Dec122009

A Bunch of Mannish Hussies

Here’s the offending paragraph from Cross Creek:

Zelma is an ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary. She manages her orange grove and as much of the village an country as needs management or will submit to it. I cannot decide whether she should have been a man or a mother. She combines the more violent characteristics of both and those who ask for or accept her manifold ministrations think nothing of being cursed loudly at the very instant of being tenderly fed, clothed, nursed or guided though their troubles.

From Marjorie’s testimony during the trial:

I had to sit down and think now how do you describe Zelma? What is she? She is not a married woman, I could not describe her as an old maid, because I think of an old maid as a woman who is not married because she has not had an opportunity. Zelma had always had admiration from men and opportunities to marry. So I thought “spinster” was the only term. I noticed the other day when one of Woodrow Wilson’s daughters died it described her as a “spinster.” And Zelma’s age didn’t enter into it in my mind, I thought, “How does she look?” Ever since I have known her she hadn’t changed much. She was a woman who didn’t grow old. I think it answers the description exactly, “ageless spinster”. “Resembling an angry and efficient canary”. Mother Rawlings was always very always very fond of Zelma and Zelma’s hair was very golden and she has blue eyes, and she was small and quick, and Mother used to call her, “Blue and gold”, so “resembling an angry and efficient canary”. Mother Rawlings was always very fond of Zelma and Zelma’s hair was very golden and she has blue eyes, and she was small and quick, and Mother used to call her, “Blue and gold”…. [Objection made and overruled, testimony continued -- ed.] …so “resembling and angry and efficient canary”. Angry, yes, on occasions, and efficient at all times. “She manages her orange grove”. At that time I thought it was hers, but it seems it was her brother’s; but that was my best information at the time. “She manages her orange grove and as much of the village and county as needs management or will submit to it. I cannot decide whether she should have been a man or a mother”. In my mind there was no thought of describing her as mannish. By that I simply meant that her abilities were more or less wasted. If she had been a man she would have been an executive; she might have gone into law; might have been a doctor; but she had had great talents and great ability that a man could have done more with. — “Should have been a man or a mother”. I have never known anyone who loved children, black and white. She is devoted to them. And I could just see her with a family of a dozen. “She combines the more violent characteristics of both–”. “The more violent characteristics of a mother” was to me possessiveness and extreme maternal feeling. You don’t have to have children to have a strong maternal feeling. “–those who ask for or accept her manifold ministrations think nothing of being cursed loudly at the very instant of being tenderly fed, clothed, nursed or guided through their troubles”. That was what was in my mind as I can express it.”

Also from Marjorie’s testimony, her recollection of what Zelma said to her in response to her portrayal in Cross Creek. Zelma’s own account is very similar:

Well, you have made a hussy out of me and a lady out of a hussy.

From Patricia Acton’s “Invasion of Privacy”:

Even the entrance of the lawyers was dramatic. J.V. Walton arrived wearing an English safari helmet. He was accompanied by his daughter, Kate, who was nearly the same height as her diminutive father. “Her general appearance was mannish, her countenance, resolute,” one eyewitness recalled.

One of my favorite of Marjorie’s letters to Norton concerns her good friend Dessie Smith’s visit to Cross Creek in August of 1943 with five members of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in tow. Wrote Marjorie:

I had invited Dessie to come over yesterday with “another” Wac, and she brought five! They were a tough bunch of pistol-packing’ Mamas. They were definitely in undress–shorts or slacks, and their hair every which-a-way. Two of them had long straight hair and it just strung down their backs. They were high and very noisy. They seemed to be, though all quite different, of a type. [emphasis hers -- ed.] Only one of them actually mannish, yet none of them really feminine. [emphasis hers -- ed.] I suppose it is that self-sufficient sort who would go into the Wac’s in the first place.

In another later, dated July 1943, Marjorie is discussing books with Norton and has this to say about one of them:

Dorothy Baker’s (Young Man with a Horn) new book is brilliant technically but the Lesbian subject-matter is repulsive. Can’t recommend it.

Feminine. Mannish. Man. Self-sufficient. Of a type. Hussy. Lesbian. Look at all these linguistic labels of female taxonomy for which we have no accompanying clear contextual definitions and which do not appear, at the time of their use, synonymous. It’s bewildering. All except lesbian seem to have dropped from non-ironic usage in today’s world. But clearly, at the time the trial played out, people commonly assessed and described femininity through a sort of masculine prism or, maybe assessed feminity in its oppositeness of masculinity, which I guess is the same thing. I’m not going solve it here, in fact, I’m floundering, but I want to start to think about it and ask for help from any of the thousands of linguistic anthropologists who hang on my every word.

