DescriptionDoris Ulmann and Julia Peterkin. Roll, Jordan, Roll. The Text by Julia Peterkin. The Photographic Studies by Doris Ulmann. New York: Robert O. Ballou, Publisher, . First edition, deluxe issue. Number 85 of 350 special edition copies (327 of which were offered for sale), signed in ink by both Doris Ulmann and Julia Peterkin beneath the colophon; additional photogravure, signed by Doris Ulmann in pencil in the lower margin, laid in. Large quarto (11.25 x 8.25 inches; 285 x 210 mm.). [2, blank], [2, half-title], [2, frontispiece (recto blank)], [2, title], [2 (verso blank)], [2, fly-title (verso blank)], 13-341, [1, colophon], [2, blank] pages. Complete with ninety full-page hand-pulled copperplate photogravure plates; plates included in pagination; all plates but one with tissue guards.
Publisher's half cream-colored linen over brown textured paper-covered bevelled boards. Front board stamped in blind with the profile of an African-American woman; rear board stamped in blind with the publisher's device. Spine lettered in gilt; top edge gilt, others uncut; matching brown textured paper endleaves. Boards lightly rubbed and scuffed; cloth spine with a few small stains and/or fox marks; gilt top edge rubbed in places; hinges reinforced with cloth tape; tiny chip to upper edge of rear flyleaf. Light foxing to the edges, and occasionally to the text margins; some offsetting from the plates to text leaves; slight horizontal crease to the plate on page 261; half-inch tear to the outer margin of the plate on page 311. The additional photogravure a little browned at outer edge and creased at lower corner. A near fine copy, rare in this condition, with the additional signed photogravure, and housed in the scarce original matching brown paper-covered cardboard slipcase (slipcase worn and soiled with cracking at some seams).
The additional photogravure, depicting three men weighing cotton in a field, is a duplicate of the photogravure in the suite of plates depicting a series of cotton-picking activities following text page 300 (i.e., on page 311 in the pagination), and is described in the text: "At sundown, the cotton sheets make a long white row with high soft piles of cotton, when the big wagons come to haul them to the gin house. They are tied up for the cotton to be weighed. The three-legged 'weighing horse' holding the scales hooks the sheets up one by one and weights them, and the 'weigher' writes each weight down with the name of the picker" (page 237 of the trade edition).
Parr/Badger, The Photobook I, p. 135 ("One of the most singular documentary photobooks of the 1930s"); Andrew Roth, The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century, pp. 78-79; Michelle C. Lamunière, "Roll, Jordan, Roll and the Gullah Photographs of Doris Ulmann," History of Photography, 21:4, pp. 292-302.
"Doris Ulmann's photographic collaboration with Julia Peterkin is a relic of a very particular time in the history of American race relations. Though published as the Harlem Renaissance was waning and the Great Depression was at its worst, it focuses on the lives of former slaves and their descendants on a plantation in the Gullah coastal region of South Carolina, who seem to live in a historical time warp...Peterkin, a popular novelist who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929 [for her controversial 1928 novel Scarlet Sister Mary], was born in South Carolina and raised by a black nursemaid who taught her the Gullah dialect before she learned standard English. She married the heir to Lang Syne, one of the state's richest plantations, which became the setting for Roll, Jordan, Roll, and its black population the subject of Ulmann's photographs...Ulmann's soft-focus photos-rendered as tactile as charcoal drawings in the superb gravure reproductions here-straddle Pictorialism and Modernism even as they appear to dissolve into memory" (Roth).
"Roll, Jordan, Roll combines photographs, short stories, character sketches, and expository essays. The majority of the photographs which accompany the text were taken on Peterkin's Lang Syne Plantation. It was first issued in two editions, both published by Robert O. Ballou in New York. The trade edition was released on 15 December 1933, and contained seventy-two [i.e., seventy-one] photographs by Ulmann. The following spring, a limited edition of 350 appeared with ninety copper-plate gravure reproductions of Ulmann's photographs. Each book was numbered and signed by both Ulmann and Peterkin...In general, Roll, Jordan Roll was well received. Both text and photographs were endorsed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People...Perhaps the most thorough examination of Ulmann's contribution was written by Dorothy Scarborough for the New York Times Book Review. Scarborough wrote: 'Doris Ulmann has made a number of fascinating photographic studies of the Negroes...that show a high degree of art. She can by her subtle manipulation of lights and shadows bring out the pathos, the dignity, the humor of those black folks and show the marked individuality of the faces...Pictures show various aspects of the church life of the country Negro, the baptismal services in the creek, the mourners' bench, the ceremonial foot-washing and so forth. Cotton-picking time has its groups, and the chain-gang photographs are impressive' [Dorothy Scarborough, "Julia Peterkin's Gullahs Sit for Their Portraits," The New York Times Book Review (7 January 1934)]...The photogravures are 8 1/2" x 6 1/2"-the size of Ulmann's glass negatives-and, with few exceptions, are presented in a vertical format on the right side of the book" (Lamunière, page 298).
"More surprising is the acceptance Peterkin's work found among black intellectuals. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, 'Peterkin is a southern white woman, but she has the eye and the ear to see beauty and know truth.' She became a favorite of the Harlem Renaissance during a time when most African-American fiction featured middle-class blacks in urban settings. Several authorities credit Peterkin for paving the way for more realistic novels by African-American writers, especially Zora Neale Hurston...Peterkin's span as a professional writer lasted 12 years and produced a handful of books, including three novels, a collection of short stories and a photo documentary, 'Roll, Jordan, Roll'" (Terry C. Plumb, "Two Unlikely Heroines of Modern Fiction," at http://www.pulitzer.org/article/two-unlikely-heroines-modern-fiction).
Few copies of this deluxe edition had been distributed at the time of Ulmann's death in 1934; most were donated by her heirs to the Tuskegee Institute to be sold for its own school's benefit (see Philip Walker Jacobs, The Life and Photography of Doris Ulmann (2001), page 290).
The book is titled after the spiritual "Roll, Jordan, Roll," written by English Methodist leader Charles Wesley in the eighteenth century, which became well-known among slaves in the United States during the nineteenth century. Appropriated as a coded message for escape, by the end of the American Civil War it had become known through much of the eastern United States. In the twentieth century it helped inspire the blues, and it remains a staple in gospel music.
"Spirituals are always sung for the shouting but they are remolded for different occasions and sound almost like different songs. The familiar 'Roll, Jordan, Roll,' sung at a funeral and accompanied by heart-breaking wails of grief that dictate a slowly beating rhythm, is a dirge that expresses mankind's helplessness in the face of death; sung by plowmen who patiently follow their mules up and down the long cotton rows on a hot summer afternoon, it is stamped with their own resignation; at Christmas watch-night meetings which celebrate the birthnight of Jesus, who was born in a manger, poor like themselves in material things, rich like themselves in close kinship to the Creator of the Universe, the old song is shouted triumphantly, for little Jesus contrived the plan by which souls of men whose bodies die can cross Jordan's dark stream safely and reach an eternal home where all is ease and peace. When the tide of life fills the breast of the earth in the spring and the cool sap of plants flows out in leaves and blossoms, the warm red blood in men's veins is quickened and 'Roll, Jordan, Roll' expresses exultant joy in the fresh surge of life which proves that death dissolves old forms in order to nourish new ones. As it is with 'Roll, Jordan, Roll,' so it is with all the spirituals. As each one is sung it is re-created by the singers to express the immediate emotion" (page 131 of the first trade edition).
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