Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's Rivers

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's Rivers

Article excerpt

"Sense of place" is the most descriptive phrase to emerge from the relatively small amount of criticism on the works of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The phrase appeared first in a review of The Yearling in the Times Literary Supplement on December 24, 1938, and has been used since by her critics, whether directly or indirectly, in placing her in the categories of regionalist, local colorist, Southern gothicist, and twentieth-century realist. One of the two full-length books on Rawlings, Gordon Bigelow's Frontier Eden, epitomizes in its imaginative and provocative title her preoccupation with creating a locale.

Rawlings herself best expressed the meaning and importance of a "sense of place" when she said in her autobiographical Cross Creek, "the matter of adjustment to physical environment is as fascinating as the adjustment of man to man, and as many-sided. The place that is right for one is wrong for another, and I think that much human unhappiness comes from ignoring the primordial relation of man to his background." (1) Among the memorable elements of her stories, probably the "sense of place" and her "cracker" characters have been most admired by her readers, but "place" has been interpreted largely as preoccupation with the pictorial description of setting. The phrase "sense of place" may be used, however, in a broader critical evaluation of the artistic merit of her stories. Place, or setting, is used in her Florida stories as the chief architectonic element for showing her essential theme that in order to be happy, man must know or discover a relationship to a suitable physical setting.

Rawlings uses rivers in her writings as the chief aspect of place and as the chief thematic element of setting. In all her stories in which man seeks to identify with his natural environment, there is a consciousness of the river either as the outside limits of the setting or as the connecting link between her setting and the rest of the world.

She came to love the rivers in North Central Florida which outline the scrub, known today as the Ocala National Forest; the two which appear prominently in her fiction are the St. Johns and the Ocklawaha. She described this river-bordered world: "The Florida scrub was unique.... There was perhaps no similar region anywhere. It was a vast dry rectangular plateau, bounded on three sides by two rivers. The Ocklawaha, flowing towards the north, bounded it on the west. At the north-west corner of the rectangle the Ocklawaha turned sharply at right angles and flowed due east, joining, at the north-east corner, the St. Johns river which formed the eastern demarcation.... Within these deep watery lines the scrub stood aloof, uninhabited through its wider reaches." (2) This is from South Moon Under, her first novel, and is thus her earliest description of the river borders which were to become in succeeding works the framework of her sense of place for Cross Creek and the scrub.

Though not a symbolist, despite her emergence as a writer during the fluent years of deliberate symbolists, she is indeed a strongly conscious literary artist. Dismissed lightly at times as merely descriptive, Rawlings's novels are carefully knit together through the use of description itself as a structural element in her plot, rather than as simply an elaboration of the real story. But of all the geographical entities focused on in her writing--clearings, landings, hammocks, pine islands, homesteads--the description of rivers is the most significant to the course of her story-telling art as well as to her own life. Rivers were for her the perfect conceptualization of order because they offered structure without excessive orderliness. She protested another form of boundary, the elegance of a new fence at her Cross Creek home, because it would bring "a wanton orderliness that is out of place" (CC, p. 9).

Her own career shows the need for such boundaries as rivers, which give a sense of place. …

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