Julia Peterkin's Scarlet Sister Mary
was published in 1928 but did not become a bestseller until after she received the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1929. The novel sold a million copies in 1929 but shortly after that, the novel, and its author, sunk to obscurity. Scarlet Sister Mary
's success can, in part, be attributed to the cultural and artistic climate of the time and her contemporaries' validation. Rave reviews, praise from famous writers, and winning a prestigious award helped build a literary reputation for Peterkin. The controversies surrounding SSM and the incongruity of the author's own persona further boosted sales. 1929 was a transitional year; by 1930, the stock market crash plunged the exuberant, playful '20s into the dismal Depression of the '30s. In the '20s, Scarlet Sister Mary
was a book people understood to be important and literary and groundbreaking, yet accessible, and, by the sound of it, a little bit seedy, too. The world Peterkin depicted was hidden, invisible, but vibrant and real. Peterkin's persona shocked and intrigued people and ultimately created complications in the '30s that worked against her, banishing author and novel forever.
Culturally, the roaring twenties, or jazz age, was a time of economic prosperity, rise in entertainment, prohibition and its accompanying rebellion, and social reform. The end of WWI (1918) had ushered in a rare decade of peace. Oppressed groups such as women and African Americans rose in stature and independence. In 1920, the 19th amendment (women's suffrage) became law and gave rise to the feminist sensibility embodied in the flapper. African Americans were migrating from the South to northern cities, and their resulting artistic output established the Harlem Renaissance. Peterkin's novel, coinciding with both feminism and the Harlem Renaissance, addresses burgeoning feminist impulses and illuminates an obscure part of African American culture.
SSM was banned in Boston and many libraries throughout the South for a combination of reasons. First, because the novel sympathizes with the character of Mary, who is promiscuous and has many illegitimate children. Indeed, the novel was quite possibly perceived as anti-marriage and anti-male. Second, the racist attitudes of the South could not permit a white woman writing, legitimizing, humanizing
the black experience. Though a far cry from what we [in 2006] would consider risqué, Peterkin limned a character (Mary) that resists a traditional feminine role. Early on in the novel, Mary is thrown out of the church for dancing on her wedding day. After a year of marriage, her husband, July, leaves Mary and their new baby Unex (short for "unexpected"?he was conceived prior to their wedding day) for another woman. Initially despondent, she emerges from her depression determined to embrace life without men. Mary proceeds to have another 8 children, all with different fathers, and when July comes back 20 years later, though she still loves him, she refuses to take him back.
When Mary anticipates she might be losing July in her first year of marriage, she visits Daddy Cudjoe, a practitioner of white and black magic, for a love charm. By the time she returns from the visit, July is already gone, but Mary continues to use the charm to attract men and thus stay young and pretty for the rest of her life. Mary is not a witch, but the charm (she believes) makes her special. She adopts a new set of rules, forging a new and uncharted path.
Throughout her development from church member to "scarlet" sinner, Mary becomes aware of the inequality between men and women and protests with an alternative lifestyle. When confronted about her sinfulness by the deacon of the church, she responds to the hypocrisy of the church and defends herself:
"I ain' so wicked, Cousin, neither so good. You's a man an' I's a ?oman. You want to have all de pleasure, an' don' leave me an' [other women] none. Dat ain' right, church or no church" (241).
Mary doesn't trust men, but she also doesn't deny their charm and company when it suits her. Though "none is worth keeping, none worth a tear," "each one is a little different from the rest; just different enough to make him worth finding out" (248). Not sufficiently compelled to find another husband or settle down, she remains youthful well into her thirties, unlike the wives on the plantation who have become stodgy, fat, and unreasonable. Doll, the deacon's wife, chastises her behavior. Mary mischievously responds: "you don't have but one man when I has a plenty, but dat don't make you so much better'n me. I couldn' stand to have de same man a-snorin in my face evy night Gawd sends" (258).
