Author, Pulitzer Prize winner. Peterkin was born on October 31, 1880, in Laurens County, the youngest daughter of Julius Mood, a schoolteacher, and his wife, Alma Archer. Julius Mood went on to become a doctor and to practice medicine in Sumter. Alma Mood died of tuberculosis when Peterkin was eighteen months old, and Julius Mood soon remarried. Peterkin was sent to live with her paternal grandparents, while her older sisters stayed with their father and his new wife. The loss of her mother and the sense that she had been “given away” would later become a haunting refrain in Peterkin’s fiction.
Peterkin graduated from Converse College in 1896 and went on to earn a master’s degree from Converse a year later. She taught in a one-room school in Fort Motte; married the cotton planter William George Peterkin on June 3, 1903; and moved to Lang Syne Plantation near St. Matthews, where she would live for the rest of her life. Peterkin had one son, William George Peterkin, Jr., and spent the first twenty years of her marriage trying to fill the archaic role of plantation mistress.
Peterkin did not begin to write until she was forty years old. She began by telling tales of plantation life to her piano teacher, Henry Bellamann, a poet with literary leanings who encouraged her to write them down. Ambition soon led her to approach famous writers and critics, notably Joel Spingarn, Carl Sandburg, and H. L. Mencken, even while secretly taking a correspondence course on magazine writing. Her stories found a home in Emily Clark’s new magazine the Reviewer and in Mencken’s more widely read Smart Set. Within two years Peterkin had contracted to publish a book with Alfred A. Knopf, then just beginning to establish a distinguished reputation. The result was Green Thursday (1924), a collection of linked short stories about a black farm laborer named Killdee; his wife, Rose; and their foster daughter, Missie. Peterkin drew on what she knew about the lives of real people at Lang Syne, rendering some of them so acutely that the portraits are recognizable to their descendants. Yet the emotional force of many of the tales comes from her own life experience, especially the trauma of losing her mother and growing up apart from her father.
Peterkin’s stark, poignant stories about black country folk were among the first flowerings in the movement toward ironic, realistic regional fiction later known as the Southern Renaissance. In 1929 she became the first southern writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for the novel Scarlet Sister Mary (1928). Two of her books, Black April (1927) and Scarlet Sister Mary, became best-sellers, and her last, Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933), with photographs by her friend Doris Ulmann, was one of the groundbreaking documentaries of the 1930s.
White southerners found Peterkin’s early stories offensive and considered her a traitor to her race, though their animosity faded as her celebrity grew. Her mature work gained international fame and was unlike anything that had come before it. Peterkin had the gift of luring mainstream white audiences into what was to them a strange new world: the community of black farmworkers who lived by traditions that were largely African in origin. Whites seldom appear in her work, except in trivial roles. Peterkin had a great ear for language and eventually worked out a literary rendering of the difficult Gullah dialect that was true to the cadences and flavor of the original but understandable to ordinary Americans. Her novels were considered racy and subversive, partly for their frank celebration of sex but also because they dared to reveal hard truths about how blacks were forced to live in the Jim Crow South. Taken together, Green Thursday, Black April, Scarlet Sister Mary, and Bright Skin (1932) chronicle the decline of the plantation economy and the wrenching personal and social forces that drove African Americans to leave the rural South.
Peterkin’s stories won high praise from black writers and scholars associated with the Harlem Renaissance, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White, Alain Locke, and Countee Cullen. African American novelists who emerged soon after, including Zora Neale Hurston, show clear signs of Peterkin’s influence. During the Depression, Peterkin’s fiction fell out of fashion, and it was largely ignored during the 1970s and 1980s, when the works of many other women writers were resurrected and appreciated. Yet her best work has the timeless quality of great literature and seems as fresh and vibrant in the twenty-first century as it did in the 1920s.
Peterkin died in Orangeburg on August 10, 1961, of congestive heart failure. She was buried in the family plot across the street from the Episcopal Church near Fort Motte. In 1988, Peterkin was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors.
Perry, Carolyn, and Mary Louise Weaks, eds. The History of Southern Women’s Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
Williams, Susan Millar. A Devil and a Good Woman, Too: The Lives of Julia Peterkin. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.