Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that McCutchan was invited to a residency in Fort Davis, Colorado. The residency was in Fort Davis, Texas.
A love of Florida first drew writer Ann McCutchan to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who won the Pulitzer in 1939 for her novel The Yearling.
McCutchan, who was a faculty member in the University of North Texas Creative Writing Program from 2005-2016, earned a residency in Fort Davis, Texas, after finishing a book about the way the Atchafalaya River Basin and musician Earl Robicheaux informed one another. The residency was run by a couple — Richard and Joanne Bartlett — who ran the private foundation to further environmental literature.
In plainer language, the Bartletts wanted to nurture writers for whom places act like quiet characters, documenting landscapes and how the earth seems to grow roots into the people who live on it. Richard Bartlett, now deceased, had lived where McCutchan had grown up in Florida, it turns out.
“We ended up talking about Florida a lot,” McCutchan said.
After Richard Bartlett died, Joanne invited McCutchan to Fort Davis to box up his sizeable environmental library for a donation to Sul Ross State University in Alpine. As they worked, Joanne Bartlett offered McCutchan “the Florida books” her husband had collected. Later, she offered McCutchan a job: crafting the biography of Rawlings, a woman who could be as uncompromising as she was dogged.
“She looked at me and said I think a biography of Marjorie needs to be written, and you need to be the one to do it,” McCutchan said.
McCutchan, who eventually moved from Texas to Laramie, Wyoming, accepted the books and the biography. The Life She Wished to Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Author of The Yearling. was published this year by W.W. Norton & Company (448 pages, Hardcover, $35.).
The project acquainted her with Rawlings, who cast a curious eye everywhere she landed.
“I love this woman and her gutsiness,” McCutchan said. “I’m not a drinker like she is. But she was incredibly gutsy. She wasn’t afraid to jump into something and learn. She was a woman in charge of her life. I had to be careful to not start talking to her. It was a good match, me and Marjorie.”
Rawlings was an unlikely literary giant. She was born in Washington, D.C., at the end of the 19th century, and studied English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she collected academic honors and worked on the campus literary magazine. That’s where she met Charles Rawlings, an aspiring writer himself. The Rawlingses ended up working for the Louisville Courier-Journal in Kentucky and the Rochester Journal in New York.
“Marjorie had two marriages, and they were fascinating,” McCutchan said. “It was a passionate, tempestuous marriage.”
Marjorie Rawlings landed a job as a major feature writer at the Rochester paper, where she was publishing two or three major features on the front page — or in the first section of the journal — each week. Charles did some writing, too, but also worked as a traveling salesman. McCutchan said Charles was envious of his wife’s greater literary success.
“He accused her of an affair, and she quit,” McCutchan said. “She did that for him. Then she moved to Florida and had almost immediate success.”
But before their marriage ended, Rawlings used the inheritance she got from her mother to buy an orange grove in Hawthorne, Florida, in a community called Cross Creek. Rawlings would eventually immortalize the community in a memoir that would be her second most popular book, Cross Creek. Her second marriage was more suited to Rawlings, McCutchan said.
“Ultimately, she married a man (Norton Baskin) who’d been a friend,” McCutchan said. “He was affable, kind, and he was not a writer, but a reader. They had, almost, a long-distance marriage. He gave her space, and he ran his hotel during the week.”
McCutchan said she was charmed by Rawlings’ independence, her gumption and her endless curiosity. Rawlings loved to cook, and she learned to grow and hunt for food in Cross Creek, often while wearing a dress. She arrived in Florida without much shooting, fishing or gardening experience.
“What she did back then in the 1930s and ‘40s on her farm was not what we’d do now. Which is look at The New York Times [food section] and go to the Indian store for spices,” McCutchan said. “She learned to hunt. She learned to fish. She had a dairy cow, a garden, and if she didn’t capture it herself — turtle meat, crab, various birds and the like — she didn’t eat. Her neighbors were subsistence folks, and she learned how to do what they did.”
Her time in Florida — from her own orange grove to the kitchen where she carefully cooked for her friends — seasoned her writing. Her most popular novel, The Yearling, was about a young Florida boy, Jody, who feels the slings and arrows of life as a poor teenager in a poor community. His hardships and tenderness are especially poignant as he bonds with a pet fawn. Jody discovers that love can last longer than life, and that grief points to the preciousness of our relationships.
“The Yearling is not a children’s book,” McCutchan said. “I don’t know how it came to be regarded as a children’s book, because it’s an adult novel. There is a young boy at the center of the book, that’s true. I had read it a long time ago, and I read it again when I started working on the biography. I cried at the end, as people do. In the 1950s, after Marjorie died, it got a reputation as a kids book. But it really isn’t.”
Cross Creek further cemented Rawlings as a writer who wove the landscape into the lives of the characters and the plot. She was a protegé of the famous editor Max Perkins, who was also the editor for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe.
After Rawlings died, Florida began honoring her contributions. Her home at Cross Creek is now a state park. Her children’s book, The Secret River, was published posthumously and won the Newberry Medal in 1956. Her friendship with novelist Zora Neale Hurston challenged Rawlings’ views on race. The glades, the groves and the people of Florida forever changed her writing.
“She embedded herself in that world,” McCutchan said. “It’s all about that world. She writes out of that world. Marjorie was obsessed with cosmic consciousness — the idea that everything is connected, but that we are kind of at the mercy of all that connection. These characters in this part of Florida, they are so connected to the land that it is kind of tough on them.”