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Palmetto Past & Present: South Carolina’s Forgotten Pulitzer Prize Winner

“Throughout her body of work was the hurt that had stalked her since childhood …”

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With the dog days of summer in full swing, the coastline of South Carolina from Myrtle Beach to Hilton Head is crammed with vacationers. Many are browsing books on the beach as they unwind. But it’s a safe bet very few of the books filling beach bags this year were written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning South Carolina author whom time forgot. Famous in her day, she’s now nothing more than the answer at a trivia match, a footnote to a forgotten age.

Which is a shame … because her story is very worthy of revisiting.

There was nothing to suggest a future literary celebrity had arrived when Julia Mead was born in Laurens County on Halloween 1880. She was the baby of the family with several older sisters. Julia was eighteen months old when her mother died of tuberculosis.

Julia’s father quickly remarried. Having a toddler underfoot in a house filled with young children was one child too many, so her dad sent Julia to live with his parents. She never got over the hurt of feeling abandoned by her daddy, of being of so little importance or value that she was given away.

After graduating from Converse College in Spartanburg in 1896, she earned her master’s degree there the next year. Then came a year teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, followed in 1903 by marrying wealthy cotton planter William Peterkin. She moved to his Lang Syne Plantation near St. Matthews and spent the rest of her life there. The couple had a son, and for the next 21 years, Julia played the role of the dutiful plantation owner’s wife.

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Julia Mead Peterkin (S.C. Historical Society)

But something was missing in this incredibly intelligent woman’s life, a secret yearning that went unfulfilled. She eventually turned her attention to it when she turned forty.

Julia had shared stories of plantation life with her piano teacher. She told them in such a compelling style he urged her to put them in writing. When she did, a door inside her was flung open, allowing tale after tale to tumble out of her fertile imagination.

She quietly began corresponding with leading writers of her day, including the legendary poet Carl Sandburg and the brilliant curmudgeon H.L. Mencken. “The Sage of Baltimore” knew genuine talent when he saw it and began publishing her stories in his influential Smart Set magazine. That, in turn, caught the eye of rising young publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Her first book Green Thursday followed in 1924. It was a series of interconnected stories about a black farm worker named Killdee, his wife Rose, and their foster daughter, Missy. It was drawn from the laborers she knew on Lang Sang over the years and was told so vividly that many readers swore they knew the real figures on whom the characters were based.  

Julia didn’t know it, but her works were the first steps toward what became known as the Southern Renaissance, a genre typified by its realistic yet ironic fiction.

She followed that up with the novel Scarlet Sister Mary, and in 1929 became the first Southern woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It and Black April (1927) were best-sellers. Her 1933 book Roll, Jordan, Roll, was considered a pioneering documentary of the 1930s.

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Throughout her body of work was the hurt that had stalked her since childhood, the fear of being abandoned, of being seen as useless and good only for being given away.

Peterkin’s books were not without controversy. Some white Southerners were outraged that black workers were portrayed with dignity and respect, viewing her as a traitor to her race. But many black authors, including the renowned W.E.B. Du Bois, applauded her for capturing such difficult subjects as the challenging Gullah dialect, the decline of the plantation economy, and the evolving economic forces that were driving many blacks away from farming.

Almost as soon as it had arrived, though, her fame was gone. Julia’s style fell out of favor during the Great Depression. Another reason her books are so unknown today is that none were ever turned into movies. Her stories were considered too racy (read: sex) for a Hollywood still laboring under the strict limits imposed by the Hays Code. More than that, the books exposed the ugly truth of what daily life was really like for blacks in the Jim Crow era, and Tinsel Town wasn’t quite ready to tackle that painful subject.

Julia Mead Peterkin was an obscure figure from the past when she passed away from heart failure in Orangeburg in 1961 at the age of eighty. Her books were largely ignored during the feminist revival of the 1970s and 80s. Which, again, is a great shame, because a century later they still retain the crispness of the moment and provide an unflinching look at a time when the “good old days” weren’t always quite as good as remembered.

They also remind us that some hurts suffered in childhood can never be overcome in a lifetime – or beyond.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Mark Powell (Provided)

J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at mark@fitsnews.com.

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