Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896-1953) was a wild woman: independent, strong-willed, super ambitious and Nasty! This woman’s life was sure not boring. One of the things that interested me most about her in the new biography by Ann McCutchan was Rawlings’s friendship with writer Zora Neale Hurston and how this relationship helped Rawlings confront her own racism and change her ways.
Watch for a post about this coming soon on nastywomenwriters.com
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is first and foremost a superb writer. I was impressed, astounded and inspired by the writing in her most popular and endeared novel, The Yearling. She began writing as a child in Washington, D.C. and followed her dream to the University of Wisconsin then onto several rather unsatisfying positions writing for women’s columns in magazines and newspapers in New York State and city after that.
In March of 1928 Rawlings and her first husband, Chuck, went to Florida on the advice of Chuck’s brothers who were there due to the Florida land boom.
“Newcomers like Chuck and Marjorie shivered with anticipation, imagining adventures in a state long promoted as a land of pleasure, exoticism and opportunity . . . . For several days the four roamed around Florida’s raw interior, trekking through the wilderness, floating on the Ocklawaha and Withlacoochee Rivers, crossing over to the west coast for excellent fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Marjorie and Chuck were captivated by rural Florida’s beauty, its rustic farms, and its earthy inhabitants living frontier lives on what they found, grew or created from their wild surroundings. A romantic notion struck the romantics: Might they make an easy living with an orange grove in the middle of nowhere, giving them ample time to write?”(McCutchan 78).
With her small inheritance, “Marjorie bought, sight unseen, a farm and orange grove in the tiny hamlet of Cross Creek, about four miles northwest of Island Grove in southern Alachua County”(McCutchan 79).
She lived there with Chuck for almost 5 years before they divorced. Marjorie kept the farm and the grove and continued to run them on her own. Her father had been a farmer and loved the land and she had inherited this love and some of the knowledge from him.
She also became very knowledgeable on her own about hunting, fishing, and surviving in the ecosystem she had moved to, going out on the water for day-long fishing trips with friends. Apparently, she was a huge animal lover which included her love of dogs, inspiring frequent comments from friends about the constant and oppressive amount of dog hair in her car. She smoked and drank a lot and was in several car accidents as the driver after having imbibed a bit too much. She was well known for her hospitality and cooking, creating rich and sumptuous meals for overnight guests; even publishing a cookbook, Cross Creek Cookery in 1942. She was also a very good friend, remembering birthdays and delivering packages of her oranges and homemade preserves at holidays. She became an activist for the environment in her later years, upon her death, leaving her home and land to the University of Florida. Today it is a National Historic Landmark and State Park.
After winning a writing contest with Scribner’s for her story “Jacob’s Ladder,” Rawlings was added to the roster of writers of coveted Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins. Perkins, also editor for Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe is famous for his careful attention to and nurturing of his writers, many of whom he nursed to fame and prestige. Rawlings enjoyed a very positive and fruitful relationship with Perkins for 17 years until his death. She also met and partied with these other writers, unfortunately following in their footsteps of serious alcohol addiction which most probably led to her early death at 57 in 1953.
Once in Florida, she wrote two novels South Moon Under and Golden Apples under Perkins’ mentorship followed by her blockbuster hit, The Yearling, published in 1938.
While reading McCutchan’s, The Life She Wished to Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Author of the Yearling, I realized I had never read the full book of The Yearling. I felt like I knew the story somewhat. Perhaps I had seen the movie or read an excerpt of the book in middle school. I am sure I did not read the full 400-page book. I knew if I wanted to write a post about Rawlings for Nasty Women Writers I would have to read The Yearling, but I resisted. Why? I think I had that middle school dread lodged in me around this book. Boy am I glad that I pushed through it.
This book is so good. Rawlings’ writing astounds with descriptions of life in central Florida in the 1870s. She captures a lifestyle long gone complete with dialect and attitudes. Her prose is bardic and lyrical while writing about such things as hunting a bear, being bitten by a rattlesnake and working on a farm. And she writes of it all with commanding authority. I knew that once she went to live in central Florida, she took to the land, farming and the people almost as though she were from there, but my goodness, she sure did her research. I never realized until this time through that the main character, Jody, is the actual yearling rather than the fawn. It is Jody’s transformation from boy to man rather than the adoption and subsequent loss of his pet that is the point of the story.
McCutchan mentions that The Yearling has suffered from its categorization as a book for young readers and its respective movie versions. I very much recommend reading it if you never have. It’s a classic for sure. Rawlings’ name should be right up there with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Twain, Steinbeck, Cather and Alcott, Morrison and Hurston for important American Writers.
