Reviewed by Philip K. Jason
Crossing the Creek, by Anna Lillios, is a dual biography and critical study placing side by side two amazing women. Subtitled “The Literary Friendship of Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings,” the book sets into revealing tension the ways each woman made herself into an artist by finding, and to some extent being trapped by, a signature slice of American society. In Hurston’s case, it was the unique, self-governed Negro community of her Eatonville, Florida childhood. In the case of Rawlings, it was the Cracker Florida milieu into which she consciously injected herself as an observer and recorder. Each wrote fictions that had biographical resonance, and each wrote a memoir tinged with fiction.
The point of attack for Crossing the Creekis an event in July, 1942 when these well-established writers meet in St. Augustine, Florida. The Pulitzer Prize-winning white woman is hosting the black woman. It’s an outrageous situation at that time and in that place. Lillios’s task is to bring readers to understand the cultural and personal significances of an unusual interracial friendship through which each woman partially defines and shapes the other. The St. Augustine scene launches an introductory chapter that then goes on to sketch the lives of each woman up until that seminal encounter.
The four sturdy central chapters of this relatively short book explore significant portions of the life and craft of each writer. The first of these explores the Hurston-Rawlings friendship, with all of its complications. Though Rawlings admired Hurston’s work before they met, both had to navigate the difficulties of a public interracial relationship in the segregated South. Lillios does a remarkable job of laying out the ways in which the two women positioned themselves to allow such a relationship to grow. An enormous complication to the friendship, a kind of supreme irony, is the fact that Rawlings was a self-confessed racist – at least by habits of thought and expression. Hurston, as a matter of principle and personality, did not allow race to be a defining element in assessing a person’s worth. However, she was a realist, and she was not beyond ingratiating herself into the white world for her own benefit. Each was able to reach the other’s sympathetic ear in times of major personal struggles.
Lillios believes that “both women believed in friendship as an ideal,” and that their cordial connection “was a positive force for both of them” in spite of “the racial, economic, and social barriers between them.” In intriguing second chapter traces the progress of each woman up until they reached the high points of their careers. For Hurston, that pinnacle was Their Eyes Were Watching God; for Rawlings, The Yearling. Within this study of twinned careers, Lillios points out the ways in which each writer portrayed the life of small Florida communities. She attends to their struggles to find their voices and self-consciously perfect their craft. Lillios’s capsule analyses and appraisals of individual works are lucid and penetrating. Especially useful are her discussions of Hurston’s formal and professional anthropological studies and the acute psychological insights of Rawlings. For both writers, Lillios is always alert to their manner of transforming autobiographical materials into fiction.
After their successes as novelists, both Hurston and Rawlings became determined to succeed as autobiographers, with uneven but notable results. In Chapter 3, Lillios examines Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road and Rawlings’s Cross Creek, observing each writer’s motives and the difficulties each had within this genre. Prof. Lillios attributes the difficulties to their need “to redefine their self-identities” in ways that would free them from the worlds of Eatonville and Cross Creek and fully empower them as American woman authors.
In Chapter 4, the author takes readers on an excursion through her subjects’ last works, revealing a bittersweet denouement in the career drama of each. Each writer had new ambitions that were not effectively realized. Hurston became obsessed with a doomed biographical project on King Herod; Rawlings struggled mightily with The Sojourner and pressed forward with a series of “psychologically dark” experimental stories she called her “Queer Stories.”
Professor Lillios, while never emphasizing this point too strenuously along the way, nonetheless builds a persuasive case for the amelioration of each writer’s place in twentieth-century American letters. She assesses both writers as “women ahead of their time” who “found solace and solidarity in each other.” Her blend of sources, including her own interviews with people who knew her subjects, results in an admirable and novel recapturing of distinctive personalities and the era in which they lived and created.
A few books by Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings are listed below. As with all SLR titles, click to purchase.
Written by: Philip K. Jason