May 29, 1882 – August 28, 1934
"A face that has the marks of having lived intensely, that expresses some phase of life, some dominant quality or intellectual power, constitute for me an interesting face. For this reason, the face of an older person, perhaps not beautiful in the strictest sense, is usually more appealing than the face of a younger person who has scarcely been touched by life."
- Doris Ulmann
Doris Ulmann was a native of New York City, the daughter of Bernhard and Gertrude (Mass) Ulmann. Educated at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a socially liberal organization that championed individual worth regardless of ethnic background or economic condition and Columbia University, she intended to become a teacher of psychology. Her interest in photography was at first a hobby but after 1918 she devoted herself to the art professionally. She practiced Pictorialism and was a member of the Pictorial Photographers of America. Ulmann documented the rural people of the South, particularly the mountain peoples of Appalachia and the Gullahs of the Sea Islands, with a profound respect for her sitters and an ethnographer's eye for culture. Ulmann was trained as a pictorialist and graduated from the Clarence H. White School of Modern Photography. Other students of the school who went on to become notable photographers include Margaret Bourke-White, Anne Brigman, Dorothea Lange, Paul Outerbridge, and Karl Struss. Her work was exhibited in various New York galleries, and published in Theatre Arts Monthly, Mentor, Scribner's Magazine, and Survey Graphic. Ulmann was married for a time to Dr. Charles H. Jaeger, a fellow Pictorialist photographer and an orthopedic surgeon on the staff of Columbia University Medical School and a likely connection for her 1920 Hoeber publication, The faculty of the College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia University in the City of New York: twenty-four portraits This was followed in 1922 by the publication of her Book of Portraits of the Medical Faculty of the Johns Hopkins University; the 1925 A Portrait Gallery of American Editors, and in 1933, Roll, Jordan Roll, the text by Julia Peterkin. The fine art edition of Roll, Jordan Roll is considered to be one of the most beautiful books ever produced.
In an interview with Dale Warren of Bookman, Doris Ulmann referred to her particular interest in portraits. "The faces of men and women in the street are probably as interesting as literary faces, but my particular human angle leads me to men and women who write. I am not interested exclusively in literary faces, because I have been more deeply moved by some of my mountaineers than by any literary person. A face that has the marks of having lived intensely, that expresses some phase of life, some dominant quality or intellectual power, constitutes for me an interesting face. For this reason the face of an older person, perhaps not beautiful in the strictest sense, is usually more appealing than the face of a younger person who has scarcely been touched by life."
Ulmann's early work includes a series of portraits of prominent intellectuals, artists and writers: William Butler Yeats, John Dewey, Max Eastman, Sinclair Lewis, Lewis Mumford, Joseph Wood Krutch, Martha Graham, Anna Pavlova, Paul Robeson, and Lillian Gish. From 1927, Ulmann was assisted on her rural travels by John Jacob Niles, a musician and folklorist who collected ballads while Ulmann photographed. In 1932 Ulmann began her most important series, assembling documentation of Appalachian folk arts and crafts for Allen Eaton's landmark 1937 book, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands. In failing health, she suffered a collapse in August 1934 while working near Asheville, North Carolina and returned to New York. Doris Ulmann died August 28, 1934.
Upon Ulmann's death, a foundation she had established took custody of her images. Allen Eaton, John Jacob Niles, Olive Dame Campbell (of the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina), Ulmann's brother-in-law Henry L. Necarsulmer, and Berea schoolteacher Helen Dingman were named trustees. Samuel H. Lifshey, a New York commercial photographer, developed the negatives Ulmann had exposed during her final trip, and then made proof prints from the vast archive of more than 10,000 glass plate negatives. (Lifshey also developed the 2,000 exposed negatives from Ulmann's last expedition, and produced the prints for Eaton's book.) The proof prints were mounted into albums, which were annotated by John Jacob Niles and Allen Eaton, chair of the foundation and another noted folklorist, to indicate names of the sitters and dates of capture.
