Drawing from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ own letters and papers, Ann McCutchan delves into the origins of the Pulitzer-Prize winning author’s artistry in her new book “The Life She Wished to Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Author of The Yearling.” This read unravels Rawlings’ life and literary career, including her relationships with contemporaries like Zora Neale Hurston and Ernest Hemingway―and the rural Floridians that she lived among. A recent New York Times review calls McCutchan “a sensitive observer of Rawlings’ work, and of her deeply unconventional life in general.”
Stephenie Livingston, operations manager and contributing writer for The Marjorie, sat down with McCutchan via Skype to chat about the biography, which paints a vivid portrait of a troubled artist who went to great lengths to discover, understand and reveal a hidden part of Florida to the world.
Buy a copy here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Livingston: Ann, thank you so much for taking the time in the middle of promoting your new book to chat with us here at The Marjorie. We are big fans, of course, and included the biography in our 2021 Summer Reading List.
McCutchan: I first heard of The Marjorie, I guess it was two years ago when there was a presentation at The Rawlings Society meeting and I thought, ‘Oh my God, if, if I were your age, I’d be doing that. Yeah. I want to be 31 again, or whatever y’all are.’
Livingston: Thanks, Ann! So, I’ll just jump right in. I know you spent several years researching Marjorie’s life. What were some of the most surprising things you learned about Marjorie as you researched the new book?
McCutchan: I guess it surprised me that her excessive drinking went on for years, but it also didn’t surprise me, in a way, because little was known about alcoholism back then. At one point, a doctor told her she was fine to keep drinking and her diverticulosis would not be impacted. That’s stupid. So that was a heartbreak. I admit I got mad at her sometimes for her excesses. Every time I discovered something Marjorie had done that I wouldn’t have done, I would just go ‘Oh, Marge, oh, Marge, why?’
Another surprise was a close liaison she had for a time with a U.S. Army major, Otto Lange. This was between her marriages. That she kept his correspondence, his letters to her—they are wonderful letters—tell me theirs was a very important relationship to her. This man was so significant to her life that she left her writing desk to him in her will.
Livingston: It sounds like there was an extensive investigation behind the book. Can you give us a glimpse of what that investigation was like and what you discovered deep in the material?
McCutchan: There were numerous trips for research. For example, I spent a week in Rochester, New York, just going through many feet of microfilm, looking for pieces that Marjorie had written for the Rochester newspapers in the early ‘20s. There hadn’t been many documented, maybe two or three, but I found a big batch. And that particular body of work, if you will, showed me a big, big piece of her early journalism career that hadn’t been clear to anyone. It raised questions for me, though, because that stint, writing prominently placed features in the Rochester Evening Journal and the Rochester American, stopped abruptly after just three months, and I wondered, why, why did she stop writing those features? And then I studied the correspondence between her and her first husband, Chuck Rawlings, and saw that he had been jealous of the time Marjorie spent with her (male) editor; he suspected she was having an affair with him. So, she quit writing for the papers to calm Chuck down. Okay, she said to him, I’ll quit, if you’re gonna be such a jealous, you know, SOB.
Livingston: Did you learn anything about Marjorie that you found relatable?
McCutchan: She had a glorious love of Cross Creek and farm life and rural beauty. And she also loved to go to the city for short periods. I could identify with that. What I admired, chiefly, was her dedication to her writing. I write differently; I write different things. But for me, it’s a real need, and it was for her, too. I could just slip right in beside her ghost on a writing day. She wasn’t just ambitious—she needed to write. I love knowing that.
McCutchan: My dog, by the way, turns two next week. She’s an Australian shepherd. She’s the only registered dog I’ve ever had, and you might know that the AKC requires you to submit an official three-name name. Cora’s full registered name is Cora Marjorie Rawlings.
Livingston: I love that! Hi, Marjorie! Okay, back to the original Marjorie. Why did you approach her biography as an origin story?
McCutchan: As I told a friend of mine, who’s a writer, the whole book is about “how Marjorie got any writing done.” That’s an exaggeration, but that theme runs through it. I was fortunate to work with an incredible archive that she left to the University of Florida, one that includes all the correspondence from her editor Maxwell Perkins. So, part of what I did was chart that relationship over time, which is so much about getting writing done and making writing better.
I also think it’s important for people to read about how difficult it was for a woman to make a writing career. There’s a little bit of a feminist history there for everyone. But Marjorie was a force of nature, I think, in that she stuck to what she wanted to do. She made a way to do it against all odds. And even though she slipped towards the end with her alcohol, her ill health, I still think she’s a wonderful role model. She’s one of mine, that’s for sure. Now, I don’t mean to say this is a book simply for women to be inspired by. That’s part of it, but really, this book is about a great American life.
Livingston: I love that answer. She’s such an icon here in Florida.
McCutchan: She really put the Cross Creek area of Florida on a national literary map. That’s important. We look at Flannery O’Connor and say, okay, there’s central Georgia. Eudora Welty is Jackson, Mississippi. Who do we have for Florida? We have Marjorie.
Livingston: Yes, especially for rural Florida where I’m from. She gave rural Florida a voice, and that’s important for such a misunderstood part of the state.
That actually brings me to my last question. At The Marjorie, we’re always writing against these biases and stereotypes about our state that are common in national media by telling Florida stories from a Florida perspective. Marjorie was an outsider in Cross Creek, but she wrote with such authenticity. What can writers and readers learn from Marjorie’s approach to telling Florida stories?
McCutchan: Well, the one thing we can learn is that we need to take the time to know a place before we tell a story about it. We do have to be of the place as much as we can possibly be if we come from the outside. One of the things I like to say about Marjorie is that she wrote out of Cross Creek. She didn’t write about it – that’s not the same — she wrote out of it. She was within it. She lived in it. She planted things in it. She harvested things in it. She bartered with her neighbors. Yes, she walked around in high heels and a dress and so on—that was outsider-ish. She was always an outsider. But she did not assume superiority or presume to be anybody when she moved there. So, I guess what we can learn from her is a sense of humility…for any of us who move to a new place. We should not just barge in. We should enter and figure out where we might fit and how we might best serve the place we’re in. I think that was Marjorie’s approach.