Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was a stranger to north-central Florida when she moved to rural and remote Cross Creek with her husband Charles after she purchased an orange grove there in 1928 with money she inherited from her mother. Already an aspiring novelist, her editor, Maxwell Perkins (who was also Ernest Hemingway’s and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s editor), encouraged her to write about the surrounding people and environs she encountered in Cross Creek rather than the same trite romance novel plots that many women at the time felt compelled to write about. Educated, articulate, and fairly affluent, Rawlings stood out from her new neighbors, and it took some time for them to warm to her. Her husband Charles, for his part, found the rural Floridian life boring and difficult, and he and Marjorie divorced, leaving her to tend her orange groves alone. (Later, she remarried to a hotelier from Ocala, Florida, and spent the rest of her life near Saint Augustine as he ran his hotels there and she continued to write, although this was past the apex of her literary career.)
It was Rawlings’s years at Cross Creek that brought forth her best writing, including her seminal novel The Yearling for which she won the Pulitzer Prize and her novel Cross Creek, plus a collection of short stories about life in lower Alachua County.
It is essential in understanding Rawlings to understand two prime aspects of her writing. For one, she was writing about a people—the Florida “cracker”—who had appeared in literature hardly at all prior to her efforts. Indeed, Patrick D. Smith’s A Land Remembered and the nonfiction of the anthropologist Gloria Jahoda, written much later in the 1970’s and ’80’s) would probably be the only writing to rank alongside Rawlings’ efforts even to this day as far as providing accurate, nuanced, descriptions of early cracker life. What she contributed in regard to a national attention and understanding of rural Florida and the sturdy folks who were brave enough to make a living in it cannot be underestimated.
Secondly, despite her adept contribution to literary regionalism, Rawlings herself did not see her work as regional: she believed her novels touched on core themes in human nature and society’s grand experience but just happened to have rural Florida as their settings. Still, Rawlings was aware she was in the same literary golden age as the likes of Hemingway and Dawn Powell and most likely was concerned her novels would be seen as inferior to those set in a major city such as Powell’s novels of New York. One of the most crucial gifts Rawlings provided American literature was an understanding of the depth and scope of the traditional novel in the context of the American South and the lack of limits for “regional” writing.
Another core gift of Rawlings was that with The Yearling—the beloved coming-of-age tale of a boy and the fawn he rescued in the pine scrub of the deep Ocala forest—she provided one of the first true young adult novels that was not simply an extension of children’s books for teens but a novel about teenagers and aimed for a young readership yet appropriate and engaging for adults as well. While we now take such novels for granted, at the time it was a new concept to see a book for teens written with such verve and care, and Rawlings’s vast success with The Yearling paved the way for American young adult literature to grow as it has to this day. Rawlings took a risk with this book, as did Maxwell Perkins, her editor. The idea that people across the nation—mainly people in more urban, wealthy places—would buy a book about a poor boy in a remote part of Florida, a portion of the nation they were probably fully unaware of, was a leap of faith. Due to Rawlings’s skill in creating characters you just can’t help but love and vivid images of a wondrous landscape, it was a risk that paid off.
It is useful to realize exactly how isolated Cross Creek was when Rawlings lived there. Even today, it’s no lie at all to call the small hamlet “out of the way” and in the early twentieth century this whole region was remote and thus exotic, misunderstood if thought about at all. Rawlings did a great deal to change that impression, to draw attention to rural north-central Florida as a very unique part of the United States. She also, however, managed to upset several neighbors in doing so, resulting in a difficult case of hostility with one—a mother who was offended by how a character in one of Rawlings’s stories was obviously based on her son—and, worse yet, a lawsuit from another neighbor and former friend. While Rawlings won the court case when it went to trial, upon appeal the neighbor suing her won with the original verdict reversed. However, Rawlings was only ordered by the judge to pay a single dollar to the offended party in token restitution. Still, the entire drawn-out process greatly upset and exhausted Rawlings and was part of the reason she left Cross Creek when she remarried.