The primary repository of Ulmann's work is at the University of Oregon Libraries' Special Collections. The Doris Ulmann collection, PH038, includes 2,739 silver gelatin glass plate negatives, 304 original matted prints, and 79 albums (containing over 10,000 Lifshey proof prints) assembled by the Doris Ulmann Foundation between 1934 and 1937. The silver gelatin glass plate negatives are the only known remaining Ulmann negatives. Of the 304 matted photographs, approximately half are platinum prints that were mounted and signed by Ulmann; the others are silver gelatin prints developed by Lifshey. Berea College hosts a collection of over 3100 images, primarily of the Appalachian region and the Berea area. Additional collections can be found at The University of Kentucky (consisting of 16 original signed portraits, and 186 original silver nitrate prints), and the New York Historical Society (primarily of prominent New Yorkers). As art objects, her photographs are also part of many museum collections including the Smithsonian and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Doris Ulmann was an extremely private person and left no documentation other than her images.
ROLL, JORDAN, ROLL BOOK
1933; “Roll, Jordan, Roll”; Text by Julia Peterkin. Illustrated with 90 full-page, hand-pulled copper photogravures after photographs by Ulmann depicting former slaves and their descendents on the Gullah coastal region of South Carolina.
1933 - Book cover for Julia Peterkin & Doris Ulmann, 1933, Roll, Jordan, Roll, (New York: Robert O. Ballou)
1933 - Book cover for Doris Ulmann "Roll Jordan Roll" (New York: Robert O. Ballou, 1933)
INDIVIDUAL BOOK DETAILS
No. 124 / 350
327 were for sale
Signed by Peterken and Ulmann
91st plate pencil signed by Ulmann
Not the original box; made by owner to store book
Very good condition; no plates missing; no foxing; no marks; no stamps
Provenance: In private hands for many years.
MORE ABOUT ROLL, JORDAN, ROLL
Roll, Jordan, Roll
The question of Negro slavery—its origins, evils, economic value and ultimate consequences—has now evoked nearly two decades of searching reexamination. Since the 1950's no other question in American history has occasioned more lively controversy sweeping reinterpretation. The,, debate has tested new methods of discovering and weighing evidence; has moved into esoteric regions of social psychology, folklore, anthropology, econometrics and constitutional law; and, by reaching out for comparative soundings in other cultural and historical experiences, has broadened the very meaning of historical understanding.
The professional historians’ preoccupation with slavery cannot be dismissed as a faddish offshoot the civil rights struggles of the 1960's. Those struggles simply dramatized a point on which many black historians—and a few white historians—had long insisted: that the conflicts generated by slavery produced the only major class struggle and ideological rift in American history. The Civil War stands out as the Grand Canyon of our historical landscape not because it was the needless conflict of a “blundering generation,” but because its origins and consequences laid bare the terrifying substructure of American life, revealing the price that we and our forefathers have paid for our world‐envied success. The awesome scar has usually been romanticized as a noble wound. But for a society so dedicated to instant landscaping and to plastic surgery, our historical Grand Canyon has also provided an undeletable record, stratum by stratum, of the basic built social order.
Eugene D. Genovese was one of the first modern scholars to view American slavery in the perspective of world history. As a Western Marxist, influenced by Maurice Dobb, Eric J. Hobsbawm and, especially, by Antonio GI amsci, Genovese pictured the emergence of the Southern slavocracy as a reactionary, “seigneurial” challenge to 19th‐century capitalism. Although Genovese saw the slave systems of the New World as the unsavory offspring of Europe's lust for world markets and commercial profits, he also insisted that the relationship between master and slave was fundamentally different from that between employer and wage earner‐‐1‐so different, in fact, that slavery always tended to create a culture and way life antithetical to capitalism. Yet these seigneurial tendencies came to full fruition only in the American South, which was the only slave society to acquire ideological independence as well as economic and military self‐sufficiency. Between the revolutions of the 18th and 20th centuries, the Civil War thus loomed as the only serious challenge to capitalistic hegemony.
