“Things press in on me terribly . . . and my writing is a real relief . . . I get rid of my own sorrows in repeating those of others.” —Julia Mood Peterkin quoted in Innocence Abroad by Emily Clark.
Julia Mood was born in Laurens County, South Carolina in 1880, and graduated from Converse College in 1896. When she married William George Peterkin in 1903 she became the mistress of Lang Syne plantation near Fort Motte – a community of 500 African Americans and 5 whites. It was among the black community at Lang Syne (particularly from a formerly enslaved woman named Lavinia Berry) where she would find the subjects for her future writing and relief from the grief and betrayal that came the year after her marriage. After a difficult delivery of her son and obtaining her husband’s assent, Peterkin’s father removed her ovaries in a procedure called bilateral oophorectomy, or Battey’s operation. In addition to making it impossible for her to again conceive, the procedure also induced premature menopause. After giving birth, Peterkin would spend nearly two years in bed being nursed by Lavinia Berry, and she would harbor resentment against her father and husband for the rest of her life. Though rarely shown in person, this resentment would manifest itself in her writing.
Peterkin first attempted a career as a writer when she was 40 years old, and she soon had admirers in notable authors like H.L. Mencken and Carl Sandburg. Her first publications were short stories that appeared in the Richmond, Virginia-based Reviewer and Mencken’s own Smart Set. Within nine years she would become the first southern novelist to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Beginning in 1924 she published three widely acclaimed books, Green Thursday (1924), Black April (1927), and Scarlet Sister Mary (1928)—the latter winning her the Pulitzer. Another novel, Bright Skin, would follow in 1932. Peterkin’s first three books were exceptional among her contemporaries because she centered the stories on black individuals with a notable absence of white characters. Her stories were of everyday life on a South Carolina plantation, with black characters as undeniable human beings, and devoid of the vulgar stereotypes typically found in contemporary novels written by white Southerners about the South. The Gullah dialogue in the books was praised as a rendering that stayed true to the original language, while at the same time was accessible to readers who did not grow up with the language.
Throughout her work, though, she conveyed an emotional dependence upon the actual black women and men who lived and worked on the plantation she managed. The grief, loneliness, anger, and desire for love (and lust) that she herself felt but kept away from the public eye found expression in her fictional tales about their lives. The south’s conservatism seems to have kept her from exploring subjects considered taboo (sexual promiscuity, abortion, infanticide) for a white woman to write about white society, so instead she considered them through the lens of a fictional plantation’s black residents. This, however, did not mean they were free from controversy. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Scarlet Sister Mary, was banned in the Gaffney public library.
While she did succeed in presenting a humanizing view of southern rural blacks, Peterkin never wrote in protest of the conditions facing black southerners and she never personally lost the paternalistic attitude that she assumed came naturally to one in her social position. She also did not acknowledge any inherent contradiction in these positions. Her final publication, Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933) was not a novel, but more a eulogy for the Old South which combined photographs taken by Doris Ulmann of black workers at Lang Syne plantation with text provided by Peterkin.
Peterkin died in Orangeburg in 1961, and was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 1988.
*The quote in the title comes from the W.E.B. Du Bois review of Green Thursday that appeared in the December 1924 issue of The Crisis.