And then there’s this, a small excerpt from a talk with my grandmother, Lois Ann Walton Townsend, which I recorded in May of 2009, about three months before she died. She was JV’s Walton’s youngest child, the youngest of four girls. Kate Walton was second. Sophie Walton was the eldest. Lois was the last of the children still living when she and I had this exchange:

…I thought Sophie was the most beautiful thing I ever saw in my life. She had a lot of evening dresses and all that kind of thing. And loved for mother to sew for her. She was pretty; she had a good figure. She was real popular and went to dances… Things were really very different then, the way that people did, chaperones and things like that.

I guess what I was trying to say was, Katie, I think always felt like Daddy had wanted her to be a boy. And…

Me: Her specifically, or wanted to have a boy.

Grandma: Wanted to have a boy. But wanted to have her for a boy.

To me, these questions of femininity form a sort of twinned core of the case, both separate and related to the questions of privacy and power, or the limits of “self-sovereignty,” as Aunt Katie put it in her written arguments. Obviously, Marjorie’s perceived insult of Zelma revolves around the type of woman she perceived Zelma to be. But what was that type? What did Zelma think Marjorie said? And what did Marjorie actually say? Those are different questions than “Did Marjorie have the right to publish what she published?” But they’re no less important or fascinating. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to stop and let these questions of sex identity – what we call gender today – and sexual identity, which are not the same thing, ferment a bit in my head.

To be continued.

Oct82009

“Yielding to the Expressed Will of the Community”

Nestled among the freeze-fires, soggy cypress swamps, and cracker comedy of Cross Creek, chapter 16 lurks like a sociological snake in the brush. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Baskin dubbed it Black Shadows. In my Simon and Schuster edition, it announces itself with a pencil sketch of one caricatured black man shooting another in gut with a rifle. (If you ever get a chance to see it, note the lips.) A well-dressed woman, presumably Marjorie, looks on with a hand pressed against her cheek in a statement of Oh My-ness. Palm fronds form the backdrop.

Here’s how Marjorie opened the chapter:

“I am not of the race of southerners who claim to understand the Negro. There are a few platitudes dear to the hearts of these that seem reasonably accurate. The Negro is just a child. The Negro is carefree and gay. The Negro is religious in an amusing way. The Negro is a congenital liar. There is no dependence to be put in the best of them.

“Back of these superficial truths lies the mystery of the primitive African nature, subjected precipitously first to slavery and then to so-called civilization, the one as difficult and unjust as the other. The Negro today is paid instead of being rationed. He is left to shift for himself for the most part instead of being cared for. In the south his wages are a scandal and there is no hope of racial development until racial economics are adjusted. Meantime, he continues to be, ostensibly, childish, carefree, religious, untruthful and unreliable. Back of it all is a defense mechanism as ingrained as the color of his skin. He could adopt himself to the injustice of his position and to the master of the white race only by being childish, carefree, religious, untruthful, and unreliable.

“The prettier side of the picture does indeed lie in the possibility of real affection between individuals of the two races, conditioned by the fact that one is master, and the other, for all of Lincoln, still a slave. The servant has two weapons. He can make life not worth living for his employer. And he can walk out. When a southern Negro uses neither of the two, it is likely to mean, not necessarily that he is well treated, but that he is truly attached to master or mistress. And he can feel an actual love, and yet make life miserable or walk out. Therein lies his unpredictability, and beyond the half-truth of its fact is a mental and emotional turmoil past the comprehension of the most old-school southern aristocrat who ever slurred his witticisms over a mint julep.

“I have made one grave mistake in dealing with Negroes at the grove. I have expected that, given justice and kindness, a reasonable attitude toward their problems, and wages higher than the customary ones, they could carry considerable responsibility and learn o discipline themselves. I should have known better. I should have understood that only in rare instances can a Negro work for long on his own initiative. For long years since actual slavery he has been told what to do and what not to do. He has used his little time of freedom to cut loose, to escape for the moment the lowliness and the poverty and the puzzle of living. Left to himself to work toward an unseen goal without jurisdiction or direction, no matter how reliable ordinarily, he realizes suddenly, not that he has responsibilities, but that he is free, he is on his own, and he pounces without warrant on that freedom as though it were already the Saturday night he had earned. I do not blame Kate and Raymond for going wild. I blame myself for asking of them what most of us manage so painfully and so inadequately for ourselves.”