Genovese's previous work established hls own hegemony over critical segments of the historiography of slavery. But thus far his extensive writings have taken the form of preliminary and uneven essays. “Roll, Jordan, Roll” is Genovese's long‐awaited magnum opus. It is also the most profound, learned and detailed analysis of Negro slavery to appear since World War II.
“Roll, Jordan, Roll” covers so much ground and presents such rich mixtures of information and argument that its theme cannot be summarized without some distortion. Genovese begins by describing American Negro slavery as a system of class rule and class exploitation distinguished by its racial form and by the complex and ambivalent relationships between slaves, masters and non‐slaveholding whites. For the slaves—as for the victims of most forms of oppression—the serious threats did not arise from the system's physical cruelty and material deprivations. Paradoxically, the worst dangers lay in the masters’ good will and collective conscience, or rather in the paternalistic ideology that shaped good will and conscience to the mas
The masters, even while affirming their own absolute authority, strove to convince the slaves of the moral legitimacy of the system. They shamelessly contended that all blacks were born to be slaves and that slaves were the mere instruments of their owners’ wills. Yet by playing the role of personal provider and protector, the slaveholder tried to prove his right to his slaves’ gratitude. American slaves, more than those in any other New World society, faced the peril of total dependency and loss of self‐respect.. The explanation, Genovese insists, is not to be found in the physical severity of the regime or, as Stanley Elkins has argued, in the lack of institutional restraints on individual self‐interest. Rather, the South emerged as the only New World society to develop a truly paternalistic culture and world view. And since the South was also the only New World society in which the black population rapidly increased through reproduction, its lack of dependence on imported labor from Africa deprived the slaves of continuing contact
But as Genovese proceeds to show in his remarkably sensitive reading of slave narratives, the slaves were never the passive, receptive instruments their masters wanted them to be. The slaves interpreted paternalism on their own terms and succeeded in redefining the limits of their masters’ power. In countless ways, paternalistic gestures evoked expectations and responses precisely the reverse of those intended by the masters: “By developing a sense of moral worth and by asserting rights, the slaves transformed their acquiescence in paternalism into a rejection of slavery itself, although their masters assumed acquiescence in the one to demonstrate acquiescence in the other.”
Genovese's great gift is his ability to penetrate the minds of both slaves and masters, revealing not only how they viewed themselves and each other, but also how their contradictory perceptions’ interacted. If the system cultivated self‐deceptions on both sides, the illusions of the masters were particularly dangerous. Convinced of the righteousness of their power, the slaveholders were tragically vulnerable to the traumatic discovery, at the time of the Civil War, that their slaves were not the grateful, submissive creatures they had imagined them to be, and that therefore the master class was not what it had imagined itself to be.
For ,Genovese, the “story” of slave life is a testament of the power and perseverance of the human spirit under conditions of extreme oppression. Largely as a result of their profound religious faith and affirmation of life, the slaves won their struggle to preserve some degree of individual dignity and of collective consciousness as a “black nation,” but at the cost of concessions that ill‐prepared them for the future. Ultimately the conflicts engendered by slavery could only be resolved by a destruction of the delicate checks and balances of the paternalist regime, including the checks that had restrained the racism of lower‐class whites by channeling it in support of slavery,_The collapse of paternalism thus prepared the way for a century of
“Roll, Jordpn, Roll” covers an incredible range of topics and offers fresh insights on nearly every page. Genovese takes. slave weddings and funerals as seriously as he takes the monstrous discrepancies in Southern slave law. He seems as much at home in slave kitchens as he is when discussing Afro‐American language, clothing and rhythms of time and labor. He is at his very best when he seeks to rehabilitate two of the most maligned and stereotyped figures in American history: the black Mammy and the black slave driver. This brilliant tour de force rests on an appreciation that the supreme test of paternalism hinged on those slaves who were accorded some measure of authority and leadership, and who, by mediating between black and white worlds, exposed the underlying absurdities of slavery.
