Julia (Mood) Peterkin

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Brainard Cheney

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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 incomplete myth of the irresponsible negro, whom the responsible white man had to take care of. In the North, little Eva still came over the broken ice on the river to escape a Southern Simon Legree, and into the alms of a Republican public welfare, but remained at a safe literary distance.

In Green Thursday, the white man wasn't on the stage at all, and, to the literate world, Julia Peterkin's negroes showed themselves to be astonishingly human, in their generosities and their cruelties, their virtues and their sins. In her simple primitive rural community, in its material poverty, there was a compensating richness of humanity. Her negroes supplemented their diet of corn pone and fatback with the warm blood of family and feud, and the reality of religion and superstition. To an even then decaying great society these direct dramas of love and labor, of hate and fear, at times of heroism before a grim reality, and, through them all, a pervasive compassion and endurance—these simple tales were, to an oversophisticated world, indeed refreshing. (pp. 174-75)

To an urban sophisticate, to many sophisticated negroes, even back in the 'twenties, the people of her stories must have seemed but little removed from their aboriginal African culture. And to today's Blacks, aside from furnishing appalling proof of the recentness of plantation peonage, they may seem even closer to Africa. But the similarities are deceptive. If one reflects upon the matter in the light of history, the impressive thing about Julia Peterkin's blacks on Blue Brook plantation is not so much the persistence of their superstition as the reality of their Christianity. This is a deep and a wide gap. If anywhere in the United States negroes have a valid claim to blackness—at least, perhaps, to black skins—it is on the South Carolina coastal plantations. But this fact does not establish them as Africans. And this does not establish Africa with them, either.

A revival of Julia Peterkin's stories may not be helpful to the "Afro" myth. But it should prove wholesome for the negro leadership's sense of reality—sense of history, too. And a sense of history isn't easy to come by in the midst of an emotional partisan conflict. What negro leaders need to perceive (if they claim the fatherhood of Abraham, or even a statesmanlike responsibility to their race) is that History will not see the negro's servitude, in the American bondage of his forebears, as the thing of lasting importance to the negro. Nor is their suffering, nor the injustice done them, nor even the inhumanity shown them, the lasting importance. The lasting importance of 250 years of slavery in what is now the United States is that through this experience, the negro has had modern civilization inculcated in him. Blue Brook plantation is the nether proof of it. I think it is equally important for some white men in this country...

(This entire section contains 1173 words.)

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to realize this, too. We may not be identical twins. But we are brothers in the bondage of this small earth's evolving civilization—evolving with many aches and pains and fevers, evolving despite widespread rot and crumbling.

But there is more in Julia Peterkin's old stories for the modern negro, or the post-modern negro, if you will, than the evidence of his sharing in the Western Christian tradition…. I think Scarlet Sister Mary, her most famous work, is a good novel; but her finest and most powerful pieces are in short-story form. Take for example that gem of understatement "A Baby's Mouth". It isn't easy to make physical deformity, a baby born without a mouth, an heroic subject. But Julia Peterkin's brief tale has the awesomeness, the dignity, and the power of Greek tragedy.

There are thirty-three pieces of fiction in [The Collected Short Stories of Julia Peterkin] which Mr. Durham selected as "representative of the several facets of the author's talents". Roughly in chronological order, they also trace "the development of [Mrs. Peterkin's] skill in the short form". He has arranged them as stories and sketches coming before Green Thursday, then the twelve related stories that comprise the volume of that title. There are in addition seven of the best of her stories that came afterward. (pp. 175-76)

I would agree with Mr. Durham [see excerpt above] that, though they came early in her writing career, "Missy's Twins", "The Foreman", and "Over the River", in addition to "A Baby's Mouth", reached a level of achievement not often matched by her later work. I share his opinion, too, that "Over the River", a deaf-mute girl's pilgrimage in search of the father of her unborn child, anticipating a similar journey in William Faulkner's Light in August, is, if grimmer, "more artistically complete with the death of the child and [the prospect] of the mother's return to her home". (pp. 176-77)

But I would single out at least three of the stories from Green Thursday as signal achievements, also. There is "Ashes", in which an ancient negro woman, about to be evicted from her cabin by a "Snopes" who has built his house in her front yard, burns down the almost completed building and is protected in her arson by a white sheriff of the old order. It is one of the few stories in which Julia Peterkin deals directly with race relations in terms of the old sentimental myth. But nowhere else in fiction have I seen this handled with more realism and tact.

In "Meeting", little Missy's first prayer-meeting is led by "Daddy" Cato, who has suffered paralysis on one side of his face and tells the congregation that he has been kissed by "the Stranger" (Death)…. Mrs. Peterkin's brief narrative achieves … [hearty humor] without descending into farce, and it embodies, too, the mystery of the supernatural….

Finally, "Plum Blossoms" (the incident in which Kildee realizes that he has fallen in love with Missy, the waif whom his wife brought into the house to wait on her and who has now grown up) is, in its quiet realism, one of the most elevated, beautiful, and compassionate handlings of the triangle theme I have ever encountered. But the title story, "Green Thursday", and a half-dozen others are equally good, if less conspicuous. (p. 177)

Brainard Cheney, "Can Julia Peterkin's 'Genius' Be Revived for Today's Black Myth-Making?" in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXX, No. 1, Winter, 1972, pp. 173-79.


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