Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings upended her life with an impulsive decision. A hard-charging journalist in the rambunctious 1920s, in 1928 she bought — sight unseen — a farm in the tiny hamlet of Cross Creek, Fla., moved south and began to raise oranges and write novels. Her decision to follow her dream resulted in the novel "The Yearling," a much loved, bittersweet tale of a boy and his pet deer. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1939.
Rawlings (1896-1953) was a bushel basket full of contradictions. She portrayed the lives of the poor whites of Florida (known as Crackers in the 1930s) with tenderness and realism, but she and her neighbors had a complicated relationship, and one of her Cracker friends would eventually sue her for libel.
She made exacting demands on her Black servants to deliver sumptuous Southern hospitality for friends (her dinners for visiting literati would eventually inspire a cookbook), but her attitudes eventually shifted from those of a Southerner who casually used racial slurs to a believer in complete equality for Black people. Unchurched, she nevertheless believed in a "cosmic consciousness," and she tried to position humanity's place in it. She yearned for love and a home, but required privacy, maintained multiple residences and struggled within the bounds of two marriages.
It's great material for a biographer, and McCutchan, author of several books and a lyricist and librettist, has a graceful style enlivened by glints of wry humor. Sections of the book of particular interest are those that trace Rawlings' gradual evolution on the issue of race, fueled in part by her friendship with Zora Neale Hurston, the Black writer whose warmth and talent helped challenge Rawlings' acceptance of segregation's status quo.
The book re-creates the lush tropicality of north-central Florida in the 1930s and 1940s, before developers began to bulldoze over its natural wonders. And readers get a penetrating look at one driven writer's work process — Rawlings' correspondence with her editor, the legendary Maxwell Perkins, is the apotheosis of a nurturing writer-editor relationship.
And yet, it's not quite clear what tormented and inspired Rawlings. Her life was defined by a pattern of "overwork and collapse," McCutchan writes, and she made her precarious health worse by ignoring advice on what to eat and what not to drink. She became a full-blown alcoholic and jeopardized both herself and friends in booze-stoked car crashes.
One marriage failed; another was largely a long distance affair, and friends, colleagues and lovers alike were subjected to "swift, deep changes in temperament." The "cosmic consciousness" McCutchan says Kinnan always grasped for is never deeply explored.
Perhaps Rawlings would have explained herself better, had she lived. She died of a stroke at age 57, right after she submitted her last novel, "The Sojourner," to her publisher. Rawlings was first and foremost a writer, and this is a vivid portrait of a woman who gave her all to do her best work.
Mary Ann Gwinn is a book critic in Seattle and a former board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
The Life She Wished to Live
By: Ann McCutchan.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 448 pages, $35.