Well, that leaves us with quite a bit to unpack, doesn’t it? For now, let’s just note that Marjorie, in her way, anguished about the “Negro question” throughout her public life. She considered herself enlightened, if ultimately timid. She considered herself an ally in the pre-civil rights era effort to make daily life better for “the negro.” And she considered this passage, despite the casual brutality of phrases like “religious in an amusing way,” a sympathetic and intellectually rigorous analysis.

And it clearly was perceived as such by the guardians of the day’s intellectual discourse.

“It’s hard to see how anyone can read Cross Creek without pleasure amounting to glee,” reads a blurb on the back cover of my copy of the book. It’s from The Atlantic Monthly, the very apotheosis of American public intellectualism for more than 150 years. It’s the same magazine that now hosts – among others — blogger/reporter/commentators Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates, two stars of the relatively meritocratic blogosphere. Though it unfairly limits both men to sum them up this way, Sullivan is a proudly gay, small-c conservative, and Coates is a recovering black nationalist and civil war nerd, who loves World of Warcraft and Mad Men.

Marjorie’s pop racial sociology and the Atlantic’s heft-conferring blurb highlight the radical evolution of the standards for what public intellectuals find culturally acceptable to say and write. They underscore just how long ago 1942 really was, considering it as a time only six decades removed from Barack Obama’s election.

Within the Black Shadows chapter itself, Marjorie’s voice of God introduction serves as the launching point for accounts of her ill-fated personal involvement in a pair of “negro” triangles. The first involved husband and wife Kate and Raymond, along with an unnamed sweetheart. In Marjorie’s telling, she left Kate – the maid – and Raymond – the grove man – to tend her home and property while she left for a few weeks to write in North Carolina. When she returned, the place was a disaster because Kate and Raymond had used their freedom and Marjorie’s money to party. Kate blamed it on Raymond and took on the “sweetheart” as a replacement. But after another weekend in which the quality of servitude went to squat, it all came to a head. Marjorie’s brother, rendered as a truly obnoxious, prissy martinet, decided Marjorie was in danger and led her on an armed assault of the tenant cottage. Said Marjorie’s brother: “I’ve seen what you have to put up with. We’re going over to the tenant house and run that black ape off.”

They found Kate, Raymond, and the sweetheart recovering after some revelry. Hilarity ensued.

The other triangle led to the shooting depicted in the drawing. This time the characters are: Adrenna – the maid who replaced Kate; Samson – Adrenna’s “lordly” husband, who replaced Raymond as grove man; and Henry — the popular husband to one of Adrenna’s sister Sissie. For reasons that remain unclear, Henry, whom everybody at the Creek liked, shot Samson during an installment of an ongoing feud. Marjorie speculated that Adrenna, whom she described as a hypersexual flirt, set the two men upon one another. In the end, Samson lived, and a judge dropped charges against Henry.

Why? Writes Marjorie: “Old Boss [Henry’s Cross Creek employer] had gone to the judge, a lifelong friend, and told him, simply, that Henry was his man and he wanted him released. The judge released him.”

Marjorie objected and swore out a warrant against Henry, whom she acknowledged liking better than the “lordly” Samson. “But justice was justice,” she wrote, “and whether or not we loved Henry and could not love Samson, I decided that justice should prevail.”

That abstraction could not survive trial by reality, and Marjorie caved in the face of unanimous disapproval from Creek society, black and white. During a pre-trial hearing, she testified that she had no knowledge of what happened to Henry, and the case was formally dismissed for lack of evidence. The defense attorney for Henry was none other than Sigsbee Scruggs, the flamboyant country lawyer Marjorie eventually hired to help Phil May defend her during the Cross Creek trial.

Marjorie’s full account of Henry, Samson, and Adrenna is well worth reading. It’s complex and human, the best vignette in the book, for my money. It’s the account of her acquiescence in a reverse lynching, a fact I feel certain Marjorie recognized as she wrote. When the law, in practice, recognizes one man as someone else’s man, subject to extra-legal protection, it doesn’t take much imagination to imagine the extra-legal “justice” that it might permit in the case of a less likeable and useful subject. A mob is a mob, whether it flogs a person, or frees him because he’s useful.

The same mob that freed Henry is the same mob that assured no black man or woman in 1943 Florida could think about suing Marjorie Rawlings for invading their privacy in Cross Creek, as she did repeatedly, in far more personally offensive descriptions than anything Zelma Cason endured. Indeed, J.V. Walton, while questioning Zelma during the trial, asked her pointedly if she’d heard if negroes – as opposed to white people – had gossiped and laughed about her portrayal in Cross Creek. Such a thing was humiliating to the highest degree.

