Skip to main content
A biannual publication offering insights into the use of digital historical collections

Life out of Darkness: The Recovery of Julia Peterkin, Forgotten Pulitzer Prize Winner

Elizabeth Robeson

M.Phil, Columbia University

If asked to name the first southern novelist to win a Pulitzer Prize, most Americans might guess William Faulkner or Margaret Mitchell.  The honor actually belongs to Julia Peterkin (1880-1961), a largely forgotten, self-styled plantation mistress from South Carolina whose meteoric career rendered her name and novels household words for the better part of three decades.  Peterkin’s best-selling 1929 Pulitzer-prizewinner, Scarlet Sister Mary (1928), tells the story of Mary Pinesett, a spirited and rebellious—some said promiscuous—black woman who, having been abandoned by July, her “heart-love” husband, determines to have the family of her dreams—but on her own terms.  With the aid of a love charm, Mary lures unnamed partners into assignations, bears nine children of different paternity, and, by reveling in the arrival of each baby, spurns the condemnation of her tight knit community at Blue Brook Plantation.  Modernist critics greeted Scarlet Sister Mary as a masterpiece:  Lionel Trilling remarked on its “strength and dignity,” while Alain Locke, father of the Harlem Renaissance, perceived in Peterkin’s “banishment of propaganda” a “new attitude of the literary South toward Negro life.”  Conversely, the mainstream American media found the Pulitzer selection disturbing.  The Chicago Journal of Commerce declared, “[A] promiscuous Negress with seven [sic] illegitimate children can hardly be regarded as falling under the ‘highest standards’” synonymous with the award.  A Georgia editor derided the novel as “sex exploitation” while a Carnegie library in Peterkin’s home state banned Mary from the shelves. 

Portrait of Julia Peterkin, 1933.
Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs
Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection

The controversy was a rare fissure in Peterkin’s closely managed public image as “just a country woman” who composed novels about rural African Americans—a façade behind which she hid great personal tragedy while unwittingly prejudicing her legacy.  Peterkin’s accomplishment lay in her upending the traditional plantation novel by replacing its gross stereotypes with rural black southerners of complexity, stamina, integrity, and courage, while valorizing the African spiritual inheritance as a transcendent force of cultural regeneration.  Because no Uncle Toms, Aunt Jemimas or Colonels clad in white linen inhabited Peterkin’s fiction (indeed, white characters made rare appearances), and because she dared depict tender love and sex between black people, prickly white southerners viewed her suspiciously, perceiving her work as inflammatory and pornographic.  In a letter to her mentor H.L. Mencken, Peterkin admitted the sting of her own family’s disdain.  Her grown son, she relayed, urged her to write about “beautiful white men and women, not niggers.”  In a poignant confession of her alienation she tersely wrote, “No beautiful white people live in my head.”

Scarlet Sister Mary. Indianapolis:
The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1928.
Source: Rare Book and Manuscript Library
at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The story behind Peterkin’s stunning literary success—and equally astonishing present-day obscurity—is itself the stuff of fiction.  Raised by her Confederate grandparents, she lived in Methodist parsonages, having lost her mother to tuberculosis as a toddler.  At 17 with a Masters degree (almost unheard of among fin-de-siècle southern women), she became a teacher in the remote village of Fort Motte, South Carolina.  There in 1903, she married William George Peterkin, heir to historic Lang Syne Plantation, whose community of five hundred black laborers descended from the original eighteenth century settlement.  In the spring of 1904, Peterkin’s surgeon father delivered her son, then promptly sterilized her—with her husband’s consent.  Peterkin refers often, albeit obliquely, to her life-long bitterness as “my utter defeat,” while a self-loathing is evident in her aggrieved “intellectual, barren” condition.  Her psychic pain is represented fictionally by depictions of orphans, women dying in childbirth, lacerations, and disfigured or dead babies.  Her favorite Bible verse proclaims, “I will wail and howl, I will go stripped and naked: I will make a wailing like the dragons, and mourning as the owls.”  Peterkin survived her grief and years of invalidism through the soothing ministrations of Lavinia Berry, a former slave woman who prophetically counseled, “Don’t shet up tings/Too tight in you’ heart.”  Berry transformed Peterkin’s life by drawing her into the self-contained world of Lang Syne’s quarters whose people, over time, became the loving family she had never known.  Peterkin’s oeuvre—five books and works of short fiction—is rich on myriad levels—as folklore and speech documentary, as catalogue of residual African magic and religious beliefs—but most intriguingly, as autobiography embedded in the lives of her characters who, in turn, were inspired by the residents of Lang Syne.

