1929: Scarlet Sister Mary, by Julia Peterkin

Thanks to my good friend Graham, whose advice in a recent comment was to get this novel done and behind me, I bulled through the thing at lunch today, hence my somewhat rapid arrival (after weeks of slogging) at this review.

Literary Style:

My primary criticism of this book stands—Peterkin is trapped by her inability to be as racist as her parents’ generation (which is, it should be said, a good thing) and yet trapped by her failure to conceive of truly wise, intelligent, and articulate African-Americans (which is, no matter how much we make “it was the 1920s!” excuses on her behalf, a bad thing).  The result is a book that is at its relative best when it is furthest from the characters, most distant from their emotions and expressions.  I’ve detailed at length why this troubles me so, and won’t belabor the point here.

There were some good passages in the final chapters that continue to remind me of what the novel could have been.  The relationship between Mary and one of her children—a child who, as a result of growing up, has learned more about the world than they care to—is particularly poignant.  For a while I see a woman it would have been good to meet.  But the depth is an illusion, undercut by Peterkin the moment she can.

Ultimately it’s a profoundly disappointing book—Peterkin, out of a desire not to go too far in any direction, goes absolutely nowhere.  Is this book a defense of Mary (whose infidelities, after all, result from an abusive and unfaithful spouse) or a criticism of her (since it’s clear her promiscuity has harmed virtually everyone in her family)?  It fails on both counts, but is not better in doing so—it’s not as though this is a nuanced portrait in which I see both sides of Mary.  No, instead Peterkin tries to have her cake and eat it: Mary repents of her sins but will not leave them; she has a divine vision that calls her to a sincere change of life (but then takes it back under her breath); Mary wants to have all the comforts of conventional living with all the freedom of iconoclasm.  It’s childish, and Peterkin ought to know it.  Watching a child grow up to be a mother of ten (by nine different men, none of whom are in the picture) without ever taking responsibility for her life is simply sad, not revealing.

The book fails even to be a simple morality play.  The wicked prosper while the good suffer.  But no one seems to have any fun at all.  This novel is the novel every teenage boy I ever taught thought The Scarlet Letter was.  They never saw what Hawthorne was up to, and denounced the book for being boring, sentimental but unsympathetic, uneventful, and frankly unbelievable.  But I’d trade all of Scarlet Sister Mary for that one walk Pearl takes in the woods, or the thoughts that flit through Dimmesdale’s mind in an hour on the scaffold.  The novel isn’t as wretched as the worst Pulitzer winner I read (despite all my complaints), but it fails to convince me that Peterkin had any reason to write it beyond a vague interest in writing a sort of “Scarlet Letter” from a “black perspective”.  And in doing so, she achieves neither the former nor the latter.

Historical Insight:

The book doesn’t do enough here, but its marginal successes here are about its only saving grace.  The depiction of African-American piety, with its notions of grace and sin, along with the vivid experience of its church meetings and Brer Dee “lining out” hymns, is absolutely the strength of the book.  I don’t know if I can trust Peterkin to be accurate, but it’s interesting enough that I believe in that slice of life, and want more.  The rest is silliness—Peterkin doesn’t know the first thing about cotton-picking, and does very little to conjure a believable life for a mother of ten in a world before electronics and home appliances.  A real Sister Mary would be working her fingers to the bone trying to earn money, cook, clean, wash, tend to, etc., the needs of such a vast family with no significant outside help.  But instead she seems to have the carefree life of a teenager.  There may be young children in the home, but Peterkin’s uninterested in making that seem remotely vivid.  There’s something to this book that calls to me—I’d like to read a real African-American take on church-going and growing up a “sinner”.  But it’s not coming anytime soon…Gone With The Wind, to name but one, is one of the hurdles between me and black authenticity.


This novel rates at “unworthy of your time”.  It has none of the worst excesses of The Able McLaughlins that made that novel fun to hate.  It’s just a waste of good paper and ink—at best, the rough draft of a novel Peterkin could have written with the help of an aggressive editor and at least one genuine black American with the willingness to share a real story.  It’s a shame she never did.

The Last Word:

Since you’ll never read this book, I don’t mind sharing the very last scene in it: Mary has just had a painful experience involving the death of a child.  She has spent days without food and water, praying to God for help and repenting all her sins.  She has begged her way into the church because she wants to “walk in the light” again.  And now that the elders have decided to forgive her and make her a Christian again, here’s the last scene, involving the old conjurer, Daddy Cudjoe, and the charm he gave her that allowed her to use black magic to seduce the many men she’s seduced:

Meeting was over and the people came up to welcome Mary back into the fold.  They shook her hand until it was numb, her arm ached with weariness, but her heart was warmed through with so much kindliness.

Old Daddy Cudjoe came last, after most of the others had gone and only Andrew waited outside to see Mary home.  He took Mary’s hand and shook it, then he cut his eyes all around to be certain Maum Hannah could not hear him when he whispered:

“If you gwine to quit wid mens now, Si May-e, do gi me you conjure rag.  E’s de best charm I ever made.”

