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Whoever wrote the entry on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in Merriam Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature offers a pretty opinionated view of the writer’s work:
Rawlings took her material from the people and land around her, and her books are less fiction than vivid factual reporting.
Really? Is that shocking? Did F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway not take their material from people and places familiar to them? Willa Cather and Eudora Welty? Marcel Proust? John Steinbeck? I could go on and on, but so could you, I’m sure.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was born in 1896, and her first novel, South Moon Under, written from her rural home in Cross Creek in interior northern Florida, was published 1933. The writer of the Encyclopedia of Literature piece acknowledges the author’s “magical description of the landscape” of the area in and around Cross Creek, brought to the attention of other Americans in her most famous novel, The Yearling. But it’s South Moon Under I’ve been reading — for the first time — and on the very first page the Florida scrub habitat springs to life:
Light still hung raggedly above the hammock west of the cleared acres. Here and there a palm shook its head against the faint orange of the sky, or the varnished small leaves of a live oak were for a moment luminous. There was an instant when the hammock reared back against the west; when the outline of each tree-top was distinct; when the clearing gathered about it the shreds of twilight. Then there was no longer scrub or clearing or hammock. Blackness obliterated them with a great velvet paw and crouched like a panther on the cabin doorstep.
- Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, South Moon Under
I can see the palm tree shaking its head and then the black velvet paw of the panther blotting out the trees and everything else. Rawlings does indeed capture the uniqueness of the scrub habitat, its moods and effects on moods as well as its flora and fauna.
But her artistry does not end there. All the while as you are reading along, lulled by scenery and character and dialect and the small events that form the society of the Florida scrub, a world completely different from the one most of us inhabit (and all the more so in that she was describing it as it was over eight decades ago), Rawlings is building a subtle, almost invisible narrative arc. My opinion is that this surprising first novel has been terribly underrated and deserves far more serious attention.
I want to turn my attention now, however, to the physical book in my hands and ask you to look at it with me. How can this possibly be a first edition, although the Scribner’s “A” is there on the copyright page?
Look carefully at the pages. The type is not crisp and clear. The binding, however, is in excellent condition, though, isn’t it? For a book from 1933, without a dust jacket, to look so good is -- or would be, if it were that old -- astonishing. Sure enough, when we search online we find that the cloth binding of the first edition was light green, not dark blue, thus the volume that came into my hands is a modern reprint masquerading as a first edition. What individual or company is responsible for its production? There is no hint in or on the book.
Book piracy is rampant online, and there are few protections against it. Know your book dealer!
Coming soon: Thoughts about literary regionalism. Do you have questions about it?