From The Sunday Oregonian (March 3, 1929).
Source: America’s Historical Newspapers

A convergence of poor scholarship, ideological divides in academe, and her own fierce commitment to privacy relegated Peterkin to the margins of American literary history, where she has been stigmatized by the plantation persona that the poet Carl Sandburg advised her to adopt.  A series of personal losses led to a gradual withdrawal from public life after writing her last book, Roll Jordan Roll (1933), a plantation elegy illustrated by the photographs of Doris Ulmann.  Peterkin destroyed most of her personal papers, thus spawning prosaic summaries of her life based on the contrived origins narrative she repeated in interviews.  Most regrettably, her purported biography, A Devil and a Good Woman Too: The Lives of Julia Peterkin (1997), reveals more about its author’s projections than it brings Peterkin to life or contextualizes her path-breaking significance as an early American modernist.

From the Cleveland Plain Dealer (May 5, 1930).
Source: America’s Historical Newspapers

For two decades I have sleuthed archives around the country, piecing together Peterkin’s literary career.  The years after 1935 have posed a special challenge; a veritable lacuna rendered her a missing person until her obituaries appeared in August 1961.  With the revolutionary aid of digitized newspapers, an entirely new dimension of Peterkin’s life has emerged from that darkness, pointing to new avenues of research while confirming what I have long intuited:  Julia Peterkin’s renown survived for decades, attested to by dozens of unrelated articles from newspapers around the country.  As a collection, these articles could not have been found by conventional methods.  I learned of prestigious prize committees that Peterkin sat on, teaching posts she held, activist work she engaged in; I found previously unknown collections that anthologized her work, and references to her in reviews of other books, linking her to a new generation of writers.  I learned that Peterkin enjoyed a loyal following across the northern tier of the United States, particularly in The Oregonian, Seattle Daily Times, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Springfield Republican, but received only rare mention in the Augusta Chronicle, which still serves a substantial readership in South Carolina.  Peterkin’s novels appeared in crossword puzzles; women’s clubs continued to discuss her books; a social scientist presented a paper about her at a 1960s academic conference; local bookstores outside the South still advertised Scarlet Sister Mary decades later.  After she died, the Trenton Evening Times continued to acknowledge her Halloween birthday, just as it had for years!

From the Springfield Republican (April 14, 1932).
Source: America’s Historical Newspapers

One or even several of these items could be classified as ephemera; when viewed as a collection they point to Peterkin’s long-lived reputation; they erode the conventional wisdom of literary scholars who look at her askance as a quaint writer of minor significance.  The most exciting revelation appeared in a 1954 story syndicated by the Chicago Tribune and published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune: Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper announced that Dorothy Dandridge, having just become the first black woman nominated for the best actress Academy Award (for her performance in Carmen Jones), intended to form her own production company and bring a musical version of Scarlet Sister Mary to the screen.  The film did not materialize, but Dandridge’s interest in the project extends the reach of a work-in-progress about the fascinating lost history of Scarlet Sister Mary.

From the Trenton Sunday Times Advertiser (May 9, 1937).
Source: America’s Historical Newspapers

As writer James McGrath Morris suggested in these columns in 2011, the digitization of newspapers is perhaps one of the most important advances ever made in the field of historical research, giving historians pause to consider not only what we yet don’t know, but how much revision is likely to occur.

Elizabeth Robeson earned an M.Phil in American history from Columbia University. A specialist in African American and South Carolina history, she lives in New Orleans. Her publications include "'An Ominous Defiance': The Lowman Lynchings of 1926," published in Toward the Meeting of the Waters: Currents in the Civil Rights Movement of South Carolina during the Twentieth Century (2008), and "The Ambiguity of Julia Peterkin,” which appeared in the Journal of Southern History (Nov. 1995).

Stay in Touch

Receive product news, special offers and invitations, or the acclaimed Readex Report

Sign Up

By clicking "Sign Up", you acknowledge that you have read and understand our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.