Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings had two long marriages and a number of romances, but her most enduring love affair was with a place, not a person.
That passion became the source for her best-known books, The Yearling and Cross Creek, and shaped much of her life.
It’s also at the center of The Life She Wished to Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Author of The Yearling, by Ann McCutchan. With access to the vast collection of Rawlings’ letters, manuscripts and more from her papers held by the University of Florida, McCutchan, who grew up in Florida and is the founding director of the University of Wyoming’s MFA in creative writing program, has crafted an engaging, lively biography of an accomplished and complicated woman.
Rawlings is so much identified with Florida that many readers assume she was a native, but in fact she didn’t live in the state until she was 32. Marjorie Kinnan was born in 1896 in Washington, D.C. Her parents, Arthur Kinnan and Ida Traphagen Kinnan, were from Midwestern farming families and moved to Washington a few years after their marriage. Arthur Kinnan worked in the U.S. Patent Office but also owned a small farm outside the city; he passed along to Marjorie a deep love of nature.
Ida was an ambitious social climber who tried to mold her independent-minded daughter into a socialite, with little success. Their relationship would always be fractious. But Marjorie demonstrated an early talent for writing; her first national publication was a short story in McCall’s magazine when she was 16.
At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Marjorie studied literature, wrote short humor pieces and made a splash acting in and writing plays. She also met Charles Rawlings, known as Chuck, a dapper, gregarious, slightly older student who was, like her, an aspiring writer.
After Marjorie graduated and Chuck served in the Army during World War I, they married in 1919. They spent a peripatetic decade hopping from job to job in New York and other cities. In 1928 they traveled to Florida to visit Chuck’s brothers and were smitten, McCutchan writes, “by Florida’s rural beauty, its rustic farms, and its earthy inhabitants living frontier lives on what they found, grew, or created from their wild surroundings.”
With a small inheritance from Marjorie’s mother, they bought, sight unseen, a small, dilapidated farm and orange grove in the tiny town of Cross Creek, in a then-remote area about 20 miles southeast of Gainesville.
Like many wild loves, Marjorie’s devotion to her Cross Creek farm was unpredictable and illogical. For the nearly 20 years that it was her main residence, it cost her money and stressed her out. But it was also an oasis and an inspiration. She traveled often, from a beach cottage she bought near St. Augustine to big cities like New York and Atlanta, but Cross Creek was her beacon.
She was especially drawn to the Cracker community she lived among, descendants of the white settlers of Florida, many of them profoundly poor, who lived in the remote scrub. She admired their independence and, an avid hunter and angler herself, their skill at taking what they needed from nature without bulldozing it.
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One of them, Cal Long, told her a story about his boyhood pet that blossomed into a book. She spent months living with a Cracker family to gather details about their way of life; she was determined to portray them with dignity. The eventual book, The Yearling, published in 1938, won the Pulitzer Prize and became a bestseller, and later a hit movie. (She would surely be exasperated, though, at its longtime berth on middle school reading lists; she actively resisted attempts to classify it as a “juvenile.”)
Marjorie’s success, even before The Yearling, was a contributing factor to the failure of her first marriage. Chuck Rawlings wanted his wife to be a writer, but not a more famous one than he was.
Marjorie had forged another relationship, though, that would last 17 years and have an indelible impact on her writing: Maxwell Perkins became her editor at Scribner’s.
Perkins was the preeminent literary editor of the 20th century; his authors included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Known for his empathy, his supportive and delicate touch and his ability to see the arc of a writer’s career beyond the book at hand, he was as important to Rawlings’ writing as Cross Creek was.
McCutchan quotes generously from their correspondence, offering intimate insight into the writer’s process. She also quotes many letters between Rawlings and her second husband, Norton Baskin, whose devotion to and patience with a woman who admitted she loved him but was not a very good wife might just qualify him for sainthood.
In 1942, a few months after the publication of her bestselling nonfiction book Cross Creek, Rawlings met another person who would have a major impact on her: Zora Neale Hurston. The novelist, anthropologist, journalist and raconteur was a fellow Florida writer, but from a very different world.
At Cross Creek, Rawlings lived among and depended upon Black workers; her letters often recounted the lives of her housekeepers, cooks and grove workers. She was fond of them but didn’t question the racism she had been raised with. Friendship with the highly accomplished and fiercely independent Hurston altered her perspective entirely.
Rawlings became an ardent supporter of the growing civil rights movement, speaking and writing against segregation. But by then her energies were scattered. After Cross Creek was published, her friend Zelma Cason shocked her by filing a lawsuit claiming that Rawlings’ description of her in the book as “an ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary” had damaged her and demanding $100,000. The lawsuit dragged through Florida courts for 5½ exhausting years before Zelma won — and was awarded $1 and court costs.
Rawlings also struggled with health problems that included repeated bouts of malaria and diverticulitis, which required multiple surgeries. Her letters refer often to depression; she had always relished alcohol, but her drinking grew out of control, leading to several car accidents and other health problems.
In 1948, not long after Perkins’ unexpected death, Rawlings bought a house in Van Hornesville, New York. She would still spend some time in Florida, but the lawsuit and other losses took the shine off the longtime love. Her last novel, The Sojourner (not a Florida book), had only mixed success, and her health problems intensified. In 1953, during a visit with Baskin to St. Augustine, she died of a stroke. She was 57.
The Life She Wished to Live is not a critical biography — McCutchan does not delve into literary criticism of Rawlings’ works but rather gives us the contexts in which they were written and the real people and places that the author brought so beautifully to life.
Rawlings’ voluminous correspondence is put to effective use throughout the book. (One wonders what biographers will rely on a decade or two hence, unless famous people save all their emails.) Rawlings’ letters range from raucous humor to thoughtful dissection of her works in progress to abject expressions of self-doubt.
All of it adds up to a rich portrait of a woman who loved Florida, and of a Florida that’s now all but vanished.
The Life She Wished to Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Author of The Yearling
By Ann McCutchan
W.W. Norton, 448 pages, $35