Scarlet Sister Mary was the somewhat contentious recipient of the 1929 Pulitzer. In 1929, the jury nominated Victim and Victor by John Rathbone Oliver to receive the prize. However, by the time the suggestion reached the Board, they superseded the pick with Scarlet Sister Mary, which was a nominee from the School of Journalism. The chair of the jury resigned in protest.
Scarlet Sister Mary is the story of Mary, “a young black woman on a coastal South Carolina plantation who is abandoned by her husband and ostracized by her church for her sinful ways. Aided by a love charm she obtains from the local conjurer, Mary bears a houseful of children by different men.” Ten children, to be exact. The title of the book harkens back to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and I suppose in a way, it’s the Black version of Hawthorne’s novel.
I will start with the positive aspects of the book. I can understand that in the late 1920s, this book may have been seen as very modern — a woman is sexually active with many different partners and is unapologetic about her actions. This is also the first novel that won a Pulitzer that was written about African Americans. Peterkin also has some lovely writing about the atmosphere and Southern environment. However, I don’t think this book has withstood the test of time.
What I found problematic about the story is that the author, Julia Peterkin, is a white plantation owner. She is renowned for her ability to capture the Gullah dialect and lifestyle. The Gullah people live in the Lowcountry regions of Georgia and South Carolina. However, Peterkin’s imagining of the life of Black people was offensive to me. In her book, Mary actually loves picking cotton, and she finds it fun and relaxing. She is also able to have a life of leisure and fun while being a single mother to ten children. I’m not sure where Peterkin’s imagination is coming from, but are you freaking kidding me? More than anything, it seems to me that Peterkin is imagining a happy life for African-Americans post-slavery as a way of alleviating any White guilt that she may feel. Peterkin may have felt a genuine affection for the Gullah culture, but I don’t think that this book is a respectable homage to the people or times.
I’ve spent some time reading about this book and its impacts on American literature. I find it hard to believe, but Scarlet Sister Mary actually became a favorite book during the Harlem Renaissance. 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.”
Apparently, several authorities (not really sure what this means) cite Peterkin’s work as paving the way for more realistic novels by African Americans including Zora Neale Hurston. If this is true, then I suppose I should relent and be grateful that Peterkin’s work exists. However, the fact that this book was adapted into a famous Broadway play consisting entirely of black-face performances makes me cringe. I am eagerly looking forward to reading a Pulitzer-awarded book actually written by a person of color. The near future of my Pulitzer reading isn’t looking too hopeful. Next up, we have a book written about Navajo Indians by a white man, and then shortly after, a book written about Chinese people written by a white woman. While these choices may have seemed very modern or open-minded at the time, I think we can all agree today that diversity is so important, not only in subject matter but in authors, editors, and jury members as well.
I honestly wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone unless you’re trying to read all the Pulitzers.
Don’t just take my word for it — here are some additional reviews and essays on this book:
- Two unlikely heroines of modern fiction
- Read the correspondence between Columbia University Secretary Frank D. Fackenthal and Peterkin here
- The Pulitzer Project read Scarlet Sister Mary
- Following Pulitzer’s review
- Read Pulitzer Fiction also reviews Scarlet Sister Mary