“The Life She Wished to Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings” By: Ann McCutchan
“The Life She Wished to Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings”
Author: Ann McCutchan
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Co.
Price: $35.00 (Hardback)
New Biography of “The Yearling” Author Provides Insights into Life, Work
At the time of her death from a stroke on December 14, 1953 at 57 years old, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was one of America’s most famous and celebrated writers and the author of 8 books. She published several novels, a cookbook and a memoir but two of her books, best-sellers, seem to be classics.
Both are set in Florida—"The Yearling” (1938) and her memoir, “Cross Creek” (1942)—but Marjorie herself did not start out as a Floridian or even a Southerner.
She was born in 1896 and raised in a suburb of Washington D. C. the daughter of a schoolteacher turned government worker, sometimes in the Patent Office.
Her parents, children of the Midwest, had some land, grew vegetables, and kept cows. Arthur, her father, whom she adored, loved this. Ida, her mother, whom she did not adore, did not. Ida was a social climber and in Marjorie’s childhood, something of a stage mother, not in singing or dancing but in writing. Marjorie had success as a child, entering and winning contests. Ida encouraged, McCutchan tells us, Marjorie’s tendencies towards the “romantic, sentimental, and unoriginal.”
After college at the University of Wisconsin where she wrote and acted in dramatics, and marriage to Charles Rawlings, Marjorie lived in New York City, Rochester and Louisville, writing for newspapers and publishing freelance articles all the while, but did not feel she was developing as a writer.
In 1927 they visited Florida and when Marjorie’s mother died in 1928, with her inheritance she bought “sight unseen a farm and orange grove in the tiny hamlet of Cross Creek,” 85 miles southwest of Jacksonville, in Alachua County.
The house was tumble-down with no bathroom. Innocent, she thought the grove somehow managed itself and she could dedicate herself to writing, developing her craft. Of course, there was a load of work, managing the help, keeping the trees healthy.
She dug in and fell in love with the beauty of the place. The NY critic Lewis Gannett explained it this way: “They say the staunchest Southerners are Northern-born. They love the South as Southerners do, but they see it with the freshness of unaccustomed eyes.”
The marriage failed, partly due to Marjorie’s great success. She stayed on alone and became embedded in the life of the place—water moccasins, alligators, hurricanes, winter freezes, and all. And she wrote.
After selling a story to Scribner’s magazine, she joined the most celebrated club of writers in America: Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe—those edited by Maxwell Perkins. She and Perkins grew close. They exchanged hundreds of letters and his editorial advice was pure gold. Marjorie also became friends with Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Ellen Glasgow and many others.
Over time Marjorie, like many of her peers, also developed a serious drinking problem. Sometimes quarrelsome, often depressed, she had a number of automobile accidents while driving recklessly and/or drunk.
Marjorie published the novel “South Moon Under” in 1933 and “The Yearling,” based on a true story she had been told, in 1938. It was a sensation, winning the Pulitzer Prize. The story is plain enough: Jody’s pet deer is eating the family’s corn and must be put down but readers’ emotions were and still are touched. The movie, starring Gregory Peck, nominated for 7 Oscars, propelled sales even further. Rawlings had also become one of America’s best-paid authors.
She exchanged movie production stories with her friend Margaret Mitchell.
Although she thought of herself as a liberal, Rawlings was not free of some inherent racism. McCutchan does a good job of explaining how her friendship with the wise and generous Zora Neale Hurston helped her. Hurston, always patient, confident, dignified, was willing to talk about the subject and help Rawlings see her way forward.
Rawlings’ physical health was an ongoing concern. Among other problems Marjorie suffered from painful diverticulitis. Surgery for this condition, in the thirties, carried a 40% mortality rate. No thank you. Marjorie dieted, suffered, got better, and relapsed again for the rest of her life.
Marjorie also had to endure a painful but important legal battle. The memoir “Cross Creek” is about life in the “scrub” and there are portraits of her help and friends and neighbors. One of them sued for invasion of privacy and libel. The lawsuit looked frivolous but it took years to settle and cost Rawlings more than $60,000 in 2020 dollars. Memoirists would still be well-advised to take great care in depicting their friends and neighbors, especially by name.
Marjorie ‘s marriage to second husband Norton Baskin of Union Springs, Alabama proved successful.
Baskins was a loving and patient man whose work was in St Augustine. Being apart a great deal of the time seemed to be the answer.
The couple bought a cottage on the Atlantic coast south of St. Augustine and as WW II got under way, they could see American ships torpedoed by German U-Boats, exploding in flames, right off shore and had the realistic fear that German raiding parties might land on any beach any night.
Rawlings’ work is read less these days. It is uncertain whether “The Yearling” is a young adult book or not and there are editions in which the n-word has been expunged.
Death is not a career move for writers. Reputations fade fast. In any case, I think there is a fascination in reading of the complicated, productive, obsessive life of an author the world has mostly forgotten.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.