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Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is known chiefly for a single book, The Yearling (1938), which has been hailed as a classic work of literature for children and adults alike and a prime example of regional fiction. The book also won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1939.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Finding Solace in the Country
Rawlings was born and raised in Washington, D.C., where her father worked as a patent attorney. Even as a young girl, Rawlings enjoyed writing. With the encouragement of her mother, she frequently contributed to the children’s pages of local newspapers, and won her first writing contest at age eleven. The countryside also held a special fascination for the author; she spent many summers on family farms, visits which she would later recall as some of her happiest moments.
Rawlings’s happy childhood ended with the death of her father in 1914; she then moved with her mother and brother to Madison, Wisconsin, where she entered college. She graduated in 1918, and the following year she married another would-be writer, Charles Rawlings, and moved with him to his hometown in New York. There the couple wrote for newspapers and tried to publish their fiction and poetry. Rawlings was unhappy with life in New York, however; in an attempt to save their marriage, she and her husband purchased an orange grove in Cross Creek, Florida, and moved there in 1928. The move failed to keep the couple together, but the Florida scrubland gave Rawlings an inner peace and a new inspiration for her writing. ”We need above all, I think, a certain remoteness from urban confusion,” the author explains in her book of autobiographical sketches, Cross Creek (1948). ”For myself, the Creek satisfies a thing that had gone hungry and unfed since childhood days. I am often lonely. Who is not? But I should be lonelier in the heart of a city.”
Rawlings remained in Cross Creek and managed the citrus grove herself after her husband left and her marriage ended. There she began writing a series of stories based on her new home and neighbors, impoverished whites known as ”Crackers.” Her ”Cracker Chidlings” were published in Scribner’s magazine and brought her to the attention of Maxwell Perkins, an editor with Scribner’s publishing house. These first pieces reflected ”the point of view of an outsider who finds the locals quaint and amusing,” Perkins stated, but by the time Rawlings published her first novel, South Moon Under (1933), her ”almost condescending attitude had changed to one of understanding and admiration for the enduring spirit and simple life of the Florida natives.”
More Than a Book for Young Boys
Shortly after South Moon Under was published, Maxwell Perkins suggested that Rawlings attempt a novel in the same vein as Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Rawlings found the idea daunting, and wrote another, less well-received novel, Golden Apples (1935), before she could be convinced. By 1936 Rawlings had begun the story of a poor, lonely boy who is forced to kill his pet deer after it destroys the crops his family needs to survive. Although The Yearling is told entirely from the point of view of young Jody, ”I think it will only incidentally be a book for boys,” the author indicated in a letter to her editor, as quoted by Perkins. She continued:
I hope there will be nostalgic implications for mature people for we never feel more sensitively than in extreme youth, and the color and drama of the scrub can be well conveyed through the eyes and mind of a boy.
Dreams and their fulfillment played a significant part in Rawlings’s life, as she disclosed in Cross Creek: ”It is more important to live the life one wishes to live, and to go down with it if necessary, quite contentedly, than to live more profitably but less happily.” Rawlings wrote just one more novel in her lifetime, 1953’s The Sojourner, another regional tale, this one set in upstate New York. Rawlings nonetheless maintained active connections with other literary figures of note, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, for the rest of her life.
After successfully defending herself in a libel suit brought by a neighbor who felt she had been unfavorably depicted in Cross Creek, Rawlings left the area, using her earnings from the success of The Yearling to purchase a home in the St. Augustine area. She died there in 1953 of a brain hemorrhage.
Works in Literary Context
Christine McDonnell remembers The Yearling from her childhood reading as ”a tear-jerker, with lots of action: hunting, fighting, natural disasters,” the critic comments in Horn Book. She continues:
But as an adult reader, these are not the ingredients that interest me. Instead, I was fascinated, shocked actually, by the view of life that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings reveals in this story, a view so strong, bleak, but reassuring, that I am surprised to find it in a book that has deeply affected so many children.
