As I read “The Life She Wished to Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings,” by Laramie’s Ann McCutchan, I kept thinking about Wyoming. Odd, since Rawlings’ most famous books are set in The Big Scrub of north-central Florida — a land of swamps and sandy pine forests, fresh springs and lakes plied by snakes and alligators. Nothing like it in Wyoming, at least not in the last 100 million years.
McCutchan has lived in both states. She grew up on Florida’s Atlantic coast and graduated from Florida State University with a music performance degree. She unleashed her writing skills after a career as a trained clarinetist, lyricist, librettist and teacher. As she notes in her web site bio:
“Performing was the heart of my life. Yet a surprising turn of events took me to a music critic post, and writing, my backup obsession, kicked in. There quickly followed years of freelance journalism, magazine work, editing and book writing. The change came at a good time: a genetic condition in my hands had forced me to set the clarinet aside.”
Music’s loss was writing’s (and Wyoming’s) gain. McCutchan landed at University of Wyoming in 2001-2005, where she helped launch UW’s Creative Writing master’s degree program and served as its first director. In 2014, with the support of the Bartlett Foundation, she left her job at University of North Texas to devote her time to the Rawlings’ biography. She wrote portions during stints at Wyoming’s Jentel Artist Residency Program and the Ucross Foundation. She moved back to Laramie in 2020.
When Rawlings settled in Florida in 1928, it was still filled with wild places as Wyoming is now. A young couple from Wisconsin, writers Marjorie and her husband Charles Rawlings, saw a tiny house in the woods in Cross Creek with its own orange grove that looked like a fine place to write. Not many nosy neighbors to interrupt the solitude. A big change from the crowded northern cities where the couple had plied their trades as 20-somethings.
They bought the house and land. Marjorie reveled in it. Charles did not. Separation followed, and then divorce. As McCutchan describes in detail, Marjorie dove into the landscape and its people and created Florida classics in “The Yearling,” “Cross Creek,” and “South Moon Under.” She explored the Scrub, fished and hunted with her “cracker” neighbors. She revived her orchard and learned how to cook as a native. She celebrated recipes for Florida cooter (soft-shell turtle) soup, Aunt Effie’s custard johnny cake and mother’s jellied chicken in “Cross Creek Cookery.”
Still, while most of her portrayals of the customs and manners of the Scrub were celebratory, she was sued for invasion of privacy by a neighbor whom she profiled in “Cross Creek.” She was shunned by some neighbors who resented this Yankee coming into their country and getting rich and famous with portrayals of the locals. Health problems exacerbated by drinking forced her to spend more time away and she finally moved to an estate in rural New York. She was back in Florida with her second husband when she suffered two strokes in December 1953 and died too early. She’s buried in the small-town cemetery of Island Grove, Florida. Nearby lie the graves of some of the locals Rawlings profiled in her memoir and fictionalized in her novels. The author’s Cross Creek homestead is now a state park and national historic site.
Who gets to tell the stories of a place? Outsiders can, but they can face problems when locals turn against them. Wyoming, of course, is noted for the protective nature of its brand. Some writers have learned this the hard way.
Florida has its own brand. Rawlings’ first published book, “South Moon Under,” dwelled on characters she met and grew to like, the crackers of rural Florida. It received favorable reviews but there was some pushback in the Florida press. The author was aware of this and it concerned her enough to write to her esteemed editor, Maxwell Perkins: “The critics were more generous than expected but they sadden me. I feel quite cheap, quite the Judas, at having apparently delivered the Cracker into the hands of the Philistines.”
The many letters between Rawlings and scores of famous and not-so-famous correspondents are wonderful aspects of the book. They included Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Margaret Mitchell and Zora Neale Hurston.
The chapters chronicling Rawlings’ relationship with Hurston are particularly good. Hurston, born in Alabama and raised in the all-Black Florida community of Eatonville, advised Rawlings on race relations in the American South.
McCutchan quotes Hurston biographer Carla Kaplan: “Zora staked out a conservative position on race that grew from her fierce pride in black institutions and her suspicion of any mask unless it were her own.”
Rawlings’ views on race were not unusual for the times. She thought of herself as a sophisticated woman of the North, vastly superior to the white racists of the South. The always forthright James Baldwin called out the liberals of the era for “the lie of their pretended humanism.”
Rawlings wrote in the America of the 1930s and 1940s when politics were as raw as they are today. She may have recognized some of her own attitudes in the assertive Hurston. She also was challenged by some of the social practices of pre-Civil-Rights-Act America. While the Florida that McCutchan grew up in was famous for the space program and beach resorts, the Florida of Rawlings’ era “was an entrenched pocket of the Deep South; Jim Crow laws ruled. Lynchings still occurred, especially in the area between the Georgia-Florida line and north-central Florida, once home to plantations.”
She invited Hurston to tea at her husband Norton Baskin’s St. Augustine Hotel. She realized her mistake almost too late and alerted Norton. He enlisted his staff to be on the lookout for Hurston lest she violate the whites-only hotel. They scouted for her at the hotel entrance to no avail. Rawlings was about to give up on her when she found that Hurston, knowing the rules, came in the hotel’s back door and found her own way to Marjorie’s apartment.
As in most things, McCutchan does a wonderful job of tracing the author’s successes and failures. The book is a well-rounded portrait of a complicated character. We also get some terrific insights into the creative process, which should interest budding writers. The author welcomed curious guests but also zealously guarded her creative time. Tourists, even friends, found her cantankerous when her writing day was interrupted.
Writers don’t know what their legacy may be. Rawlings might be shocked to learn that “The Yearling,” a novel she wrote for adults, is now considered a children’s book. It is even referred to on the Children’s Literature Classics web site as “the only children’s novel to have won the distinguished Pulitzer Prize.”
Writes McCutchan: “The Yearling suffered for misidentification as a children’s book. The 1946 movie advanced that impression, carrying The Yearling into the grade-school story hour during the 1950s and 1960s.” She adds that, over time, adult readers have returned to the book, seeing in it more than a heart-warming tale of a boy and his pet deer.
Research is the key to a successful biography and favorable reviews in the New York Times, Orlando Sentinel and Wall Street Journal all noted the extensive research McCutchan conducted over the course of seven years.
She now can add this fine biography to her five previous books, most of them focused on music.