The Yearling is the tale of an American family living on the land in central Florida through the eyes of a son, an only child. Ezra, his dad, called Penny and Ora his mom, mostly called Ma Baxter, bore the loss of many children before Jody came along. In fact they had almost given up hope. In a way he is their “miracle child” and this defines his reality in many ways, though Jody does not fully understand this. His mother’s grief makes her stoic and withholding and alternately turns the father into a “softy” who makes multiple mistakes in trying to prevent his son from experiencing pain. This leads to the disaster of allowing Jody to adopt a fawn for a pet. Everyone can see this will turn out to be a horrible idea.
The Baxters needed many children to help them run the farm and keep things going the way they had planned but they have only Jody. Expectation is upon him as well as deep isolation and extreme loneliness. Jody’s isolation causes him to project the desire for company onto “wanting a thing of his own;” a friend to keep him company which is usually in the form of a young animal. Jody is appropriately childish around this desire. I just loved how he wanted every animal to be a pet. “Can I have one? Can I have him?” he asks about every small or young being. It was so endearing to me.
The descriptions of the farming, hunting, fishing, food prep and the crazy as anything neighbors, the Forresters, were so entertaining. In fact, the whole book is very entertaining in an altogether comforting and authentic way. We’ve all experienced neighbors like the Forresters: questionable morals and beliefs yet, helpful when we need them.
The lifestyle is so hard and full of work and knowledge you can’t get in any school. Living on the land and feeding yourself and your family IS your work and your life. Rawlings captured this in a realistic and non-sentimental way. Reading it I felt embarrassingly modern and called to task over my own sentimentality around the ideas of having a farm or growing my own food. I think this book may have helped me permanently put this latent and totally unrealistic fantasy to rest. I am definitely not cut out for that.
The depictions of the food and the meals made me wish I could sit down to supper at their table in their warm wooden cabin. In the description below, “pone” is a baked or fried bread made of corn, or, in this case sweet potatoes and “cooter” is a turtle.
“His mother had cooked a supper good enough for the preacher. There were poke-greens with bits of white bacon buried in them; sand-buggers made of potato and onion and the cooter he had found crawling yesterday; sour orange biscuits and at his mother’s elbow the sweet potato pone. He was torn between his desire for more biscuits and another sand-bugger and the knowledge, born of painful experience, that if he ate them, he would suddenly have no room for pone. The choice was plain”(loc 145).
The book was filled with moments of elevated prose and praise for the earth and the human experience of it that is relatable. These exalted moments described by Rawlings express things many of us feel but find difficult to describe in words. I found myself touched on the inside with many of the segments that brought me there: the feeling of safety inside a warm cabin at night with the moonlight outside, the smells of youth that stay with us all our lives, inciting nostalgia as adults.
“He was stabbed with the candle-light inside the safe comfort of the cabin; with the moonlight around it. He pictured old Slewfoot, the great black outlaw bear with one toe missing, rearing up in his winter bed and tasting the soft air and smelling the moonlight, as he, Jody, smelled and tasted them. He went to bed in a fever and could not sleep. A mark was on him from the day’s delight, so that all his life, when April was a thin green and the flavor of rain was on his tongue, an old wound would throb and nostalgia would fill him for something he could not quite remember. A whip-poor-will called across the bright night, and suddenly he was asleep”(loc 178).
The relationship between Jody and his father, Penny, is beautifully portrayed. Jody adores and admires his father who is a good man and also very smart and resourceful. The reader is allowed into the world where he passes on his wisdom to Jody, taking him out on hunts with him, teaching him how to fish, letting him begin to use a rifle, showing him tracks and encouraging Jody to notice the seasonal shifts and changes on his own and what those mean. The bear hunting scenes are particularly compelling as they track Jody’s maturing age and the level of skill he is developing as well as displaying the father’s skill and instincts that can only be taught by observation. Rawlings’s father who had been a farmer in Michigan and then later again in DC, died when Rawlings was a teenager. Probably some of her love for him is transferred onto the relationship between Jody and his father in this story.
Then there are the scenes where Rawlings lets herself insert poetry and her own appreciation of this land she has moved to through her characters. Like the one where father and son go on a fishing trip where Jody catches a large bass:
“Penny whispered, “Foller me. We’ll ease up clost as we dare.” He pointed. “The whooping cranes is dancin’.”
Jody saw the great white birds in the distance. His father’s eye, he thought, like an eagle’s. They crouched on all fours and crept forward slowly. Now and then Penny dropped flat on his stomach and Jody dropped behind him.They reached a clump of high saw grass and Penny motioned for concealment behind it. The birds were so close that it seems to Jody he might touch them with his long fishing pole. Penny squatted on his haunches and Jody followed. His eyes were wide. He made a count of the whooping cranes. There were sixteen. The cranes were dancing a cotillion as surely as it was danced at Volusia.