The drivers, for example, proved that black slaves could manage production, rule their people and even make or break white overseers. The Mammy, as a diplomat, confidante and surrogate mistress of the plantation, dramatized the weaknesses and dependency of the whites. Yet Genovese convincingly argues that both the Mammy and driver occupied untenable positions, since they paid for their dignity and leadership by reinforcing the paternalist order. The tragedy of the Mammy lay “not in her abandonment of her own people, but in her inability to offer her individual power and beauty to black people on terrriF they could accept without themselves sliding further into a system of paternalistic dependency.”
Unfortunately, “Roll, Jordan, Roll” also suffers from serious flaws. The meaning of paternalism is devastatingly clear when Genovese discusses specific situations of dependency, accommodation and resistance. The concept becomes hazy when extended as a general historical category. Genovese seems to have retreated from the term “seigneurial” much as he earlier retreated from “feudal.” Yet he still equates paternalism with a “precapitalist” stage and thus with various preceding forms of feudal or semifeudal society. It is sufficient here to say that he has not moved far in clarifying the relationship between paternalism and capitalism. No doubt Southern paternalism was antithetical to capitalism in important respects. But Genovese's perceptive account of legal and social reforms within the slave system is only obscured by his insistence on their “precapitalist” characteristics. Similar reforms have strengthened ruling‐class hegemony, as he would be quick to acknowledge, in both capital
Genovese is masterful when he turns to social psychology, particularly when he demonstrates the concrete relationships between seeming opposites, such as cruelty and humaneness, ‘kindness and hate, or accommodation and resistance. He is at his weakest—as signaled by his prose—when he theorizes on the grand designs of history. His infrequent excursions into metahistory carry an orphic quality and are often marked by a pontifical tone. Occasionally he attempts to browbeat the reader by invoking without explanation some obscure authority (no doubt a legitimate one) and then delivering dogmatic and undeveloped generalizations. But then strain and bad shots always seem flagrant in a champion.
Nevertheless, Genovese's weaknesses cannot be dismissed as minor lapses, since they concern the development, integration and final resolution of his major themes. Paradoxically, it is not the loose Marxist framework that unifies “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” but rather conceptual source seldom associated with conventional Marxist theory—Christianity. The book's title comes from a slave spiritual; the text and chapter headings are studded with Biblical quotations. Genovese's key argument, clearly addressed with glee to agnostic liberals, is that religion provided slaves with stamina and selfrespect, developing into “the organizing center of their resistance within accommodation.” Genovese perceives the slaves’ religion as a complex blend of African and Christian norms, not as an idehlogy handed down from above. And precisely because religion served as the touchstone for both the masters’ paternalism and the slaves’ independence of soul, it became the major battleground'‐for psychological
Genovese acknowledges that this wellspring of spiritual, strength was better suited for survival against an oppressive regime than for effective political action after emancipation. His views on the psychologically crippling effects of slavery present a realistic antidote to Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman's recent and much‐acclaimed “Time on the Cross,” a book which celebrates the slaves’ prodigious virtues as workers—seemingly as a way of resolving the conflicts that arise from the authors’ liberal indignation over the moral wrongs of a system ‘which, in its efficiency, productivity and material reciprocity, appears to meet all the tests of modern welfare
For Genovese, it was not the Protestant ethic but Christianity, even in the form of “diluted and perverted Protestantism,” which sustained the slaves: “Christianity offered to the oppressed and the despised the image of God crucified by power, greed, and malice and yet in the end resurrected, triumphant, and redeeming the faithful. However much Christianity taught submission to slavery, it also carried message of foreboding to the master class and of resistance to the enslaved.” Genovese deliberately ignores the tendencies within Anglo‐American Protestantism that developed into militant abolitionism, within the very “superstructure” of bourgeois capitalism, and which thereby, for the first time in human history, made slavery a serious problem. Nevertheless, his contribution to Marxist and radical history may well lie in his penetrating appreciation that a religious “superstructure,” while intimately related to the material conditions of life, is what gives life meaning and direction. He shows that it was precisely such meaning and direction that saved American slaves from the ultimate dehumanization.
