Life after Work

Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin, Pulitzer Prize Winner of 1929

Scarlet Sister Mary is the first Pulitzer winning novel that was not written from a white person’s perspective. Every character in this story is black. White folks are mentioned on occasion in a vague sense but we never meet them. The story unfolds in the South after the Civil War, so people are no longer slaves, but they live on (or near) a plantation and are poor. This book’s author Julia Peterkin on the other hand is white and lived on a South Carolina plantation in the early 1900s, which presumably gives her some authority on the subject. She wrote several books and short stories from the black folks’ point of view which I suppose would be considered politically incorrect today. But more about the book’s back story later.

Sister Mary is a young woman hopelessly in love with July who is a notorious womanizer. He marries her, but she’s already pregnant and when the baby (named “Unexpected”, nicknamed “Unex”) is born, everybody knows and people are talking. July disappears soon after his son’s birth and Mary is heartbroken. She knows July is after other women so she visits the local witch doctor to get a love charm and win him back, but July stays away. Mary then turns to other men for comfort and over the years has a number of children out of wedlock. This is just fine for her, she enjoys her brood and they are all healthy, well-fed and happy. The village however is aghast and she’s thrown out of her local church for being a scarlet sinner. Mary takes this in stride. She has learned to take pleasure from men, she wants nothing else. Here is what the books says she was thinking:

Men are too much alike, with ways too much the same. None is worth keeping, none worth a tear; and still each one is a little different from the rest; just different enough to make him worth finding out.

Years go by and Unex, now an adult, leaves to find work in a bigger city. Then July returns and wants to get back together, but Mary refuses. He disappears again and not too long after that, Unex returns with a baby. He has gotten married, but his wife died from an illness shortly after giving birth. Mary is overjoyed to see Unex and takes both in, but Unex is also sick and dies. Mary then has a “come to Jesus” moment. In a dream she finds out how badly she has sinned and vows to atone. This eventually works and she is accepted back in the fold of the village church. However, in the very last sentence of the novel, Mary seems to hint that her slutting days are not over because she still has her love charm.

What did I think about this book? It took me a while to get into the story just because of the way the dialogue is written – in a local dialect (see: Gullah). Here is an example from the book:

“You say July begged you to marry em? July! Great Gawd! Dat’s the biggest lie ever was! Gal, you ain’ shame to talk such talk? You like to a popped you gizzard-string a-tryin to get July. Evybody in dis Quarter knows dat. You’d jump up an’ crack you heels wid joy evy day Gawd sends, if you could a caught him,. You know dat too, good as me.”

I kept reading on though, because I wanted to know what Mary would do next. Interestingly, she appears to be quite guileless about having all these children, there is just no worry at all. Completely unrealistic, in my opinion. And the village, while disapproving of her lifestyle, leaves Mary be for the most part. Other than being cast from the church there seems to be no punishment and Maum Hanna and Budda Ben, her adoptive mother and brother continue to be supportive, albeit critical. All the while Mary has some relatively modern thoughts about how to deal with men. The end however was disappointing. Why have Mary go through all those prayers and repenting when she is not going to give up men and sin?

There were some more creepy things about the novel. Of course it is strange to read a book that is steeped in the culture of a minority – written by a white woman. How authentic can this be? Maybe the author felt that a village this isolated could not exist anywhere else? And of course some of the context provided is highly questionable, e.g. are several hints to how close to nature (read: animals) these black folks are, how much they like working, why, harvesting cotton is like one great party!

In other words, I’m conflicted. On one hand, it is great that we get a glimpse into a life that is rarely heard from. On the other hand, why did this particular story need to be told from a “poor black perspective”?  Does the author think a promiscuous lifestyle comes more natural to black women? Seems demeaning to me and jarring, given the deep religiosity of the majority of the village. And of course there are plenty of people who feel that a white person is unable to tell authentic stories from the perspective of a person of color. These conflicts probably led to the dismissal of Peterkins works.

And to return to the back story about Scarlet Sister Mary: The book was considered obscene at the time (there is no explicit sex, just Mary’s frankness about her “sins” was apparently enough to raise numerous eyebrows) and was banned by a South Carolina public library. Furthermore, one of the Pulitzer judges resigned because he did not feel this book was worthy of the award. As it turns out, according to The Pulitzer Project blog, the guidelines for judging the nominees were changing:

The Pulitzer committee wanted to change the scope of the Pulitzer from “a novel which presented the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standards of American manners and manhood” to become “a novel which preferably shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life.”

I have yet to find more about these guidelines and changes on the Pulitzer website itself. I can see why they took the “wholesome” part out of the equation, especially in light of Sinclair Lewis’ criticism a few years earlier. The other judges certainly went out on a limb in regards to the character’s moral aptitude (or lack thereof). Of course, Scarlet Sister Mary seems quite tame in today’s standards. What stands out though are Julia Peterkin’s old fashioned ideas of life in a black community, so it is probably just as well that this book has been largely forgotten.


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