Two stood apart, erect and white, making a strange music that was part cry and part singing. The rhythm was irregular, like the dance. The other birds were in a circle. In the heart of the circle, several moved counter-clock-wise. The musicians made their music. The dancers raised their wings and lifted their feet, first one and then the other. They sunk their heads deep in their snowy breasts, lifted them and sunk again. They moved soundlessly, part awkwardness, part grace. The dance was solemn. Wings fluttered, rising and falling like out-stretched arms. The outer circle shuffled around and around. . . .
The sun setting lay rose on the white bodies. Magic birds were dancing in a mystic marsh. The grass swayed with them, and the shallow waters, and the earth fluttered under them. The earth was dancing with the cranes, and the low sun, and the wind and sky. Jody found his own arms lifting and falling with his breath, as the cranes’ wings lifted. The sun was sinking into the saw-grass. The marsh was golden. The whooping cranes were washed with gold. The far hammocks were black”(loc 1056).
Sun sets and Jody and Penny return home to where Ma Baxter has dinner waiting for them. At dinner the men were quiet. Ma Baxter asks:
“What ails you fellers?”
They did not answer. They had no thought for what they ate nor for the woman. They were no more than conscious that she spoke to them. They had seen a thing that was unearthly. They were in a trance from the strong spell of its beauty”(loc 1072).
This eloquent and moving passage captures what McCutchan calls Rawlings’ belief in cosmic consciousness — a felt understanding of our interrelatedness with all and a transcendent experience that assures one of eternal life. It also speaks to a forward thinking in Rawlings and her writing as a precursor to what we today call ecological writing or nature fiction.
“Since her college years . . . she had been obsessed with natural beauty and the notion of cosmic consciousness, the purview of Whitman and other poets she studied and with whom she felt a kinship. At Cross Creek, she found the perfect unspoiled environment out of which to attempt stories and novels reflecting the idea. It is true that this section of Florida had yet to be explored in imaginative literature, offering Rawlings a first-come opportunity, but just as importantly, its isolation harbored living examples of the radical interconnections between all living people and things—a concept fundamental to cosmic consciousness”(McCutchan 212).
At the end of the book, once the fawn, Flag, grows up and becomes problematic to the family causing his own downfall, Jody runs away experiencing a rude awakening to the truth of the world around him and the reality of the place he has been born into. He returns home wiser and full of humility and his father says to him:
“You’ve seed how things goes in the world o’ men. You’ve knowed men to be low-down and mean. You’ve seed ol’ Death at his tricks. You’ve messed around with ol’ Starvation. Ever’ man wants life to be a fine thing, and a easy. “Tis fine, boy, powerful fine, but ‘tain’t easy. Life knocks a man down and he gits up and it knocks him down agin. I’ve been uneasy all my life.”
“I’ve wanted life to be easy for you. Easier’n ’twas for me. A man’s heart aches, seein’ his young uns face the world. Knowin’ they got to git their guts tore out, the way his was tore. I wanted to spare you, long as I could.
I wanted you to frolic with your yearlin’. I know the lonesomeness he eased for you. But ever’ man’s lonesome. What’s he to do then?”(loc 4887).
The Yearling won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 securing Rawlings a place in American literature and income with which to continue her writing. Her writing was always first for her and she made sure to make time and space in her life for it always. I appreciated seeing this so well documented in the biography. I admire and am thankful for the example Rawlings sets with the time and respect she gave to her writing. She took herself very seriously, even retaining her own home and place to work while her second husband, Norton, lived and worked in nearby St. Augustine. She didn’t bend her life or desires to his. Her professional life came first.
As the title of McCutchan’s biography says, Rawlings lived “the life she wished to live”:
“One might view Rawlings’s work solely as the result of her particular sociopolitical time or a literary movement, but my aim here has been to discover and show how she created the life she wished to live as a writer with a poetic, philosophical impulse toward art-making, and a strong urge to manifest it on her own terms. It is the strongest story running through the personal materials she left for us to consider”(xviii).
Rawlings wrote many other books and stories including Cross Creek, a collection of stories set in and near her Florida home and Sojourner, her final novel in which she further and more explicitly explores her belief in cosmic consciousness.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is a #Nasty Woman Writer.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2022
Kinnan Rawlings, Marjorie. The Yearling. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938.
McCutchan, Ann. The Life She Wished To Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Author of the Yearling. W. W. Norton & Co. 2021
Under image: Anne McCutchan is a musician, teacher and author of six books. The life she wished to live her most recent project.