Sunday, November 9, 2008

FLORIDA AND WRITING FOLK

A few days ago when we passed a sign advertising the exit to Micanopy, FL, enroute to the central Florida lake region, I thought about the three times I had attempted to visit the Marjorie Kennan Rawlings State Park site near Gainesville. Each time we stopped at the site, the home was either closed or we were too late for a tour. It seems I’m doomed to stand in authors’ yards as I’ve encountered the same problem at the site of Rowan Oaks, Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Mississippi, and Dixieland in Asheville, North Carolina, the boarding house run by Thomas Wolfe’s mother and a place where Wolfe’s writing germinated.

On my visits to Cross Creek, I was able to view the live oak hammocks surrounding the Rawlings’ home and to peer through the screen on the long porch where Rawlings often sat, typing on a small black manual typewriter – writing THE YEARLING or CROSS CREEK, perhaps. The site is located between Orange Lake and Lochloosa Lake where Rawlings migrated after she served a stint as a journalist for several journals, the last being in Rochester, NY where she wrote a column entitled “Songs of the Housewife” (which she didn’t seem to be!!).

As I sit her on the long porch of the Sullivan home facing Silver Lake, I look out at a great blue heron feeding in the torpedo grass and think about Rawlings sitting on her “Florida house” porch recording her experiences with her “Cracker” neighbors at Cross Creek and her observations about the flora and fauna of this region. With the support of Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, she immortalized the area in the story, THE YEARLING, a poignant narrative about a young Florida boy’s adoption of a pet deer that he eventually had to shoot. This book, for which she received the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, catapulted her to fame.

During one of my stops at a gift shop near the Rawlings’ site, I found a book written by Idella, her African-American maid, entitled IDELLA; MARJORIE RAWLINGS’ PERFECT MAID, which chronicled the relationship of the two in a candid story that didn’t omit Rawling’s fondness for alcohol or accounts of her trigger temper. Although Rawlings’ books are “regional” in my mind, she abhorred that label because she didn’t want her writing to be known as quaint, regional literature. A photograph of her taken by Carl Van Vecten in 1953 reveals a certain toughness that is reflected in the major characters of her novels, short stories, and autobiography.

When I observe the beautiful groves owned by the Sullivan tribe, I remember reading about Marjorie Rawlings’ attempt to build a citrus industry at Cross Creek and how she managed to cultivate a small grove, only to have it destroyed by a freeze (a disaster I’ve seen happen to some of the Sullivan groves). However, Marjorie Kennan Rawlings’ grove wasn’t strategically placed in a warm area of Florida like the groves in Frostproof (hence, the latter’s name) and was destined to fail. I’m sorry she failed to become a citrus magnate, but I’m glad she found her place as an important American writer.

Rawlings’ independence and “toughness” are reminiscent of the “Cracker” spirit of the folk in the Frostproof area. Pioneers who came here during the 1880’s found the same jungle of oaks, palmetto, and thick undergrowth as the vegetation that surrounded Rawlings’ home at Cross Creek. The sandhills near Silver Lake here in Frostproof proved to be ideal for citrus, peaches, figs, and grapes. When I first began visiting this property on Silver Lake, Sullivan orange groves dominated the landscape across the highway. However, members of the Sullivan corporation recently sold this land that was once part of a citrus industry first in production and shipment of citrus fruit in the State of Florida. A huge industrial complex now stands on that property. As e. e. cummings, the poet, says: “Progress is a comfortable disease…”
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