Peterkin, Julia: Scarlet Sister Mary
(researched by Kristin Schar)

Assignment 1: Bibliographical Description
1 First edition publication information (publisher, place, date, etc.)
Peterkin, Julia. Scarlet Sister Mary. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1928. Copyright: The Bobbs-Merrill Company
2 First edition published in cloth, paper, or both? If both, simultaneous or staggered?
First edition published in trade cloth binding.
3 JPEG image of cover art from first edition, if available
4 Pagination
175 leaves, pp. [2][1-10]11-345[3]
5 Edited or Introduced? If so, by whom?
No editor or introduction. Book is dedicated to William George Peterkin (Julia's husband).
6 Illustrated? If so, by whom?
No illustrations, except for endpapers (see description of binding).
7 JPEG image of sample illustration, if available
8 General physical appearance of book (Is the physical presentation of the text attractive? Is the typography readable? Is the book well printed?)
Large margins and ample space between lines of text make for excellent readability. Roman numerals are used to number chapters and first word of chapter is in small capitals (initial large cap). Size of type: 100R Typeface: serif Book size: 197 mm x 132 mm Size of text: 88 mm x 138 mm Overall physical appearance of book is excellent for its age. It has been well-preserved in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
9 JPEG image of sample chapter page, if available
10 Paper (Assess the original quality of the paper used for the book. Is the paper in the copy or copies you examined holding up physically over time?)
Paper is white wove paper with a straight edge. Each page but the last was cut by the reader; the last leaf of the book is still uncut/folded. The paper is smooth and is rather heavy and the same paper stock is used throughout. The paper is a bit yellowed, but no more than is expected for its age (78 years). There is minimal to no foxing, stains, or tears, though the paper seems brittle and is probably acidic.
11 Description of binding(s)
61 x 91 mm cloth cover seems to be dotted-line grain. Hue of cover is black with a red rectangular stamp. Inside the square the black letters of the title (transcribed below) are stamped. Transcription of cover: [sans serif]Scarlet|Sister|Mary|By|Julia Peterkin|Author of|BLACK APRIL There are lovely illustrated front and back endpapers. The pattern's black-and-white illustrations include a cabin among tall trees; an eagle in the foreground of a prominent shining sun; crops, probably cotton; and an androgynous African American with arms upraised to the sun. These pictures seem to me in the art deco style, which came to prominence in the US in 1928, the year of Scarlet Sister Mary's publication. Transcription of spine: [within a red box with black lettering] Scarlet|Sister|Mary|By|Julia Peterkin|[in red lettering at bottom of spine]Bobbs|Merrill
12 Transcription of title page
Recto of title page: [ornamentation: two black wavy lines, which resemble a symbol for water] SCARLET SISTER|MARY|By|JULIA PETERKIN|Author of Black April|[ornamentation]|[flush with bottom]INDIANAPOLIS|THE BOBBS-MERRILL COMPANY|PUBLISHERS|[wavy-line ornamentation] Verso of title page: [small caps w/initial large caps]Copyright, 1928|Printed in the United States of America|[stamped]PRESS OF|BRAUNWORTH & CO., INC.|BOOK MANUFACTURERS|BROOKLYN, N.Y.
13 JPEG image of title page, if available
14 Manuscript Holdings
A manuscript of Scarlet Sister Mary is available at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC. Correspondence between Peterkin and her publishers and early short stories can be found at Clemson University Libraries in Clemson, SC. Correspondence between Peterkin and Mencken, Sandburg, and others, in addition to published and unpublished manuscript fragments, can be found at South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston.
15 Other (typograpical information from title page, etc.)
The preliminary pages are laid out as follows: First-fifth pages: blank. Sixth page: [middle of page] "SCARLET SISTER MARY" Seventh page: blank Eighth page: t.p. recto Ninth page: t.p. verso Tenth page: dedication page; also, library information written in pencil Eleventh page: blank Twelfth page: [middle of page] "SCARLET SISTER MARY" This book was once part of Carl Sandburg's personal library. Owned by the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, it is part of the most recent addition to the Carl Sandburg collection, the Carl Sandburg-Asheville Transfer, obtained in 1996 upon the death of Margaret Sandburg, the eldest daughter of Carl and Paula Sandburg. This book must be requested and then can only be examined in the Rare Books Room with foams and weights to help preserve it. There are two bookplates - one says that the book belongs to the library at UIUC and the other that it is part of Carl Sandburg's library. Its call number is SNBRG|813|P44s|1928.
