Billy’s New Project: The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Cross Creek Trial

(If you want to skip the exceedingly clever explanation and exposition that follows, just go to http://crosscreektrial.com/.)

I, too, have head all the rumors swirling around my relative absence from Lakeland Local and Metro I-4 News in the last month: Chuck fired me from my volunteer gig over disagreements concerning facial hair; the Obama administration has tapped me to serve as “Obnoxiousness Czar”; I was trampled by wildebeasts, and the Kenyan National Park Service is covering it up. None of these, wish as we might, dear reader, is true.

My actual excuses, for the most part, are quotidian: The little boy’s fall baseball season is in full swing; my lovely wife, the doyenne of downtown, lost her appendix last week (a moment of silence please for that charming, yet useless piece of flesh); my bill-paying job expects to me work from time to time. Sigh.

But there is one more reason. For the last month or so, I have directed the bulk of whatever creative energy I could muster to a new project, a blog study of the almost famous Cross Creek Trial of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Yearling, Cross Creek and a number of other novels focused on the rural area near Gainesville where she lived on and off from roughly 1930 until she died in the 50s. I have a bit of a unique perspective on this trial: My great aunt, who I was very close to, with help from my great-grandfather, represented the woman who sued Marjorie over how she was portrayed in Cross Creek, which was a sort of stylized memoir. Here’s my little kicker introduction from the blog, which you can access here.

In 1943, as World War II raged, my Great Aunt Kate Walton, one of Florida’s first female lawyers, sued Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Baskin on behalf of Zelma Cason, a onetime friend who felt defamed by Rawlings’ portrayal of her in the book Cross Creek. The lawsuit and trial, and the core American arguments that surrounded it, make for riveting reading and study. Whether you’re a Marjorie fan, history buff, or relative of mine, I hope you’ll take some time to learn with me about this this unique moment in Florida’s development, when people of great substance and ability clashed over the power of language and the sanctity of the individual.

And here’s a quick rundown of those core arguments from my first post on “Blogging the Cross Creek Trial.”

Race: No major figure in the case is black. Yet, the “Negro question,” as Marjorie often referred to it, the twilight world of extra legal status in which black men and women toiled before the civil rights movement, informs nearly every aspect of the case and the experiences that led to it. In fact, easily the best, most honest, chapter in Cross Creek, called “Black Shadows,” concerns precisely this status and Marjorie’s ambivalence in confronting it. J.V. Walton and Marjorie engaged in a stirring bout of courtroom jousting over Marjorie’s account in that chapter of her behavior toward two black tenants.

The Battle for Palatka: In the first nine months of 1926, the Ku Klux Klan or its sympathizers carried out more than 60 documented extra-legal floggings in Putnam County, of which Palatka is the county seat. At least two black men, identified as Willie Steen and Ed Chisholm, died from injuries suffered at the hands of mobs. J.V. Walton, successful young lawyer and father of four pre-teen girls, including Kate Walton, led the resistance to this reign of terror and stopped it – or so family folklore holds. My preliminary research into this supports the folklore, and even embellishes it. I’m pretty convinced that you can’t understand Aunt Katie’s role in this case – and J.V.’s – without understanding the fight with the Klan.


Womanhood:
It is a simple matter of fact that the key female characters in this story were all college-educated, professional, childless women. The Cross Creek Trial previews the exploding influence of professional and working women on our economy and culture, which I think is the most far-reaching social transformation of the 20th century – more influential even than civil rights. You can see it coming in the Cross Creek trial.

Writing, Journalism, and Truth:
The people who wrote, marketed, and studied Cross Creek often differed in what to call it – novel, non-fiction, journalism, memoir, autobiography. There are many conflicting references, which I’ll try to document. The fact that even supporters of Marjorie struggled to characterize Cross Creek, a book describing real people, foreshadows the case, I think.

For me, Cross Creek clearly presents itself as non-fiction, a type of journalism. In that sense, it fails. Now that I’ve read Marjorie’s letters to her husband, Norton Baskin, I can say without hesitation that Cross Creek is a deeply dishonest book. Its narrator and lead character, Marjorie Rawlings, bears only passing resemblance to the real Marjorie Rawlings. The Marjorie of her letters is a far more compelling person – funny, neurotic, fearful of many things, moody, guilt-ridden, insightful, gutsy, driven by conscience, depressed, very physically unhealthy, and often resentful of her neighbors in the milieu she described, and from which she profited.

