Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Author of “The Yearling,” hard-drinking sportswoman and friend of Ernest Hemingway (from the New York Times Book Review)
Swashbuckling women seem all the fashion. Publishers have noticed those women executives in blue suits rushing through airports clutching books by or about Beryl Markham or Isak Dinesen. The very same swashbuckling passengers may well want to clutch Elizabeth Silverthorne’s sympathetic biography of an American woman writer of spirit — Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
Despite the 1983 film version of Rawlings’s autobiographical ‘’Cross Creek,’’ anyone who has recently read or reread ‘’The Yearling’’ will agree that Rawlings deserves more attention. Half a century after its publication, “The Yearling’’ remains a thrilling book, although it is circulated almost exclusively as a children’s title. The beautiful edition illustrated by N. C. Wyeth, which was reissued in 1983, is especially pleasing.
There is other evidence of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s standing as a 20th-century American writer. An editor with impeccable taste, Scribners’ Maxwell Perkins, chose his clients carefully and included her in company with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. She won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and when she died in 1953, an editorial column in this newspaper [the New York Times] equated the loss with that of Dylan Thomas and Eugene O’Neill.
If her talent is not now widely remembered, it is probably for reasons of gender and the genres in which she worked — children’s books and regional literature. Rawlings always felt the term ‘’regionalist’’ diminished her. Still, it was her move in 1928 to a rundown farm and orange grove in ‘’the Scrub’’ of Florida that gave her the necessary venue for her work during the next quarter of a century.
Rawlings was first a journalist, and before writing anything she needed years of research among her beloved ‘’cracker’’ neighbors. Ms. Silverthorne, a children’s book writer, describes Rawlings’s activities as she set about tracking, trapping, fishing, ‘gatoring, hunting, logging and making moonshine.
She was a hard-drinking sportswoman who said she needed three things for the inspiration to write: Proust, a dog, and Max Perkins to help her edit out anything sappy or sentimental.
In its toughness ‘’The Yearling’’ is a far more ‘’masculine’’ or ‘’boy’s’’ book than, say, ‘’Treasure Island’’ or any other tale written by a man. Not surprisingly, Rawlings was perceptive of the uncertain machismo of her friend Hemingway, with whom she visited in Bimini.
In ‘’Frontier Eden’’ (1966) Gordon Bigelow discussed Rawlings as an existentialist writer, starting with the often quoted line in ‘’The Yearling,’’ “Life knocks a man down and he gits up, and it knocks him down agin.’’ Ms. Silverthorne suggests in ‘’Sojourner at Cross Creek’’ that a leitmotif of Rawlings’s life was betrayal or the fear of it, an anxiety that developed following the end of her first marriage, in 1933, and lasting the rest of her life.
Ms. Silverthorne’s account is full and competent, and from her I learned of Rawlings’s civil rights activism in the 1950’s, of her friendships with Zora Neale Hurston and Ellen Glasgow. Indeed, Rawlings was at work on a biography of Glasgow at the time of her death, and her executors later destroyed some of their personal correspondence. But most of all I was grateful because ‘’Sojourner at Cross Creek’’ reminded me that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was a regional genius, a sensitive writer who was, at her best, the easy equal of her other regionalist contemporaries: John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner and William Saroyan.
Originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (November 20, 1988).
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