Assignment 2: Publication and Performance History
1 Did the original publisher issue the book in more than one edition? If so, briefly describe distinguishing features of each (illustrations, cover art, typography, etc.); if not, enter N/A
Bobbs-Merrill Co., Indianapolis, released the cloth-bound first edition in October, 1928, for $2.50. This edition has no illustrations or cover art but has decorated art deco-style endpapers (see supplementary materials). In October, 1929, Bobbs-Merrill issued a compact "Airplane Edition," which is "small and light, on India paper in an unusually attractive binding" (Publishers Weekly). A gilt picture of an airplane adorns the cover. There were only 3000 copies of the airplane edition produced, and each was signed by the author. This limited edition could not be purchased by the publisher. For an extra ten cents per copy, the bookseller could buy this edition with an order for the trade edition. Source: "'Scarlet Sister Mary' Takes to Air." Publishers Weekly. October 12, 1929.
2 JPEG image of cover art from one subsequent edition, if available
3 JPEG image of sample illustration from one subsequent edition, if available
4 How many printings or impressions of the first edition?
5 Editions from other publishers? If so, list their dates and publishers; if not, enter N/A
1928. Reprint. New York: Grosset & Dunlap; 345 p, 20 cm. 1928. Reprint - "Triangle Books series." Philadelphia: Blakiston Co. 272 pp., 20 cm. 14 printings. 1929. Reprint. London: Victor Gollancz. British parallel edition. 1930. 3rd edition - "Novels of Distinction." New York: Grosset & Dunlap. 345 p. Illustrated title page. 1940. Reprint. New York: Triangle Books. 345 p., 19 cm. 1946. Reprint - mass market paperback. NY: Pocket Books. 218 pp., 16 cm. 7 printings. 1970 Reprint. Dunwoody, GA: Norman S. Berg; 345 pp. 24 cm. 1978 - 4th edition. Franklin Center, PA: The Franklin Library. This limited edition, high-quality book has color illustrations by Charles Hamrick, gilt edges, silk endpapers, and a ribbon bookmark. 1991 - 5th edition. Atlanta, GA: Cherokee Publishing Company. Includes index. 1997 - 6th edition. Foreword by A. J. Verdelle. Athens: University of Georgia Press; 345 p, 19 cm. Includes bibliographical references. $17.95 Note: WorldCat lists "Windsor" and "Hearst/Avon" editions in 1928. However, they are not listed in the pre-1956 National Union Catalog, so the year of publication is suspect.
6 Last date in print?
Still in print at the University of Georgia Press in 2006.
7 Total copies sold? (source and date of information?)
1,007,997 Source: Hackett, Alice Payne. 70 Years of Best Sellers, 1967. [Note: There is an apparent typo in Hackett's 80 Years of Best Sellers (1977), which lists sales as 1,007,977.]
8 Sales figures by year? (source and date of information?)
N/A
9 Advertising copy (transcribe significant excerpts, briefly identify where ads were placed)
By JULIA PETERKIN Author of BLACK APRIL Scarlet Sister Mary In her new novel the distinguished author of Black April portrays with the same invincible reality the life of the Gullah negroes on the great Blue Brook Plantation. A story full of the earth's richness and the sun's warmth; a story that goes far behind the polite scree of civilization to life's naked elements of birth, growth and death. A NOVEL OF FIRST IMPORTANCE Bobbs-Merrill 345 pp. $2.50
10 JPEG image of sample advertisement, if available
A210191060301003408.jpg
11 Other promotion
Peterkin's Pulitzer Prize in 1929 boosted SSM's sales. After the win, advertisements highlighted this prestigous award and the work as a "Pulitzer Prize novel." Published in 1928, Scarlet Sister Mary did not appear on the bestseller list until June of '29, sustaining its peak at #3 for 3 weeks (12 weeks total on the list) in August, 1929. Sources: Justice, Keith. Bestseller Index Publishers Weekly. May 18, 1929: p. 2308
12 Performances in other media? If so, list media, date, title, production information; if not, enter N/A
Daniel Reed adapted Scarlet Sister Mary into a "dreadful" play of the same name. It opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York on November 25, 1930, and closed in December, 1930. Produced by Lee Shubert and directed by E.M. Blyth. Ethel Barrymore and the entire white company appeared in blackface. On November 10, 1933, the Women's Service Club and the Boston Players presented the production--"a Negro folk play in 3 acts, 5 scenes"--at the Fine Arts Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts. Staged and directed by Ralk Coleman. Source: WorldCat, Internet Broadway Database, Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature, entry on "Julia Peterkin"
