In 1928, on close to a whim, a fledgling New York writer named Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings used an inheritance to purchase—sight unseen—a seventy-two-acre farm and run-down orange grove in Cross Creek, in the central Florida backwoods. Floridians and middle-school readers may recall the rest of the story. Rawlings (1896–1953) fell head over heels for this humid, palmetto’ed landscape and a decade later was embroidering vivid depictions of its flora, fauna, and folkways into two magnificent books: Cross Creek (1942), a memoir, and The Yearling (1938), a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel that established Rawlings as a seminal figure in Florida literature, the Willa Cather of the Cracker scrubland, the queen of Floridiana.
In The Life She Wished to Live, the first major biography of Rawlings in more than a quarter century, Ann McCutchan tells the rest of the rest of the story: the friction with her snobbish mother that seeded Rawlings’s desire for a roughshod, outré existence; her fortuitous alliance with the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, whose stable of authors included Hemingway and Fitzgerald; the “weekend marriage” she enjoyed with her second husband, granting her the mental elbow room for her writing; and the lawsuit from an offended Cross Creek local, stung by Rawlings’s portrayal, that dragged on for five years and so soured Rawlings that she never wrote about Cross Creek again. Rawlings cleared her path through life as though armed with a machete; McCutchan, gracefully, records every chop.
The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings that emerges is ornery in the best sense, like a salty aunt who the adults all fear but the teenagers adore. She was as adept at hunting alligators in Alachua County swamps as she was at arguing philosophy with Thomas Wolfe in a New York dive bar. She drank, smoked, cussed, and drove the rural back roads so recklessly that her car wrecks almost constitute a running gag in the book. (Rawlings defended herself, not quite deftly, by claiming she drove “with deliberate slowness when I have had a good many drinks.”) Much like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Yearling is nowadays considered children’s literature, because of its twelve-year-old protagonist, but Rawlings didn’t write it as such, nor was the novel initially received that way. (Ellen Glasgow, the then doyenne of Southern lit, deemed it “genius.”) It’s got dark crannies. Its characters live on the knife edge of subsistence. The novel caught the mood of a nation in much the way John Lomax’s field recordings and Walker Evans’s photographs would. Depression-era readers embraced not its softness but its grit.
Rawlings’s political awakening began with a strain of frustrated feminism. “There are times when I resent—almost to madness—being a woman,” she wrote in a letter. “I want to be a solitary fighter, loving no one, with no one loving me.” Later, it expanded to include environmentalism and racial justice. The greatest impact on the latter was the friendship Rawlings sparked with Zora Neale Hurston in the 1940s. Hurston, the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, challenged Rawlings’s squishy views on race, helping her to “take the final step in my own liberation from prejudice,” as Rawlings later wrote. But Hurston also admired Rawlings’s work. About Cross Creek, Hurston wrote her, “You have written the best thing on Negroes of any white writer who has ever lived.” This smacks of affectionate hyperbole until one sizes up the competition and realizes how little existed. Another fan of the book, a young Coast Guard steward serving in the Pacific, wrote Rawlings to say what an inspiration it was. His name was Alex Haley: the author, decades later, of Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
What set Rawlings apart was, I think, a kind of hyperattentive empathy. She listened deeply and earnestly to the people of Cross Creek, Black and white. (So deeply, in fact, that the Dictionary of American Regional English includes almost two hundred usages culled from her work.) She sought precision and dignity in how she portrayed them. As importantly, she watched and listened to the landscape they inhabited, the whistle of pines in a storm and the rattle of fallen magnolia leaves on a roof, her antennae tuned to the subtle ways the land influenced its people and, in turn, how they affected the land. Because “the joining of person to place, as of person to person,” she wrote, “is a commitment to shared sorrow, even as to shared joy.”