Sunday, May 30, 2021

Excavating the Life of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

 From Lit Hub:

I first heard about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings from my fourth-grade teacher at McNab Elementary in Pompano Beach, Florida. It was early spring, and Mrs. Chapman, a Florida native, decided it was a good time to share Rawlings’s best-known novel, The Yearling, with twenty nine-year-olds. Every day after lunch, for weeks, she read aloud a few pages, inviting the class to listen for the author’s beautiful sentences and the backwoods Florida world they brought to life. All of us, northern transplants whose families had been lured to the state by the postwar boom, were entranced by the story, delivered during that delicious drowsiness following milk and sandwiches by an old-timer whose voice was as soft and suggestive as distant radio waves.

The Yearling was our first impression of Old Florida, the peoples’ speech and traditions, and Mrs. Chapman’s reading seemed a private thing, a gift from her to us. We didn’t know that the book, a coming-of-age story about a boy, his pet deer, and his parents, who farmed the north-central Florida scrub, had been the best-selling novel of 1938. Nor did we know the book had won the Pulitzer Prize and been translated into 29 languages, or that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had made a popular film of it, starring Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman—all before we were born. By the time Mrs. Chapman read it to us, The Yearling had come to be thought of as a children’s book, because it centered on a young boy. It was a staple of the elementary school story hour.

I loved The Yearling as one loves a fairy tale or a dream, and Mrs. Chapman’s reading became one of my fondest memories. Much later, I read the novel by myself, silently, admiring it as magnificent storytelling, as literature. The novel’s lyricism, its fine rendering of country life, its use of local dialect, its structure and emotional range revealed Rawlings the artist, and I wanted to know how she, born in 1896, had become one. For clues, I took up her 1942 memoir Cross Creek, also a best seller in its day, and reveled in stories of the tiny Florida settlement where she’d established her writing career in the 1930s.

Cross Creek was the place out of which she wrote, no doubt a magical spot, and finally, I traveled to the area, which had changed very little since she’d lived there. The hamlet was still a rural community on a stream between two lakes, Orange and Lochloosa, altered only by the soft conversion of Marjorie Rawlings’s farmhouse, outbuildings, and orange grove into a state park with a paved road and guided walking tours. It was easy to imagine writing here. Still, I wondered, who was the artist whose life and work had made a shrine of this outpost? Where, beyond her two best-known books and Floridians’ sentimental tributes to her memory, was evidence of the complex woman Rawlings must have been? (Read more.)


No comments: