A review of Ann McCutchan’s The Life She Wished to Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
By Hannah Joyner
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is perhaps best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 novel The Yearling, a coming-of-age story about a young boy growing up in central Florida and his relationship with an orphaned fawn. In it, as in most of her writing, Rawlings portrays the cultural traditions and speech patterns of the “Crackers,” a community of poor whites living in central Florida’s rural landscape of scrub, swampland and citrus groves.
In Anne McCutchan’s poignant and well-researched new biography The Life She Wished to Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the author points out that Rawlings was an unlikely choice to become a major voice in Southern literature. Raised in Washington D.C., educated in Wisconsin and then employed in New York, Rawlings did not move to Florida until she was an adult. When Rawlings and her first husband first visited the state in 1928, they were “captivated by rural Florida’s beauty,” McCutchan writes, where residents were “living frontier lives on what they found, grew, or created from their wild surroundings.” The couple decided to purchase a citrus grove and simple farmhouse in Cross Creek, a remote spot they hoped would provide them with a peaceful and inexpensive place to write. Rawlings immediately felt at home, and that sense of place fueled her writing. Her move to Florida led her, as her biographer says, to a “deepening desire to create serious literature” instead of the “hackwork for city newspapers” that had paid the bills in New York.
The rural culture of her white neighbors fascinated Rawlings. She saw something deep and universal in their community. “I realized that isolation had done something to these people,” she wrote. “Perhaps civilization had remained too remote, physically and spiritually, to take something from them, something vital.” All that was left in their lives, she believed, were “the elemental things.” The author was also intrigued by Cracker speech patterns, which sounded to her like “quaint Elizabethan English” and reminded her of the work of Chaucer. She transcribed
their phrases into her reporter’s notebook and began to create stories about the people and land she now called home.
Rawlings’ interest in setting her novels in a particular rural place was shared by many writers of her day. During the 1930s, “a significant number of American authors chronicled, in fiction and nonfiction, culturally isolated corners of the country that hadn’t been changed by modern life,” explains McCutchan. Many of them “were moved by America’s long-standing rural ideal, increasingly worshipped, feared for, or nostalgically mourned in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the First World War.”
Her portraits of central Florida’s white culture addressed many of the same concerns, but she resisted the idea that her book was part of the “local color” school. “I don’t hold any brief for regionalism, and I don’t hold with the regional novel as such,” said Rawlings. “Regional writing done because the author thinks it will be salable is a betrayal of the people of that region.” Just because characters came from cultures that were “as quaint as all get-out,” an author shouldn’t “make a novel about them unless they have a larger meaning.” That larger meaning needed to be “the particular thoughts or emotions that cry out for articulation,” full of universal importance. McCutchan shows that Rawlings’ characters shared an “interdependence with nature and each other,” which she was able to convey “with respect, sensitivity, and awe.” Rawlings called that interdependence “cosmic connection,” and it was what she most wanted to write about.
When her marriage ended in divorce soon after the book’s publication, Rawlings remained in Cross Creek. Perkins suggested she might write a book for young readers. She was inspired by his suggestion and began work on The Yearling. Soon it turned into a book that was “not a ‘juvenile,’” as McCutchan points out, “but an adult literary novel that would fully reveal life in the region, even though its protagonist would be a young boy.”
As her own novels began to achieve acclaim, Rawlings reached out to other regional and nationally-known writers. Among the many authors she got to know, Zora Neale Hurston may have been the one who most changed her perspective. McCutchan suggests that Rawlings, like other white Southerners of the era considered fairly liberal on race issues, nevertheless “adopted a paternalistic, benevolent white position toward … black employees.” The novelist also used racial slurs in both her letters to friends and in her novels, slurs which now seem not only outdated but jarringly cruel. But Rawlings’ budding friendship with Hurston “forced her to come to terms with the racism she had grown up with,” McCutchan argues.
Meeting Hurston in 1942, five years after the publication of her Their Eyes Were Watching God, caused Rawlings’ assumptions about race “to shift significantly,” McCutchan says. Hurston told Rawlings that she had “written the best thing on Negroes of any white writer who has ever lived.” While Rawlings must have been flattered by Hurston’s statement, the biographer explains that a “code of manners” required African Americans to hold back from critique of whites. Nevertheless, their meetings forced Rawlings to confront her longtime acceptance of the social practices of racial hierarchy.
Over time, her self-analysis went deeper. “I was amazed to find that my own prejudices were so deep,” acknowledged Rawlings. Despite her growing belief in the equality of African Americans, she nevertheless struggled against the “deep-seated prejudice, occasionally revealed in [her] own language and behavior.” Despite that fact that transforming herself was not an easy process, the novelist shared her new beliefs publicly and acted on them in both her personal life and her later writing. “I can only tell you that when long soul-searching and a combination of circumstances delivered me of my last prejudices, there was an exalted sense of liberation,” she said. “It was not the Negro who became free, but I.”
McCutchan’s The Life She Wished to Live is the first major contemporary biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and it is a significant contribution to literary studies. In addition, this thoughtful book situates the novelist’s thinking about race and other issues within the historical context, providing a masterful analysis that will allow contemporary readers to approach Rawlings’ novels with increased understanding. Despite Rawlings’ initial acceptance of the prejudices of her day, she was at her best, as McCutchan shows, when she was writing about the beauty of her local environment and the deep humanity of all of its people.
Hannah Joyner is an independent scholar and freelance critic who grew up in North and South Carolina and now lives outside Washington, D.C.. Her work includes Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson (with Susan Burch) and From Pity to Pride. She is also the creator of the literary YouTube channel Hannah’s Books.