September 29, 1974 | David Brion Davis
MORE ABOUT DORIS ULMANN
J. Paul Getty Museum
Doris Ulmann (1882-1934)
A New Yorker by birth, Doris Ulmann preserved the rural cultures of the southeastern United States through her photographs. She worked particularly in the "Southern Highlands" of the Appalachian Mountains, creating portraits of the residents. In 1933, she contributed photographs to Roll, Jordan, Roll, a book by novelist Julia Peterkin about the vanishing black culture, known as Gullah, of the South Carolina islands and coastal areas. In collaboration with musician, actor, and folklorist John Jacob Niles, she made what Niles called annual "folklore and photographic expeditions" to the Southern Highlands between 1928 and 1934.
Ulmann's equipment was somewhat cumbersome and old-fashioned for her time. She most often used a 6½ x 8½ inch, tripod-mounted view camera, although the lightweight, hand-held camera was more prevalent, and she produced soft-focus platinum prints. The muted, warm tonality of the platinum image was a gentle complement to her respectful, sympathetic portrayals of subjects whose lives were different from her own.
University of Oregon Libraries: Doris Ulmann Collection
Doris Ulmann, Pictorialist photographer
Doris Ulmann (1882-1934), was a native of New York City, the daughter of Bernhard and Gertrude (Mass) Ulmann. Educated in public school-at the School of Ethical Culture, a socially liberal organization that championed individual worth regardless of ethnic background or economic condition-and Columbia University, she intended to become a teacher of psychology. Her interest in photography was at first a hobby, but after 1918 she devoted herself to the art professionally. She was a member of the Pictorial Photographers of America. Ulmann documented the rural people of the South, particularly the mountain peoples of Appalachia and the Gullahs of the Sea Islands, with a profound respect for her sitters and an ethnographer's eye for culture.
Her work was exhibited in various New York galleries, and published in Theatre Arts Monthly, Mentor, Scribner's Magazine, and Survey Graphic. In 1922 Johns Hopkins University published her Book of Portraits of the Medical Faculty of the Johns Hopkins University; in 1925 Rudge issued A Portrait Gallery of American Editors, and in 1933, Ballou published (in various editions) Roll, Jordan Roll, the text by Julia Peterkin.
In an interview with Dale Warren of Bookman Doris Ulmann referred to her particular interest in portraits. "The faces of men and women in the street are probably as interesting as literary faces, but my particular human angle leads me to men and women who write. I am not interested exclusively in literary faces, because I have been more deeply moved by some of my mountaineers than by any literary person. A face that has the marks of having lived intensely, that expresses some phase of life, some dominant quality or intellectual power, constitutes for me an interesting face. For this reason the face of an older person, perhaps not beautiful in the strictest sense, is usually more appealing than the face of a younger person who has scarcely been touched by life." ("Doris Ulmann: Photographer-in-waiting," Bookman, 72, 129-144.)
Trained as a pictorialist by Clarence White, Ulmann's early work includes a series of portraits of prominent intellectuals, artists and writers: William Butler Yeats, John Dewey, Max Eastman, Sinclair Lewis, Lewis Mumford, Joseph Wood Krutch, Martha Graham, Anna Pavlova, Paul Robeson, and Lillian Gish. In 1932 Ulmann began her most important series, assembling documentation of Appalachian folk arts and crafts for Allen Eaton's 1937 book, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands. From 1927, Ulmann was assisted on her rural travels by John Jacob Niles, a musician and folklorist who collected ballads while Ulmann photographed. Doris Ulmann died August 28, 1934.
The Doris Ulmann photograph collection casts a wide net across a fields throughout the humanities: social and cultural history, women's studies, African-American studies, ethnography, and the history of photography. Ulmann's photographs represent important primary source material for historical and ethnographic studies of Appalachian and Gullah culture as well the subject of folk arts and craft traditions. Her photographs show detailed images of Appalachian craftspeople quilting, whittling, weaving, hooking rugs, spinning, and making baskets and ceramic ware. Ulmann often took a series of photographs of a craftsperson's hands while they worked in order to illustrate the technique involved in their craft. Recent activity in the field of Appalachian studies can be seen in Garry Barker's monograph, The Handicraft Revival in Southern Appalachia, 1930-1990 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991). In the foreword to the book, Allen Eaton is credited with setting the stage and helping the craft revival happen: Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands is still used as the reference in the study of Appalachian crafts prior to 1935.
