Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

 
 

In October 1952, Florida’s Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings travelled to Ireland.  As a keepsake of her Irish heritage, she took stones from Ireland’s sacred Hill of Tara back with her to her home in Florida.  Only one year later, she died suddenly at age 57, of a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving behind an iconic literary legacy.

 

Marjorie Kinnan was born on August 8, 1896 at Washington, DC, to Arthur Frank Kinnan (an examiner in the US Patent Office) and Ida May (Traphagen) Kinnan.  Her parents called her “Peaches”.   She became interested in writing as early as age six, and regularly submitted stories to the children’s sections of local newspapers:  at age 11, she won a Washington Post writing contest, and at age 15, her short story titled "The Reincarnation of Miss Hetty," also won a prize.  She attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she met her future husband Charles Rawlings, while working for the school literary magazine.  After graduation from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in English in 1918, Kinnan briefly worked for the YWCA editorial board in New York, and married Charles Rawlings in 1919.  The couple then moved to Louisville, Kentucky, both writing for the Louisville Courier-Journal,  and then moved on to Rochester, New York, both writing for the Rochester Journal.   Marjorie wrote a syndicated column called "Songs of the Housewife."

 

In 1928, with a small inheritance from her mother, the Rawlings purchased an orange grove and farm in the north Florida hamlet of Cross Creek and settled there.  Marjorie was fascinated with its remote wilderness and with the lives of her "Cracker" neighbors. She developed a profound and transforming connection to the area and its people.   Wary at first, the local residents eventually warmed to Mrs. Rawlings, and opened up their lives and experiences to her.  Rawlings filled notebooks with descriptions of the area’s people, animals, plants, Southern dialect, and recipes, and then used these descriptions in her writing.  In 1928, Scribner’s Magazine published two of her short stories, "Cracker Chidlings" and "Jacob’s Ladder,"  about poor, backcountry Florida people, quite similar to her neighbors at Cross Creek.  Local response to her stories ranged from puzzlement, about whom she was writing, to anger and outrage.   One neighbor supposedly recognized her son as the subject of one of Marjorie’s stories and threatened to whip Rawlings to death.

 
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home at Cross Creek, Florida
 

Rawlings’ first novel, “South Moon Under”, was published in 1933. The book captured the richness of Cross Creek and its environs with the story of a young man, Lant, who must support himself and his mother by making and selling moonshine, and what happens when a traitorous cousin threatens to turn him in. Moonshiners were the subject of several of her stories, and Rawlings even lived with a moonshiner for several weeks near Ocala as research for her writing.  "South Moon Under" was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. That same year, she and her husband divorced.  Living in rural Florida did not appeal to the urbane Charles Rawlings, but Marjorie was devoted to her farm at Cross Creek, and refused to leave.  Her hatred of cities was intense.  An excerpt from her sonnet titled, "Having Left Cities Behind Me", published by Scribner’s in 1938, expresses her intense feelings:

 

"Now, having left cities behind me, turned

Away forever from the strange, gregarious

Huddling of men by stones, I find those various

Great towns I knew fused into one, burned

Together in the fire of my despising…"

 

Immense success and fame came to Rawlings in 1938, with the publication of her novel “The Yearling”, a story about a Florida boy and his pet deer, which he is forced to shoot when the deer eats his family’s crops, and the resulting break with his father.  “The Yearling” was selected for the Book-of-the-Month Club, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939.  [MGM later purchased the film rights, and released a film version of “The Yearling” in 1946.]  With money she made from “The Yearling”, Rawlings bought a beach cottage at Crescent Beach, ten miles south of St. Augustine, Florida.

 

In 1941, Rawlings married long-time friend and Ocala hotelier Norton Baskin.  Baskin remodeled an old mansion in St. Augustine into the Castle Warden Hotel (later became the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum). Rawlings and Baskin made their primary home at Crescent Beach.  They both continued their respective occupations, independently.  When one visitor to the Castle Warden Hotel suggested that she saw the influence of Rawlings in its decor, Baskin protested by saying, "You do not see Mrs. Rawlings’ fine hand in this place, nor will you see my big foot in her next book.  That’s our agreement…She writes…I run a hotel.”

 

In 1942, Rawlings published “Cross Creek”, an autobiographical account of her relationships with her neighbors and of life among her beloved Florida hammocks.  It was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club, and was even released in a special armed forces edition and sent to servicemen during World War II.  She followed with “Cross Creek Cooker”, a compilation of local recipes.  Her admitted singular vanity was cooking, saying, "I get as much satisfaction from preparing a perfect dinner for a few good friends as from turning out a perfect paragraph in my writing."

 

In 1950, Marjorie Rawlings gave her manuscripts and correspondence to the University of Florida.  This gift became the foundation for a still-growing collection of Florida writers housed by the University’s Smathers Library.  Over the years, the Rawlings collection has grown with the addition of more manuscripts, books, letters, photographs and other related materials. 

 

Her editor and friend was the legendary Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s.  Over the years, she also built friendships with fellow writers Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, and Margaret Mitchell.  She was criticized throughout her career for being an uneven talent, something she recognized in herself, and something which reflected long periods of deep depression and artistic frustration.  She has been described as having unique sensibilities.  She wrote of feeling "vibrations" from the land, and often preferred long periods of solitude at Cross Creek.  She was known for being remarkably strong-willed, but her husband, Norton Baskin later wrote of her, "Marjorie was the shyest person I have ever known. This was always strange to me, as she could stand up to anybody in any department of endeavor, but time-after-time, when she was asked to go some place or to do something, she would accept only if I would go with her.” 

 

Rawlings’ final novel, “The Sojourner”, published in 1953, was set in Michigan, and was about the life of a man and his relationships with his family, with a difficult mother who favors her other, first-born son, and with this absent older brother.  In addition to 7 full-length books, Rawlings also published 33 short stories between 1912 and 1953.  

 

When Rawlings died on December 14, 1953, she had bequeathed most of her property to the University of Florida at Gainesville, where she had taught creative writing in Anderson Hall.   In gratitude, a new dormitory was dedicated in 1958 as Rawlings Hall, which occupies prime real estate at the heart of the campus.  Her land at Cross Creek is now the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park:

 

A virtual tour of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park

 

Rawlings is buried beside her husband Norton Baskin at Antioch Cemetery near Island Grove, Florida. Rawlings’ tombstone reads "Through her writing she endeared herself to the people of the world."

 

Rawlings’ reputation has managed to outlive those of many of her contemporaries.  A posthumously-published children’s book, "The Secret River", won a Newbery Honor in 1956.  In 2008, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp bearing Rawlings’ image above in her honor.

 

A video tribute to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings by Alachua County:

 

           

 

Books by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings:

 

South Moon Under, 1933

Golden Apples, 1935

The Yearling, 1938

When the Whippoorwill, 1940

Cross Creek, 1942

Cross Creek Cookery, 1942

The Sojourner, 1953

The Secret River, 1955

The Marjorie Rawlings Reader, Edited by Julia Scribner Bigham 1956

Short Stories by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, edited by Roger Tarr, 1994

Poems by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: Songs of a Housewife, edited by Roger Tarr, 1996

Blood of My Blood, edited by Anne Blythe Meriwether, 2002

 

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