Rawlings's Life


Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was born on 8 August 1896 in Washington, DC. Her father was principal examiner in the U.S. Patent Office, but according to Rawlings, "he lived the true life of his mind and heart on his Maryland farm" ("Marjorie Rawlings" 343). Rawlings claimed that she "learned her love of nature" from her father. Her mother's family was from southern Michigan, and she spent her summers on their farm. Living close to the land as she was growing up "planted deep in [her] a love of the soil, the crops, the seasons and a sense of kinship with men and women everywhere who live close to the soil" (343).

Rawlings began writing at an early age and started publishing letters and award-winning short stories in the Washington Post when she was fourteen years old. Her father died in 1913, and the family moved to Wisconsin, where Rawlings attended the University of Wisconsin. She thrived in college and pursued drama and writing, often publishing her works in the Wisconsin Literary Magazine. She starred in a play titled Lima Beans during her junior year. She met and fell in love with Charles Rawlings, and they became engaged during her senior year.

After Rawlings graduated from Wisconsin with honors, she headed to New York City to work for the YWCA. She spent her time writing and trying to get published. When she married Charles Rawlings in 1919, the couple moved briefly to his hometown of Rochester, New York. When they could not find work they enjoyed there, they moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where Rawlings found a job as a feature writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal. She wrote a column titled "Live Women in Louisville." By 1921 the Rawlingses had moved back to Rochester, and Marjorie Rawlings began writing for the Rochester Evening Journal. During this time, she composed poetry in a series called "Songs of a Housewife" and a novel, Blood of My Blood, which was published posthumously in 2002.

Although they were gainfully employed as writers, in 1928 Charles and Marjorie Rawlings felt restless and decided to alter dramatically their lives by buying a seventy-two-acre farm in frontier Florida. Rawlings describes the beauty of the land that they found in rural Cross Creek, in the Ocala National Forest, southeast of Gainesville: "This was not the Gold coast of Florida. . . . It was a primitive section off the beaten path, where men hunted and fished and worked small groves and farms for a meager living. . . . And the country was beautiful, with its mysterious swamps, its palms, its great live oaks, dripping gray Spanish moss, its deer and bear and raccoons and panthers and reptiles" ("Marjorie Rawlings" 344).

Marjorie Rawlings's inspiration took off, and she began chronicling the events, people, and nature that surrounded her. She submitted her first creative work, "Cracker Chidlings," to Scribner's Magazine in 1930. This series of vignettes, which were not really full-fledged short stories, caught the attention of Maxwell Perkins, the editor of Scribner's great American novelists F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. From the moment he first read her work, Perkins "realized he had a gem in the rough," according to Rodger Tarr (introduction to Max and Marjorie 2). Tarr explains the effect Perkins had on her work: "Early on she had very little sense of audience, or at least of the Scribner audience. She laced her work with a mixture of intellectualism and bawdiness that often defeated her purpose. She always captured essence but seldom fully grasped form. Perkins became her framer" (3).

While they worked on the structure of her stories, Rawlings realized that she had to learn more about the Cracker people whose lives she was about to chronicle. She wanted to range further afield, beyond her Cross Creek neighborhood to the big scrub, an area bounded on the west and north by the Oklawaha River and on the east by the St. Johns River and Lake George. In late August 1931 Rawlings moved in with Piety and Leonard Fiddia, a Cracker family she had befriended in the scrub. From Piety--a "ninety-pound wisp of a white-haired mother, who ploughs" and can kill a rattlesnake--Rawlings learned how to "wash her heavy quilts," take care of domestic chores, and speak certain local phrases. From Piety's young son Leonard--"a boy as indigenous to the scrub as the deer" (Max and Marjorie 40)--Rawlings learned survival skills that were often on the far side of the law. In a 4 November 1931 letter to Perkins, Rawlings describes the pleasures of life in the scrub: "The life in the scrub is peculiarly right. While I was there, I did all the illegal things too; stalked deer with a light at night, out of season, kept the family in squirrels, paddled the boat while my friend dynamited mullet, shot limpkin on the river edge and had to wade waist deep in cypress swamp to get him (if you haven't eaten roast limpkin, you just haven't eaten)" (45).

One of the illegal activities in which Leonard Fiddia was engaged was moonshining. His dangerous brushes with the law and other outlaw ‘shiners in the scrub would form "the main thread" of Rawlings's first novel, South Moon Under. Rawlings was on hand to observe an incident that would provide background to the novel: "Just the week before I went over to stay, a cousin of my ‘shiner friend betrayed him, with two others, to the federal agents, and his still was torn up and burned. I had one experience I would not have missed for a great deal--a discussion of a group of the ‘shiners and their friends, of various plans or dealing with the traitor. Nothing definite has been done to him yet . . . but in one way and another they are closing in on him, and some day he will simply disappear" (45).

