Reading Marjorie

It’s the anniversary of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ birthday, born on August 8, 1896, in Washington D.C. I’ve written about Rawlings in a previous post, linked here. She has been one of my favorite authors since I read The Yearling in high school. In December 2019, I visited Rawlings’ home in Cross Creek, Florida, for a delightful Open House hosted by the Friends of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Farm. During the lantern-lit tour of the old farmhouse, we were ushered into a room that held all of her works on display behind glass, including versions of her books translated into other languages. Seeing all of her books housed together gave me the idea that I’d like to read my way through Marjorie, start to finish. I set out in January of this year with a printout of her works in chronological order, and my stack of Rawlings’ books that I have accumulated over many years. 

Rawlings’ first published writings were short stories, spanning the years between 1931 and 1949. Her novels fall within those years, so I read her earliest short stories first, then moved to her first novel, South Moon Under, published in 1933. In her short stories, Rawlings practiced character sketches and scenes from what she saw in this remote corner of Florida, an area referred to as “the Big Scrub.” She was developing an ear for the patterns of speech, watching interactions of moonshiners and subsistence farmers, familiarizing herself with a land of hidden swamp and overgrown hammock,  then incorporating these elements into her later, better known novels.

Piety Fiddia and her son Leonard, residents of the Big Scrub in Florida, the inspiration for the characters Piety and Lant in the novel “South Moon Under.”

South Moon Under was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and in it, Rawlings captures the lifelong struggles of Florida Crackers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The book’s title refers to one of the moon’s stages, what they believed to be a critical influence upon hunting and crops, the basis for survival or death. 

A neighbor of Piety’s has taken her son Lant under his wing, passing along his knowledge of survival in the scrub:

They had become cronies, as close as the distance between them allowed. They visited back and forth several times a year. Paine had passed on to the boy his lore of scrub and hammock… “Why, the boy’s right,” he said. “He knows the deer feeds on the moon, like most ary wild creeter. Four times the deer feeds. Stirs or feeds. Moon-rise and moon-down, and south-moon-over and south-moon-under. Come moon-rise, say, the deer’s done been sleepin’, ain’t they? They comes out about a hour ‘fore the moon. They feeds a while and frolics a while.”

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, South Moon Under, (New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1933), 100.

I finished South Moon Under, but before I could start the next story, the world as we knew it ground to a halt. It was the middle of March 2020. And I don’t think I’m alone when I confess that I just couldn’t. Couldn’t read. Couldn’t write. Prepare meals? Shower? Were those things really necessary every day? We all were paralyzed in overwhelming uncertainty about everything we knew up to that point. 

After a bit, I resumed reading, but I took a detour away from my Marjorie project. I had lost my enthusiasm for it. Instead, I followed a reading route that paralleled the mood of quarantine: May Sarton (A Journal of Solitude), then Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own). Next, my brother and I created a two-person book club on Faulkner, so I read As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and a partial read of Absalom! Absalom!. That was followed by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Harriet Beecher Stowe. It was more reading in four months than I’ve managed to do in a long time.

It’s August now, it’s Marjorie’s birthday, and I must get back to the Florida scrub.  The next book on the list is Golden Apples, not considered one of her strongest works. I read it many years ago, and I will admit that it didn’t make much of an impression on me. So we’ll see. Maybe I’ll post something about it here after I have finished it.

Here is one more quote from South Moon Under, just a sample of so many visually rich descriptions of her beloved Florida wilderness that Rawlings left us in her writings:

The scrub was clearing. Instead of the cathedral half-light, as though the sun came down from high small windows, the space ahead was bright. Lant stepped suddenly out of the scrub and was on a dim wagon road. Ahead was a low stretch of gallberry flats and beyond, a growth of small bay trees, “the bay.” 