Mary looked straight into his eyes and smiled as she shook her head.

“I’ll lend em to you when you need em, Daddy, but I couldn’ gi way my love-charm.  E’s all I got now to keep me young.”

9 comments on “1929: Scarlet Sister Mary, by Julia Peterkin

  1. graham says:

    “all I got that keeps me young?”

    I smell sequel!!

  2. Katie says:

    I would like to say that this is not a true literary criticism or analysis. Many of the comments are poorly opinionated. This is simple a “ragging” on a book. Obviously this book was well written as it won a Pulitzer Prize. Have you written any books that are worthy of this Prize? I think not.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Hi, Katie — thanks for dropping by. I don’t know what you think a “true literary criticism” is: certainly I’m not pretending to be Lionel Trilling. I’m reading books and reacting honestly to them. The review above is, I grant you, negative…but haven’t you ever felt this way about a book? Haven’t you ever read a book that offended you with its racism and its sexism….more than that, for its mediocre quality? Frankly, I think the above is really restrained — I say honestly what I like, what I thought the author should have done more of, and then I’m pretty blunt about what I disliked. I don’t think this book deserves any more than my honest reaction to it — being a Pulitzer winner doesn’t automatically make it worthwhile (and your criticism that I can’t write a Pulitzer winner is a bit silly, isn’t it? I mean, if only Pulitzer winners were allowed to criticize Pulitzer-winning novels, every literary critic in America would go out of business), and I thought this book ultimately failed both morally and artistically. If you liked it, why not say why? I’d be really interested in why you liked the book, and I promise not to be rude about it — in novels, tastes differ. But I think there would be something to gain from an honest back-and-forth sharing why you like a novel that I didn’t. I hope you’re willing to put your opinion about Peterkin’s writing out there, since you were pretty free with your opinion about my writing.

  3. Moriah Cooper says:

    After reading this essay, I am overtaken by grief. Grief that the world has come to this: a terrible place full of horrific grammar, awkward sytax not rhetorically intended,and a sad attempt at parallelism. Obviously, this book has won a Pulitzer prize, so it can’t possibly be the book the author of this essay is making it out to be. You are an idiot who most likely only reads the Harry Potter series or the trite and unoriginal Twilight series. I’m sorry the education you’ve recieved was so subscale.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Moriah, welcome to Following Pulitzer. I probably shouldn’t be snarky, but I think bashing my “sytax” without spelling the word correctly is a bit humorous, don’t you? I’m not pretending to write high literary criticism here — this is one reader sharing his personal thoughts about books he’s reading. But I don’t see that the writing in my post is as bad grammatically as 97% of the blog posts I’ve read. If you leave this kind of comment for me here, you must spend a lot of time ripping on pretty much every Web site you read. Though if you can point out errors above, I’d certainly fix them — I like to write well when I can, and frankly I’m pretty careful about my use of the language.

      I’ve already commented about the Pulitzer above — frankly, Moriah, if you’ve read as many Pulitzer winners as I have (and for all I know you’ve read many more), you know that some are truly great books, but some are not. Every literary critic I’ve read who’s commented on the Pulitzers has, in fact, been even more harsh than I have about the prize-winners. W. J. Stuckey, one of the most prominent critics to address the Pulitzer committee’s choices on a broad scale, is in fact horrifically condescending to them, and is far more brutal than I am towards virtually every winner I’ve read thus far. You should read his book — I think I’d come across as awfully mild by comparison.

      And your last comments, Moriah, are really unworthy of my blog — I’m happy to talk civilly with you, but I don’t care for your rudeness and I think you should know it. I’d refute your comment by making you a long list of my favorite novels and my educational qualifications and accomplishments, but I don’t think either of us will be well-served getting into that kind of argument. Suffice it to say that you’re about as wrong about me as a person can be. And Moriah, I think you should notice that, though you were rude to me (and I was, at most, rude to a book you apparently liked), it is you who cast a lot of accusations and insults at me. I’m not going to stoop to that level with you. But if you come back here to be rude a second time, I’m going to delete anything you post. This is my virtual “living room” — I’ll talk all day in it with someone who disagrees with me respectfully, but rudeness to anyone here (including someone being rude to you) won’t be tolerated. This is your only warning in that regard. If you come back here to talk constructively about why you liked the book and where you think I’m not being fair to it, you’ll be welcome here — perhaps I’ll see you then.

  4. […] lethally violent fiend.  And it doesn’t traffic solely in horrifying racial caricature, like Peterkin’s account of poor “Scarlet Mary”.  So I guess it rides above those […]

  5. […] worth getting excited about on any level.  The Pulitzers’ more wretched fare—Scarlet Sister Mary, to take but one example—at least has the merit of exuberance and almost cheekiness in its […]

  6. […] personal award (which I talked about a long time ago, I think during a terribly racist stretch in Scarlet Sister Mary) for being the earliest American novel I’m familiar with to treat race in a decent and […]

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