Rawlings seemed fascinated with the wildness of the country and its people as she exclaimed to Perkins, "The scrub, as a matter of fact, has defeated civilization" (44). The "scanty population" that remained and was almost a dying breed of people is what captured her imagination. She explains the hold that people such as the Fiddias had on her: "I knew they were gentle; honest. I knew that living was precarious, but just how hand-to-mouth it is, surprised me. I was also astonished by the utter lack of bleakness or despair, in a group living momentarily on the very edge of starvation and danger" (44).

Rawlings immersed herself in their way of life by doing the "illegal things" that they did to the point that she began to lose a sense of the boundary that had previously existed between her old, sophisticated northern self and her current one: "It is so easy for me to live their life with them, that I am in some danger of losing all sophistication and perspective. I feel hurried sometimes, as though I must get `written out' in this country within the next few years, because so much is no longer strange or unusual to me" (45). In this statement she is showing the strong empathy she developed for her Cracker friends which she would eventually convey to her fictional characters. Her vision would culminate in The Yearling, which powerfully evokes the scrub life she lived with the Fiddias and other scrub friends, including Cal Long and Barney Dillard, who taught her how to hunt and fish, identify plants and animals, and survive in the wild. In the 1930s and early 1940s, Rawlings would make use of this material and write her famous Cross Creek-area works Golden Apples (1935) and Cross Creek (1942) and her big scrub novels, South Moon Under (1933) and The Yearling (1938), the last of which won her the 1939 Pulitzer Prize and fans worldwide.

After the publication of Cross Creek, Rawlings's life would take a dramatic turn. One of the people featured in the book, Zelma Cason, a census taker and friend, would file a lawsuit in 1943 charging that Cross Creek had invaded her "right to privacy." The case would drag on for another five years, after being argued in front of the Florida Supreme Court, and would take a toll on Rawlings's time, energy, and creative work. Although the Florida high court on 9 August 1948 agreed that Cason's privacy had been invaded with the publication of the book, the justices gave Rawlings a Pyrrhic victory of sorts, fining her only one dollar plus court costs. In the aftermath of the trial, Rawlings wrote only a few more short stories and articles about Cross Creek, thus completing her cycle of Florida works.

The 1940s was a challenging decade for Rawlings. The period began on a high note in 1941, when she married Norton Sanford Baskin, a longtime friend and companion, who owned (along with Rawlings) and managed the Castle Warden Hotel in St. Augustine, Florida. But when war broke out, Rawlings became terribly worried after her husband enlisted in the American Field Service and was assigned to the India/Burma theater of war. She wrote him voluminous letters, now partially collected in The Private Marjorie: The Love Letters of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings to Norton S. Baskin, edited by Rodger Tarr in 2004. She also wrote countless letters to American service people who were enchanted by her fictional portraits of rural Florida. She even took part in the war effort by devoting hours as a spotter along the Atlantic coast near her home in Crescent Beach, Florida.

In 1942, Rawlings met Zora Neale Hurston and struck up a warm friendship with the black author of Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). The two women would meet in St. Augustine and Cross Creek to talk about their lives as writers. As a sign of friendship, Hurston dedicated Seraph on the Suwanee to Rawlings (and Mary Spressard Holland). Eventually, Hurston joined Rawlings at Scribners and began working with Maxwell Perkins as her editor. Both Hurston and Rawlings during this period were moving away from their primary fictional worlds centered on Eatonville and Cross Creek. After the publication of Seraph on the Suwanee, Hurston turned to a study of Herod the Great. And, Rawlings struggled to write The Sojourner, which takes place in the southern Michigan landscape of her maternal grandfather’s home.

The composition of the Sojourner “plagues” Rawlings for nearly a decade, according to Rodger Tarr. Her worry about the “invasion of privacy” trial and her husband’s service in the war complicated progress on the novel. But, Rawlings’s biggest blow occurred in 1947, when her beloved editor Maxwell Perkins suddenly died. His loss was an “unspeakable grief” to Rawlings and severely affected her confidence in her writing. By this time in 1947, Rawlings had bought a farmhouse in Van Hornesville, New York, near the home of her friends, Owen D. and Louise Young. In Van Hornesville and in Florida, she bravely continued to work on The Sojourner, finally publishing the novel in 1953. She was just beginning to turn to her next major work, a biographical study of Ellen Glasgow, when she suffered a ruptured aneurysm on 13 December 1953. She died the next day at Flagler Hospital in St. Augustine and was buried in Antioch Cemetery, near Island Grove, Florida.

– Dr. Anna Lillios, from Crossing the Creek: The Literary Friendship of Zora Neale Hurston
and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
(Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010).

Works Cited

“Marjorie Rawlings.” In The Uncollected Writings of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Ed. Rodger L. Tarr and Brent E. Kinser. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2007.

Max and Marjorie: The Correspondence between Maxwell E. Perkins and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1999.

“Yesterday’s Woman: An Exclusive Interview by Lollie Popp Twitters. Ed. Rodger Tarr. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Journal of Florida Literature 14 (2005-06): 45-51.