My creative writing professor in college once told us, “To write is to sit in judgment on yourself.” Marjorie does that fiercely in her letters. She doesn’t in Cross Creek. It makes the effect of everything else she writes in that book suspect.

We live in an age where longstanding conventions of journalism and professional writing are crumbling, undermined by technology and funding-model changes. In that sense, the Cross Creek trial, while fought over an insult that seems quaint compared to any comment string on a modern webnews story, anticipates many of the cultural fights surrounding journalism, law and writing going on today.

Aunt Katie and me: From the time I was about five, roughly 1976, until my family moved to Tallahassee in the summer of 1979, I spent nearly every Saturday morning with Aunt Katie – driving a golf cart around her property on the St. Johns River, cane pole fishing off her dock, listening to her read poetry, watching her smoke cigars. My wife and I had our wedding party in front of her simple cracker house on the river, now owned by a younger aunt. My kids all caught their first fish off the same dock where she and I sat together. Her death was my first real experience with grief. Anyone reading this should know my loyalties lie with her, even though I never really knew the person who sued Marjorie Rawlings. I intend to meld the ambitious 30-something lawyer who wrote and argued the case with such professional intensity with “Katie the Wonderful,” as my grandmother called her, the irresistibly eccentric aunt whose love dominates my childhood memories. I want my children and eventual grandchildren to know her. And frankly, though such a wish is well beyond my power, I want the wider world to remember her. However, I’m also aware that Aunt Katie probably wouldn’t approve of such a project, particularly that last part. As Ms. Acton and subsequent literary suitors found, my extended family always felt great ambivalence in talking about the trial, not wanting to offend Aunt Katie’s wishes. Now, with my grandmother’s passing, no one from Aunt Katie’s generation is left. And I’m going to take my chances, fully aware that I may have to answer to her one day.

So, there you have it, what I’m up to. I hope this exercise will entertain people in its own right, just because it’s a great story, whether one knows anything about Marjorie Rawlings, Aunt Katie, Zelma Cason, or anybody else. But I also hope that Marjorie’s legions of fans will engage me, along with people who know and love Cross Creek and Florida. I hope my family will share Aunt Katie stories that I don’t know, safe in the knowledge that I’ll take the blame for invading her privacy.

Whatever your angle or interest, I hope you’ll comment and argue and point me toward more and better sources. Tell me when I get things wrong. More than anything else, I hope to resurrect this trial to the cultural and historical importance I think it deserves. Help me out. Or just enjoy learning about this unique moment in Florida history, when people of great substance and ability clashed over the power of language and the sanctity of the individual.

And that, folks is what I’ve been up to. I hope to turn this into a book, and I think the blog format is great way to solicit input, learn things, and collect my thoughts. I hope you’ll find it interesting.

And I’m not forsaking LL or Metro I4 – although I do have a vacation planned for the next few days. I should be able to write more now that the site is up and functioning.

Lastly, I just want to thank Chuck, who, of course, offered his talent and expertise in building the Cross Creek Trial site and never once complained that it was siphoning energy away from my work for his sites. Chuck is one of the most generous, community-minded people I know. I’m proud to call him a friend and remain perpetually in his debt. He’s a tremendous resource for this town. Thanks, man.

4 thoughts on “Billy’s New Project: The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Cross Creek Trial

  1. Kudos to you for digging into a history that could already be considered written and closed. I look forward to your exploration.

    Also…
    “Chuck is one of the most generous, community-minded people I know. I’m proud to call him a friend and remain perpetually in his debt. He’s a tremendous resource for this town.”
    Ditto. Lakeland is better thanks to Chuck’s engagement of the community. Thanks for saying it, Billy.

  2. Kudos to you for digging into a history that could already be considered written and closed. I look forward to your exploration.

    Also…
    “Chuck is one of the most generous, community-minded people I know. I’m proud to call him a friend and remain perpetually in his debt. He’s a tremendous resource for this town.”
    Ditto. Lakeland is better thanks to Chuck’s engagement of the community. Thanks for saying it, Billy.

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