She did not write as a Southern lady should—and yet that is exactly what Julia Mood Peterkin, a quintessential Southern lady, did.
Born in Laurens County in 1880, the daughter of a physician, Julia Mood graduated from Converse College. During the years that she attended Converse, there was a strong effort to develop the literary skills of the students. A few years after graduating, she married William G. Peterkin, the owner of a cotton plantation near St. Matthews, South Carolina. Now living in rural isolation, Julia Peterkin’s daily contact was with the 450 Negroes who lived and worked on Lang Syne Plantation. Assuming much of the responsibility for managing the plantation, she became intimately familiar with the lives of the workers, their customs, their traditions, their superstitions, and their language. She observed that the workers retained much of the culture derived from their African heritage.
Having shown no inclination toward writing since leaving Converse College, Julia Peterkin at the age of 40, took a correspondence course in magazine writing and became driven to write about the world in which she lived. Twenty years of intimate existence among the plantation Negroes had taught her to perceive in them qualities of courage, generosity, and heroism that had escaped the notice of other writers of Negro life. She excelled in recording what went on around her. After publishing stories in several literary magazines, she produced her first full-length work, Green Thursday in 1924. There followed Black April (1927), Scarlet Sister Mary (1928), for which she won the Pulitizer Prize for literature, Bright
Skin (1932), and Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933). Her work gained international fame. Then, after this brief, ten- year writing career, she stopped writing. Her novels were quickly forgotten until the 1970s and 1980s, when there was a revival of interest in Southern women writers.
In her writings, she treated the Negro as a human being, possessing both dignity and faults. In doing so, she was a pioneer. She broke with the manner in which previous authors had portrayed the Negro. By presenting them in a realistic way and free of stereotypes, she was being quite daring. Her writings shocked many because of their frank treatment of the sexual mores of her subjects. She was brilliant at characterization. She also had an ear for languages and developed a written form of Gullah that accurately captured the true essence of the dialect. She told her story in beautiful prose and with originality.
Why, after so brief a career, did Peterkin stop writing? One can never know with certainty. Perhaps she had released the rage, stored within her, over the previous treatment of the Negro image. Perhaps she simply had said what she had to say, had told the story of her world, and was satisfied that she had portrayed the plantation Negro in a realistic manner. Whatever her reasons for stopping, during her brief writing career, she made a significant contribution to the preservation of a culture, a knowledge of which would otherwise have died out—the culture of plantation life in South Carolina and of those who labored on the land.
She died in 1961, and remains the only South Carolinian to have won the Pulitzer Prize for literature.