What Lauren Groff of Florida wrote for Harper's about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and The Yearling
1. One night last April, I walked from my house in Gainesville, Florida, to the Matheson Museum, a shy brick building hidden by a thicket of palmettos and so small that the forty or so people seated inside seemed to make the walls bulge. I’d come for one of the first events in “The Year of The Yearling,” the seventy-fifth-anniversary celebration of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s 1938 novel.
2. And here’s what “The Year of The Yearling” will have given us by the time it wraps up in March: presentations on pets and pet care and the plants and seasons in the book, tastings of cracker foods, a number of walks and runs (such as the 5K Yearling Run and Scamper at M. K. Rawlings Elementary School), and various static exhibitions. There is little to entice people not already fond of the book, and even less serious discussion of its literary merits. It seems as if the organizers, though they planned with great goodwill, forgot to pitch the novel to anyone outside their circle.
3. The Yearling is slowly sinking into obscurity. The novel sold about 6,000 copies in all formats in 2012, which represents a typical week for The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Catcher in the Rye ...
4. The Yearling is a magnificent, transparent, slow-moving river. Its style is direct and free of fireworks, its subjects planted at the beginnings of the sentences, solid as potatoes.
5. It seems odd that a novel so sensitive to Florida’s natural environment was written by a carpetbagging Yankee, at least until you remember that most people who live in Florida were not born there.
6. In March 1928, Marjorie and her first husband, Charles, visited Florida for the first time. She was gobsmacked by the beauty of the state ...
7. These past few months, I haven’t been able to stop wondering what happened to Marjorie and The Yearling. How does a classic run out of steam? The first person I asked that question was my father-in-law, Clayton, who was born in Gainesville. He was once a boy like Jody, growing up in an alien Florida without air-conditioning or theme parks ...
8. Clayton and I have a rocky relationship, partially because I blame him indirectly for giving my husband the family business and thereby making me live in Florida, partially because he doesn’t relish my personality. He is also now mostly deaf, and my voice is pitched where it is hardest for him to hear. He answered my question by leaning forward and talking earnestly about how nobody in Florida reads books, and when he was growing up nobody read The Yearling, it just wasn’t important to the culture. He, who as a kid read a book and a half a week, never read it until he was an adult. It’s not surprising that a book about Florida won’t be read by people who don’t read books, and the book is so profoundly about Florida that if people in Florida don’t read it, who else is going to?
9. People in Florida do read, but I think he touched on something important: there is an internalized scorn of Florida shared by natives like Clayton and people from other states. Why read about Florida? What is Florida? As my neighbor, Jack Davis — a history professor at the University of Florida — puts it, Florida is a “fantasy state and schizophrenic, not knowing whether it’s Northern or Southern so it’s nothing . . . It just doesn’t fit in the national narrative, not as any kind of indelible regional state, so it can’t sustain a book written in a Southern setting. People visit Florida or they relocate to Florida, but it is never home; Ohio or Illinois remains home.”
10. Florida is the state where grown women impersonate mermaids for a living, where a family of egomaniacs is trying to build the nation’s largest private home (they’re calling it Versailles). Florida is where an armed adult can stand his ground before an unarmed teenager. Because nobody can understand what is happening in this state, Florida has become the butt of a million jokes. Even its shape is suspect: Florida, the dong of America.
11. Because she concentrated her work in Florida, Marjorie is seen as a regionalist. In this country, literary tastemaking begins in New York City, and regionalists can appear diminished by sticking to one place that is perceived to be less important. Marjorie is unlucky in that her finest work is Florida-based. Florence Turcotte, the archivist in charge of the Rawlings papers at the University of Florida, told me she believes that Marjorie would have broken out of her regionalist reputation had she lived longer. I’m not convinced: Marjorie’s attempts at depicting other places weren’t that good. Something about Florida sparked her alive.
