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Rawlings, Marjorie Kinnan

RAWLINGS, Marjorie Kinnan

Born 8 August 1896, Washington, D.C.; died 14 December 1973, Crescent Beach, Florida

Daughter of Arthur F. and Ida May Traphagen Kinnan; married Charles A. Rawlings, 1919 (divorced); Norton S. Baskin, 1941

Daughter of a U.S. patent examiner, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Wisconsin 1918 with a major in English. Rawlings wrote for the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Rochester Journal-American from 1920 to 1928. Needing solitude, she bought an orange grove in Hawthorn, Florida, near Cross Creek, where she farmed and wrote from 1928 to 1947. Rawlings traveled in England, Alaska, and Bimini. Her marriage to a journalist ended in divorce (1933). Rawlings' second husband was a hotel owner in St. Augustine. Sued for libel, Rawlings left Florida to buy a New York farm.

Rawlings' earliest published story was "Cracker Chidlings" (1930) in Scribner's. Her humorous sketches about local figures contained accounts of a squirrel feast at a church picnic, domestic squabbling, and an explanation of "Cracker" as the whipcracking country cattle driver. In 1931, Scribner's published "Jacob's Ladder," a sensitive odyssey of a young Cracker pair through storm-ridden piney woods and scrub. These were Rawlings' continuing subjects: the human bond to the earth, and the Florida Crackers with their folklore, language, and struggles.

South Moon Under (1933) received critical acclaim. Three generations of a Cracker family subsist in the Florida scrub. Old Lantry, an irascible loner and moonshiner, moves his family into obscurity to elude the law for murdering a Prohibition official. He gives up moonshining and tries to farm. His grandson, Lant Jacklin, forced to early manhood by his father's death, labors at farming and trapping. Hardships finally compel Lant to moon-shine. Betrayed, he repeats his grandfather's crime and kills a man, condemning himself to a life of restless fear and flight. The moon of the title symbolizes the powerful necessity laid upon all creatures, men and animals, forcing them to act against their will. Moon lore abounds. Deer feed in the moonlight. "South moon under" meant that the moon was directly under the earth, unseen, and yet "it reached through the earth" with a "power to move the owls and rabbits," and drive a man to kill. Despite Rawlings' descriptions of the earth's beauty, these dark lunar forces, the treachery of kin, the legacy of family violence, and the intractability of the wilderness, convey her somber vision of the human lot.

Golden Apples (1935) describes an uneasy idyll between a frail ignorant Cracker girl and a callous, hard-drinking young English planter who comes to the fertile hummock to reclaim his father's homestead. Rawlings deals more frankly than elsewhere with sexuality: Desire seems to rise up out of the steamy Florida undergrowth. But the man's real view of the land is that it is a "damn rotten crawling place," and when the girl he seduces looks "all eyes and belly" as she wordlessly kneels to clean his boots, he looks at her with repugnance. The girl dies in premature labor. A strange reconciliation takes place between her brother and her lover, as they join together to plant an orange grove.

The Yearling (1938, reprinted many times, most recently in 1998; film version 1945) won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Rawlings' editor, Maxwell Perkins, liked her hunt and river scenes, and urged her to do a boy's book. The Yearling 's theme is the passage from childhood to manhood for fourteen-year-old Jody Baxter. The plot is based on Jody's adopting a baby fawn when its mother is slain. After 13 months, the fawn is no longer a baby but a yearling that destroys the family's crops and whose wild nature cannot be subdued. Jody is at first unable to obey his father's directive to kill the yearling, which has become a part of himself, but is forced to do so when his mother's faulty aim wounds the creature. His grief drives him from home to a river journey, and he wishes for the death of his gentle father, who, it seems, has betrayed him. Jody's homecoming shows him ready to put a child's happiness behind him and embrace the lonely hardships of manhood.

Rawlings creates a Floridian earthly paradise. With all its loveliness, however, this wilderness reveals to the growing boy many signs of nature's cruelty. This sacrifice of the wild creature is a gesture implying that to attain maturity a man must quell his own rapturous, irresponsible, animal nature. Biblical echoes reinforce the end of innocence.

When the Whippoorwill (1940) collects Rawlings's best magazine stories. Noteworthy is "Gal Young Un," about a gaunt gray woman married for her wealth by a flashing opportunist. Several stories introduce Rawlings's fine comic narrator, Quincey Dover, "a woman with a tongue sharp enough to slice soft bacon." Others treat of moonshining, alligator hunting, and family life.

