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.)