South Carolina ETV

Walter Edgar's Journal

Cheating the Stillness: the World of Julia Peterkin


Friday - April 09, 2010


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About This Show

South Carolina novelist Julia Peterkin revolutionized American literature and launched what we now call the Southern Renaissance by writing about the lives of plain black farming people. Although she was white and the mistress of a cotton plantation, scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois declared that she had “the eye and the ear to see beauty and to know truth.” In 1922, when she had published only a handful of short sketches, the influential critic H. L. Mencken announced that her stories were “violets” in the “Sahara of the Bozarts,” his withering nickname for the South. Today, writer and teacher A.J. Verdelle maintains that, “the Peterkin story is a fascinating and phenomenal story, because she is white.”

In 1929 Peterkin won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel, Scarlet Sister Mary, and she was leading the double life of plantation mistress in South Carolina and sought-after writer at New York cultural events and dinner parties. Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to the White House. By the mid-1930’s Julia Peterkin had stopped writing and retreated to South Carolina.

 Why did she abandon her career at its height? What prompted her to begin writing in middle age? And how did a white Southern woman become a highly respected chronicler of African-American rural life?  A public television documentary, Cheating the Stillness: the World of Julia Peterkin, looks into these questions as it delves into her life and her remarkable—and controversial—work.

Dr. Edgar is joined by the film's producer, Gayla Jamison, and by Dr. Margaret Washington of Cornell University, an authority on Peterkin. Cheating the Stillness: the World of Julia Peterkin is a co-production of Lightfoot Films and South Carolina ETV. It will air on ETV April 15 at 9:00pm and April 18 at 6:00pm.


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