Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: Pioneer of Literature and Land by: Debra Ann Butler
A rusting chain-link gate leads into the quaint Antioch Cemetery in Hawthorne, Florida. Faded directions instruct visitors to walk straight back and to the left to find the frequently sought-after grave of author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Grand oaks laden with moss and robust cedar trees guard the grounds. Rawlings rests beside her husband, hotelier Norton Baskin. Both graves, covered with simple marble slabs, reflect the humble people they were. Artificial sunflowers, pencils, pens, pocket-size ceramic farm animals, and a sealed miniature bottle of Jack Daniels lay on Rawlings stone – left behind by fans of her work.
In 1928 at thirty-two years old and without much farming experience, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings purchased a 52-acre farm and orange grove in Cross Creek, Florida. Living in New York, Ms. Rawlings struggled to sell her gothic novels to Scribner Publishing. Her new plan was to move onto the farm, sell her stories, and use the money made from the grove to fall back on in the lean times.
Frustration and depression set in as Ms. Rawlings received one rejection after another. Money was running out; the orange grove required constant attention due to its previous neglect. Maxwell Perkins, a good friend and editor, convinced Ms. Rawlings that she was following the wrong path in her literary career. From reading her many letters, Perkins suggested that she write about what she knew the most, life at Cross Creek, instead of romantic gothics.
Rawlings’ career finally skyrocketed in 1938 with the publication of her book, The Yearling. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this novel in 1939. The Yearling became a classic and endeared readers worldwide to the backwoods and countryside of Florida. Rawlings wrote other Cross Creek-based novels including South Moon Under, The Sojourner, Cross Creek, and many other short stories, but none of those made quite the impact on readers as Cross Creek did.
Cross Creek was published in 1942 and beautifully narrated Ms. Rawlings’ life at the
farm. At one point in Cross Creek, Rawlings related the scent of her orange blossoms of which she was so fond, “The first orange blossoms have opened. For a month or six weeks we shall be giddy by day with them and at night drown in a sea of perfume.” Readers, anxious to sample some of the foods Rawlings described in Cross Creek, begged her to publish a cookbook. In 1942, Cross Creek Cookery was printed just in time for Christmas sales.
Writing Cross Creek Cookery allowed Rawlings to share her most cherished recipes. Among them, she portrayed one of her favorites, Tangerine Sherbet, as “a Cross Creek spécialité du maison. Friends cry for it. It is to my winter what mango ice cream is to the summer.” Her talent as a gourmet cook using local cuisine, pleased many visiting friends such as Margaret Mitchell and Zora Neale Hurston. Another of Rawlings’ writerly acquaintances who is rumored to have indulged in her cooking was Ernest Hemingway. Credited for a favorite ingredient found in Rawlings’ kitchen was her Jersey cow Dora which earned the reputation for producing the best cream of any cow ever known. A naval soldier once wrote to Ms. Rawlings, “You will be interested to know that the Hawaiian mangos are very good - and my, don’t I wish I had Dora.”
Idella Parker, author of Idella and longtime housekeeper of Ms. Rawlings, recounted Rawlings as an “independent and self-sufficient woman.” Ms. Parker’s book identified Rawlings as temperamental with a moody side. Rawlings did enjoy her liquor, and at times the drinking made her impossible to get along with. She also had a soft and insecure side but did not allow many to see it. While spending some quiet time at her Crescent Beach cottage, she wrote to her longtime love, Norton Baskin, “Darling, I miss you painfully. I’m not going to ever leave you again. Well, hardly ever…. I despise being away from you.” Rawlings went on to marry Norton Baskin in 1941 but never took his name. They were together until her untimely death in December 1953.
Today, Rawlings’ home and land in Cross Creek are operated as the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park. Tours of the home reveal many of her belongings such as original furniture, cookware, and the Remington typewriter that Rawlings used to write her celebrated stories. Volunteers maintain the vegetable garden and care for numerous chickens and ducks wandering around the farmyard. A self-guided tour along the shady winding trail on-site flanked by monuments bearing quotes from Rawlings’ novels, steer explorers among old orange trees, looming oaks, and swaying palms.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings proved to be a pioneering woman through her fervent writing about the very essence of life in the early Florida scrub. She was not an ordinary woman; Rawlings could hunt alongside any man and cook dishes that made mouths water. Her writing was passionate and lifelike. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings summed up the love for her surroundings in the book Cross Creek when she wrote, “Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time.”