1939 Pulitzer Prize Review: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

“A column of smoke rose thin and straight from the cabin chimney. The smoke was blue where it left the red of the clay. It trailed into the blue of the April sky and was no longer blue but blue gray. The boy Jody watched it…” -opening lines

Set in the late 19th century wildlands of central Florida, The Yearling is Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s most celebrated novel. The book was the product of her decision to relocate to a vast citrus ranch situated in the “hammock country” of Cross Creek, Florida. Fascinated by the landscape, Kinnan Rawlings began filling numerous notebooks documenting the flora, fauna, and culture of the region. She wrote about the simple but harsh lives of the “Florida Cracker” people, a nickname for the Southern peoples who migrated southward from Appalachia to Georgia and Florida, though it has since become a pejorative term. The term “cracker” originally came from the cracking sound of whips used by cattlemen. At any rate, the rural region outside Gainesville, Florida was composed mainly of poor whites who survived by hunting, fishing, or tending to the surrounding orchards. It was a difficult life, and this is where we find ourselves in The Yearling.

The Yearling takes place across the span of one year in the life of a twelve year old boy named Jody Baxter. Jody is the only child of Penny and Ora “Ma” Baxter. They are a family of subsistence hunters and farmers who struggle to survive. Jody’s father, Penny Baxter, is a small but capable hunter who leads Jody through the untamed wilderness filled with bears, wolves, and panthers. Before settling in Florida, Penny was apparently a Confederate veteran. His background is somewhat vague but little clues are dropped throughout the story. In the novel we are introduced to a variety of other characters as well: Slewfoot, a crafty bear who seems to elude the Baxters at every turn (until the conclusion); the Forresters, an unruly neighboring family whose handicapped son “Fodder-wing” becomes friends with Jody; and the wise old Grandma Hutto.

Despite being a well-celebrated novel, I found The Yearling to be a drab and dreary read. There is almost nothing at stake in the novel. The only remarkable plot-points occur at the beginning and end of the book. At the outset Jody’s father, Penny, gets bitten by a rattlesnake. He and Jody race home to find help in addressing the snakebite but while en route home Penny slays a deer to harvest the poison from his body as time is running out. Despite this saving grace Jody must still rush to the find a doctor alone. Thankfully he is granted aid from a nearby rival family: the Forresters. From this experience Jody befriends the slain deer’s fawn which he names “Flag.” Jody brings Flag back home to dwell among the Baxter family and we, the listless readers, are offered several hundred pages of minimal intrigue –scenes of hunting and various attacks by wolves or bears. Almost nothing actually drives the plot forward in this section of the novel. It is only at the conclusion, when we arrive at Penny’s ailing health, that we discover Jody’s dramatic conflict over the need to kill Flag (Flag has eaten a portion of the Baxter family’s vital food supplies and he is expected to kill the deer as recompense). In the final chapter Jody subsequently attempts a flight to Boston, but he is soon picked up and returned home, however this little trip reveals him to have suddenly become a mature young man who is capable of assuming his father’s responsibilities. At the conclusion, Jody is no longer a “yearling” (the comparisons between the death of Flag and the loss of Jody’s innocence are made starkly apparent). While intended to be a “coming of age” tale in the vein of later young adult novels like Where The Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, or Hatchet, I must admit The Yearling is a bit of a slog to get through. I would not soon recommend this novel to anyone save for the most committed readers of the Pulitzer Prize winners. Rawlings is to be praised for her bucolic portrait of a region and lifestyle rarely highlighted, but the plot, structure, and characters in The Yearling are found sorely lacking. A film version of The Yearling was made in 1946 starring Gregory Peck (click here to read my review of the film).

The following are some memorable quotations I found while reading:

“He was addled with April. He was dizzy with Spring. He was as drunk as Lem Forrester on a Saturday night. His head was swimming with the strong brew made up of the sun and the air and the thin gray rain” (17).

“In a late afternoon toward the end of August, Jody went with the fawn to the sink-hole for fresh water for supper. The road was bright with flowers. The sumac was in bloom, and the colic root sent up tall stalks of white or orange orchid-like flowers. The French mulberries were beginning to ripen on slim stems. They were lavender in color, close-clustered, like snails’ eggs along lily stalks. Butterflies sat on the first purple buds of the fragrant deer-tongue, opening and closing their wings slowly, as though waiting for the buds to open and the nectar to be revealed. The covey call of quail sounded again…” (259 -this quotation is representative of many beautiful scene-setting passages in The Yearling).