Ulmann, D. (1919). The faculty of the College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia University in the City of New York. New York, Hoeber.
- Ulmann, D. et al. (1922). A book of portraits of the faculty of the Medical Department of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press.
- Ulmann, D. (1925). A portrait gallery of American editors. New York, W.E. Rudge.
- Ulmann, D. (1928). "Among the Southern mountaineers: camera portraits of types of character reproduced from photographs recently made in the highlands of the South," The Mentor, v.16 pp.23-32. New York, N.Y., Crowell Pub. Co.
- Peterkin, J. M., D. Ulmann, et al. (1933). Roll, Jordan, roll. Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill.
- [unattributed] (1930). "The stuff of American drama in photographs by Doris Ulmann," Theatre Arts Monthly, v. 14 pp. 132-146. New York, NY: Theatre Arts, Inc.
- Eaton, A. H., D. Ulmann, et al. (1937). Handicrafts of the Southern highlands; with an account of the rural handicraft movement in the United States and suggestions for the wider use of handicrafts in adult education and in recreation. New York, Russell Sage Foundation.
- Ulmann, D. (1971). The Appalachian photographs of Doris Ulmann. Penland, N.C. Jargon Society.
- Ulmann, D., R. Coles, et al. (1974). The darkness and the light. [New York] Aperture.
- Ulmann, D., J. J. Niles, et al. (1976). The Appalachian photographs. Highlands, N.C., Jargon Society.
- Ulmann, D. (1976). Photographs of Appalachian craftsmen : a retrospective exhibition, April 6-May 1, 1976. Cullowhee, N.C., Western Carolina University.
- Ulmann, D., et al. (1978). An exhibition for the dedication of the Traylor Art Building, Berea College, Berea, Kentucky: Doris Ulmann's photographs; ritual clay: Walter Hyleck; the Berea College collection. Berea, Ky., Berea College.
- Ulmann, D. and D. Willis-Thomas (1981). Photographs by Doris Ulman: the Gullah people [exhibition] June 1-July 31, 1981, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library Astor Lenox and Tilden Foundations. New York, The Library.
- Banes, R. A. (1985). Doris Ulmann and her mountain folk. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green State University.
- Featherstone, D. (1985). Doris Ulmann: American portraits. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press.
- Curtis, E. S., D. Ulmann, et al. (1986). The last photographs. Haverford, Pa., Comfort Gallery Haverford College.
- Keller, J. (1988). After the manner of women: photographs by Käsebier, Cunningham, and Ulmann. Malibu, Calif., J. Paul Getty Museum.
- McEuen, M. A. (1991). Changing eyes : American culture and the photographic image, 1918-1941.
- Oeltman, M. T. (1992). Doris Ulmann, American photographer, and the Southern Agrarian movement.
- Lovejoy, B. (1993). The oil pigment photography of Doris Ulmann. Lexington, Ky., [s.n.].
- Lamuniere, M. C., J. M. Peterkin, et al. (1994). Roll, Jordan, roll: the Gullah photographs of Doris Ulmann.University of Oregon.
- Sperath, A. (1995). Ceramics Kentucky 1995. Murray, Ky., The Gallery.
- Ulmann, D. (1996). Doris Ulmann: photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum. Malibu, Calif., The Museum.
- Ulmann, D. and J. Keller (1996). Doris Ulmann: photography and folklore. Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum.
- Ulmann, D. et al. (1997). Picture gallery photography by Doris Ulmann. University of Oregon.
- Rosenblum, N., S. Fillin-Yeh, et al. (1998). Documenting a myth: the South as seen by three women photographers, Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, Doris Ulmann, Bayard Wootten, 1910-1940. Portland, Or., Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery Reed College.
