Sunday, September 2, 2012

Zora Neale Hurston and Margaret Rawlings: A Florida Friendship

Zora Neale Hurston: a great lady.
Two Florida writers, bent on translating their Florida environs for the outside world--Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Rawlings--were friends, I was delighted to discover when I heard about the book Crossing the Creek: The Literary Friendship of Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings by Anna Lillios.  Hurston (1891-1960) grew up in Florida, while Rawlings (1896-1953) moved to Cross Creek, Florida, in 1928.

Cast out of her family home in her teens, Hurston was an African-American of fortitude who fought  hard to attain an education and became an artist of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. Rawlings was a white woman from Washington, D.C., who bought her Florida farm with inheritance money from her father. Despite the gaping differences in background, these two women were natural friends joined by their shared interests in writing and their love of Florida and their communities.

By the time these women met in 1940, both had already written their most famous works. Rawlings won the Pulitzer Prize for The Yearling in 1939, and Hurston had written Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937.

Rawlings was friends with writers such as Marcia Davenport (Valley of Decision), Ellen Glasgow (In This Our Life, Pulitzer Prize 1942), and Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind) and was associated with Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel), Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at her farm gate.
Hurston had forged friendships and collaborations with such Harlem literati as Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson (The Book of American Spirituals), and Wallace Thurman (The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life). She was also a lifelong friend of the writer Fanny Hurst (Imitation of Life). However, Hurston's achingly beautiful Their Eyes Were Watching God came under fire from such famous African-American writers as Richard Wright (Native Son), because it lacked the protest themes that Wright thought literature should carry for the fight for justice for African Americans.

At the point that Hurston and Rawlings met, Hurston was already being shoved out of the Harlem Renaissance milieu. Despite this political pressure, she stuck to her belief that African Americans had to maintain their independence and concentrate on their own education and work, an outlook that resonates the view of George Washington Carver, first president of Tuskegee University.

While it is unclear how or when the two Florida writers met, Idella Parker, author of the memoir Idella: Marjorie Rawlings' "Perfect Maid", gives an account of Hurston's first visit to Rawlings' farm. Parker writes that she was surprised to see that the expected visitor was black and "here was Mrs. Rawlings, inviting her in and sitting her down on the porch like she was the queen of England!" The two spent all afternoon together, drinking and talking, and it became clear that Ms. Hurston was in no shape to drive home. Rawlings then directed that Hurston stay with Parker in the servants' house, even though Rawlings had two empty bedrooms in the farmhouse.

Marjorie Rawlings' farmhouse in Cross Creek, Florida. She wrote at a desk on the screened porch.
In 1942, Rawlings invited Hurston to speak to her class at Florida Normal, and then to tea at her husband's segregated hotel in Saint Augustine. This caused Rawlings some internal consternation as she intimated to her friend, Edith Pope, she felt like a coward bringing Hurston into the hotel through the back stairs, since she considered Hurston "a most ingratiating personality, a brilliant mind, and [with a] fundamental wisdom that shames most whites."

Later that year Hurston wrote a letter to Rawlings in praise of Cross Creek: "You turned your inside light on their community life, and it broke like day..." and invited Rawlings to join her on her houseboat. Although encouraged by her editor Maxwell Perkins to do so, Rawlings declined, pleading involvement in a new book under difficult conditions, since Mrs. Parker had left her employ and her husband, Norman Baskins, was away at the war.

In response, Hurston wrote back that "I would be so glad to come and take everything off your hands until you are through with yours [book]. I know just what you need.... Really now, Miss Rawlings, if you find yourself losing your stride, let me help you out. I know so tragically what it means to be trying to concentrate and being nagged by the necessity of living."

Upon receipt of this letter, Marjorie Rawlings' views on race shifted dramatically. She wrote to her husband that the "Negro writer Zora Neale Hurston has done one of the most beautiful things I have ever known.... I shed tears over this woman's offer. She is an artist in her own right... She and Dr. Carver seem monumental to me. To transcend the humiliation of their position and being at the peak themselves, to have such graciousness.--Such bigness.... Her offer settles in my mind all doubts I have had about throwing myself into the fight for an honest chance for the Negro."

According to Lillios, "over the course of the decade, Rawlings would write and act in support of these rights."
Zora Neale Hurston's last home, in Fort Pierce, Florida.
When Hurston soon thereafter arrived at Rawlings' doorstep to help, they had a free-wheeling long discussion, which touched on racial issues, as reported in Rawlings' letters. This time Hurston slept in the farmhouse, "and I have never in my life been so glad that I was not a coward," Rawlings wrote her husband. "I had to hurdle an awfully wide ditch [Rawlings was involved in a local law suit at the time]. I was amazed to find that my own prejudices were so deep. It has always surprised me that my thinking is so Southern. But I felt that if I ever was to prove my humanitarian and moral beliefs, even it if it cost me the lawsuit, I must do it then."

From then on, Rawlings argued with friends and Florida public figures against racial segregation and in 1948 spoke at the African American Fisk University, staying with the university president. Over the next years, the friendship between these two women was suspended, as Hurston moved north again, and then renewed in the early 1950s, when Hurston was back in Florida. In 1952, Rawlings responded to a letter from Hurston:
Now you are at Belle Glade and I am at Cross Creek and we are both working like Lucifer trying to keep from getting kicked out of heaven, and I shall not be going South in the State, but if you happen to come prowling further North, do stop by at least for overnight or even longer. It might do us both good to compare notes from hell. I have so much to tell you. With love, Marjorie Rawlings
Zora Neale Hurston's hand-painted Christmas card to Rawlings and her husband in 1948.
But Hurston was unable to make the trip and was distraught when she learned that Rawlings had died suddenly on December 14, 1953. Writing to her friend Mary Holland, Hurston reported that she "was so depressed by the death of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings."

Lillios' account of the Hurston-Rawlings friendship is marred by superimposition of modern political correctness on both parties, although she gives Rawlings credit for changing her views and behavior toward African Americans. Rawlings was a product of her time, and we can be thankful that many people combined, via all kinds of pathways, to end segregation. But to me, Lillios' racial binoculars miss the point. Both Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Rawlings were women writers who had sought out community, loved their communities, and wrote about them in celebration. For both women, connection with and extension to others was paramount, the mother lode of human existence and therefore art. Their friendship was a natural, and we can be grateful that the pathways of these two Floridians crossed and that they drew sustenance from each other.

1 comment:

Jodi said...

Thank you Linda for such an interesting post. I now must get my hands on Hurston's Their Eyes were Watching God, and Thomas Wolf's Look Homeward, Angel, the book that you recommended on Thursday. Oh and guess what? I heard there is a remake of the movie Anna Karenina coming out. Supposedly, Jude Law is playing Levin.