Julia (Mood) Peterkin

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William A. Sessions

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It may be that certain literary works are written just at the moment when the society that each work describes is actually dissolving. Reading Plato or Dante or Faulkner, for example, we are conscious of a tenuous moment that the artist is holding for us. We sense the vitality of a fixed work of art, but within it we also sense communal values that are vanishing, even, we suspect, for readers in the writer's own time. In the work, structures of language embody moments in time that are changing into some larger and freer, or less free, or simply quite different, reality. The South Carolina novelist, Julia Peterkin, with an almost miraculous objectivity of scene and language, describes one such moment for a society of readers that has disappeared, like her subject. Peterkin's range was small and her work not major (despite her 1928 Pulitzer Prize), but what remains valid in her fiction and worth reconsideration, as a careful reading will show, is her rendering of a moment of transformation in southern life and American culture. (p. 736)

What was remarkable … was her courage, worthy of the teaching of her character Maum Hannah, in breaking out of a silence as profound as any described by recent feminists and daring to write in the 1920s on blacks and their habits of life, especially from the vantage point of their universality, their essential nature as human beings. This courage, taken with an obvious zest and delight (as the pace of all her letters, novels, and stories proves), clearly sustained Julia Peterkin amid social and communal pressures that few writers today can adequately understand. What especially called for courage from this middle-aged plantation mistress was that she had to face the subject matter itself, clearly and honestly, and then, more frighteningly, her own limitations as a writer, both in relationship to this subject matter and to her own isolated situation.

We can easily misunderstand these latter concerns because we dismiss her subject matter in our world popularly influenced by the theories of W. J. Cash and television spectacles like Roots. Peterkin's work seems so much romanticizing of black life in a South that was a fiction itself. This was not the critical attitude of her time toward her work. One of the canonized figures of Black Marxism, W.E.B. Dubois, along with Joel Spingarn, a founder of the NAACP, Paul Robeson, and H. L. Mencken, praised the achievement of Julia Peterkin in presenting characters truly human. Her blacks were recognized in a very special, even exotic setting as universal human beings, objectively invented: the kind of perennial figures that appear when we move beyond accidentals in time and history.

Of course, Peterkin's very sympathetic observation and transmission of Gullah customs and dialect, remarkably enriched by a sharpness of eye specially trained by her physician-father and a modulation of ear disciplined by years of studying music, produced local color of a high level of artistry. Yet what gave Julia Peterkin's image of human life, black and Gullah, its universal cast is an aspect that transcends the special exotic world of Low Country South Carolina blacks. It is, I believe, the philosophic basis of her work that gives Julia Peterkin a special place in American letters, that is, not only her probing into the perennial dilemmas of human existence, but also her formal projections of these insights into the texts of her work.

Nowhere is this essential nature of her literary art more revealed than in her evocation of landscape—a specific world that I call here the land of Chicora simply because that is...

(This entire section contains 1000 words.)

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the name given by the Indians…. As the works themselves reveal, this landscape of Chicora acts as a positive emblem—an "objective correlative" if one wants—of the permanence of reality within the fictional world Peterkin invented. It reflects, through the fiction, a permanence within the social order of Julia Peterkin's South that was itself changing in her lifetime as rapidly as theories of the universe. In other words, the thesis I am offering is that at the center of Peterkin's work there is atopos, an invented landscape rising from an actual landscape, that explains the structural basis of the Peterkin canon…. [This] landscape involves both character and setting and determines the very nature of the Peterkin plot. It also offers, I might add, one more aspect to our larger view of landscape as central motif in American literature. (pp. 736-38)

Julia Peterkin is, after all, in the mainstream of American writing. She is one of the very last who can evoke with magnificent precision the natural landscape that surrounded American life for two centuries or more. Furthermore, in her work the American innocent, depicted in what appears on the surface as an exotic primitive, confronts a nature revealing to the character not only its own forces of beauty and death, creation and destruction, but the very meaning of existence itself. The terrible cosmic emptiness and alienation that follow the initial revelation may almost overwhelm Breeze, Mary, or Blue. The very landscape, however, in which each remains offers a certitude. The courage Maum Hannah had called for will be enough to survive, if one lives and suffers within the rituals both of community and of nature itself. In this sense the central characters do not act, as has been suggested about Breeze in Black April, as Ishmael to some Ahab or Jack Burden to some Willie Stark, that is, as devices to show larger heroic effects in the novels. Rather each is like Huckleberry Finn facing the River itself, maneuvering down its treacherous stream and, in most cases, surviving and heading out for a new landscape. In her own moralized landscape, invented with a generally unrecognized artistry out of the land called Chicora, Julia Peterkin offers, in a special microcosm, this same sense of the tragic, perpetually incomplete, nature of human existence. (pp. 747-48)

William A. Sessions, "The Land Called Chicora," in The Southern Review, Vol. 19, No. 4, Autumn, 1983, pp. 736-48.

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Thomas H. Landess