- Ulmann, D. et al. (1999). Myth, memory and imagination: universal themes in the life and culture of the South: selections from the collection of Julia J. Norrell. McKissick Museum. Columbia, S.C., McKissick Museum University of South Carolina.
- Kowalski, S. (2000). Fading light: the case of Doris Ulmann. University of Oregon.
- Jacobs, P. W. (2001). The life and photography of Doris Ulmann. Lexington, University Press of Kentucky.
- Ulmann’s best-known work was produced when she visited the South Carolina plantation of her friend, novelist Julie Peterkin, who employed a large community of Gullah workers to cultivate her fields (the Gullahs were descendents of West African slaves who settled mainly on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia and developed a distinctive creole language and culture). The two women collaborated on Roll Jordan Roll, a book that documents, through Peterkin’s words and Ulmann’s images, the vanishing Gullah culture. Widely regarded as Ulmann’s finest work, the fine art edition of Roll Jordan Roll, issued in 1933, has been described as one of the most beautiful books ever produced.
BECOMING A PHOTOGRAPHER:
Ulmann married at age thirty-two after nursing her mother through a final illness. From 1914 until 1917, together with her husband Charles Jaeger, a surgeon at Columbia University Medical School, she attended New York's Clarence H. White School of Photography, the first art photography school in the United States. Like most early art photographers, including Alfred Stieglitz, White School students worked in a soft-focus style known as Pictorialism and often manipulated the surfaces of their prints to create unique images like paintings.
While she studied with White, Ulmann mastered the large 6 ½ by 8 ½ inch glass-plate tripod-mounted folding view camera to make both studio and field studies, with a soft-focus lens. She photographed many genre scenes, tableaux, and portraits. She and her husband participated in the activities of the Pictorial Photographers of America (PPA) founded by White students. The PPA attempted to advance photography as art through education by holding annual exhibitions, publishing annual and circulating photo exhibitions to select public art spaces through the early 1930s.
Life out of Darkness: The Recovery of Julia Peterkin, Forgotten Pulitzer Prize Winner
Elizabeth Robeson, M.Phil, Columbia University
If asked to name the first southern novelist to win a Pulitzer Prize, most Americans might guess William Faulkner (who never won) or Margaret Mitchell (who did). The honor actually belongs to Julia Peterkin (1880-1961), a largely forgotten, self-styled plantation mistress from South Carolina whose meteoric career rendered her name and novels household words for the better part of three decades. Peterkin’s best-selling prizewinner, Scarlet Sister Mary(1928), tells the story of Mary Pinesett, a spirited and rebellious—some said promiscuous—black woman who, having been abandoned by July, her “heart-love” husband, determines to have the family of her dreams—but on her own terms. With the aid of a love charm, Mary lures unnamed partners into assignations, bears nine children of different paternity, and, by reveling in the arrival of each baby, spurns the condemnation of her tight knit community at Blue Brook Plantation. Modernist critics greeted Scarlet Sister Mary as a masterpiece: Lionel Trilling remarked on its “strength and dignity,” while Alain Locke, father of the Harlem Renaissance, perceived in Peterkin’s “banishment of propaganda” a “new attitude of the literary South toward Negro life.” Conversely, the mainstream American media found the Pulitzer selection disturbing. The Chicago Journal of Commerce declared, “[A] promiscuous Negress with seven [sic] illegitimate children can hardly be regarded as falling under the ‘highest standards’” synonymous with the award. A Georgia editor derided the novel as “sex exploitation” while a Carnegie library in Peterkin’s home state banned Mary from the shelves.
