Criticism — From the January 2014 issue

The Lost Yearling

An American classic fades away

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One night last April, I walked from my house in Gainesville, Florida, to the Matheson Museum, a shy brick building hidden by a thicket of palmettos and so small that the forty or so people seated inside seemed to make the walls bulge. I’d come for one of the first events in “The Year of The Yearling,” the seventy-fifth-anniversary celebration of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s 1938 novel. Someone had made molasses cookies from a recipe in Marjorie’s cookbook, Cross Creek Cookery, which powered us through a slide show: the backwoods Florida crackers who inspired The Yearling, the map of the scrub annotated in Marjorie’s hand, the writer in sundry poses.

A woman as stout and dark as Marjorie stood before us in a boxy 1940s skirt suit, with a felt hat cocked to the side. This was Betty Jean Steinshouer, a scholar and Chautauqua performer steeped in Marjorie lore. She pulled out a flask and channeled the saucy, blasphemous, drunken writer for more than half an hour. A discussion of Marjorie walling up her barrels of moonshine to keep them away from her maid begot a more general consideration of Marjorie’s dipsomania, which begot the story of her meeting with Ernest Hemingway in Bimini, which begot a meditation on Wallace Stevens, who came to dinner at Marjorie’s and offended her so much that she jotted on his thank-you note:

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  • Abeita

    My dear Ms. Groff: Loved your article except for one thing, which isn’t your doing, but Mr. Davis’. You quote him as saying that Florida is never home, which even he must know is hyperbole. We born and bred are many, and we love the state as other people love theirs, as only Floridians who grew up capturing armadillos in blankets, and hopping over inconvenient rattle snakes and alligators while out playing, can. We love the stillness of its rivers, the moss hanging from its live oaks, the crazy ass shit people do. I live in Atlanta now, but every time I drive over the border toward home, my smile arrives (And I sing Suwanee River really loud to everyone in the cars chagrin.). PS: I have been to Marjorie’s house, love the book “Cross Creek”, (and the movie) but admit to never having read “The Yearling” all the way through. The rascism is off-putting, and though the description is glorious, it is also endless and too familiar.

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