Mike Miller, Florida Backroads Travel
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was born in 1896 and died in 1953 in St. Augustine, Florida. Of all Florida authors, she is the one I identify with the most. She started at the University of Wisconsin and ended up in Florida and loved it. So did I.
She was born in Washington, D.C., but moved with her mother to Madison, Wisconsin after her father died in 1913. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1918, and married Charles Rawlings in 1919.
For most of the next 10 years, she and Charles worked in Rochester, New York, writing for the local newspaper. In 1928 they bought a 72 acre orange grove in the tiny settlement of Cross Creek, Florida.
Cross Creek is so named because of its location on a small creek that connects Orange Lake and Lochloosa Lake. It is about halfway between Gainesville and Ocala on one of Florida's many unspoiled rural back roads.
She and Charles divorced in 1933. He didn't like the country life in Florida, and Marjorie did. She lived for many years in Cross Creek, Florida, and wrote compelling fiction based on the Florida Crackers and Florida Blacks that were part of her life in that little North Central Florida village.
Some of her Cross Creek neighbors were not too happy with her portrayal of them in her stories and books. Her observations, however, helped make her one of the most famous Florida authors.
Her first novel about these people was "South Moon Under". She told the story of a young man who must support his family by selling moonshine. This book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, but didn't win. But Marjorie's reputation as one of the leading Florida authors was established.
Her most famous work is "The Yearling".
The book is about a boy, Jody, who adopts an orphaned fawn. Jody is forced to shoot his pet when the deer grows up and eats the family's crops.
The book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1939, and was later made into a movie in 1946 with Gregory Peck, Jane Wyman and Claude Jarman, Jr.
Claude Jarman, Jr. visited Cross Creek for the first time on February 17, 2011. Here is a neat article about that visit submitted by friend of Florida Backroads Travel, Harold Murphy: Claude Jarman, Jr. Interview
In 1942 she published "Cross Creek", an autobiographical account of her life with her neighbors.
She followed this with "Cross Creek Cookery". I still have this cookbook and use her recipe for shrimp pilau. We pronounce it "perloo" here in Florida.
It is more than a cookbook, it is a wonderful rambling story about Marjorie's love of Florida and Florida cooking.
Marjorie loved to cook and once said she'd get as much satisfaction from preparing a perfect dinner for a few good friends as from turning out a perfect paragraph in her writing.
Her final novel, "The Sojourner" was published just before she died in 1953. To me, this book is almost as much of a tear jerker as "The Yearling". It's not a Florida novel, however, it has a northern setting.
It's a story about this poor guy who spends his life sacrificing for his mother and bummy older brother. His mother doesn't like him and favors the older brother.
It's a miserable life for this guy, and then he dies.
Over the years, Marjorie built friendships with her editor, Maxwell Perkins, and her fellow writers Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost and Margaret Mitchell.
With money she made from "The Yearling", she bought a beach cottage at Crescent Beach ten miles south of St. Augustine.
In 1941 Rawlings married a Florida hotel man, Norton Baskin. He renovated an old mansion in St. Augustine into the Castle Warden Hotel.
After World War II, he sold the hotel and managed the Dolphin Restaurant at Marineland, which was then Florida's number one tourist attraction.
The old Castle Warden Hotel is now the home of Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum.
Rawlings and Baskin made their primary home at Crescent Beach, and they continued their separate occupations independently.
Their independence was legendary among their friends. When a visitor to the Castle Warden Hotel said she saw the influence of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in the decor, Baskin protested:
"You do not see Mrs. Rawlings's fine hand in this place", he said. "Nor will you see my big foot in her next book. That's our agreement. She writes. I run a hotel."
Rawlings befriended and corresponded with famous black educator Mary McLeod Bethune and black author Zora Neale Hurston during her years in Florida.
Zora visited Marjorie at Cross Creek, but in keeping with Florida race relations of the time, she had to sleep with Idella, the black maid, in the "tenant house," not in Marjorie's house.
Her views on race relations were much different than her neighbors, and she criticized white Southerners for treating blacks like infants. She considered the economic condition of southern blacks to be scandalous.
Ironically, however, she seems to have considered whites to be superior to blacks. It shows in much of her writing. For example, she described her African-American employee Idella as "the perfect maid."
Their relationship is described in the book "Idella: Marjorie Rawlings'Perfect Maid'", by Idella Parker and Mary Keating.
Rawlings died in 1953 in St. Augustine of a cerebral hemorrhage. She bequeathed most of her property to the University of Florida, a fitting legacy for a famous Florida author. Rawlings Hall, a dormitory there, is named for her. When I attended the University of Florida, I was not aware of that fact.
Her home at Cross Creek is now the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park. Her gravesite is a few miles away at Antioch Cemetery. It is a bumpy ride on an unpaved road to her final resting place. The hearse no doubt had to drive very slowly to get there.
Norton Baskin survived Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings by 44 years, passing away in 1997. He was well known and well liked in St. Augustine. Many locals and tourists got to know him, especially when he managed the Marineland restaurant.
Marjorie and Norton are buried side-by-side at Antioch Cemetery near Island Grove, Florida. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's tombstone, with the inscription created by Norton Baskin, reads:
"Through her writing she endeared herself to the people of the world."
The reputation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings has managed to outlive those of many of her contemporaries. Movies have been made from her work long after her death. These include the movie "Cross Creek".
A visit to Marjorie's home in Cross Creek, and dinner at "The Yearling Restaurant", is a treat for anyone fond of this famous Florida author and her work. The home is perfectly maintained by the Florida State Park Service. You get the feeling that Marjorie is off on an errand and will be back at any minute.
She wrote most of her stuff on the porch, and her old typewriter is still there on a weathered cypress table. Her bookshelves are full of interesting volumes, and much of her clothes and furnishings are still there.
Place, or the sense of place, was very important to Marjorie. There is something special about her place at Cross Creek. You will notice it when you visit. There are secrets in the air. You can feel them, and you want to know what they are because they are good secrets.
MARJORIE KINNAN RAWLINGS FLORIDA BOOKS
Here is a listing of some of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's novels and books:
She also wrote and published 33 short stories from 1912 to 1949.
Most of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's books are available at this direct link: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at Amazon.com
More information about the town of Cross Creek and The Yearling Restaurant is available on this website at Cross Creek, Florida.