Julia (Mood) Peterkin

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Thomas H. Landess

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[Julia Peterkin] deserves a greater measure of critical attention than she has received. She was, after all, a Pulitzer Prize winner during a time when many intellectuals still were agreeing with Mencken that the South was the "Sahara of the Bozart." In the late 1920's and early 1930's she was acclaimed in Eastern literary circles and in the black intellectual community as the Southerner who best understood the black experience, who portrayed without prejudice or condescension black characters in a black world.

To be sure, the Pulitzer Prize is no absolute measure of lasting literary fame, nor should a preoccupation with matters racial command automatic attention; yet there is still more to be said for her. At her best she is a consummate artist and almost without exception her narratives are powerful, even shocking in their spare intensity. No one has probed the potential horrors of rural life with greater candor than she. To a generation charmed by an old lady's necrophilia or the theft of a girl's wooden leg, Mrs. Peterkin has much to offer. (p. 221)

[With] one or two early exceptions, the sordid, grotesque element in her work is thematically functional; and the subtlety with which she weaves archetype and allusion into the fabric of her primitive narratives sometimes tricks the casual or skeptical reader into a sleepy assent to something less than the full aesthetic experience.

In order to understand and accept these generalizations, one must first read Mrs. Peterkin—as I suspect several of her more prominent detractors have not—and the place to begin is the Reviewer sketches; for they provide valuable insight into her gradual development as a prose stylist and "builder" of fiction. The earliest—as she herself maintained—were fragmentary and crude. (p. 222)

An example of such a story is "A Baby's Mouth," published in May of 1922. In this tale of horror Maum Hannah (a character who appears in all Mrs. Peterkin's major works) is acting as a midwife at the birth of a child, and after the delivery she discovers that the infant is deformed—born without a mouth. Because there is no doctor nearby, she borrows a razor from a squeamish neighbor and slices a mouth so that the child may suckle at the mother's breast. The scene ends in a tranquility that can hardly be shared by the reader.

A second sketch ["Missy's Twins"] even elicited a cautionary note from H. L. Mencken, who called the piece "effective but terrible." The anecdote is a fragmentary account of members of a white family who leave for the North worrying about a black girl's pregnancy. When they return, they find that the girl has given birth to twins, both of whom have died. But this is not the ultimate tragedy, for the graves of the babies have been plundered by the dogs, and thus the dead are denied even the consolation of a peaceful repose. At this stage one can sympathize with Mrs. Peterkin's critics, for these incidents do seem unjustifiably sordid. Had they been rendered more fully, invested with significant human dimensions, they might have been self-redeeming.

By July of 1925, however, she had begun to realize the larger potential of her subject matter, as evidenced by her final contribution to the Reviewer, a narrative entitled "Manners." Far from being a fragmentary sketch, "Manners" is a full-blown short story, one of the best of Mrs. Peterkin's efforts in this genre…. With its careful and confident exploration of consciousness, "Manners" signalled Mrs. Peterkin's graduation to a wider range of artistic possibilities than one journal could contain. (pp. 222-23)

[Green Thursday is]...

(This entire section contains 2321 words.)

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a collection of twelve sketches and stories involving Maum Hannah, Killdee, Rose, and Missie—a black family whose struggles with the land, the elements, and their individual consciences provide the subject matter for what can best be described as a loose plot highlighted by moments of primitive power. The book has as its chief virtues the same qualities which characterize the best of theReviewer sketches. For one thing, the ancient and basic conflict of man with nature is presented as a stark drama, filled with danger and cosmic terror.

Another virtue of the book is its faithful depiction of the special Gullah culture found in the South Carolina Low Country. Aside from her accurate rendition of the strange dialect, she also explores the practices and doctrines of the primitive black church, a subject which contemporary historians have left largely untouched. This exploration is thematically linked with the more basic life struggle, because it is the church which is the primary enemy of the "natural man" who must survive in the face of taboos and strictures which limit his ability to cope with elemental forces. (p. 224)

[Mrs. Peterkin has stated that many of the incidents in her books are based on fact. In Black April, the] story she chose "out of her experience" was that of a beloved foreman whose terrible ordeal and death had first driven her to writing, almost as a form of therapy.

Yet she was either naive or shrewd when she suggested that she had not attempted to improve on reality. A comparison between Black April and her earlier treatment in the Reviewer of the foreman's trouble suggests just how much she had learned in her years of apprenticeship. While there are some structural difficulties in the novel, her "blending of incidents" lifts the climactic episode to new heights and informs it with a thematic complexity that approaches the highest level of literary sophistication.

For one thing, she combines with her narrative of the hero's downfall an "initiation story" which is thematically significant itself and at the same time adds a new dimension to the primary plot. (p. 225)

The ending … unites the two narrative strands and to some extent justifies Mrs. Peterkin's lengthy catalogue of religious beliefs and superstitions, which at times seems little more than interpolated folklore.

The basic design of Black April—the tragedy of a great man as viewed through the eyes of a lesser figure—is a familiar structure in literature. One immediately thinks of Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, All the King's Men, as well as the best works of Joseph Conrad, Mrs. Peterkin's favorite novelist.

The presence of the focal character Breeze—as in these other works—provides the aesthetic distance so necessary to the operation of what Northrop Frye calls the "high mimetic mode," the rendition of a hero who resembles Aristotle's magnanimous man. It is this hero who provides the terror of tragedy, while in the lesser figure one sees the active operation of pity. It is interesting to note that in portions of her novel Mrs. Peterkin deliberately echoes Aristotle's language.