Yet the legal status of blacks, and how Marjorie recognized, lamented, and yet submitted to its logical outcomes, provided for probably the most epic exchange of the trial, when J.V. read aloud to Marjorie passages from Black Shadows on cross examination and challenged her handling of the two incidents she documented – and her decision to write them at all. I’m sure history contains other incidences of a writer testifying in defense of the quality and morality of his or her own writing. But I’m not aware of any. What follows is the entire Black Shadows exchange, as recorded in the court transcript:

JV: [Reading from the Black Shadows chapter] ‘My man’ whom I was covering found his pants. I kept my head turned away from him and my revolver leveled in his general direction. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the pants ascending with the jerky motion of a broken escalator. Raymond had given up. He lay prone with closed eyes , waiting for Nemesis to descend as it willed. [Marjorie’s brother] Arthur waved the Winchester rifle under his nose and shouted, ‘Get up!’ Raymond was past getting up. I do not think he even heard him. Kate left off her whirling and begged, ‘Raymond honey, the man gwine kill you where you lay. Get up, honey!’ Raymond opened one eye, groaned, and closed it again. Arthur pranced to the bed and reached in with one of his long arms and heaved Raymond to his feet. ‘Keep your man covered! I’m taking care of this one.’ ‘My man’ was trembling against the wall. Love nor money could not have made him stir. Kate rushed to cover Raymond’s nakedness. ‘Put somethin’ over you, honey,’ she crooned. Raymond fumbled for the sheet and held it hopefully behind his back. ‘In the front,’ Kate moaned . ‘Honey – in the front.’ I made the mental note that, passing sweetheart or not, Raymond was her true love. For an instant, I planned our future together. Raymond would be back, chastened and capable, the sweetheart would slink on his way, I should never again ask of them more than they could do, and life at the Creek would go on smoothly and better than ever before. Then I knew that something was finished.”

Marjorie: You made a mistake. You said, “better than ever before.” It is “better than before”.

JV: [continuing] “Then I knew that something was finished. One’s relations with Negroes are like love affairs. When they end, they end. Kate packed their suitcase and flanked by lover and husband, set out down the road toward town in her flannel nightgown.” Now Mrs. Rawlings, why is that episode, why is that placed in this book?

Mar: Why is it placed in there?

JV: Written in there.

Mar.: Because it is a part of life at Cross Creek and sometimes quite typical, and because I think it very funny.

JV: It is typical of what, conduct of negroes, or your experiences?

Mar.: Conduct of some negroes at some times.

JV: Have you ever known any other white woman at night to break into, with a brother, or with a husband, with a man, break into a negroe’s house?

Mar.: It was my house, my castle.

JV: Don’t you think it was improper — ?

Mar.: I don’t think so, when they left my house in the mess they had.

JV: Did you realize that that was an unlawful act in going there in the nighttime with these guns and breaking into their house?

Mar.: It could not possibly be. It was my own house, and they didn’t even pay rent.

JV: They were living there?

Mar.: Yes, but it was my house. They didn’t pay rent. They had no right there longer than I chose to have them there.

JV: And the proper way, even in the middle of the night?

Mar.: I wrote later that I didn’t consider it proper, but there was no moment to explain to my brother who thought I was in peril because it had been so long since he was associated with negroes that he thought it was something that could be handled very simply.

JV: I bring this up here again to find out just what is your attitude toward law.

Mar.: I think you will find few more law abiding citizens than I am.

JV: In this particular episode –?

Mar.: May I inquire what is the law when you own the tenant house on your own property and the negroes are working for you and you pay them their weekly wages and they pay no rent on the house?

JV: And you provide them the house to live in?

Mar.: Yes. I mean what is the law?

JV: I would say the law is –.

Phil May: Your honor please, I think this has gone too far and it is obviously argument and I object.

JV: It is the witness’ question he is objecting to.

Judge Murphree: I think we have this backwards.

Mar.: May I inquire of your Honor, I ask in all sincerity what is the law in a case like this?

Judge Murphree: Maybe you would like to finish one subject.

JV: I don’t mind stopping if your Honor wants to answer that question.

Judge Murphree: Suppose you answer it.

JV: My conception of the law is that when people are furnished a house to live in that house becomes their castle.

JV: [Resuming questioning of Marjorie] Did you consider the negroes at all?

Mar.: I did, as I wrote, but my brother simply became unduly alarmed for me and was protecting what he thought was the very life of his sister.

JV: But you could have stopped your brother, couldn’t you?

Mar.: No; he was taking care of me, so he thought.

JV: Did he force you to accompany him?

Mar.: Oh, yes.