13 Translations? If translated, give standard bibliographic information for each translation. If none, enter N/A
1931. El Pecado Rojo (Red Sin). Madrid, Spain: Editorial Cenit, 218 p; 18 cm.
14 Serialization? If serialized, give standard bibliographic information for serial publication. If none, enter N/A
N/A
15 Sequels/Prequels? Give standard bibliographic information for each. If none, enter N/A
N/A
Assignment 3: Biographical Sketch of the Author
1 Paste your biographical sketch here (maximum 500 words)
Julia Mood Peterkin was born October 31, 1880, to Julius (a country doctor) and Alma Mood in Laurens County, South Carolina. Julia's mother died when she was two years old, leaving her and a sister in care of grandparents and a black nursemaid, whom Julia called "Mauma." It was from this caretaker that she learned the Gullah dialect?an English-African creole spoken by African Americans in coastal South Carolina and Georgia?which would later distinguish her work. Julia acquired her bachelor and master's degree at Converse College at Spartanburg, SC, in 1896 and 1897. After college she accepted a teaching job in Fort Motte, SC, where she met and married William George Peterkin, owner of cotton plantation Lang Syne. Over 450 Gullah blacks were employed at Lang Syne, some of whom were old enough to remember being exported from Africa as slaves. Peterkin didn't begin writing until 1921, at age 41, after twenty years living on the plantation and raising a son, William George. All of her work centered on the Gullah people that she had known through the years. Her first stories were character sketches about former slaves and caught the attention of poet Carl Sandburg, who introduced her to H.L. Mencken. Some of her first material appeared in Mencken's literary magazine, Smart Set and Emily Clark's Reviewer, to be followed by her first short story collection Green Thursday, published by Alfred A. Knopf. Moving to marketing savvy publisher Bobbs-Merrill, she published her three subsequent novels, Black April, Scarlet Sister Mary, and Bright Skin. Peterkin's first two works of fiction were bestsellers and accompanied by critical acclaim. Marketed as the work of a "plantation mistress," she gained much notoriety for her mastery of the Gullah dialect and her nuanced portrayals of the Gullah people, their customs, and rituals. A white woman of privilege writing from a black perspective was unusual (Black April contained not a single white character) but she gained respect through the approbation of prominent Harlem Renaissance writers such as W.E.B. DuBois and Countee Cullen. At a time when black characters were often portrayed as cartoonish and sentimental, Peterkin's characters were subtle, complex, and real. Praised for their artistic skill as well as their authentic portraits, her first two novels were a success both critically and commercially. Her finest moment was with Scarlet Sister Mary, a novel about a woman grappling with issues of sexual mores and spirituality. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929, though it was debated whether the book "represented the wholesome best of American manhood," Joseph Pulitzer's original criteria for the prize. During the 1930s, when people were becoming more conscious of race relations, Peterkin's work fell out of favor. She was accused of not critiquing the plantation system and it was true: she didn't enter into the race debate. Her final novel, Bright Skin, about a mulatto who moves from the country to Harlem, got a lukewarm reception and sold relatively few copies. In nonfiction works Roll, Jordan, Roll (a "print documentary") and A Plantation Christmas she tried to comment sociologically without much success, consequently ending her literary career. After her husband died in 1939, she lived out her days managing the plantation and raising a grandson. She died August 10, 1961, in Orangeburg, SC, relatively obscure, having not published for twenty-five years. Her work experienced a revival in the 1970s and a book of short stories, The Collected Short Stories of Julia Peterkin, was published posthumously. Some scholars regard her as a brilliant example of Southern literary fiction at a difficult and transitional time for American race relations. Though she has been classed with such Southern writers as William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, who also used elements of the macabre and grotesque, her work has not quite achieved those writers' enduring literary legacy. A manuscript of Scarlet Sister Mary is available at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC. Correspondence between Peterkin and her publishers and early short stories can be found at Clemson University Libraries in Clemson, SC. Correspondence between Peterkin and Mencken, Sandburg, and others, in addition to published and unpublished manuscript fragments, can be found at South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston. Sources consulted: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 9: American Novelists, 1910-1945 (1981) American National Biography (2004) World Authors 1900-1950 (1996) Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 7: 1961-1965 (1981) Contemporary Authors Online (entry updated 2002)