Though Mary is an orphan, her pious aunt, Maum Hannah, and Hannah's crippled son, Buddha Ben, make up her extended family. Maum Hannah is constantly warning Mary that she should remarry. But Mary maintains that "me an' my chillen don' need no man. We can git on better widout em" (261). Ben is similarly outcast from "society" and the church because he is crippled and has a short temper. Both Mary and Ben "resented many of the ways and customs of the plantation people who never stopped to think about things, and accepted ideas and beliefs which were handed down to them, the same as they accepted the old houses where they were born and worked in the same old fields which their parents and grandparents had salted with sweat" (220). Eventually Buddha Ben decides that "whatever people crave to do is good for them to do" and as long as Mary is kind and provides for her children, she is worthy of respect (220).
Maum Hannah tells Mary there are two kinds of love?"heart-love" and "flesh-love." Heart-love is true love, rare, but possible. Out of her 9 children (and 2 adoptees), only the one fathered by July is her heart-love child and she cherishes him because of it. Unex's sudden sickness and death at age 20 can hardly be taken as anything other than punishment from a vengeful God. Though in the end she makes amends with God and is "born again," she refuses to give up the love charm. Mary learns that affording oneself "pleasure" is the only thing that makes life worth living.
SSM's themes--the nature of love, male/female and female/female relationships, conformity, and balancing pleasure with virtue (here, within a Christian value system)--are universal. Peterkin's characters just happen to be black. That the themes are played out in the backdrop of Gullah folklore, superstitions, and spirituality?granting entrance into a private world?assuredly attracted readers. But the writer does not approach the broader political and social implications of race. Whites are mostly absent from the story?the plantation seems to have been abandoned by the "white landowners" and whites, only mentioned in passing, usually are harbingers of "modern" and intrusive machinery and education. Whites are responsible for the hay baler that takes one of Mary's son's legs and for forcing Hannah and the other midwives to learn the "new way" of "catchin chillen," that is, to take formal classes on midwifery.
Life on the plantation seem very far removed from the lives of Harlem Renaissance luminaries like W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. The Gullah people living on the Quarters are even physically distanced from the rest of civilization?traveling out of South Carolina's coastal "low country" into "town" requires a boat trip across the river. No one on the plantation can read, and electricity and automobiles haven't reached them yet. SSM was a work of fiction, but the author openly credits a real community for her inspiration. Though this community existed in isolation, her story had to be judged credible before it could be figuratively and literally "bought." Prominent African Americans and organizations like the NAACP provided this stamp of approval. W.E.B. DuBois said "Peterkin is a southern white woman, but she has the eye and the ear to see beauty and know truth." The quote seems critical to book's authenticity?as such, it remains on the jacket copy on the present-day edition of SSM (University of Georgia Press).
Equally critical to SSM's success was the approval of other writers of the day and her inclusion in the Southern Literary Renaissance, alongside writers like William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying
was published in 1930), Katherine Anne Porter, and Thomas Wolfe (Moore). Peterkin's friendship with Carl Sandburg, poet of the "common man," who called Chicago the "city of the big shoulders," was instrumental in her ascent as a writer. [Note: a signed first edition of SSM can be found in the University of Illinois' Carl Sandburg collection in the Rare Books Library.] Carl Sandburg helped bring her attention to H.L. Mencken, "the most influential critic of American literature and culture in the 1920s" (Nordquist). That Mencken was a Peterkin fan and included her work in his magazine Smart Set
doubtless paved the way for her future success.
