertile habit of taking up with any man who suits her fancy seems native to a place where "the earth's richness and the sun's warmth make living an easy thing." This black incarnation of the goddess of fertility is jilted by her lawful husband [July], but she remains even-up with life by filling her house with children, the only two of which by the same man happen to be twins.

As was the case in "Black April," this book is crammed with the doings and superstitions of the Gullah folk…. Here, in her second novel, Mrs. Peterkin relates everything to the central character; she has made her story more intense by a process of narrowing down.

Mary's character is simple and elemental. It takes color from the world about her….

What impresses one about Mary is her direct...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Herschel Brickell

["Scarlet Sister Mary"] represents a very definite advance in the technical handling of rarely interesting material, without any sacrifice of the notable qualities of honesty, sincerity, sympathy, and keen observation that made "Black April" and "Green Thursday" landmarks of first importance in the south's current literary revival.

"Green Thursday," a collection of short stories, left behind it an impression of freshness; it sounded a new note in the handling of rich race material by a Southern author. The stories in the volume were wholly free from the several clichés that have attached themselves to the treatment of the negro in fiction. They had a primal vigor, a direct and at times...

(The entire section is 570 words.)

Robert Herrick

"Black April" was a remarkable book, possibly the most convincing presentation of the Negro that has yet been made by a white person. More than that, it was a considerable work of art. With a mastery of dialect and folk-lore unequalled and with a pervasive sense of the plantation background from which the black figures emerged, Mrs. Peterkin so completely dramatized all her material that it was almost impossible to tell whether the writer was an alien observer or a Negro become wholly conscious and expressive. That sense of strangeness of the looker-on, which the most sympathetic treatment of the Negro by the white has always betrayed, as if the "superior" were trying in vain to comprehend the "inferior" across the...

(The entire section is 506 words.)

Archer Winsten

[The isolated world of Bright Skin], for most of us necessarily exotic, has authentic beauty and more than a touch of nobility. Mrs. Peterkin's simplicity of style matches with perfect art a subject equally devoid of complication. But readers who are familiar with her previous work will note that Black April and Scarlet Sister Mary had the same subject and are not improved upon. Details may vary, but the essence is the same. And it happens to be an all-pervading essence which is expressed in similar phraseology and incident. Moreover, the characters, nicely individualized within a single book, are to some extent repeated under different names in each subsequent book. For instance, Blue in...

(The entire section is 388 words.)

John Chamberlain

In "Bright Skin" Mrs. Peterkin has made an attempt to repeat the episodic pattern of "Black April," though on a diminished scale, and the book will suffer, perhaps unjustly, from the inevitable comparison with the earlier work. Yet for all the similarity of pattern, there is a difference in intention between the two books. "Black April" depended less upon intimate characterization than upon a mass effect; its hero, the gigantic plantation foreman, April, being of heroic proportions, was also of the heroic generality; and the background of hog-killings, duck hunts, dancing and cotton picking, against which April's generalized figure was projected, usurped the book and made it the work of enduring beauty that it is....

(The entire section is 542 words.)

Welbourn Kelley

All good South Carolinians have three salient characteristics: they believe that theirs is the last home of true Southern chivalry and aristocracy, they think that Ambrose Gonzales was the greatest writer of regional literature who ever lived, and they love and respect Julia Peterkin. (p. 377)

In her latest book ["Roll, Jordon, Roll"], a romantic ethnology of the Gullah Negro …, Mrs. Peterkin bids for a place beside Gonzales in the critical esteem of her own State…. Mrs. Peterkin has softened her Gullah dialect in order that people not fortunate enough to have been born in the State could understand her stories. (pp. 377, 382)

In "Roll, Jordan, Roll," Mrs. Peterkin uses little...

(The entire section is 229 words.)

Harlan Hatcher

Julia Peterkin's work offers an entertaining ethnology of the Gullah Negroes who live by the hundreds on the Peterkin cotton plantation near Fort Motte in the center of South Carolina. As seen by "Cap'ns wife," it is a romantic survival into the modern age of an old and exotic group of Negroes. They are untouched by the mechanized and changing world; they belong somewhere in the golden days of happy servitude before the Slavery War.

In complete contrast with T. S. Stribling's point of view, Julia Peterkin has remained thoroughly objective, with the interest of a painter rather than of a moralist or sociologist. Instead of exclaiming, How unjust! How cruel!, she has observed, How quaint the Gullah...

(The entire section is 305 words.)

Vernon Loggins

[There] have been in America many negro writers of exceptional skill and talent…. But as yet no negro writer has been able to detach himself from the problem of the color line and stand out boldly as an artist and nothing else. Racial discrimination has been his bar. When that bar is removed, he will write about his people as no white could possibly write about them. Of all the whites who have made the attempt, Julia Peterkin is the truest and the finest—not excepting Joel Chandler Harris, whose Uncle Remus tales are established classics, nor Dubose Heyward, whose Porgy ought to become a classic, nor Roark Bradford, who is the real creator of America's greatest folk-play, The Green Pastures (Marc...