12. I talked to Carolyn Harrell, a teacher at P. K. Yonge Development Research School, in Gainesville. She has been teaching for forty-eight years, which I found impossible because she looks barely sixty, with soft white hair and an unlined face. The kids who get Harrell are lucky: she speaks with such tremendous energy that she’d make chalk seem thrilling. Harrell is a Gainesville native and, like my father-in-law, didn’t read The Yearling until she was an adult. She teaches it in phases over sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, supplementing readings with a visit to Marjorie’s house, a hike through Ocala National Forest, and a feast based on Cross Creek Cookery. In all her years of teaching in Gainesville, so close to the place and history described in the book, she has never come across another teacher who has taught The Yearling.
13. She told me too that her students often have difficulty with the book. It is long, which is off-putting. There’s so much description. The plot is slow. Children are reading less, and the statewide curriculum is going in the direction of short and dry pieces. Without Harrell there to push them, most of her students wouldn’t read it. When her students do read on their own, they read fantasy, books about vampires and werewolves and other supernatural creatures. The average child who picked up The Yearling when it was released, during the Great Depression, would have heard the book speaking directly to him, in his world not unlike Jody’s, with hunger and poverty all around.
14. Finally, The Yearling reflects a world we’re losing, and does so in an orgy of carnage. Among the things killed and (mostly) eaten in the book are alligators, rabbits, deer, raccoons, squirrels, gopher tortoises (threatened), bass, bream, turkeys, foxes, possums, rattlesnakes, black bears (threatened), lynxes (endangered), panthers (endangered), curlews (endangered), and the last great wolf pack east of the Mississippi (critically endangered). Marjorie wrote of one of the final American frontiers, where nature hadn’t yet been swallowed by civilization, but she came at it with sympathy for the killers, the people who slaughter the beasts in order to survive, and these days that feels wrong-sided.
15. Steven Noll, another UF historian, told me that the history of Florida is a battle against water up until 1970, with dredging and drying up the Everglades and handling mosquitoes and humidity; since then, the battle has been to keep the water we have. By 1990, Florida had wiped out 46 percent of its wetlands, and the flora and fauna of the state suffered catastrophically. The aquifer is diminishing at an alarming rate, though the politicians in Tallahassee don’t seem to be noticing. The more we pump, the more brittle the limestone layer between the aquifer and the surface becomes, leading to more sinkholes. The more we deplete the freshwater aquifer, the more the salt water of the ocean will intrude, hastened by rising sea levels. Once polluted by salt water, freshwater deposits are gone forever. The state of Florida will no longer be able to support its agriculture, its tourism economy, or its population of 19.3 million.
16. “So The Yearling is, to you, a picture of a lost Florida,” I said.
“A lost Florida,” Clayton said. And this dry former statistician, whom I’d never seen show much emotion at weddings or births of grandchildren, put a hand to his mouth and cried.
17. During my first difficult years of being a settler in Florida, I turned to The Yearling in hopes that it would teach me how to love this messy state.
18. ... Marjorie found a way to let Florida bloom into something magnificent inside of her. I am still struggling to do so.
19. It is hard to be a person in love with The Yearling and the stunning landscape it evokes and not mourn their simultaneous passing. It feels inevitable that The Yearling will continue to lose its audience, that the state will continue to lose its native wildlife, that other species will continue to invade. The last time I went out to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s house in Cross Creek, Orange Lake was almost entirely dried up, and the little water I saw was covered in hyacinths. On the way there, we passed a smashed armadillo on the side of the road and our hood was stippled in lovebugs, swarms of insects that fly around twice a year coupled at the genitals. An introduced insect called the Asian citrus psyllid, which causes citrus greening (also called huanglongbing), is rapidly killing off the state’s crops. Armadillos and lovebugs are both invasive species that Marjorie would have been bewildered to see.
20. ... with the predators of Florida pretty much wiped out, the deer population is almost unmanageably large. Perhaps after Florida’s aquifer is salinated and the state is rendered mostly unlivable, those who choose to remain will be the kind of gun-loving, off-grid survivalists to whom The Yearling’s own gun-loving, off-grid survivalists will speak loudly and beautifully.