Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a Florida Folklife Writer
It is important when pursuing the study of history, not to get caught in the habit of reciting historical dates and facts. If this is the true study of history, then it involves nothing more than memorization. For one to truly understand why the people of a certain time period behaved as they did, it is necessary to get into their personal daily lives. It is important to know the passions of their daily struggles. It is rare that we get such as glimpse into these other lives, so long ago. This is the type of valuable information that we get when reading the works of Marjorie Rawlings.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is one of the most famous Florida writers of all time. She loved the folklife in Alachua County, Florida and has been compared to Henry David Thoreau in her style. She gives us a behind the scenes look at the Florida backcountry in the 1930s. The people of the area were known as "crackers." Her works give us a glance at a life seldom seen by those other than the inhabitants of the area.
Marjorie Rawlings was born in Washington D.C. And Graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1918. She went to live in New York to pursue a career in journalism. In 1928 she left New York to live in Cross Creek, Florida. She divorced her first husband in 1933 and married Norton Baskin, a St. Augustine businessman in 1941. In 1939 she won a Pulitzer prize for her novel, The Yearling. [Univ. Of Florida, 2001]
In 1930 Rawlings wrote Jacob's Ladder, in which a young Florida couple runs away for their lives and tries to find their way in a land filled with greed, bad luck, and dishonesty. In South Moon Under, 1933, Marjorie introduces us to a Florida Cracker who becomes a moonshiner and kills the cousin who betrays him. Golden Apples, 1935, is about an Englishman who finds himself in nineteenth-century Florida. In 1938, Rawlings wrote the Pulitzer prize winning novel, The Yearling.
This novel explores a boy's initiation into manhood in the Florida Wilderness. In this story a boy is made to kill his pet deer when it destroys the family's crops. When the Whippoorwill is a collection of short stories published in 1940. Cross Creek was written in 1942 and has often been compared to Henry David Thoreau's Walden. This is an autobiographical work, in which Marjorie tells about her adaptation to life in Cross Creek. She released a companion to this novel called Cross Creek Cookery. In 1953, her last novel, The Sojourner was released, the only book ever written with a Northern setting. In 1955, Rawling's only children's novel was released, called The Secret River. It tells the story of a young girl and her dog who journey to a secret Florida River to get fish for her father's fish market, which is experiencing hard times [Salling, 2001].
When Marjorie Rawlings first saw Cross Creek, she fell in love. She loved the rural setting among towns called Hawthorne, Orange Lake, and Micanopy. In 1928 Marjorie and Charles Rawlings bought 72 acres and began renovation of an old farmhouse. Here she found her peace and wove the surroundings and the people she met into descriptive and accurate stories, which give a glimpse of that era seldom seen [Salling, 2001].
Marjorie Rawling's writing style is known as local color. They are written in dialect and present stereotypes of people in the local area. The area that Marjorie writes about is Alachua County, Florida, which is located in the center of the state. After the civil war, Alachua county experienced martial law, Republican rule, and the immigration of freed slaves. After the civil war was a time of economic prosperity for the area [Pickard, 2001]. The Union Academy for African-Americans and the East Florida Seminary for whites were established. During this time cotton and vegetable crops were its main products during the reconstruction period [Pickard, 2001].
The next 25 years saw the development of a citrus and phosphate industry to give the local economy a base. Its central location made it a candidate for a major railway. These industries survived well into the 20th century.
World War I and cotton blight brought an end to these days of prosperity. In 1905, Gainesville was chosen for the site of the University of Florida.
By the 1930s the University had become the most important industry in the local economy. It helped the economy survive the land boom collapse of the 1920s and the Depression of the 1930s [Pickard, 2001].
It is Alachua county of the 1930s that gives Marjorie Rawlings her perspective and the backdrop for her work. Rawlings was a housewife and describes her life as such. Rawlings presents advice on subjects such as being a cook, mother, friend, relative, or neighbor in a series of 250 poems. She writes about gardening, pets, cooking, and nature. These poems offer a personal insight to the history of the era [Roger, 1997].
Rawlings, like many other writers in the South must find a way to deal with racism, without offending anyone. Her perspectives accurately portray the struggle of a culture in transition [Rodger, 1994]. The term "cracker" used to be a derogatory term for rural whites. However in Florida, the term meant the whites of Celtic decent who first settled Florida around the mid-eighteenth century. These Celtic immigrants were drawn to the fertile lands of the everglades to pursue ranching and farming. Non-one knows why these Celtic descendents are called "Crackers" [Kennedy, undated].
People often referred to the great Depression of the 1930s as the "Root-hog-or-die" days. This meant that if you didn't keep 'grubbin', you would die. The search for food was constant. The culture is filled with references to hard times [Kennedy, Undated].
In 1896 the court upheld a policy of segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, which was not overturned until 1954 in Brown v. The Board of Education. These were known as the Jim Crow Laws. These laws differed from state to state. Blacks were not allowed to use the same water fountains, restrooms, or eat in the same restaurants as whites [Kennedy, Undated]. Some of the Jim Crow laws which existed at the time when Marjorie Rawlings was writing her books made certain interactions between characters difficult. The Jim Crow laws in Florida read that marriages between a white person and a black person, or a person of fourth generation black decent would be prohibited. A white and black person found in the same room at night was to each spend one year in prison and pay $500.00. It set aside separate laws for white and black children. White and black juvenile delinquents were to be housed separately [Jackson Sun, 2002].
We are a product of the times we live in, and as Marjorie Rawlings was writing in her own time, it is natural that she would show some of the same attitudes to those around her. Marjorie Rawlings was not conscious of her attitudes, but they were a product of her time and came out on occasion, In 1992, the maid who worked for Rawlings wrote a memoir about their lives together.
In this memoir, she writes,
In private, we were often like sisters, laughing and chatting and enjoying one another's company... But whenever other people were around, the barrier of color went up automatically. Without acknowledging that we were doing so, we became more distant to one another. She became the rich, white lady author, and I became quiet, reserved, and slipped into her shadow, the perfect maid."[In Parker, 1992].
This passage is most likely reflective of the relationships between many blacks and whites of the time, especially when the black worked as a domestic for the white. Even though some people were trying to change their attitudes on racial issues at this time, it was a difficult task. These attitudes were taught from an early age and were often not so easy to forget. Like many whites at the time, Marjorie Rawlings was not aware of their attitude and certainly did not mean to offend, but it was a natural part of the culture and came without conscious thought.
Marjorie Rawlings was a friend with a black woman named Zora Hurston. Idella Parker expresses surprise to find that the woman is black and Rawlings has invited her to lunch and wishes for Idella to fix a nice lunch.
Mrs. Rawlings came running into the kitchen at Cross Creek one morning with a letter, all excited that someone named Zora would be coming to visit, and could we plan something nice for lunch. Mrs. Rawlings said that Zora Hurston was a writer, but I could not say I had heard of her before."
When the day arrived, and Zora drove up to the house, I was struck dumb. The woman was black! And here was Mrs. Rawlings inviting her in and sitting her…