(The entire section is 304 words.)

Irene Yates

[Conjure lore] is interesting, and in Mrs. Peterkin's novels it becomes important in the characterization of the Negro as well. Mrs. Peterkin's Negroes are unreasoning and inconsistent. They may go to church and shout with fine frenzy, and leave to procure a conjure that will cast a spell….

This conjure lore is important, too, in Mrs. Peterkin's plots. An episode in Bright Skin centers about the use of a conjure and its evil effects. In this instance the conjure is sought as a help in time of trouble in the love affairs of the married. Wes, Aun Missie's husband, had taken to staying away from home at night. Aun Missie, who obviously was a believer in conjure, betook herself to Big Pa, who...

(The entire section is 745 words.)

Frank Durham

Most people think of Julia Peterkin's literary career as beginning with the publication, in September, 1924, of her first book, Green Thursday, a collection of twelve short stories and sketches of plantation life. Green Thursday did bring her both national and international attention and led to her becoming a novelist; but, in fact, for three years before the book appeared, she had been publishing starkly realistic short stories, sometimes grim and terrible in their anticipation of what has been called the Southern Gothic school, but tempered by an abiding compassion and by an understanding of the life of the South Carolina Gullah Negro. In such stories as "Over the River," "A Baby's Mouth," "Missy's...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

Elizabeth Boatwright Coker

[It] would be hard to think of any writer in America in the twenties and early thirties more original and unusual than Julia Mood Peterkin. Obviously she wanted recognition, indeed fame; she worked toward that end with a dedicated seriousness. In her place and time the subjects she chose and the candor with which she approached them were considered outrageous….

Julia was the first American writer to tell stories of blacks who itched, laughed, tilled the soil, ate, lusted, grieved and died just like whites. People they were, among whom she walked every day. (p. 3)

Though the stories [gathered for The Collected Short Stories of Julia Peterkin] are largely episodic and...

(The entire section is 383 words.)

Brainard Cheney

Forty years after they were written, what can the negro stories of the late Julia Peterkin, a white South Carolina plantation mistress, say to the black man today? How can they speak to the present situation in this country? to the issue of race? What can these forgotten tales possibly tell us? (p. 173)

It was in 1924 that the publication of Green Thursday, her first collection of short stories, arrested national and even international attention. The negro community on "Blue Brook" plantation presented a fresh literary scene. But what was essentially new in Julia Peterkin's projection of her characters was the terms of their responsibility. Then prevailing in the South was the threadbare and...

(The entire section is 1173 words.)

Thomas H. Landess

[Julia Peterkin] deserves a greater measure of critical attention than she has received. She was, after all, a Pulitzer Prize winner during a time when many intellectuals still were agreeing with Mencken that the South was the "Sahara of the Bozart." In the late 1920's and early 1930's she was acclaimed in Eastern literary circles and in the black intellectual community as the Southerner who best understood the black experience, who portrayed without prejudice or condescension black characters in a black world.

To be sure, the Pulitzer Prize is no absolute measure of lasting literary fame, nor should a preoccupation with matters racial command automatic attention; yet there is still more to be said...

(The entire section is 2321 words.)

Kit Van Cleave

One of the early writers on American blacks was Julia Peterkin…. Peterkin's literary oblivion after mid-century has been found a puzzle by the few readers who have attempted to understand it….

Long before her death in 1961, Peterkin's works (Green Thursday, Black April, Scarlet Sister Mary, Bright Skin) had been largely ignored….

Julia Peterkin's serious face can be found peering out of the pages of The New York Times or Saturday Review during the 1920's. A reading of her books further defines her obvious sincerity in presenting a close description of the lifestyle of "gullah" blacks on a South Carolina plantation. Regardless of her intent to gain sympathy...

(The entire section is 1503 words.)

Thomas H. Landess

At the moment Mrs. Peterkin is all but forgotten; and her fiction, when it is discussed at all, is usually dismissed as either malicious or trivial….

The earliest rebirth of interest in her work, however, may come in the fields of sociology, folklore, and history, where she has much to offer the serious scholar. Certainly her portrayal of plantation life has a ring of authenticity that is lacking in most modern fiction on the subject; and since she was often more reporter than literary artist, she is all the more valuable as a primary source for historical research.

Both Black April and Roll, Jordan, Roll are priceless collections of black folklore and contain much...

(The entire section is 312 words.)

William A. Sessions

It may be that certain literary works are written just at the moment when the society that each work describes is actually dissolving. Reading Plato or Dante or Faulkner, for example, we are conscious of a tenuous moment that the artist is holding for us. We sense the vitality of a fixed work of art, but within it we also sense communal values that are vanishing, even, we suspect, for readers in the writer's own time. In the work, structures of language embody moments in time that are changing into some larger and freer, or less free, or simply quite different, reality. The South Carolina novelist, Julia Peterkin, with an almost miraculous objectivity of scene and language, describes one such moment for a society of...

(The entire section is 1000 words.)