Anna Lillios’ study of the fascinating friendship between Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings has resulted in renewed interest in the stories behind the stories. Lilios’ recently took time to discuss the path that led her to write Crossing the Creek. She also speaks with SLR Contributor Philip K. Jason about plans for continued research and upcoming opportunities for scholarly submissions.
Interview by Philip K. Jason
1. What information or insights that came out of your research on Hurston and Rawlings surprised you the most?
The inspiration for this book came when I read a Hurston-Rawlings letter, in which Hurston offered to be Rawlings’s servant. The image of Hurston serving as a maid in Rawlings’s home did not correspond to what I knew about Hurston’s spunk. I felt that this letter—and what lay behind it—was the germ of a fascinating story. I wanted to uncover as much as I could about the hidden currents of this relationship. Why would Hurston demean herself and offer to be Rawlings’s maid? Or, was she just wearing a mask, without any real intention of helping Rawlings out? A related incident had occurred earlier, when Hurston first visited Rawlings in Cross Creek. After an afternoon and early evening of talking to each other (presumably, as fellow writers) and drinking, the issue of whether or not Hurston would spend the night must have arisen. Rawlings’s servant, Idella Parker, claims that Hurston slept with her in the tenant house. But, I haven’t found any evidence that Rawlings did, indeed, send Hurston out of the main house. In fact, a couple of years later, when Hurston unexpectedly came to visit, Rawlings searched her conscience and, ultimately, invited Hurston to sleep in the guest bedroom. She wrote about this incident in voluminous detail to her husband, Norton Baskin, and documented the struggle she overcame with her racial prejudice.
I decided to focus on the year 1942, when Hurston and Rawlings met. 1942 was also the year that they were at the height of their fame—both had just published their memoirs, Rawlings had been deep-sea fishing with Hemingway and drinking with Fitzgerald, and Hurston appeared on the covers of Saturday Review and Saturday Evening Post. But, obviously, both women had struggles, too, which intrigued me. They agonized over their final works of literature, endured ill health, and suffered tremendously from long, drawn-out trials (Hurston was falsely accused of sodomy and Rawlings, of invasion of privacy after the publication of Cross Creek). Through it all, they respected and supported each other as friends. They rose above their troubles and really developed their strength of character. In Rawlings’s case, she overcame her racial prejudice through her friendship with Hurston and even became an advocate for civil rights. Hurston never gave up her vocation as a writer, even though she faced poverty and obscurity. Both women became better people in the last decade of their lives, and I think it was partly for each other.
2. Which of the many interviews that you conducted is a favorite? Why?
The first interviews that I conducted with Eatonville women, who knew Hurston, were my favorites. In 1988, when one of my friends asked me to present a paper on Hurston, I had to admit that I had never heard of her. I had just moved to Florida and settled a few miles from Eatonville, so I thought the easiest thing to do would be to interview anyone in Eatonville who remembered Hurston. I went to the City Hall and, luckily, met an employee of the City of Eatonville, Louise Franklin, who kindly helped me get in touch with five women, who had been friends with Hurston. Each of these women invited me into her home and, as I say in my book, was happy to shine the inside light on her community.
3. You suggest that time ran out on the two women, but also that the times changed — after WWII — before they could catch up. Which of the two writers was closer to making the changes in self-awareness, outlook and art that would have had a chance to attract new generations of readers?
This is a great question but impossible to answer. Rawlings’s so-called “queer” or experimental stories were her attempt to suggest the mysterious or instinctual aspects of human nature, much as Hemingway used the iceberg theory of composition in his short stories. But, her “queer” stories were not substantive enough, in my opinion; she was just getting started experimenting with them. Unfortunately by the 1950s, even Hemingway felt he was going out of style with the advent of the Beat generation.
And, Hurston’s fixation on Herod was a struggle for her; she couldn’t quite get a handle on the material. She tried so hard to find the right approach to Herod’s character by starting and stopping the manuscript countless times. She wanted to reveal to the world a revisionist portrait of a man known as a baby-killer, but whom she felt was the unintentional founder, no less, of Christianity and western civilization. She was delving into the origins of western civilization and democracy, as she relates to Burroughs Mitchell, her Scribner’s editor: “the LIFE OF HEROD THE GREAT is not really the story of a man but of a movement which has ended up in Christianity on one hand and as the basis of Western Civilization on the other.” She courageously undertook this huge project at a time when the world was embroiled in world war and had no interest in antiquity. Post-atomic and postmodern America did not at all feel concerned with events that had transpired so many years earlier.
Neither writer was able to work her way through these new works and come out the other side. But, they kept trying to the very end and, for this reason, I consider them profiles in courage.
4. Which of their books do you consider to be the most undervalued? Why?
I love Rawlings’s Golden Apples and would be excited to see it back in print. It’s the story of an Englishman who goes into the scrub to reclaim his abandoned estate. The story portrays not only a clash of cultures but also features a Rawlings-esque woman, who dominates the landscape.
5. It seems clear that the glitter of Scribner’s A-List motivated Rawlings to some extent. She positioned herself as a prominent filly [or perhaps a mare] in that stable, another Perkins disciple. Could Hurston have benefited from that kind of situation?
Hurston, in fact, was signed by Scribner’s and published Seraph on the Suwanee with the firm. It was the connection with Maxwell Perkins that would have made the difference. Sadly, Perkins died two months after Hurston came on board. I’m not sure, though, how Perkins could have helped Hurston. He had a firm New England vision of what goes into a successful Scribner’s novel. Rawlings had been willing to shape her work in accordance with his guidance, but I’m not so sure that Hurston would have been willing to accede to his suggestions. Of course, Perkins gave free rein to the star horse in his stable, Hemingway, and may have been willing to do the same for Hurston. I must note that Hurston received no ongoing help from anyone during her writing career.
6. Which resources that you have tapped into for this book need further exploration? I guess that’s another way of asking: what kinds of books on either Hurston or Rawlings still need to be written?
I’ve always felt that no one has really followed Hurston’s Florida dust tracks; much more material is waiting to be discovered. Also, I’d be interested in reading modern critical approaches to the two authors’ texts. For example, a post-colonial study of Cracker Cross Creek would be interesting. Overall, I’d like to see a revival of scholarship on Rawlings’s works. I try to encourage young scholars and ask them to submit critical articles for presentation at the Rawlings conferences (the next one is in DeLand, April 15-16) or publication in The Marjorie Rawlings Journal of Florida Literature, which I co-edit. Rawlings rightfully belongs in the American literary canon—along side her good friends, Hurston, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald.
Anna Lillios, associate professor English at the University of Central Florida, is also the editor of Lawrence Durrell and the Greek World. Read the complete review of Crossing the Creek in the Dec. 29, 2010 SLR post.