Finding Marjorie in the Flower City
A Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist’s Rochester roots
In 1921 a young literary couple moved to Rochester.
Marjorie Kinnan met Charles Rawlings while in college at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, where they both wrote for the school literary magazine, and they married in 1919. Both had lofty dreams of glittering literary careers. Marjorie longed to be a novelist in the style of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. Charles wrote short stories and saw the cutting edge of journalism as his career path. They initially came to Charles’s hometown of Rochester soon after their marriage with hopes of getting jobs at one of the newspapers in town. When that proved fruitless, the couple moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where Marjorie wrote features and a regular column for the Louisville Courier-Journal:“Live Women in Live Louisville.”
They returned to Rochester in 1921 with renewed hope and a couple of years of experience under their belts. They hoped that the second time would be the trick and they would land jobs at one of Rochester’s six newspapers while writing novels and short stories on the side. Although this move was not totally successful for Charles, it would prove to be the launchpad of Marjorie’s literary career—one that would eventually place her under the guidance of the great Scribner’s editor Max Perkins, and in the sphere of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway.
The 1920s were an interesting time to be a writer, especially if you were a woman. Women had just won the right to vote, but on the pages of the nation’s newspapers the work of women journalists was largely curtailed to domestic issues.
For a brief time, Marjorie wrote for the Rochester society magazine Five O’Clock. The magazine was devoted to “verses, jokes, and other material with local color.” She wrote under the pen name “Lady Alicia Thwaite.” The managing editor was Henry W. Clune, who hired her to satirically chronicle the cultural scene in Rochester. When her contract ended (or was terminated—it’s unclear), Clune added the following at the end of Rawlings’s last article:“This is the last in a series of articles by Lady Thwaite. Her life has been so repeatedly threatened, that she has been forced to retire, for the time being, from print.”
It may have been that Lady Thwaite was done at Five O’Clock, but we are unsure if Marjorie continued writing under another guise.
In 1926, Marjorie approached the editor of the Times-Union with a unique idea: she would write a poem every day, five days a week, on the subject of being a housewife. By then, the Rawlingses were living in a Tudor Revival house on Monteroy Road in Brighton. The skeptical editor wasn’t sure how a series of poems about domestic issues would be received by his largely working-class readers. However, her persistence paid off, and the first of 500 poems was published on May 24, 1926. No one could have predicted the popularity of “Songs of a Housewife.” The paper was inundated with cards and letters with suggestions from area readers for the new column, and on June 8, a four-column feature with photos introduced Marjorie with the header “Where ‘Songs of a Housewife’ Were Born” and the subtitle “Rochester Girl Discovered that Something as Old as Pots and Pans Could be Put into Verse for Benefit of Other Housewives—Reaps Reward of Originality.” In this article, she is quoted as saying,“I have found that there is romance in housework: and charm in it; and whimsy and humor without end. I have found that the housewife works hard, of course—but likes it. Most people who amount to anything do work hard, at whatever their job happens to be.” She continued, “There are unhappy housewives, of course. But there are unhappy stenographers and editresses and concert singers. The housewife whose songs I sing as I go about my work, is the one who likes her job.”
Through these poems she was talking to a new American woman who sought equality both at the workplace and at home. Within a short time, “Songs of a Housewife” was nationally syndicated in more than fifty papers throughout the country, and the letters of support and suggestion flooded in from fans from all over the US. Fifty years before Erma Bombeck was writing that “The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank” from her home in Ohio, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was writing poems about the perfect pie, the beauty parlor, and homemade jam from her home in Rochester.
An excerpt from one of my favorite poems about pie:
“The woman who can make a good pie Stands on her own Gibraltar
And men will always hover by To lead her to the altar.”
– February 25, 1927
She would complete Blood of My Blood, her autobiographical first novel, here in Rochester. Although never published in her lifetime, it was published by the University Press of Florida in 2002.
In 1928, the couple moved to central Florida and purchased a house that Charles’s brothers, James and Wray, found for them in Cross Creek. It seemed the perfect place to write while earning income working their citrus farm. Varying levels of success forced them to part ways in 1933. Marjorie’s career blossomed, and she would grow to have the glittering literary career that she dreamt of, although not quite in the style of an Austen or Brontë. Her work, including South Moon Under, the 1934 Pulitzer Prize finalist Golden Apples, the 1939 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Yearling, Cross Creek, and The Cross Creek Cookery. celebrates the people and the landscape of the Florida scrub. She loved her home in Florida and played host to many of the literary world’s greatest, including Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Mitchell, and Thornton Wilder.
The film version of The Yearling starred Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman and won two Academy Awards. It recently celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary with a celebration weekend attended by Claude Jarman (who played Jody in the film) as well as Marjorie’s two nieces, who traveled from Rochester to Florida for the event. Cross Creek was made into a film in 1983 starring Mary Steenburgen, Rip Torn, and Peter Coyote.
Marjorie made one final trip to Rochester in 1952. Her brother-in-law, Jim Rawlings, had died suddenly, leaving a widow and two young girls, the youngest of whom had been named for Marjorie. (Both of Marjorie’s nieces still reside in Rochester.) The eldest child, Marcia, remembers taking her famous aunt to Rogers Middle School for “Show and Tell.”
Knowing in some small part that Rochester played a role in her eventual literary success,
her nieces plan to donate a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings rosebush to the Maplewood Rose Garden.
Marjorie’s House in Florida is a State Historic Park and on the National Register of Historic Places. floridastateparks.org
To learn more about Rawlings’s life, read the new and most definitive biography The Life She Wished to Live by Ann McCutchan (W.W. Norton).