By Anna Lillios
(University Press of Florida, 208 pages)
Celebrated folk authors Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings were witty, educated, independent women who found their muses in the working-class people of Central Florida. In the 1930s, both authors reached a high point in their literary careers: Hurston published Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937, and Rawlings released The Yearling the following year. In Anna Lillios’ September release, Crossing the Creek: The Literary Friendship of Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the UCF professor and executive director and trustee of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society, chronicles the very different worlds of the two writers: Rawlings was white and sequestered herself on her Cross Creek property south of Gainesville; Hurston was African-American, raised in Eatonville and always traveling and scrounging for funding and entrée into literary society.
Lillios sums up her research about the connection between the two in a paragraph in the first chapter:
On the surface, Hurston’s and Rawlings’s disparate socioeconomic and racial backgrounds would seem to hinder a friendship between the upper-middle-class northern woman and the daughter of an Alabama slave. Yet the two women bonded on an artistic level, because they had the same goal in life … to reach the same level of recognition as their contemporary male counterparts in American literature.
Lillios’ study of commonalities and differences between Hurston and Rawlings starts with speculation about their first meeting, an occasion that’s still quibbled about among scholars and made complicated by secret visits that were hidden for fear of repercussions from the KKK and other violent segregationists. The author then parallels how Rawlings and Hurston’s friendship became distant as the years progressed and personal problems hindered development. Both fought for innocence in lengthy legal battles, which drained their resources and personal health. (Rawlings was convicted of violating “the right to privacy” of a true-to-life character in Cross Creek and Hurston fought charges of sodomy and won.) The start of World War II in 1939 and Jim Crow laws further strained the realization of a public friendship. Lillios doesn’t cover up Rawlings’ racist leanings but surmises how they radically changed over the years, mostly because of Rawlings interactions with Hurston. Hurston, on the other hand, seemingly never allowed racial issues to weigh down her creativity.
Lillios’ writing style is taut, dense and at times repetitive within the four core chapters; the book reads like a thesis with five pages at the end devoted to referenced citations. If you can stick with it, the author’s familiarity with existing academic papers and books on the subject is impressive and exhaustive; she weaves together a timeline based on previous studies and her own interviews. Lillios may not be as brilliantly colorful as the writers she’s covering, but she does offer an understanding of how the two forged their friendship in restrictive times in the South.