Julia (Mood) Peterkin

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Frank Durham

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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 Twins," and "The Foreman," she reached a level of achievement not often matched by her work in Green Thursday and her novels. Throughout her career as a novelist she continued to publish short fiction. And in the novels themselves—Black April, Scarlet Sister Mary, and Bright Skin—the hand of the author of the short story is frequently evident; for her novels, notably Black April, are often episodic, relying for their effectiveness on the rounded incident rather than on a rigidly architectured structure.

As a writer in the short story form Mrs. Peterkin deserves to be remembered, for several of her stories are worthy to stand beside pieces by William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, and other Southern practitioners in the form. Until [the publication of Collected Short Stories of Julia Peterkin], most of her works of short fiction have lain unavailable in the pages of long-deceased magazines or out-of-print anthologies. Only her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Scarlet Sister Mary, remains on the bookstands. Such neglect is unfortunate and improper. One of the purposes of the present volume is to remedy this situation.

Not only as an artist but also as a keen observer of and commenter on the Southern Negro, Julia Peterkin has much to say to us today. She was one of the first Americans to write of the Negro truthfully, sympathetically, without bias, without an axe to grind, or a proclamation to proclaim. Shearing away most of the sentimental distortions of the plantation tradition and equally avoiding the shrill astigmatism of the propagandists, in her best short stories Julia Peterkin sees the Negro plain, and she sees him as a human being with dignity and with stature. She leaves far behind the misty-eyed paternalism of Thomas Nelson Page, and she feels no temptation to depict the educated cardboard Negro in confrontations with the biased whites as did T. S. Stribling in Birthright (1922) and Walter White in The Fire in the Flint (1924). In some ways her work is comparable to Jean Toomer's Cane (1923) in its emphasis on the Negro's "Negritude" and his closeness to the life-giving earth—but it is also different from Cane in that it seeks less the lyrical style of Toomer and more the direct and unadorned presentation of truth. (pp. 1-2)

Frank Durham, in an introduction to Collected Short Stories of Julia Peterkin by Julia Peterkin, edited by Frank Durham, University of South Carolina Press, 1970, pp. 1-2.

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