Unlikely friendships. They’re often the best because they’re out of the ordinary and anything out of the ordinary tends to stretch us in unexpected ways.
Honestly, we’re most often friends with those like us. You know, that ol’ birds-of-a-feather thing. We could debate and bemoan that much of this is orchestrated by our still segregated society, segregated by class, and of course race. We have made progress here and there, but few would argue the fact that there is much, much more to do.
My sister Theresa has written two posts on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the most recent one examining the friendship between Rawlings and Zora Neale Hurston.
Seeing as I had written a couple of posts on Hurston, Theresa asked me what I knew of this interesting friendship, and I knew little from what I’d read by and about Hurston.
From there I set out to explore this relationship a bit from the viewpoint of Hurston, which exists mostly in letters.
Zora Neale Hurston, daughter of an Alabama sharecropper, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, daughter of a Washington DC lawyer, experienced one of these so-called unlikely friendships, bridging both race and socio-economic class. (This was more unusual for Rawlings, since Hurston had many relationships throughout her life that spanned these societal gaps.) Yet, the genuine feeling that Hurston and Rawlings had for one another contributed to the significant impact that ensued. Those of us interested in this friendship find it intriguing and instructive to this day.
Anna Lillios in her book Crossing the Creek: The Literary Friendship of Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings examines the uncertainty of exactly when this friendship may have taken root. Most believe it began in 1942, going off the well-documented first meeting between the two at Rawlings’ husband’s inn in St Augustine, Florida, but according to one of Rawlings’ dedicated servants, Idella Parker, it may have been two years earlier, in the fall of 1940.
“It’s commonly believed that Zora and Marjorie met in the summer of 1942 but one of Marjorie’s servants Idella Parker believes it was earlier than that, even as early as the fall of 1940. Idella says in her memoir that she believes the authors met at Rollins College ‘where they both went from time to time to speak to groups of students’” (Lillios 15).
Idella Parker reports that Hurston showed up for a visit shortly after that encounter.
But I like to believe it was 1942 since Hurston does not mention Rawlings in her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road which was published that very year. Therefore the likely reason there is no mention of Rawlings, especially in the section “The Light Inside – Being a Salute to Friendship” would be due to the timing of when the book was completed and went to press in relation to when Hurston and Rawlings’ friendship truly developed.
Early on in their connection, Hurston opted to see what they shared instead of the barriers that might have kept them from one another. In a letter Hurston wrote Rawlings not long after they met, she says:
“Whether it pleases you or not, you are my sister. You look at plants and animals and people in the way I do. You are conscious of the three layers of life, instead of the obvious thing before your nose. You see and feel the immense past, what is now, and feel inside you something of what is to come. Therefore you are not pacing the cell of the current hour. You are free because you have made your peace with the universe and its laws. You are deep and fine” (3)
By pointing out their commonalities, the ways in which they consider and move through life, especially as writers, Hurston recognizes and solidifies the bond between them. Both writers were at the pinnacles of their careers when their friendship began. Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937 and Rawlings’ novel The Yearling in 1938. Their autobiographies, Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road and Rawlings’ Cross Creek were both published in 1942. These congruent successes in their literary journeys contributed to the relative ease of their connection.
There are various kinds of friendships, some more useful than others. Hurston and Rawlings’ friendship offered each something beyond merely enjoying one another’s company, although they definitely did that too! Their friendship offered them opportunity to grow, Rawlings to question and tackle her stubbornly ingrained racism and Hurston to accept the ways Rawlings could advocate for her in a literary realm not easily accessible otherwise.
Both women faced criticism around their friendship too. Many condemned Rawlings as racist for spending the greater part of the day with Hurston in her house, but then expecting Hurston would sleep in the servants’ quarters at night. Yet, Hurston expected that and willingly acquiesced.
Lillios shares Annette Trefzer’s view of this behavior in her article “Floating Homes and Signifiers in Hurston’s and Rawlings’s Autobiographies”:
“This incident, however, may be less a sign of the absence of ‘friendship’ between Hurston and Rawlings than proof that Hurston knew how to play by the rules of segregation, as her first visit with Rawlings in St. Augustine had shown” (3).
The visit Trefzer refers to here is the first visit, where Hurston chooses to enter the inn using the back stairway knowing that would make it easier on Rawlings.
Hurston often played by the rules of segregation and that she wasn’t more resistant to them delivered criticism. Where Rawlings was accused of being racist, something she herself owned, Hurston was accused of using her friendship with Rawlings for professional gain, instead of fighting for civil rights.
After Hurston read Rawlings’s memoir Cross Creek, she responded in a letter:
“Twenty one guns! I have just read ‘Cross Creek’ carefully and prayerfully. It is a most remarkable piece of work. You turned your inside light on there [sic] community life, and it broke like day…I am at your feet in admiration” (21).
Hurston concludes this letter with an invite for Rawlings to visit her on her houseboat.
Lillios shares that:
“Hurston’s assessment of Rawlings’s book may have been heartfelt praise, calculated flattery, or a way of ingratiating herself to Rawlings, who had the kind of mainstream success that Hurston craved…But there is no evidence that Hurston was being ingenuous with Rawlings”(21).
Hurston writes about friendship in her autobiography, and her musings, though not with Rawlings in mind, turn out to be somewhat prophetic:
“I have never been as good a friend as I meant to be. I keep seeing new heights and depths of possibilities which ought to be reached, only to be frustrated by the press of life, which is no friend to grace. I have my loyalties and my unselfish acts to my credit, but I feel the lack of perfection in them, and it leaves a hunger in me.
“Friendship is a mysterious and ocean-bottom thing. Who can know the outer ranges of it? Perhaps no human being has ever explored its limits”(Hurston 308, 321).
The “press of life” is likely why the Hurston-Rawlings friendship lapsed for years at a time, connected only by a thread of occasional letters and cards. This “press of life” included WWII, legal battles, and for Hurston in particular, financial woes.
When it seems they might reconnect, Rawlings dies suddenly, before this can happen. A while after this, Hurston responds to a letter from a mutual friend of theirs, Mary Holland, and expresses her grief and regret:
“I was so depressed by the death of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, first because I am deprived of the warmth of the association, and secondly because I feel that I failed her in her last extremity. She wrote me, and Burroughs Mitchell, who was editor to us both at Scribners, wrote me that she was ill. I wrote her that I would be there as soon as I could, but everything went bad for me at that time. My car, like the old one-horse shay, just fell to pieces, and there I was with no transportation, and no means to replace it, and could not bear to admit it to her lest she feel sorry for me. Next thing I knew was the announcement of her death”(37).
It saddens me to think that an ill Rawlings might have been awaiting her friend’s arrival, while her friend did not have the means to fulfill her desire to “be there as soon as I could.” In the end, the socio-economic barrier and Hurston’s not wanting to be pitied came between them.
I can’t help but wonder if Hurston had died before Rawlings, would she have been buried in an unmarked grave as she was in 1960? I don’t believe her friend Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings would have allowed for that.
Zora Neale Hurston and her dear friend Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings are #Nasty Women Writers.
© Maria Dintino 2022
Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography. University of Illinois Press, 1942.
Lillios, Anna. Crossing the Creek: The Literary Friendship of Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. University Press of Florida, 2010.