By Ryan Lowery
Since being established in 1917, the Pulitzer Prize has annually awarded those that have achieved excellence in literature, composing music, and journalism. Numerous entrants await the winning selections each April, but only a few are lucky enough to receive the prize. One such person was Julia Peterkin of South Carolina.
Born in 1880, Peterkin spent her early life in Laurens county. She graduated from Spartanburg’s Converse College in 1896 and was soon married to the owner of a plantation near Fort Motte, South Carolina. It is at the plantation that Peterkin’s writing begins to take shape. Watching life on the plantation inspired many short stories and would eventually serve to inspire her Pulitzer Prize winning novel Scarlet Sister Mary.
The novel take places in the Gullah culture of South Carolina’s lowcountry. Peterkin presents what was viewed at the time as a sympathetic view towards African-American culture. It as much a novel about African-American culture as it is a novel about the female identity in southern culture. It tells the story of a girl named Mary and her dealings with the surrounding community. Mary grows up, falls in love, suffers loss, and changes her life for what she sees as better. It essentially follows the typical coming-of-age formula. What is most interesting, however, is Mary’s changing ideas on who she should be. At the start of the tale, Mary is seen as a wholesome, church-going girl. A series of events soon occur that change her for the worse. She begins to live her life wallowing in sin, viewed negatively by the rest of the community. Towards the end of the novel, however, she realizes the mistakes she has made and begs for forgiveness, seemingly cleansing herself of her sins.
Scarlet Sister Mary was taken to Broadway in 1930, but it was two years before that Peterkin received her Pulitzer Prize. The award was surrounded by controversy, however. The book had been viewed by many as obscene, even being banned at a public library. More controversy came about during the selection of Peterkin’s book for Pulitzer glory. It came to light that Scarlet Sister Mary was not the selection for the prize by the chairperson of the Pulitzer committee. Apparently, he had selected another novel, but the rest of the jury overruled him and gave the award to Peterkin.
Despite the glory that many achieve when receiving the prestigious award, Peterkin has been reduced to obscurity for the most part. She deserves praise, however, for her portrayal of Mary in her award winning novel. The despair and depression of the character is made evident in her darkest times through Peterkin’s prose. Despite the controversy surrounding Scarlet Sister Mary and its selection as a Pulitzer Prize winner, the simple fact that it was even considered should hint that Peterkin was of great literary skill. The book, though sometimes difficult to read due to the manner in which the characters speak and their colloquialisms, it is worth the read to check out the words of one of South Carolina’s greats.
Biographical info found in “Julia Peterkin’s Scarlet Sister Mary: Breath, Birth, Boundaries” by Priscilla Leder
The South Carolina State Library’s Center for the Book, in cooperation with USC Press and Hub City Press, is pleased to announce its fall 2012 author line up. The Speaker @ the Center program will hold free lunchtime author talks on the following dates:
Thursday, August 16 – MAUREEN D. LEE, Sissieretta Jones: “The Greatest Singer of Her Race,” 1868–1933. The engaging first biography of this distinguished African American musical pioneer
Thursday, September 20 – MICHEL STONE, The Iguana Tree. Michel Stone’s debut novel, set against the backdrop of illegal immigration, is one family’s story of fateful decisions, risky border crossings, and a struggle for humanity.
Thursday, October 25 – ANNE SINKLER WHALEY LECLERCQ, A Grand Tour of Gardens: Traveling in Beauty through Western Europe and the United States. A travelogue of elegant historic gardens on both sides of the Atlantic as viewed through the lens of Mrs. Emily Whaley’s iconic Charleston garden.
Thursday, November 15 – ELISE BLACKWELL & JANNA
MCMAHAN, Literary Dogs & Their South Carolina Writers. From bird dogs to bad dogs, wild dogs to café dogs, get to know these canines and their 25 South Carolina literary companions.
Thursday, December 6 – MARY WHYTE, Down Bohicket Road: An Artist’s Journey. A collection of vibrant watercolors and poignant tales celebrating the friendships and faith of a sea island community of Gullah women.
Books will be available for purchase and autographing. All programs will take place from noon to 1pm at the South Carolina State Library in Columbia. Speaker @ the Center is FREE and open to the public. Bring your lunch and enjoy learning more about South Carolina.
The South Carolina Center for the Book is the South Carolina Affiliate of the Library of Congress Center for the Book and is a cooperative project of the South Carolina State Library, the University of South Carolina School of Library and Information Science, and The Humanities CouncilSC.
