Sunday, July 27, 2014

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Marjorie Kinnan was born in 1896 in Washington, D.C., and was a precocious writer, publishing short stories in newspapers in elementary school, and winning a literary prize for her story The Reincarnation of Miss Hetty at the age of 15.

She married Charles Rawlings in 1919, and the couple moved to Louisville, KY, where they both worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal. By 1928, they'd relocated to Cross Creek, Florida, where they lived on a 72 acre orange ranch. Mr. Rawlings did not take to Florida living, but Marjorie fell in love with the area and its "Florida Cracker" culture, which transformed her writing. But the crackers weren't so in love with Marjorie and didnt know what to make of this big-city girl who was suddenly writing about them. In 1930, Scribner's accepted two of her stories, "Cracker Chidlings" and "Jacob's Ladder," with characters based on her neighbors at Cross Creek. Locals became paranoid and uppity, in a textbook example of one of a writer's worst problems - the "Hey, is that character supposed to be ME?" syndrome. One mother reportedly recognized, or claimed to recognize, her son as the subject of a story and threatened to whip Rawlings until she was dead.

(Oh, those Florida crackers! They're a little funny in their ways, but you gotta get to know 'em. Oh, they may threaten to kill you, but that's just their way. Marjorie should have just thanked her lucky stars she wasn't yet living in the age of meth, "bath salts" and oxycontin.)

Marjorie's first novel, all about the lives of Florida Moonshiners, was called South Moon Under, published in 1933. To get the necessary realism for the story, she actually lived with a moonshiner in Ocala for several weeks. I wonder what hubby thought of that? Apparently not much, for in that same year he left her and moved back north.

Her three most popular books then followed: The Yearling, When the Whipporwill, and Cross Creek. In particular, The Yearling was her true claim to fame, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1939 and was subsequently made into a very successful Hollywood movie. Suddenly she found herself deluged with offers, deals, fan mail and friends, but chose to continue living the simple life in the swamplands.

But reality just wouldn't stand for Marjorie's reportage. In 1943, she faced a libel suit over Cross Creek by her friend Zelma Cason. Ironically, Cason had been the one who helped to smooth over the fracas with the woman wanting to kill her for writing about her son. Now Cason was the one who was furious over Marjorie's depiction of her:

"Zelma is an ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary. She manages her orange grove and as much of the village and county as needs management or will submit to it. I cannot decide whether she should have been a man or a mother. She combines the more violent characteristics of both and those who ask for or accept her ministrations think nothing at being cursed loudly at the very instant of being tenderly fed, clothed, nursed, or guided through their troubles."

Though Marjorie and Zelma eventually mended their friendship, she moved away and never wrote about Cross Creek again. She bought a beach cottage ten miles south of St. Augustine, and married Ocala hotelier Norton Baskin (who remodeled an old St. Aug mansion into the Castle Warden Hotel, which is now the Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum).

Marjorie was vociferously about rural and beach living, and harbored an intense hatred of cities. She wrote a sonnet titled, "Having Left Cities Behind Me", a portion of which states:

"Now, having left cities behind me, turned away forever from the strange, gregarious huddling of men by stones, I find those various great towns I knew fused into one, burned together in the fire of my despising..."

She died in 1953 in St. Augustine, and is buried in Antioch Cemetery near Island Grove, FL.

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