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.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at Cross Creek, photographer unknown. Courtesy Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Papers, Department of Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at Cross Creek, photographer unknown. Courtesy Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Papers, Department of Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida

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:

From Wallace Stevens who spent an evening at Cross Creek being disagreeable and obstreperous. Got drunk, read his poems with deliberate stupidity. Held out his arms to me and said, “Come, my Love.”

The others at the Matheson gobbled all this up, save one white-bearded man who was snoring. During the question-and-answer session, a woman with cropped silver hair stood and spoke mistily and at length about her first time reading The Yearling, and a man apostrophized the taxidermied bear in the corner of the room, calling him Slewfoot, the name of the canny black bear that is the family’s nemesis in the book. Then we were released, and I made the walk home in the dark, our neighborhood hoot-owl flapping from oak to oak beside me. I found I was terribly sad.

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