Assignment 4: Reception History
1 Paste contemporary reception history in here (maximum 500 words)
Scarlet Sister Mary was Julia Peterkin's second novel and third work of fiction (her first was a book of short stories) and the pinnacle of her literary career. Overwhelmingly praised by critics at its publication in 1928, the novel's popularity soared through 1929, after receiving the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and then plummeted drastically. It is impossible to talk about the critical reception of Scarlet Sister Mary without taking race relations of the time into consideration. In all her books up to this point, including Mary, Peterkin, a white woman, portrayed a world exclusively populated by African Americans?specifically "Gullah negroes"?who lived and worked on a plantation in the heart of the Old South. After the Civil War (1865) and Reconstruction, the South was regarded as backward, a fact only compounded by early 20th century migration to northern cities. In 1928, before the "race question" was fully formed, Peterkin's description of a homogenous and peaceful African American community steeped in folklore, tradition, and religion and untouched by the modern complications of the day was a revelation. It was perhaps the very existence of an independent African American culture, also reflected by the writers, artists, and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance, that attracted people to Mary. Predictably, racist attitudes are evident in the reviews, though stirrings of progress can be discerned. Two reviewers preface their glowing reviews by complimenting Peterkin's uplifting of "rarely interesting material," that is, giving "a seemingly uncomplex a race as the negro race" a profundity not previously known (Brickell 318, Wasson 212). Outlook praises Mary by merit of her bringing black characters in the fore, portraying them as equally human: "Her book is real because she realizes that people, be they black or white, are fundamentally alike" (Wasson 1212). Not only did her subject matter attract attention, but her skill was touted as well. Critics viewed the novel as a genuine literary achievement, and Peterkin's technical affinity for setting, character development, and tone was widely commended. The New York Times describes the novel as having "a style that is a happy combination of solidity, brilliance and pure beauty" (Chamberlain 63). The Chicago Daily Tribune asserted that Peterkin has accomplished "a remarkable thing in vividly presenting not only a scene . . .but in understanding the soul of one [Gullah person]" (28). With Mary, Peterkin is pronounced "unsurpassed by any writer in America" and "a novelist whose work has enduring quality" (New York Herald Tribune 6, Brickell). Significantly, these two reviews emphasize the novel's authenticity. As the "interpreter of the Southern Negro, she is pre-eminent" (NY Herald Tribune). That she could simulate a world so separate from her own was part of her literary feat: "No other author of white blood seems able to do what Julia Peterkin can do: write of the primitive Negro with an almost pure-black comprehension" (Kellogg 313). Though many white Southerners were outraged by her work to the extent that she feared the KKK, both black and white critics in the North were effusive with praise. The only negative comments are found within otherwise favorable reviews. The New York Times states that her story sometimes "sags with too much beauty" and the New York Evening Post writes that though "written with deliberate beauty and moments of genuine power . . . it is not a volume over which one will grow immensely excited" (Van de Water 8). Whether Scarlet Sister Mary was attractive because of its controversial material and its origins, or because of Peterkin's talent is unknown. A southern white "miss" immersing herself in a primitive black community was shocking, but her frank attitudes about sex and gender relations--Mary is "scarlet" because of her promiscuity--added fuel to the fire. The European press addresses the risque subject material (the book was "banned in Boston") and qualifies its praise. Though conceding that Peterkin writes with "crisp, delicate English," the Times Literary Supplement cites abrupt transitions and rudimentary characterization. TLS asserts with condescension that "to the European mind [Mary's promiscuity] has the appearance of nymphomania, but it is obviously necessary to adjust this point of view to the negro standpoint" (96). The novel is ultimately praised as "a sympathetic and exceedingly careful study of primitive character, given extra force by the poetic handling of the background against which it is drawn" (97). The review seems to hint at an anthropological, rather than literary, adulation and, curiously, notes Peterkin's failure to address race relations. Sources consulted: American National Biography (2004). Published under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies an Oxford University Press. Book Review Digest (1928): 612-13. Brickell, Herschel. "A Pagan Heroine." Saturday Review of Literature 5 (Nov. 3, 1928): 318-19. Brickell, Herschel. