Julia (Mood) Peterkin Elizabeth Boatwright Coker - Essay

Elizabeth Boatwright Coker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 anecdotal and told in dialect, a rereading of them today, by an eye accustomed to the new realism, shows that they take precedence in the realm of the explicit over the fashionable stream-of-conscious and writer-tells-all techniques of such deliberate shockers as The Love Machine and The Valley of the Dolls.

Julia constantly used her own vivid personal nature, her ability to record what went on around her, but there is nowhere any hint of the autobiographical except in the short "Seeing Things," published in The Century, telling of her bride-days on the plantation. There is no self-exposure. No self-gratification is necessary for dramatic tension and effect. She does not rely on the lurid details of sex to let you know what is going on in the dark. (p. 6)

She makes no personal claims on our sympathy and acceptance. Satisfied to tell of the things and happenings that concerned and fascinated her, she cried not of the woes of the world; only the woes and wonders that at a certain moment actually happened to her people. Nor does she attempt to impersonate the soul of her characters. She contents herself with their conversations and reactions to their fate. (pp. 6-7)

Only in her last—Roll Jordan Roll—is the stark adjectiveless prose of the early days deliberately enriched with more sophisticated treatment. The reader sighs, disappointed. The wine has been watered. The effervescence has fizzled out. She has succumbed to popularity. Even in her own state! (p. 7)

Elizabeth Boatwright Coker, "An Appreciation of Julia Peterkin and 'The Collected Short Stories of Julia Peterkin'," in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, June, 1971, pp. 3-7.