MARJORIE KINNAN RAWLINGS is not exactly a "lost" American writer, more like one who's been mislaid. There is at least one biography of her currently in progress; a film made from her best book, Cross Creek, was the American entry at this year's Cannes Film Festival; and this selection of her letters has just been published by the University of Florida, the state which claims her as its "best-known author." But Rawlings, with only three of her nine titles still in print, is not a familiar figure to today's readers who, if they recognize her name at all, associate it vaguely with some deer, a sort of backwoods Bambi.
The Yearling, Rawlings' most famous novel, published in 1938, won her the Pulitzer Prize; the moving story of a cypress swamp boy and his pet fawn, it was made into an Oscar-winning 1945 movie. That was certainly all that I myself knew about Rawlings when, several years ago, I found myself driving through northern Florida on a leisurely trip south. I had no particular itinerary, so a sign pointing off the highway, "Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Historic Site--9 miles," was sufficient to cause me to make the turn, literary landmarks being rare in those parts.
It was a detour I've never regretted. For Cross Creek, the smallish wooden house where Rawlings lived and worked from 1928 until her death in 1953, has been restored down to '30s dresses hanging in the closet and a half-finished sheet of paper in the typewriter on the front screened-in porch. On that sunny, breezy spring day, with the gauzy curtains blowing and the smell of orange blossoms in the air, that "bend in a country road," as she described it, seemed to me, as it had for Rawlings, an enchanted spot. "The place that is right for one is wrong for another," she wrote in one of Cross Creek's early chapters. And also, "When I first came to the Creek, and knew the old grove and farmhouse at once as home, there was some terror, such as one first feels at the recognition of a human love, for the joining of person to place, as of person to person, is a commitment to shared sorrow, even as to shared joy."
Once the Creek became her muse, Rawlings immersed herself in the local life, interpreting it to the outside world with such enthusiasm that I recently saw her dismissed as a "writer of real estate copy." That is hardly fair. When her very first piece written from Florida, called "Cracker Chidlings"--cracker, far from being a pejorative term, is a designation of some pride in that region, as Yankee is in the northeast--was accepted by the prestigious Scribner's Magazine, she had staked out her territory but she wasn't painting it as a tourist paradise. Both from reading the Letters and Cross Creek, which is a vibrant and cohesive arrangement of reflective, autobiographical essays on her relation to her surroundings (it was the fourth top non-fiction best-seller for 1942), one quickly sees that the situation there wasn't easy. The truth is that, initially anyway, she was attacked by chamber-of-commerce types for her descriptions of predatory insects and below-freezing temperatures, not to mention the distinctly un-20th-century ways of the backwoods populace.
It was a primitive, pioneer-like existence that Rawlings undertook to lead after moving to Cross Creek from Rochester, New York, and it appears that at least one of the reasons her first marriage broke up not long after she and Charles Rawlings, an unsuccessful journalist, came there was his allowing her to do all the work. ("To be perfectly blunt," Marjorie wrote an Ohio aunt in 1934, "he had hardly earned his board, piddling around.") Never really in good health and always accident-prone, she nonetheless restored the decaying house and ran the orange grove, without benefit of indoor plumbing and surrounded by mosquitoes, snakes, ants and roaches. One of the chapters in Cross Creek even is entitled "The Evolution of Comfort," describing as it does how the money her writing first brought her went for bathrooms. (Much later, she was to bash a cottonmouth, who'd wandered into one of them, with a copy of The Yearling that was convenient to hand.)
Rawlings learned to shoot straight, to hunt and fish and to make long river trips through remote channels, and it was this aspect of her Florida life, combined with the snakes and bugs, that probably kept Maxwell Perkins, her editor at Scribner's, from accepting the invitations to visit that dot her letters to him. (Perkins, Bigelow and Monti point out, had accompanied Hemingway on a few rough-and- ready expeditions, and those had been enough to make him wary.) Her attitude towards Perkins--who'd approached her after reading her early magazine pieces--nearly resembles idolatry, and his death in 1947 left her devastated. "It was startling to realize," she told one friend, in a letter that summer, "how much we wrote for him."
A large portion of the correspondence in this volume is to Perkins, and naturally it is absorbing, particularly for those interested in the process of writing: the false starts, the creative breakthroughs, the despondency and the elation. In these Rawlings, who was an exuberant and gabby letter- writer, doesn't sound as natural as she does in the ones to friends and relations, despite the epistolary intimacy she established with him. But this isn't surprising; Perkins was an intimidating figure to her, as was later a similar mentor, Owen D. Young, a culturally inclined businessman who'd been president of General Electric. Weak husbands who didn't have her full respect (her second was a Florida hotelier), along with strong male friends who did, seems to have been Rawlings' pattern. Yet for all her independent ways and long periods of solitary writing, Rawlings had a coquettish streak that comes out in the letters, of the kind characteristic of some tomboys.
Moreover, she thought of herself as a woman meant for marriage. Although she appears to revel in it, she wrote to Norton Baskin, whom she did eventually wed but who was balking a little, "I loathe living alone." And she went on to explain, "I need more solitude, more privacy, than most women, but even I can get all I want in the course of a day. My work does not satisfy as the end aim of my life. It is something I have to do, but it does not fill and complete my life . . . I want the quiet satisfaction of living with a man I enjoy." Then, a few paragraphs later, one encounters a phrase that doesn't seem out of place in a Rawlings love letter: she tells Baskin "it is poor sportsmanship for me to subject you to my feelings . . ." (At the time she was 43; they didn't marry until two years later, with most of the courting being done by her, just as she'd done all the heavy lifting with her first husband.)
Rawlings also wrote to such other contemporary literary figures as Ellen Glasgow (Rawlings' fatal stroke came as she was embarked on the research for a biography of Glasgow, whom she'd long regarded highly), Scott Fitzgerald, James Branch Cabell and Carl Van Vechten. Others she encounters or comments upon admiringly include Zora Neale Hurston, Sigrid Undset, John Steinbeck and Andr,e Gide. And, as an influential woman of her day, she had tea with Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House and got to sleep in the Lincoln bed. Distressingly for Rawlings, however, a chunk of her potentially most creative years was taken up by a protracted, somewhat messy lawsuit brought against her by a Florida friend who objected to the way she'd been depicted in Cross Creek.
It is risky, of course, to reclaim a writer by claiming too much. Rawlings was not a genius and she was not a feminist. But her regional writing at its best is magical, and she wne, sas a damned interesting woman who did things few women ever do. Without being major, these letters are important --whether so we won't forget her or so we can know her better.