By Ryan Lowery
“All officers and men who had a keen sense of appreciation for the charming loveliness…were filled with a genuine sense of sadness and deep-felt regret at the wanton destruction of such rare and beautiful property”
- Henry Wright
Few names draw the ire of South Carolinians more so than William Tecumseh Sherman. Nearly 150 years have passed since the end of the American civil war, yet there is so much emotion that is aroused at the mention of General Sherman and the burning of Columbia. While many claim that the emotions are the result of a long-lasting bitterness that plagues the South due to their surrender at the end of the war, there may be much more to it. Based on portions of A City Laid Waste, it seems that Columbia may have been a city destined for greatness, until its ascendency was halted by the torches of Sherman’s troops. The introduction of the book, written by David Aiken, certainly paints a Columbia as a city with a bright future in the antebellum period.
Aiken, a founding member and former president of the Simms Society, uses his introduction to set the scene in Columbia through the years leading up to Sherman’s trip through the city. He also brings up the importance of Simms in his time. After having done some research on Simms myself, the only word that can describe him is “prolific.” He was a literary workhorse, at one point averaging two publications a week for forty five years. He would go on to produce romantic tales of the South, collections of poetry, biographies, and newspaper articles, including the ones featured in the Columbia Phoenix as Sherman set fire to Columbia.
It is within the lines of these articles that Simms lets his literary and journalistic skills shine through. He put himself in the thick of the events, interviewing residents of the city, taking note of properties that were destroyed and who owned them, and writing down his own accounts. Accounts include citizens being yanked from their homes as they are destroyed, including a woman pulled from her home in the middle of birthing a child, as well as the destruction of government buildings. It provides an interesting perspective to the event, especially when most textbooks either default to the total warfare strategy for Sherman or even go so far as to say that residents of Columbia burned the city on their own.
The collection of newspaper articles can be a bit difficult to read through at first due to differences in 19th century and modern prose, but the language itself is beautiful. The sentences are often long, but they are far from being overly so. It takes time to read, but the time is well spent.
Anyone that enjoys studying the American civil war or the history of the Palmetto state should certainly consider A City Laid Waste. Simms has unfortunately been excluded from the American literary canon for the most part. It is a travesty that such a great mind has been overlooked by most due to his association with the Confederacy, but there has been a growing effort to revitalize his name in recent years.
Having just had the sesquicentennial anniversary of the start of the American Civil war this past year, A City Laid Waste is as relevant now as ever. It portrays an event that changed the direction of Columbia, an event that is often forgotten due to Sherman’s torching of Atlanta a short time prior, allowing citizens of the city and others to see the events as they unfolded as recorded by one of the greatest literary minds to have lived. The book is available through USC Press and other major bookstores. Those interested in learning more about William Gilmore Simms may check out The Simms Initiatives at USC. Check out http://simms.library.sc.edu/index.php for more.
by Jackie Mohan
The past two books, both winners of the South Carolina First Novel Award, featured in Summer Reads blog posts are set in South Carolina. The award is held by the South Carolina Arts Commission and each year the winner is given a book contract with the Hub City Press, which largely publishes books that have a strong emphasis on locations in South Carolina. Below are some more books, many of them bestsellers from a variety of genres, set in South Carolina that draw on South Carolina history, pride, and charm:
- Break No Bones by Kathy Reichs – This mystery novel is the ninth book in the series starring Dr. Temperance Brennan, on which the TV series Bones is based. While teaching at an archaeology field school in Charleston, Dr. Brennan stumbles upon a modern homicide in an ancient Native American burial ground. Another book by Kathy Reichs, Virals, the first in a series centering on Dr. Brennan’s grandniece, Tory Brennan, is also set in Charleston.
- Isle of Palms by Dorothea Benton Frank – Dubbed the queen of the beach books by many, Frank has written several novels set in the Carolina lowcountry including Isle of Palms, Bulls Island, and Pawleys Island. In Isle of Palms, Anna Lutz Abbot deals with a host of challenges from the characters in her life, including her daughter’s rebellious makeover, her ex-husband’s return to her life, and a fling with Arthur, a man from up north.
- The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares – This young adult book is the first part of the Traveling Pants series, a staple among teenage girls and the basis for the movie starring Blake Lively and America Ferrera. Carmen, one of the four girls, embarks on a summer trip to South Carolina to visit her newly engaged father.
- The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd – This second novel from the author of The Secret Life of Bees, also set in South Carolina, tells the story of Jessie Sullivan who travels to Egret Island for her mother. While there, Jessie spends more and more time with Brother Thomas, a monk from a Benedictine monastery that houses legendary carved chair dedicated to a saint who rumor claims was once a mermaid.
- South of Broad by Pat Conroy – From the author of The Prince of Tides, The Lords of Discipline, The Great Santini, and The Water is Wide, all set in South Carolina, South of Broad is the story of Leopold Bloom King. After Leopold’s brother commits suicide, he finds solace in a circle of friends whose adventures span decades.