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. North American Review 226 (Nov. 1928). Chamberlain, John R. "Julia Peterkin Writes Again of the Gullah Negroes." New York Times (Oct. 21, 1928): 63. F.B. "'Scarlet Mary' a Rich Picture of Negro Life: Julia Bares Soul of Central Figure." Chicago Daily Tribune (Dec. 1, 1928): 28. Herrick, Robert. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. New Republic 57 (Dec. 26, 1928): 172. Kellogg, F.L. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. Survey 61 (Dec. 1, 1928): 313. Lewis, Nghana tamu. "The Rhetoric of Mobility, the Politics of Consciousness: Julia Mood Peterkin and the Case of a White Black Writer." African American Review (Winter 2004). Parsons, A.B. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. Nation 128 (Jan. 9, 1929): 47. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. Times Literary Supplement (Feb. 7, 1929): 96-97. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. Springfield Republican (Dec. 9, 1928): 7. Strode, Hudson. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. NY Herald Tribune - Books (Oct. 28, 1928): 6. Trilling, Lionel. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. NY Evening Post (Nov. 3, 1928): 8. Van de Water, F. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. NY Evening Post (Dec. 1, 1928) Warren, Dale. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. Boston Transcript (Nov. 10, 1928): 5. Wasson, Ben. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. Outlook 150 (Nov. 21, 1928): 1212, 1215. Other resources: Bennett, Isadora. "Lang Syne's Miss: the Background of Julia Peterkin, Novelist of the Old South." The Bookman (June 1929). Weaks, Mary Louise. Review of A Devil and a Good Woman, Too: the Lives of Julia Peterkin, by Susan Millar Williams. Mississippi Quarterly: the Journal of Southern Cultures. Fall 1998; 51 (4): 772. Wilson, Charles Reagan and William Ferris. Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (1989).
2 Paste subsequent reception history in here (maximum 500 words)
Scarlet Sister Mary was Julia Peterkin's second novel and third work of fiction (her first was a book of short stories) and the pinnacle of her literary career. Overwhelmingly praised by critics at its publication in 1928, the novel's popularity soared through 1929, after receiving the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and then plummeted drastically. It is impossible to talk about the critical reception of Scarlet Sister Mary without taking race relations of the time into consideration. In all her books up to this point, including Mary, Peterkin, a white woman, portrayed a world exclusively populated by African Americans?specifically "Gullah negroes"?who lived and worked on a plantation in the heart of the Old South. After the Civil War (1865) and Reconstruction, the South was regarded as backward, a fact only compounded by early 20th century migration to northern cities. In 1928, before the "race question" was fully formed, Peterkin's description of a homogenous and peaceful African American community steeped in folklore, tradition, and religion and untouched by the modern complications of the day was a revelation. It was perhaps the very existence of an independent African American culture, also reflected by the writers, artists, and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance, that attracted people to Mary. Predictably, racist attitudes are evident in the reviews, though stirrings of progress can be discerned. Two reviewers preface their glowing reviews by complimenting Peterkin's uplifting of "rarely interesting material," that is, giving "a seemingly uncomplex a race as the negro race" a profundity not previously known (Brickell 318, Wasson 212). Outlook praises Mary by merit of her bringing black characters in the fore, portraying them as equally human: "Her book is real because she realizes that people, be they black or white, are fundamentally alike" (Wasson 1212). Not only did her subject matter attract attention, but her skill was touted as well. Critics viewed the novel as a genuine literary achievement, and Peterkin's technical affinity for setting, character development, and tone was widely commended. The New York Times describes the novel as having "a style that is a happy combination of solidity, brilliance and pure beauty" (Chamberlain 63). The Chicago Daily Tribune asserted that Peterkin has accomplished "a remarkable thing in vividly presenting not only a scene . . .but in understanding the soul of one [Gullah person]" (28). With Mary, Peterkin is pronounced "unsurpassed by any writer in America" and "a novelist whose work has enduring quality" (New York Herald Tribune 6, Brickell). Significantly, these two reviews emphasize the novel's authenticity. As the "interpreter of the Southern Negro, she is pre-eminent" (NY Herald Tribune). That she could simulate a world so separate from her own was part of her literary feat: "No other author of white blood seems able to do what Julia Peterkin can do: write of the primitive Negro with an almost pure-black comprehension" (Kellogg 313). Though many white Southerners were outraged by her work to the extent that she feared the KKK, both black and white critics in the North were effusive with