If Black April is Mrs. Peterkin's tragedy then Scarlet Sister Mary is her comedy. This novel … is concerned with the adult life of a remarkably vital woman from her excommunication at the age of fifteen for sexual indiscretions to her "rebaptism" into the church after years of scandalous cohabitation with a series of well-satisfied men. (pp. 226-27)

The chief virtue of Scarlet Sister Mary, aside from its careful craftsmanship, is the portrayal of the main character—as spirited a heroine as almost any in modern American literature. As Mrs. Peterkin depicts her she is the embodiment of joie de vivre, an earthy woman who takes her pleasure where she can find it, rejoices in giving life to her nine children (eight illegitimate), and embodies the Christian virtues of charity and kindness to a fault…. Yet with all her amiability she is never a benign idiot. She has her hatreds, and they are as positive and passionate as her affections. For these reasons Mrs. Peterkin was more pleased with Mary than any of her other characters; and both readers and critics agreed. (p. 228)

The only thing that distinguishes [the novel Bright Skin] from the others is its initial preoccupation with questions of race and class as they are understood by the Gullah community. As soon as Blue, the hero of the novel, arrives at the plantation, he is introduced to the girl Cricket, his mulatto cousin…. Because the child has sprung from a relationship regarded as taboo, she is something of a pariah in the community…. (pp. 228-29)

For a while it seems as if Mrs. Peterkin will stick to her theme of racial bias and show Cricket combating the prejudices of a black community that is almost as fearful of "mongrelization" as the white community….

However, after a tragic love affair and a brief, unsatisfactory marriage to Blue, she leaves the plantation for the bright lights of New York and eventually seeks a divorce. Significantly, her flight is not into the world of the white man but to Harlem; and this action is prompted by her allegiance to her grandfather, a black nationalist who preaches racial supremacy. The reader is left at home with Blue to repeat experiences which are explored in the other novels and to view Cricket from afar with regret and bemusement.

Bright Skin was not a critical success and marked the end of Mrs. Peterkin's career as a writer of fiction…. [Perhaps] she realized that she had exhausted her literary resources and could not break through the barrier of her own experience to create a fictional world of broader significance. (p. 229)

Like Pindar, however, she still had some arrows left in her quiver; and she published one significant book of non-fiction after Bright Skin. It was a collection of twenty-one sketches and essays entitled Roll, Jordan, Roll, and in this volume Mrs. Peterkin abandoned all pretense of overall unity and returned to the short portraits and anecdotes with which she had begun her literary career in the Reviewer. Indeed a number of the pieces are slightly revised versions of those earlier sketches—modified, improved, but in essence the same material….

But in addition to the old material, there are some new and important narratives, as well as expository and even polemical essays which have little of the sentimentality or zealous rage that are found in most discussions of the race issue by her contemporaries. Much of the material is unique, since it is derived from firsthand experience. Some of it is relevant only to the Gullahs—to their peculiar customs, superstitions, and folkways; but from the study a good deal can be predicated about the Southern black culture in general since the plantation world was the common heritage of virtually all descendants of slaves. Among the important questions which Mrs. Peterkin discusses are the origins and nature of the plantation, relationships between the sexes, the church and religion, beliefs and superstitions, the family burial customs, and the perennial cycle of plantation life.

In Roll, Jordan, Roll Mrs. Peterkin has not averted her eyes from the hardships of the world in which these simple Gullahs live, but neither has she emphasized those hardships at the expense of the joys which were just as present in their community and just as real. She is honest in her vision, serving no social ideology and no political creed. There is no hint of the reformer in her, nor is she attacking the idea of reform. As in her novels, she is as close to the pure analyst as any modern commentator on black life has ever been. These sketches, essays, and vignettes are important social documents which embody essential lessons for a society embroiled in fierce racial conflicts which threaten to destroy its very fabric.

At present Roll, Jordan, Roll, and the four works of fiction, have been largely forgotten by those who write books and articles on Southern literature, and anyone who has read Mrs. Peterkin's minor masterpieces must wonder why. The truth of the matter may be that she has fallen into disrepute for some of the same reasons that she enjoyed her former popularity. She is still being read as a social historian. In the late 1920's and early 1930's she was regarded by many responsible critics as the finest contemporary portrayer of black life and culture. W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, Joel Spingarn, Paul Robeson—all ratified her credentials as sociologist because at that time blacks in literature were too often hidden behind the masks of popular stereotypes: the Happy-go-lucky Minstrel, the Faithful Retainer, the Shiftless Scoundrel. Later, however, after the masks had been stripped away by Realists like Mrs. Peterkin, the battlers for social justice began to endorse new stereotypes: the Noble Martyr, the Sadistic Landowner, the Crusading Liberal. And so the tide of critical opinion changed. (pp. 230-31)

[Many critics now dismiss Mrs. Peterkin] largely, I suspect, because they cannot read a work like Scarlet Sister Mary without worrying about the current political orthodoxy. Thus literature which deals with black characters is, by definition, obsolescent in a dynamic society….

[There] is little sign that she will be understood in the near future as anything more than a bad sociologist, a writer of the kind she despised and categorically denounced on more than one occasion. Yet she is a genuine literary talent whose works embody fictional values which have little or nothing to do with the blackness of her characters. Indeed that blackness is so absorbed by the human dimensions of her narratives that the reader all but forgets about it once he has adjusted to the peculiar fictional world that Mrs. Peterkin creates. The questions her work poses for the critics are finally literary rather than social or political, however valuable her observations and lore concerning the Gullahs she knew. Unfortunately, we are living in a time when non-fiction has replaced fiction as the staple of the intelligentsia and novelists are abandoning their craft to pursue careers in journalism or else to run for public office. Under such conditions, one can hardly expect Julia Peterkin to receive the reading she deserves. (p. 232)

Thomas H. Landess, "The Achievement of Julia Peterkin," in The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Spring, 1976, pp. 221-32.

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