Thursday, December 30, 2010

1929 - Scarlet Sister Mary

Scarlet Sister Mary won the Pulitzer as a weird switch. The Pulitzer committee wanted to change the scope of the Pulitzer from "a novel which presented the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standards of American manners and manhood" to become "a novel which preferably shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life".

And, yet, even in this, Scarlet Sister Mary fails. Peterkin's depiction of uneducated blacks living in the low country of South Carolina in the early part of the 20th century is hardly believable, given today's understanding. They are the progeny of slaves who stayed where they had lived because they had no choice to go anywhere else. What could they possibly do? They continued living largely as their ancestors had.

Whites are not a factor in the book except as occasional mention that they do exist. This is not a criticism, just an observation. Peterkin's description of the life of these people, particularly that of Sister Mary, really is fiction. She suggests picking cotton is easy, more like a party, and everyone enjoys doing it. The life of Mary, a mother of 10 children with no father in the home, seems almost easy. More like a teenager bouncing through life. Some deep heartache, but even that passes.

There is a reason that Scarlet Sister Mary does not appear on any "best works" lists. An easy read, though.


Sweet Potato Brown said...

I happen to love the book Scarlet Sister Mary. I take your point about the fictional aspects of it, and one doesn't accuse Interview with a Vampire of romanticizing the lives of plantation owners.
No life is joyless. Even in times of great despair people find ways to escape their grief--often by nostalgizing the present. (Rose colored glasses, anyone?) I submit that those nostalgic, here, are the characters in Peterkin's book.
How, then, can a woman write about those aspects of a recently emancipated slave's life that are only distantly related to the griefs of slavery, abuses and woes which, by 1929, have been acknowledged and detailed in a century's worth of other, weightier texts.
Is Gone with the Wind a true depiction of... anything, really? Well, yes, it is a true depiction of emotion, and the fictional setting which allows us to view those emotions is akin to a white screen that allows us to project an image. It is a specially crafted backdrop.
I still refer to some of the wisdom about love and romance contained within Scarlet Sister Mary. If the book relegates itself to a discussion of the purely romantic, so be it. That discussion is one that is important for the people represented in and by the book, and it is as lasting a discussion as that of slavery, itself. And when we speak of yoking ourselves to those we love, it is clear that neither discussion--that of love or slavery--is mutually exclusive to or, even, separable from the other.

Anonymous said...

I just came across this blog while looking for information about the book. I had no idea there was a community of people reading through the Pulitzer list--I've got about 9 to go, myself, and wish I'd found this sooner!

Turning to Scarlet Sister Mary, there were obviously elements of the book that are questionable to a modern audience--but we are judging it 80 years later on.

Think about how African-Americans' lives were portrayed in mainstream culture during the era when the book was written: slaves, poor, uneducated, downtrodden, nearly always victims. Hattie McDaniel's Oscar for playing a house slave in 'Gone With the Wind' wouldn't happen for another 10 years.

This book was an incredible nod to the power of an individual to make her own life, despite a rough start and an even rougher road. For any of the book's faults, I still loved it for that.