praise. The only negative comments are found within otherwise favorable reviews. The New York Times states that her story sometimes "sags with too much beauty" and the New York Evening Post writes that though "written with deliberate beauty and moments of genuine power . . . it is not a volume over which one will grow immensely excited" (Van de Water 8). Whether Scarlet Sister Mary was attractive because of its controversial material and its origins, or because of Peterkin's talent is unknown. A southern white "miss" immersing herself in a primitive black community was shocking, but her frank attitudes about sex and gender relations--Mary is "scarlet" because of her promiscuity--added fuel to the fire. The European press addresses the risque subject material (the book was "banned in Boston") and qualifies its praise. Though conceding that Peterkin writes with "crisp, delicate English," the Times Literary Supplement cites abrupt transitions and rudimentary characterization. TLS asserts with condescension that "to the European mind [Mary's promiscuity] has the appearance of nymphomania, but it is obviously necessary to adjust this point of view to the negro standpoint" (96). The novel is ultimately praised as "a sympathetic and exceedingly careful study of primitive character, given extra force by the poetic handling of the background against which it is drawn" (97). The review seems to hint at an anthropological, rather than literary, adulation and, curiously, notes Peterkin's failure to address race relations. Sources consulted: American National Biography (2004). Published under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies an Oxford University Press. Book Review Digest (1928): 612-13. Brickell, Herschel. "A Pagan Heroine." Saturday Review of Literature 5 (Nov. 3, 1928): 318-19. Brickell, Herschel. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. North American Review 226 (Nov. 1928). Chamberlain, John R. "Julia Peterkin Writes Again of the Gullah Negroes." New York Times (Oct. 21, 1928): 63. F.B. "'Scarlet Mary' a Rich Picture of Negro Life: Julia Bares Soul of Central Figure." Chicago Daily Tribune (Dec. 1, 1928): 28. Herrick, Robert. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. New Republic 57 (Dec. 26, 1928): 172. Kellogg, F.L. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. Survey 61 (Dec. 1, 1928): 313. Lewis, Nghana tamu. "The Rhetoric of Mobility, the Politics of Consciousness: Julia Mood Peterkin and the Case of a White Black Writer." African American Review (Winter 2004). Parsons, A.B. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. Nation 128 (Jan. 9, 1929): 47. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. Times Literary Supplement (Feb. 7, 1929): 96-97. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. Springfield Republican (Dec. 9, 1928): 7. Strode, Hudson. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. NY Herald Tribune - Books (Oct. 28, 1928): 6. Trilling, Lionel. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. NY Evening Post (Nov. 3, 1928): 8. Van de Water, F. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. NY Evening Post (Dec. 1, 1928) Warren, Dale. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. Boston Transcript (Nov. 10, 1928): 5. Wasson, Ben. Review of Scarlet Sister Mary. Outlook 150 (Nov. 21, 1928): 1212, 1215. Other resources: Bennett, Isadora. "Lang Syne's Miss: the Background of Julia Peterkin, Novelist of the Old South." The Bookman (June 1929). Weaks, Mary Louise. Review of A Devil and a Good Woman, Too: the Lives of Julia Peterkin, by Susan Millar Williams. Mississippi Quarterly: the Journal of Southern Cultures. Fall 1998; 51 (4): 772. Wilson, Charles Reagan and William Ferris. Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (1989).
Assignment 5: Critical Analysis
1 Paste your critical analysis in here (maximum 2500 words)
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 (1937). 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. Sources consulted: Bayne, Harry Mcbrayer. The Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature, entry for "DuBose Heyward." Bayne, Harry Mcbrayer. The Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature, entry for "Julia Peterkin." Funston, Judith E. The Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature, entry for "Carl Sandburg." Kaplan, Carla. The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story, entry for "Zora Neale Hurston." Moore, Rayburn S. The Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature, entry for "the South." Nordquist, Richard. The Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature, entry for "H.L. Mencken." Peterkin, Julia. Scarlet Sister Mary (1928), airplane edition. Weaks, Mary Louise. Review of A Devil and a Good Woman, Too: the Lives of Julia Peterkin. Mississippi Quarterly (Fall 1998). The Columbia Encyclopedia, entry for "Claude Bowers." --, entry for "Zora Neale Hurston." The Great American History Fact-Finder (1993). Entry for "Roaring Twenties." University of Georgia Press
Supplemental Material
British edition
Pocket Books edition
Airplane edition
decorative endpapers in first edition
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