Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: “Alligators, Moonshine and the Pulitzer Prize”

From a Books of the Times piece by Dwight Garner headlined “Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a Novelist Who Went on a Quest for an Authentic life”:

“If you like the book, I shall drink a quart of Bacardi in celebration,” Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote to Maxwell Perkins before sending him her first novel, “South Moon Under,” in 1932. “If you don’t like it, I shall drink a quart of Bacardi.”

Perkins liked her novel. Already the most important editor of his time, he added Rawlings to an elite roster that included Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was her great mentor and friend across 17 years of correspondence and some 700 letters, notes and telegrams.

Under Perkins, Rawlings wrote her best two books: “The Yearling,” which won a Pulitzer Prize; and “Cross Creek,” an unclassifiable mix of memoir and observation about life on a remote citrus grove in interior rural Florida.

Ann McCutchan’s plain-spoken new biography of Rawlings, “The Life She Wished to Live,” carefully unpacks their relationship. McCutchan is a sensitive observer of Rawlings’s work, and of her deeply unconventional life in general….

Rawlings was grateful that Perkins took the long view in literary matters. Art mattered more than money; fame was OK, but only if noble and deserved. Rawlings had that kind of fame in the early 1940s, but her reputation has slipped.

In part, it’s because “The Yearling,” about a boy whose father orders him to kill his constant companion, a pet deer, after it eats too much of the family’s sorely needed corn, is misperceived as a dewy young adult novel. In reality, it’s as unsentimental as a blade of saw grass….

“The Yearling” is no longer (or rarely) taught because of some of its racial language. Rawlings used the N-word in her book, and in everyday life often referred to the Black workers on her citrus grove by the same term.

Hers is a complicated case. In rural Florida, she was considered quite liberal in her time. She actively fought discrimination, and struggled with her own prejudice. Her friend Zora Neale Hurston wrote to her about “Cross Creek”: “You have written the best thing on Negroes of any white writer who has ever lived.”

Rawlings was born in Washington, D.C., in 1896. Her father worked in a government patent office. He also loved the outdoors, and bought a dairy farm in nearby Maryland. Her mother was a frustrated social climber whom Rawlings disliked almost from birth.

Rawlings was precocious. She entered, and won, a lot of literary contests. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1918 and, with her first husband, moved to New York City to make a go of it as a freelance writer.

She did public relations work for the Y.W.C.A.’s War Work Council; she dabbled in tabloid journalism to survive. She wrote “Songs of a Housewife,” a recurring column in verse for a Gannett newspaper.

She was biding her time. She knew she had finer material inside of her, like shale resting under a cornfield, and was willing to wait to excavate it properly.

She first saw Florida while visiting with her husband. Together they bought, sight unseen, with money left from a small inheritance, a 72-acre orange grove and a run-down farmhouse. She wanted to write there full-time and live on the citrus profits.

It takes a certain eye to see the beauty of flat, swampy, sun-impacted rural Florida. Jack Kerouac didn’t have it. From nearby Orlando in the 1950s, he wrote to Joyce Johnson: “Nothing down here but scorpions, lizards, vast spiders, mosquitoes, vast cockroaches & thorns in the grass.” Rawlings had that eye.

She bloomed at Cross Creek. She threw herself into the difficult work of running the grove, and essentially taught herself to fish and hunt. People had never heard a woman swear so frequently.

She threw big dinners, serving game birds she’d shot herself or mallards she raised, achieving the best flavor, McCutchan writes, “by feeding them skim milk, clabber, grains and greens.”…

Rawlings drank too much, and sometimes drove while doing so. This book describes at least five serious car crashes….

Come to this biography for Rawlings’s outsize personality, her quest to lead a life that felt authentic to her. “There are times when I resent — almost to madness — being a woman,” she wrote in a letter. “I want to fare forth alone … I want to be a solitary fighter, loving no one, with no one loving me.”

Stay for the portrait of a woman whose writing meant everything to her. She wanted the unvarnished truth about it, and about everything else. She warned Perkins: “I will bring up a live rattlesnake and drop it on your desk if you are ever polite about my stuff and I catch you at it.”…

She labored over her sentences, writing and rewriting. “No one knows how many composite sentences I have broken up into shorter direct ones, like the convict of hard labor ‘making little ones out of big ones’ on the rock pile.”

She was not bullish on humanity. “Someday, I shall write a great feminist novel,” she wrote when young, “urging women to gird on their armor and kill all the men. That would give them a few years of peace before they (the women) died off. Then the monkeys could begin evolving again — perhaps with better results than they have obtained so far.”

The Life She Wished to Live
A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Author of The Yearling
By Ann McCutchan
Illustrated. 418 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $35.

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