The precipitousness with which the scrub stopped always astonished Lant. It rolled, a great ocean of scrawny pine, with boundaries sharper than any sea. There were no pine breakers, feeling out an alien soil. It was there, the scrub, immense, aloof and proud, standing on its own ground, making its own conditions, like no other. When it ended, it ended, more implacably than a life, for there was something in a life that went on–a memory–a related life–a union with the earth, producing new growths and new lives. The scrub made no unions. The two swift rivers bounded it; a fringe of hammock, of swamp; as here, a strip of gallberry flats and bay-head flats; within, it was inviolable. 

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, South Moon Under, (New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1933), 125.

A list of Rawlings’ works is located at the end of the Wikipedia entry about Rawlings, linked here.

Front porch at Christmas time, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home, Cross Creek, Florida

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

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Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was born on this date, August 8, 1896, in Washington, D.C. She spent her early years north of the Mason-Dixon line, in D.C., Michigan, and Wisconsin. Marjorie began writing as a young girl, and continued writing into her post-college career, living in New York City, then Rochester, New York, and in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1928, Marjorie and her then-husband, Charles Rawlings, made a bold move and purchased a 72-acre plot of land, including an orange grove, in rural, north-central Florida. The land and its inhabitants enchanted Marjorie, and provided a rich source of inspiration for her writing for the rest of her life. Her neighbors across swamp and hammock were from old pioneer family stock, Florida Crackers who lived from the land, wavering perilously on what would have appeared to any outsider as the brink of abject poverty.

My love for Rawlings’s writing began in high school. Her descriptions of old, primitive Florida resonated with me, the Florida that I experienced growing up in a rural county. Her Florida matched mine: sandy road beds leading through palmetto scrub, shaded by the dark, curving branches of mossy live oaks; friends and family members who lived at the ends of those sandy roads in weathered-wood houses with darkened tin roofs, a clothesline in the side yard, chickens in a wire pen.

I’ve pulled out one of my copies of “Cross Creek” in the last few days, picking it up in the evenings to read a few chapters as Rawlings’s birthday approaches. It has been a long time since I indulged myself in the singular pleasure of reading my favorite author. Here is her accounting of traveling with a friend by horseback through the Florida backwoods of the 1930s:

We entered the River Styx gently. Surely, death itself must come as quietly. The open fields, bright in the reality of sunlight, gave way easily to pine lands. The pines grew thicker, the sweet scent of their needles rising. The sunlight was spotty, the shadows of the tall trees wider. Here and there a live oak told of changing soil. Then, imperceptibly, we were in deep hammock. Coolness came in on us. The leaves of magnolia and bay trees shut out the sun, as all dark everlasting foliage must shut it out from the silent places of the dead. The hammock merged into cypress swamp. A trumpet vine dropped flamboyant flowers from a lone palm. The blossoms seemed gaudy funereal. There were no birds singing from the cypresses. No squirrels swung in and out of the sepulchral arches of the trees. Out of the dimly defined road a great white bird rose, flapping noiseless wings. It was huge, snow-white as an angel of death, with a wide black mourning band around the edge of the wings. I became aware that the soft dampness of the road had turned into a soft rippling. The whole floor of the forest was carpeted with amber-colored water, alive, moving with a slow, insidious current. We had entered the River Styx.

Rawlings captured the essence of an old, forgotten wilderness in her writing, and the surprising thing is that it was not her native land. She easily fell into the category of “damned interloper,” a term I use frequently as I observe outsiders moving into the rural corners of my Florida, building stucco-covered McMansions in hideous housing subdivisions. But I’ve come to consider now that maybe that is what’s needed to fully appreciate and describe a placeā€”the eyes of an outsider. Rawlings became immersed in a world that was exotic and foreign; she wrote sensitively about the people and the region, seeking and eventually winning acceptance as an insider. Without her fateful decision to buy a parcel of land in faraway Florida, we all would have missed the opportunity to experience the quiet seasons in the marshes and hammocks, the world of Jody and Flag, the song of the redbird in the scrub.