Pulitzer Prize Winners in South Carolina: Literature

From the Jazz Age to the Digital Age: Pulitzer Prize Winners in South Carolina - Celebrating Pulitzer Novelist Julia Peterkin.

Julia Mood Peterkin was South Carolina’s first Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and the only recipient in the field of literature, awarded during the Harlem Renaissance. Panelists discuss Peterkin’s contributions to her time and the context of the times in which she lived, her contributions to the world of literature, and to our understanding of the changing world in which we live. Panelists include Peterkin Scholar and Historian, Dr. Margaret Washington of Cornell University, Peterkin Biographer, Susan Millar Williams, author of A Devil and a Good Woman, Too: The Lives of Julia Peterkin, and filmmaker Gayla Jamison, producer of the documentary presented nationally by South Carolina ETV, The World of Julia Peterkin: Cheating the Stillness.

They discuss her sensitivity toward African Americans and discovering that Peterkin was white. Williams points out that in reviews of Black April, it was stated that “this is the first novel in English of the Negro as a human being.” The depictions of African Americans had been of servants, or stereotyped or comic characters. Washington states that at the time that Peterkin was writing in the 1920s, there had not been a novel written by an African American. Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay were yet-to-come. Peterkin was a precursor to those African American writers. Peterkin was not the reserved Southern dame that we have come to expect.  In Scarlet Sister Mary, she wrote about a liberated woman, a liberated Black woman. After her husband left her, she decided to live the way she wanted to live, outside of the church, and against convention, which went against Julia Peterkin’s own social set. Jamison says that Peterkin “gave Mary the strength, courage and audacity that she herself had, but could not always express without stirring up negativity in her own social set.”   

The panelists continue to compare and contrast Peterkin’s writing with her own life, and the course that her life took. They discuss Peterkin’s early writing, flunking out of Columbia College, and the surroundings that provided such inspiration for the stories that she so beautifully crafted .

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