1929 Pulitzer Prize Review: Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin


The next Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on my list carries with it yet another public controversy. Julia Peterkin was a public school teacher who started writing at the age of forty. Her husband was William Peterkin, a Southern planter and owner of a vast 2,000-acre historic plantation in South Carolina. As a young woman, she lived a life of privilege and luxury only afforded a southern belle at the time. She had a black nanny and her husband’s plantation employed many black people –racial segregation and hierarchy was sadly the prevailing political order of the day. Like Zora Neale Hurston, Peterkin wrote novels that focused on the Gullah “negro dialect,” for which she was praised as an unlikely hero of the Harlem Renaissance –imagine the irony! A white Southern plantation owner writing an award-winning novel from the perspective of a unique, creole community for which she is both praised by ivory tower academics as well as the jazz-influenced poets of the Harlem Renaissance. 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.”

On The 1929 Pulitzer Prize Decision
Scarlet Sister Mary, Peterkin’s third novel, naturally caused quite a stir upon release. Dr. Richard S. Burton, returning chair of the Pulitzer Novel Jury in 1929, nominated Victim and Victor by John Rathbone Oliver to win the Pulitzer Prize, and he even delivered a public speech praising the book (he said it was a “a book not just for a year but for many years”). According to literary critic W.J. Stuckey, Victim and Victor is “a mildly shocking piece about a deposed Episcopalian priest who is brokenhearted by his exile from the Church.” However, Columbia’s School of Journalism Advisory Board rejected Victim and Victor and nominated Peterkin’s novel instead (in addition to Scarlet Sister Mary, Upton Sinclair’s Boston was also considered). An internal fight at the college ensued leading to Dr. Burton’s resignation from the Pulitzer Jury. It was the first time that the Advisory Board ignored a jury’s recommendation. At the time, Scarlet Sister Mary was considered obscene and it was banned by a local Carnegie library in Gaffney, Georgia. Meanwhile, The Chicago Journal of Commerce condescendingly wagged their finger stating 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 awarding the Pulitzer Prize to 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 era of the flapper girl. Years later, a controversial show ran on Broadway with all white actors playing the all-black cast of characters in the novel.

  • Richard Burton (1861-1940) studied at Trinity College and Johns Hopkins was a professor at Rollins College for many years. In addition to serving on several Pulitzer Juries in the Novel and Biography categories, he also served on the Book and Drama Leagues of America.
  • Jefferson Butler Fletcher (1865-1946) was born in Chicago, served in the American Field Ambulance Services during World War I, and educated at Harvard and Bowdoin College. He was a long-serving professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University (from 1904-1939). He was considered a foremost expert on the Italian Renaissance and Dante, and in his obituary in The New York Times, it was noted that he served on the Pulitzer Novel Jury for “several years.” Sadly, his son died in an automobile accident in 1926, Fletcher also had a daughter.
  • Robert Morss Lovett (1870-1956) was a Bostonian who studied at Harvard. He taught literature at the University of Chicago for many years, he was associate editor of The New Republic, served as governor secretary of the Virgin Islands, and was a political activist –he was accused of being a communist by the Dies Committee which forced him out of his secretary position. He was often on the frontlines of left-leaning picket lines, and helped launch the careers of several young writers, including John Dos Passos. In later years, his wife became a close friend and associate of Jane Addams and the couple lived at Hull House for a spell.

Scarlet Sister Mary 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 in this region –the hanging oaks, the blossoming cotton, the heat of a summer day, and so on. In the first half of the novel, Mary accidentally gets pregnant and is wedded 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 then 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 and the local church ostracizes her (it is known as “Heaven’s Gate Church”) until one of her children dies, one gets pregnant, and her first son unexpectedly returns to the plantation. Mary finally decides to return to church where she is eventually forgiven and allowed to return, but she decides not to relinquish her love charm.

Scarlet Sister Mary is a fascinating glimpse into an overlooked segment of American life –post Civil War, where some formerly enslaved black Americans decided 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 characters like 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 in the end.

Scarlet Sister Mary is obviously an attempt to offer a defense of people like Mary, rousing sympathy for simple people trapped in difficult quandaries, however the book has since garnered far more criticism than forgiveness. Mary’s 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, nothing is really at stake in Scarlet Sister Mary. By the end, Mary’s many tragedies come back to haunt her and she is welcomed back into the church with the opportunity to become a Christian again, although she still clings to her primitive superstitions, suggesting that perhaps she has not learned anything after all.

Today, the book and its author are largely forgotten, relegated to the dusty pile of Pulitzer winners from bygone eras. And perhaps that is for the best. In many ways, the many controversies surrounding this novel are far 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).

Peterkin, Julia. Scarlet Sister Mary. Indianapolis, The Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers, 1929.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

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