Gainesville, the nearest city of any size and also the home of the University of Florida, was itself a very sleepy college town during Rawlings’s days in Cross Creek. In fact, Gainesville almost lost out even on the university to Lake City, its neighbor to the north in Columbia County. Lake City was the planned location for the flagship school but lacked the land that Gainesville could provide. This is of importance because at this point in the early twentieth century, the region around Alachua County had suffered several serious freezes and lost its citrus crop to these disasters, forcing farmers to reconsider the wisdom in attempting to grow commercial groves this far north. Cattle ranching, another important farming occupation in Florida, found limited success in Alachua County: small operations were possible and continue to this day, but the land is too swampy and forested to develop into extensive pasture in most cases. Rawlings was therefore in this region at a point where the promise of citrus for a robust economy had already proven false, and the university had yet to become the regional hub it is now. She therefore encountered people who were somewhat resigned—but often also quite content—in living in a place they presumed would remain rural, even rustic. This may explain part of the difference in opinion she encountered despite her own willingness to get out and get dirty working her land just like her neighbors: While Rawlings may have presumed people would feel honored to be cast as characters in her stories, they saw the attention as intrusive, unwelcome, and something they had hoped to escape in their seclusion.
Today, you can visit Marjorie Rawlings’s home in Cross Creek, now a Florida State Park and opened to the public for tours. Rawlings left most of her estate to the University of Florida, which, in cooperation with the Florida State Parks, worked to retain the feel of her home as if she were still living—and writing—there even today. The effect is powerful: her parlor sits much as it would have been when she was in residence, right down to the liquor cabinet in which she hid her bottles of liquor—the only door in the house she would bother to lock when she left on any sort of extended trip. Her typewriter sits on the screened porch where she worked as if she had stepped away for only a short moment and would soon return. In the yard, a variety of the citrus trees she cultivated still bear fruit, while on my recent visit ducks were living in a hutch—a very tangible reminder of the work that was necessary even for a talented writer to make a living and keep house in Cross Creek early in the twentieth century. Florida State Parks as the institutional steward of the Rawlings home has done an incredible job in providing details that are authentic, engrossing, and educational, and any fan of either Rawlings’s literature or early rural life in Florida in general should visit the Rawlings homestead at least once.
Rawlings’s home isn’t the only part of her material history retained for us to visit today: In what is now the Ocala National Forest, you can hike the Yearling Trail and actually visit the spot where the homestead of Calvin and Mary Long stood. Marjorie Rawlings visited the Longs, even spending several nights with them in their remote cracker home, and it was Calvin’s story of taking in a pet fawn as a boy which inspired The Yearling. While the Longs’ house and outbuildings are gone, there are numerous remaining artifacts of their farm such as a cattle dip pit from the 1920’s and the Long family cemetery. Besides, the hike provides a perfect introduction to exactly the type of landscape cracker families such as the Longs were attempting to farm and the difficulties they would have encountered in their beautiful but often difficult environment. Near the Yearling Trail, just to the east on the other side of SR-19, is Silver Glen Springs, one of Florida’s most beautiful springs and one that you can swim and free-dive in with a fairly good chance of seeing some, perhaps even many, fish.
Rawlings, for Florida, became a beloved and central writer because she brought this region to the world’s attention—a fame it might never have enjoyed in quite the same way without her literary efforts. Yet Rawlings always saw herself as no different from her peers in the arts in New York or elsewhere during this golden age of literature, and she was keenly aware of the odd circumstances of being a writer with growing fame yet also a citizen in a small rural community. Indeed, when Rawlings needed to speak with Maxwell Perkins in New York on the phone, instead of using the phone in her own home which was on a party line common to rural phone service of this time, she went to the nearest telephone exchange—in the nearby town of Micanopy—to place calls directly and avoid nosy neighbors listening in on her conversations. It was that type of unique situation which only fueled Rawlings’s view of living in a quirky but amazing part of the South at a time of great change in American history.
The author thanks Rangers Carrie Todd and Valerie Rivers at the Rawlings Home State Park and also Davis McDermott for their help on this story.