Rawlings is a regional writer. Her work is inhabited by the simple people and natural settings of the Florida backwoods which she adopted as her home. In her first novel, South Moon Under, Rawlings portrays the special relationship the hunters and farmers of the Florida scrub country have to the land and to nature— a salient theme throughout this and all her work. In The Yearling, twelve-year-old Jody Baxter, from whose point of view the story is told, is considered one of the most endearing boy-characters since Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. In the autobiographical Cross Creek, reminiscent of Thor-eau’s Walden in technique, Rawlings describes the flora and fauna of her beloved home, underscoring her basic belief that in order to be happy, one must find an environment in concert with one’s nature.
Often paramount in Rawlings’s novels is the struggle against the challenges of an uncertain existence by the poor white—the Florida ”cracker”—commonly epitomized in an archetypal young protagonist with frontier virtues. These patterns are evident in her first four novels and in much of her short fiction. While Rawlings may have been eclipsed by the greater luminaries of her generation, such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, she made a unique contribution to the genre of frontier regional literature. Having escaped the prevailing pessimism of many post-World War I writers, she compassionately portrayed Florida’s backwoods inhabitants and their relationship to the wild frontier country of north central Florida. Although Rawlings’s work has been criticized for being overly sentimental and for relying too little on plot development and convincing characterization, her almost journalistic observation of place and dialect remains as a record of a vanishing frontier and the folkways of its inhabitants.
Works in Critical Context
”In a time when it was fashionable to be negative and despairing, [Rawlings’s] books were affirmative,” Gordon E. Bigelow states in Frontier Eden. ”In a time of great social and economic distress, of moral confusion and uncertainty, her stories quietly reasserted a familiar American ethic.” And while the author’s ”legacy to children’s literature essentially consists of just one book,” Agnes Regan Perkins concludes, The Yearling is a work ”that even after fifty years still lives through its strong characters, its telling metaphor, and its vivid scenes.”
Although not intended as a juvenile book, The Yearling has developed into a children’s favorite, according to Agnes Regan Perkins in Writers for Children, ”not only because of its touching story … but also because of its strong characterization of the independent Florida [people known as] ‘Crackers’ and its vivid evocation of the wild beauty of the Florida scrub country.” While Jody’s adventures and his friendship with the fawn make the novel attractive to children, Rawlings’s story contains deeper elements which appeal equally to adults.
Lloyd Morris elaborates in the North American Review:
[Rawlings] plunges us deeply into the hearts and the perceptions of a child, a wise man, and a brave woman. It recreates for us those fundamental attitudes of the human spirit which make life endurable, and those inalienable experiences of love and beauty which enable us to live it without shame.
By the time Jody must sacrifice his pet, he has learned to accept the pain and responsibility that accompany adulthood. As a result, William Soskin notes in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, The Yearling ”is an education in life that is far removed from our dreary urban formulas. … [This] story of a boy and an animal becomes one of the most exquisite I have ever read.”
- Bellman, Samuel I. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. New York: Twayne, 1974.
- Bigelow, Gordon E. Frontier Eden: The Literary Career of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Gainesville, Fla.: University of Florida Press, 1966.
- –. Frontier Eden: The Literary Career of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Gainesville, Fla.: University of Florida Press, 1966.
- Bigham, Julia Scribner. Introduction to The Marjorie Rawlings Reader. New York: Scribners, 1956, pp. IX-XIX.
- Bingham, Jane M., ed. Writers for Children. New York City: Scribner, 1988, pp. 463-67.
- Parker, Idella with Mary Keating. ”Marjorie Rawlings’ ‘Perfect Maid.”’ Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 1992.
- Silverthorne, Elizabeth. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: Sojourner at Cross Creek. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook, 1988.
- Tarr, Rodger L. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996.
- Bellman, Samuel I. ”Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: A Solitary Sojourner in the Florida Backwoods.” Kansas Quarterly 2 (Spring 1970): 78-87.
- –. ”Writing Literature for Young People: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ ‘Secret River’ of the Imagination.” Costerus: Essays in English and American Language and Literature 9 (1973): 19-27.
- Bigelow, Gordon E. ”Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Wilderness.” Sewanee Review 73 (Spring 1965): 299-310.
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