“He found himself listening for something. It was the sound of the yearling for which he listened, running around the house or stirring on his moss pallet in the corner of the bedroom. He would never hear him again… Flag – he did not believe he should ever again love anything, man or woman or his own child, as he had loved the yearling. He would be lonely all his life… In the beginning of his sleep, he cried out, ‘Flag!’ It was not his own voice that called. It was a boy’s voice. Somewhere beyond the sink-hole, past the magnolia, under the live-oaks, a boy and a yearling ran side by side, and were gone forever” (509 -closing lines).

About The 1939 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The 1939 Novel Jury was composed of three returning Novel Jury members, all Columbia University faculty members: Joseph W. Krutch (Chair), Jefferson B. Fletcher, and Robert M. Lovett.

  • Joseph Wood Krutch (1893-1970) was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and studied at the University of Tennessee and Columbia University. After serving in the army, he traveled throughout Europe with a friend, poet and critic Mark Van Doren. He taught composition at Brooklyn Polytechnic and became a theater critic at The Nation where he worked for many years. Something of a pantheist, mystic, and naturalist –he penned widely read biographies of Henry David Thoreau and Samuel Johnson.
  • Jefferson Butler Fletcher (1865-1946) was born in Chicago, served in the American Field Ambulance Services during World War I, and educated at Harvard and Bowdoin College. He was a long-serving professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University (from 1904-1939). He was considered a foremost expert on the Italian Renaissance and Dante, and in his obituary in The New York Times, it was noted that he served on the Pulitzer Novel Jury for “several years.” Sadly, his son died in an automobile accident in 1926, and Fletcher also had a daughter.
  • Robert Morss Lovett (1870-1956) was a Bostonian and studied at Harvard. He taught literature at the University of Chicago for many years, he was associate editor of The New Republic, served as governor secretary of the Virgin Islands, and was accused of being a communist by the Dies Committee which forced him out of his secretary position. He was often on the frontlines of left-leaning picket lines, and he helped to launch the careers of several young writers, including John Dos Passos. In later years, his wife became a close friend and associate of Jane Addams and the couple lived at Hull House for a spell.

Amidst some grumblings about the Jury’s first choice for The Yearling there were several other novels considered: All This and Heaven Too by Rachel Field, the story of a French governess who scandalously falls in love with her employer prior to the French Revolution of 1848; Black is My True Love by Elizabeth Mattox Roberts, the story of a shamed woman’s return to her home village; May Flavin by Myron Brinig, the story about the life and struggles of an Irish girl brought up in Chicago who grows into an adult and raised a family in New York; and Renown by Frank O. Hough, a story of Benedict Arnold in the American Revolutionary War.

Who Is Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings?
Born Marjorie Kinnan in 1896, Marjorie grew up in Washington DC before attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In college she met Charles Rawlings and they were married soon after. In their early years together the couple moved frequently from Kentucky to New York (however in her later years Marjorie had come to despise all things urban).

In 1928 Rawlings received an inheritance from her mother and purchased a 72-acre orange grove on Cross Creek near Hawthorne, Florida. Here, she began writing. She acquired a literary agent, Max Perkins of Scribner’s who was the same agent as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Her stories mainly focused on the lives of neighbors and acquaintances in the surrounding impoverished, rural region of north-central Florida (south of Gainesville), however some of her real neighbors were unhappy with their portrayal in her book and she was later sued for libel much to her private dismay.

Rawlings’ first success was a novel called South Moon Under in 1933 which was considered for the Pulitzer Prize, but her magnum opus was The Yearling in 1938. It was a Book of the Month, the best-selling novel of 1938, winner of the Pulitzer, and MGM acquired the movie rights for a film starring Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman that was released in 1946. The book was widely distributed to the troops abroad in World War II. Meanwhile, Charles divorced Marjorie. He did not enjoy the rural life in Florida and their relationship had grown apart. Marjorie now found herself from her husband as well as her neighbors.

Not only did Rawlings draw the ire of her neighbors both for her portrayals in her stories, but also she was resented for her open-minded racial tolerance. She once invited Zora Neal Hurston to stay at her home, and rather than forcing Hurston to spend the night in a tenant or workman’s house, Rawlings invited her to stay in her private residence. These controversies caused tensions which were most unfortunate and eventually they culminated in Rawlings moving away.

She moved to a beach house near St. Augustine, Florida where she was remarried this time to Norton Baskin, a hotelier. They renovated and ran an old hotel and Rawlings continued to write until she died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1953. Most of her property was donated to the University of Florida where she had taught creative writing. A dormitory on the campus and an elementary school are named in her honor. Today, her orange grove and farmhouse are maintained as a historic state park in central Florida. During her lifetime she had published numerous short stories (including a winner of the O. Henry Award), she published a semi-fictional memoir, and posthumously released a children’s book called The Secret River. It won the Newbury Medal.

Rawlings, Marjorie Kinnan. The Yearling. New York, Aladdin Classics (Simon & Schuster), 2001 (1938).

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

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