In 1942, Rawlings published Cross Creek (reissued 1992), chronicling her years in this chosen spot. Rawlings describes the farmhouse, the tall old orange trees, the coral honeysuckle twisting on the wire fence. She gathers materials that will feed her fiction: scenes, animals, anecdotes, personalities. Her portraits of the neighbors whose lives she shared, notably of black women, are both humorous and painful, revealing her sure grasp on human realities. In "Hyacinth Drift," two women, Rawlings and a friend, navigate several hundred miles of river in an 18-foot boat. Beset with cares, Rawlings had momentarily "lost touch with the Creek," and this is a journey of renewal enabling her once again to long for home. "Because I had known intimately a river, the earth pulsed under me." Cross Creek ranks as a classic of the American pastoral scene.

Although she was admired as a regional writer, Rawlings' ambivalence about this designation led her to approach new subjects. She believed a "great" writer could write anywhere, and she broke from Cross Creek. Her last novel, The Sojourner (1953), about a Hudson Valley farm after the Civil War, shows the strain. It spins a vision of mythic rural America. This dream of plenty is dissipated in the reality of family bitterness: the cheerful wife does not adore her husband; a brother abandons home on a doomed quest of silver and diamonds; a mad and treacherous mother-in-law allows a child to die in a snowstorm; a corrupt son drives a red Cadillac; stale apple pies fester uneaten and the wife bakes yet another. Romantic figures—an Indian, a gypsy queen—whose earthly vitality might be redemptive perish obscurely. The main character dies in an airplane, significantly separated from the earth, which he sees below him as a "battered planet." Rawlings seeks to depict broad movements: the American rural dream shattered by the rise of a money economy, westward expansion, "progress," and foreign war. However, the novel lacks the power of her earlier writing.

Rawlings belongs to the tradition of Thoreau and Whitman. Nature was cruel as well as beneficent, and she accepts the savagery as part of the cycle of living and dying. Her witty revelation of regional character and language places her in the mainstream of writers from Mark Twain on. Rawlings' typical fictional perspective is that of a male, usually naive, forced to acknowledge the sinister side of a seductive pastoral world.

Other Works:

Cross Creek Cookery (1942). The Secret River (1955). Poems by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: Songs of a Housewife (1983). The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Reader (1956, 1989). Selected Letters of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1997).

The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Collection is housed in the Rare Book Section at the University of Florida Library. Further papers are collected at the University of Georgia (Athens), University of Virginia (Charlottesville), Princeton University, and Yale University.

Bibliography:

Acton, P. N., Invasion of Privacy: The Cross Creek Trial of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1988). Bellman, S., Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1974). Berg, A. S., Max Perkins, Editor of Genius (1978). Bigelow, G. E., Frontier Eden: The Literary Career of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1966). Bigelow, G. E., and L. V. Monti, eds., Selected Letters of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1983). Bigham, J. S., Introduction to The Marjorie Rawlings Reader (1956). Dana, E., "Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's Linguistic Mirror of Nature: An Ecological Criticism" (thesis, 1992). Dykstra, N. A., "Eve in the New World Garden: The Autobiographies of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Elinore Pruitt Stewart" (thesis, 1992). Greene, F. U., Forgotten Florida: Tales Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Didn't Tell (1997). Knowles, K., ed., Celebrating the Land: Women's Nature Writings, 1850-1991 (1992). Parker, I., Idella: Marjorie Rawlings' "Perfect Maid" (1992). Parker, I., Idella Parker: From Reddick to Cross Creek (1999). Perkins, M. E., Max and Marjorie: The Correspondence Between Maxwell E. Perkins and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1999). Ribblett, D. L., From Cross Creek to Richmond: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Researches Ellen Glasgow (1986). Rose, P., The Norton Book of Women's Lives (1993). Sammons, S. W., Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and the Florida Crackers (1995). Shaw, P. J., Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: Her Life in Cross Creek, 1928-1953 (1982). Silverthorne, E., Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: Sojourner at Cross Creek (1988). Tarr, R. L., Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: A Descriptive Bibliography (1996). Turk, J. K., "A Grove of One's Own: Crossing Boundaries in Selected Works by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings" (thesis, 1996). Wiley, C. and Barnes, F. R., eds., Homemaking: Women Writers and the Politics and Poetics of Home (1996). Wilken, J. J., "Selected Letters of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings to James Branch Cabell and Margaret Freeman Cabell" (thesis, 1993). Yurick, A. J., "A Matter of Need: Food and Fulfillment in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' 'Gal Young Un"' (thesis, 1997).

Reference works:

American Women Fiction Writers, Volume Three 1900-1960 (1998). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Collier's (29 Sept. 1945). EJ 64 (1975). Family Circle (7 May 1943). NYT Sunday Travel Section (27 Jan. 1980). LJ (1977)

—MARCELLE THIÉBAUX

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