The controversy was a rare fissure in Peterkin’s closely managed public image as “just a country woman” who composed novels about rural African Americans—a façade behind which she hid great personal tragedy while unwittingly prejudicing her legacy. Peterkin’s accomplishment lay in her upending the traditional plantation novel by replacing its gross stereotypes with rural black southerners of complexity, stamina, integrity, and courage, while valorizing the African spiritual inheritance as a transcendent force of cultural regeneration. Because no Uncle Toms, Aunt Jemimas or Colonels clad in white linen inhabited Peterkin’s fiction (indeed, white characters made rare appearances), and because she dared depict tender love and sex between black people, prickly white southerners viewed her suspiciously, perceiving her work as inflammatory and pornographic. In a letter to her mentor H.L. Mencken, Peterkin admitted the sting of her own family’s disdain. Her grown son, she relayed, urged her to write about “beautiful white men and women, not niggers.” In a poignant confession of her alienation she tersely wrote, “No beautiful white people live in my head.”
The story behind Peterkin’s stunning literary success—and equally astonishing present-day obscurity—is itself the stuff of fiction. Raised by her Confederate grandparents, she lived in Methodist parsonages, having lost her mother to tuberculosis as a toddler. At 17 with a Masters degree (almost unheard of among fin-de-siècle southern women), she became a teacher in the remote village of Fort Motte, South Carolina. There in 1903, she married William George Peterkin, heir to historic Lang Syne Plantation, whose community of five hundred black laborers descended from the original eighteenth century settlement. In the spring of 1904, Peterkin’s surgeon father delivered her son, then promptly sterilized her—with her husband’s consent. Peterkin refers often, albeit obliquely, to her life-long bitterness as “my utter defeat,” while a self-loathing is evident in her aggrieved “intellectual, barren” condition. Her psychic pain is represented fictionally by depictions of orphans, women dying in childbirth, lacerations, and disfigured or dead babies. Her favorite Bible verse proclaims, “I will wail and howl, I will go stripped and naked: I will make a wailing like the dragons, and mourning as the owls.” Peterkin survived her grief and years of invalidism through the soothing ministrations of Lavinia Berry, a former slave woman who prophetically counseled, “Don’t shet up tings/Too tight in you’ heart.” Berry transformed Peterkin’s life by drawing her into the self-contained world of Lang Syne’s quarters whose people, over time, became the loving family she had never known. Peterkin’s oeuvre—five books and works of short fiction—is rich on myriad levels—as folklore and speech documentary, as catalogue of residual African magic and religious beliefs—but most intriguingly, as autobiography embedded in the lives of her characters who, in turn, were inspired by the residents of Lang Syne.
A convergence of poor scholarship, ideological divides in academe, and her own fierce commitment to privacy relegated Peterkin to the margins of American literary history, where she has been stigmatized by the plantation persona that the poet Carl Sandburg advised her to adopt. A series of personal losses led to a gradual withdrawal from public life after writing her last book, Roll Jordan Roll (1933), a plantation elegy illustrated by the photographs of Doris Ulmann. Peterkin destroyed most of her personal papers, thus spawning prosaic summaries of her life based on the contrived origins narrative she repeated in interviews. Most regrettably, her purported biography, A Devil and a Good Woman Too: The Lives of Julia Peterkin (1997), reveals more about its author’s projections than it brings Peterkin to life or contextualizes her path-breaking significance as an early American modernist.
Julia Mood Peterkin was a southern writer best known for her sympathetic portrayals of black folklife in the South Carolina Low Country, where she was born 31 October 1880. Her novel Scarlet Sister Mary won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1929.
Early reviewers focused on her depiction of black culture rather than on her literary techniques. Black intellectuals in particular, such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and Walter White, praised her avoidance of the racist stereotypes common at the time among white writers, North and South. W E. B. Du Bois said of her, "She is a Southern white woman, but she has the eye and the ear to see beauty and know truth."
Scholars continue to find in her delineation of the worldview of a black community and in her depiction of its creole language, Gullah, a near-native sensitivity and richness of texture. She may, in fact, be regarded as a native speaker of the language. Raised by a Gullah-speaking nurse after the death of her mother, she wrote, "I learned to speak Gullah before I learned to speak English."
Folklorists have praised Peterkin's "primary knowledge" of Afro-American folk culture. Her explanation was that "I have lived among the Negroes. I like them. They are my friends, and I have learned so much from them."
- Charles Joyner, University of South Carolina, Coastal Campus