Julia (Mood) Peterkin

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John W. Crawford

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 686

["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 rice lands of South Carolina. It is a signal triumph for Mrs. Peterkin that none of these count against "Black April." She has made a world of her own. It is true that her impersonal attitude toward the vagaries beyond the pale of these men, Old Breeze and April, disarms any feeling of revolt, but it is also true that her intention embraces a retribution for them, equally outside convention, and still further absolves the reader….

This ethical sternness contributes toward a cleansing horror rather than a shuddering and soiled disgust. It does not, however, grant the reader immunity from the fascinated contemplation of the world which Mrs. Peterkin has created. Part of the power of this world depends upon Mrs. Peterkin's implication of another, contrasting world, the society of ante-bellum days….

[Mrs. Peterkin appears] to have fulfilled the apparently irreconcilable conditions of maintaining a single character in appropriate surroundings, developing him in dramatic incident, and of subordinating that same character to the larger vision of some major aspect of American life. The conflict between the world and the Church, or religion, has been fruitful, world without end, of literature. Sigrid Undset based her powerful trilogy of Norwegian life in the fourteenth century, "Kristin Lavransdatter," upon that identical theme. Mrs. Peterkin has translated it to the inevitable conditions of the United States, in its manifestations among the Southern plantation negroes. Her abstractions are organically related to her specific instances, and the story is so fluid that it is impossible to stop it at a single point and say here is the kernel, this is what she means….

This is a fine and beautifully conceived book. It is not too much to call it a big book. It is not, however, perfect. Mrs. Peterkin invests her characters at times with an ill-advised sensibility. At the moment when April quarrels with his unacknowledged son, Sherry, while another unrecognized son, Little Breeze, stands by, Mrs. Peterkin seriously mars the noble austerity which the scene requires by refracting the scene through Little Breeze and by making him suffer extraordinary shivers and quavers of emotional disturbance, and by reflecting thereupon in the birds and the sky and the very ground underfoot the sorrow that wrings the heart of Little Breeze. That sort of overwrought receptivity and reactiveness is repeated elsewhere in the novel sufficiently often to flaw the work, yet not bulking large enough to overshadow the excellence of the book as a whole.

John W. Crawford, "Hound-Dogs and Bible Shouting," in The New York Times Book Review, March 6, 1927, p. 5.

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The New York Times Book Review