This next Pulitzer Prize-winning novel carries with it yet another public controversy. Julia Peterkin was a public school teacher who married William Peterkin, a Southern planter who owned a vast 2,000 acre historic plantation in South Carolina. Peterkin didn’t start writing until she was forty. As a young woman, she had a black nanny and her husband’s plantation, in its day, employed many black people, as well. Like Zora Neale Hurston, Peterkin wrote novels that focus on the Gullah “negro dialect,” for which she was praised as an unlikely hero of the Harlem Renaissance. The irony! A white Southern plantation owner writes an award-winning novel from the perspective of a unique, creole community that is praised both by the ivory tower, as well as the jazz-influenced black poetry from the streets of Harlem. Even W.E.B. DuBois wrote: “Peterkin is a southern white woman, but she has the eye and the ear to see beauty and know truth.”
Scarlet Sister Mary is Peterkin’s third novel. Naturally, it caused quite a controversy upon its release. First, Dr. Richard S. Burton, chair of the Pulitzer fiction jury, nominated Victim and Victor by John Rathbone Oliver to win the Pulitzer in 1929, and he even delivered a public speech praising the book. However, Columbia’s School of Journalism Advisory Board nominated Peterkin’s novel. An internal fight at the college ensued leading to Dr. Burton’s resignation. It was the first time the Advisory Board ignored the juror’s recommendation. At the time, Scarlet Sister Mary was considered obscene and it was banned by the local Carnegie library in Gaffney, Georgia. Meanwhile in the North, The Chicago Journal of Commerce wagged their finger that a “promiscuous Negress with seven illegitimate children can hardly be regarded as falling under the ‘highest standards’ synonymous with the award.” Even the New York Times questioned the propriety of a book about a woman who gives birth to seven illegitimate children. However, ironically, much of the press in the South praised the novel for its relaxed and open views toward women. After all, the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920 and 1929 was the height of the Jazz Age and the flapper girl. Later, a controversial show ran on Broadway with all white actors playing the all black characters in the novel.
The novel tells the story of Mary, one of a handful of black southerners, living in Georgia at some point after the Civil War. She lives and works on a Southern plantation, picking cotton and growing her own food. Peterkin beautifully sets the scenes when she describes the changing of the seasons, the hanging oaks, blossoming cotton, the heat of a summer day, and so on. In the first half of the novel, she accidentally gets pregnant and so she gets married to an extremely abusive man. We are exposed to her unforgiving church when Mary is banished for dancing on her wedding night, as well as her community’s particular superstitions (they believe in love potions and charms provided by the local conjurer, Daddy Cudjoe). Mary is abandoned by her two-timing husband, much to the pity of those around her, and eventually she takes on several male lovers (aided by a mystical love charm). In the second part of the novel, Mary sires several more children with many different men. The local church ostracizes her (Heaven’s Gate Church) until one of her children dies, one gets pregnant, and her first son unexpectedly returns to the plantation. Mary decides to return to the church. She is eventually forgiven and allowed to return, but she does not give up her love charm.
The novel is a fascinating glimpse into an overlooked segment of American life -post Civil War, formerly enslaved black Americans who decide to continue picking cotton and living on plantations. In the book, we feel Mary’s struggles, and we know her sorrow when her first husband utterly abandons her with a child. However, we also see a healthy distance between the audience and Mary. She has proven herself to be somewhat untrustworthy, flighty; in short, Mary regularly makes poor decisions, and then asks for forgiveness from her friends, family, and even us (the readers of the novel). Yet somehow we seem to have more sympathy for Mary than we do for Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. Mary never meant any harm, she simply made a few poor decisions. So we forgive her, or perhaps we just pity her.
The novel is obviously an attempt at a defense of Mary, however the book has garnered more criticism at Mary’s immoral actions, than forgiveness for her sins. Her life does not really reveal anything, save for her many misfortunes and missed opportunities. Yet Mary is still portrayed as one-dimensional, a ‘happy-go-lucky’ and superstitious simpleton. She is a wholly inauthentic character. While the book tries to be The Scarlet Letter, little is actually gained and nothing is at stake in Scarlet Sister Mary. At the end, Mary’s many tragedies come back to haunt her and she is welcomed back into the church with the opportunity of becoming a Christian again, though she still clings to her superstitions, suggesting that perhaps she has not learned anything at all.
Today, the novel and its author are largely forgotten, relegated to the dusty pile of Pulitzer Prize award winner from bygone eras. And perhaps that is for the best. In many ways, the many controversies surrounding this novel are more interesting than the novel itself.
Nevertheless, here is a memorable passage from Scarlet Sister Mary:
“The next Christmas Day found Mary with Seraphine, a tiny baby girl, in her arms. Mary herself was a new creature. Her heart was light, her eyes sparkled and her laughter rang out as gaily as anybody’s. She had learned again how to enjoy waking up to see the sky and to work all day long without slackening her speed. Her blood was warm with new life. It was pleasant to walk along the roads, to go to the forest for fire-wood, to swing her ax like a man, driving its keen bright edge into the clean white wood of the trees. She could never be the same free-hearted girl she had been, for trouble had left a scar somewhere deep down in her breast” (Chapter XVII, pg. 182).