- Reviewed by
1989 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings for her novel, The Yearling. Celebrations commemorating that award, the founding of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society at the University of Florida, and periodic showings of the movies based on her novel (The Yearling), her nonfiction book (Cross Creek), and her short story ("Gal Youngun") have revived interest in a writer whose popularity has fluctuated widely. The two books reviewed here sustain that interest and present two pictures of one of Florida's most famous writers.
The Silverthorne book is the first full-length Rawlings biography, and it fleshes out what Gordon Bigelow touched on in his 1966 work, Frontier Eden: The Literary Career of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and expands Samuel Bellman's biography, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1974). Silverthorne's book is the story of a transplanted Northerner who tried unsuccessfully to grow oranges in northern Florida and to write gothic romances set in distant England. When Rawlings finally gave up on the oranges and began writing about her Cracker neighbors, she found a source of material that enabled her to write four novels, one nonfiction book, numerous short stories, even a cookbook. Her great editor, Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's, recognized her intensity of feeling when she wrote about her neighbors and encouraged her to learn more about them and to write about them instead of medieval knights. The result was an endearing list of characters that thousands of readers have come to enjoy, [End Page 293] a list that includes Jody and Penny Baxter, Quincy Dover, and Lord Bill of the Suwannee.
The subtitle of Silverthorne's book, Sojourner at Cross Creek, alludes to Rawlings' intermittent stays in her Florida home and also to the title of one of her most unsuccessful books, The Sojourner, a non-Florida story about her grandparents. It was only when she lived in and wrote about her adopted Florida that she found peace and contentment. This is a well-written book that presents the basic facts in the life of a significant twentieth-century writer.
The Acton book takes one event in Rawlings' life, the famous Cross Creek trial, and explains the before, during, and after. That trial was the turning point in Rawlings' later years, before which she innocendy believed that all her neighbors were as trusting as she and after which she never wrote much of significance. If she herself tried to minimize the effects of the trial, her lack of productivity and her general malaise tell us otherwise.
Feuding residents of Cross Creek used to have a custom of meeting on the bridge that spanned the link between lakes Orange and Lockloosa. As interested spectators gathered on both banks of the creek to watch, the disputants settled their disputes with fists or a handshake. Once they settled the dispute, it was forgotten.
When Rawlings moved to Florida in 1928 and became a member of the community there, she partook of their customs, whether pound parties or frog gigging or meeting on the bridge. If some of her neighbors were offended at something she wrote about them, Rawlings was able to meet with them and smooth things over. Except for one case.
When she wrote Cross Creek about her adopted community, she included the actual names and humorous incidents of some of her neighbors, including the census taker, Zelma Cason. Rawlings had accompanied Cason on horseback to take the local census and later described her in the book as "an ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary." When Cason reacted with an angry outburst, Rawlings apologized and tried, she thought successfully, to reestablish their friendship. Several months later, Cason filed a lawsuit against Rawlings for invasion of her "right to privacy."
What ensued was the famous 1946 trial in Gainesville that featured many witnesses from Cross Creek whom Rawlings had mentioned in the book. Testimony concerned not only whether Cason...