Knowing that her tale was inspired by her observances of the Gullah people, whom she lived "among" her entire life, was requisite to the American public accepting her work. Her persona, then, had to be marketed along with the book. Pieces of Peterkin's life are, indeed, peppered throughout her fiction. For example, motherlessness is present throughout her life. Like Mary, Peterkin's mother died when she was a baby and she, similarly, was "raised" by a Gullah "mauma." Peterkin's only son's wife committed suicide, leaving her to raise her son's motherless child. Peterkin's biography discusses her problems with men, including adultery on both her own and her husband's part, and the disconnect between living the respectable life of a plantation mistress and the vicarious life of the "primitive," spiritual people of her fiction. The two instances of crippling in the novel recall an event in her own life in which the plantation's foreman complained of pain in his feet. Julia, a doctor's daughter and manager of the plantation, mixed a solution for him to soak them in and soon after was "shocked to see his toes floating on top of the bath water" (Weaks). Later, his legs had to be amputated (gangrene), and Peterkin carried the guilt with her for the rest of her life.
The other bestsellers of 1929 provide additional insight into the popularity of Peterkin's work. DuBose Heyward, also a South Carolina native, wrote about Gullah blacks in the Palmetto state as well. His most famous novel (though not included in this bestsellers database), Porgy
(1925), was later adapted into the Gershwin musical Porgy & Bess
. Mamba's Daughters
(Kessinger Publishing), on the bestseller list for 1929, continued with this subject material. Two nonfiction bestsellers of 1929, John Brown's Body
(Stephen Vincent Benoit) and The Tragic Era
(Claude Bowers) reveal a conflicted American opinion on race. John Brown's Body
is a "poetic" retelling of the Civil War. The real John Brown, an abolitionist who believed in guerilla warfare as a means to end slavery, led the raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, and was subsequently captured by Robert E. Lee, an event generally considered to be "an important part of the origins of the American Civil War, which followed sixteen months later" (Wikipedia). "John Brown's Body" later became a popular Union song in the war between the states. On the other side of the coin, The Tragic Era
contained "a now discredited anti-Republican view of Reconstruction built on the principle that political order could be restored only on the basis of racial inequality" (Columbia). Though these works do not seem to deal with race relations as a social issue, they begin the conversation. Scarlet Sister Mary
sits comfortably among her contemporaries because it doesn't critique white power dynamics, but does represent African Americans.
An emerging feminist sensibility also attracted readers to SSM. As a white woman writing about black people, Peterkin's narrative perspective is problematic. Though her work neglects to address race relations, the character of Mary is undoubtedly informed by feminism. Parallels can be drawn between Peterkin's novel and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God
, a story that "violates norms of sexual restraint by offering a bold quest for female fulfillment" also focuses on a woman who is scorned by a small-town community because of her sexually liberated attitude (Kaplan). Hurston, too, dealt with the disconnect between her life and her fiction. Hurston (black and female), a highly educated anthropologist and folklorist, depicted characters in the rural south who spoke a black dialect. Both works are tinged with a feminist, as opposed to racial, sensibility, and were criticized because of it. Unlike Peterkin's work, much of Hurston's work remains an important part of the 20th-century American literary canon today.
There are many reasons why a book becomes a bestseller. Having received the Pulitzer, excellent reviews, and praise by famous writers and celebrities, Scarlet Sister Mary
built up a respectable reputation. A book that others deem worthy is good advertising and can at least partially account for sales. On the other hand, SSM's readers were also attracted to the controversy attached to the book, which includes an interest in the author's public persona. Also, the book was well-timed, temporarily. In 1920s, American tastes were characterized by 1) an appreciation for simplicity and sentiment (entertainment), and 2) an openness to philosophy, reform, and new kinds of artistic expression. Both attitudes shaped SSM's reception, and a sharp change in the national outlook in 1930 can be partially blamed for her book being forgotten (see Subsequent Critical Reception, above). Placement of Peterkin's work within the Southern Literary Renaissance and alongside Harlem Renaissance works possibly gave her novel more attention than it deserved. But Peterkin was a skillful writer, her characters rich and resonant, and her subject material intriguing. With all of these elements in place, it is no wonder that Scarlet Sister Mary
is included among the ten highest selling books in America in 1929.
Bayne, Harry Mcbrayer. The Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature
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--, entry for "Zora Neale Hurston."
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University of Georgia Press