JV: On page 199, at the bottom of the page: “Henry’s trial came off as a great farce as great a farce as could come before a court of justice. I had decided what I must do, for peace at the Creek is a vital matter. In a private courtroom, the judge called us to order. Henry was represented by the lawyer [Scruggs]. There was no prosecuting attorney at all, the judge announcing that he would act in that capacity. I was the first witness called, and the entire population of Cross Creek leaned forward in its seats, and may God forgive me, I said blandly that my testimony was of no value, as I had not been present when the shooting occurred and had my evidence only from hearsay. A long breath of relief filled the courtroom. The Lawyer stared at me. He called his witnesses. The testimony was completely irrelevant. Bernie Bass, a satellite at the moment of Tom Glisson, stood up blithely to say that he had com down the road in time to hear Henry beg piteously of Samson, “Don’t you come any closer.” Tom Glisson took the occasion to express, with no bearing on the case, his low and suspicious opinion of Adrenna”

Now, when you said, “May God forgive me, I said blandly that my testimony was of no value,” was that true?

Mar.: It was true. My testimony was of no value. The point was that I could have forced the whole thing to a different type of hearing and just messed everybody up all over again. As I said, the whole thing was farce. Everybody concerned in it was being perfectly absurd. But it was perfectly true, my testimony was of no value. When I said, “May God forgive me” I felt that the trial itself did not do justice, because in the strictest ethics I should probably have forced that trial to take place in a different way.

JV: What different way?

Mar.: Any different way.

JV: You had taken out that warrant, had you not?

Mar.: Yes.

JV: Was it true that all you learned was from hearsay?

Mar.: Oh, yes, I wasn’t there; I was over, I remember definitely, at Daytona Beach.

JV: What caused the “long breath of relief” to fill the courtroom?

Mar.: Because everybody wanted to get it settled in the simplest way so that normal relations would be resumed and nobody wanted the trouble to be prolonged, as it would have done if everybody had gone to bat on it and fought back and forth and so on. I was yielding to the expressed will of the community.

Yielding to the expressed will of the community. Remember that phrase as we move forward in this project.

I mentioned in my introduction post the Battle of Palatka, J.V. Walton’s fight with the Klan and its sympathizing mobs that reached its climax in 1926. I know much more about it now than I did a few weeks ago. On Sept. 14, 1926, Florida Governor John W. Martin threatened to declare martial law in Putnam County if Sheriff R.J. Hancock did not “put down the mob rule declared to exist in his territory,” according to an account in the Gainesville Sun, which ran under the headline “Martin Threatens Drastic Measures Putnam Mob Rule.” Of course, a problem, as I’ll document, was that R.J. Hancock and his top deputies were neck deep in the mob violence themselves.

“Governor Martin,” read the Sun story, “in announcing that he had asked the sheriff and mayor to come to Tallahassee for [a] conference, stated that he had found in [State Attorney] Adkins’ records evidence that 63 floggings had been perpetuated during the last year, with one to five each Saturday night. ‘Two cold blooded murders’ had been committed, he said, and white women beaten.”

The murders occurred in mid-August. Willie Steen and Ed Chisholm had driven to a wooded area just west of Palatka, not far from where my high school girlfriend lived decades later, to find “Teetsie” Pinckney, a “notorious” negro woman, according to one Palatka paper. Pinckney apparently dealt in liquor in prohibition-era Palatka. For her sins, she was abducted by a masked mob from her home in “colored quarters,” along with some guy who just happened to be there. They were driven to remote spot and beaten severely. Pinckney’s son Steen, nephew Chisholm, and a few other companions located Pinckney and the other man and loaded them into a car, bound for the Lawson hospital for colored. On their way back into town, on one of Putnam County’s main highways, a car full of masked men stopped Steen and Chisholm, got out, and opened fire on the unarmed men and women. Steen and Chisholm were killed and several other men apparently wounded.

In one of life’s profound coincidences, Sheriff Hancock, who just happened to be driving an employee home in the middle of the night, discovered the shot up car 15 minutes after the shooting, or so the local newspapers, those great institutional checks on power run amok, informed the public.

These killings sparked the state attorney’s investigation that led to Martin’s statement.

I’m in possession of an unsigned copy of a letter, sent in 1927, by a group of Palatka businessmen, urging the governor to follow through on his strong words.

It opens like this:

“You may recall the occasion of our visit to you in Tallahassee in company with J.V. Walton about a week after Mrs. Casad, a white woman of this city, was whipped by a masked band. As we stated to you then, the purpose of our taking the time from our respective businesses was solely to try and better intolerable conditions existing in this county. To that time, there had been over 50 whippings of citizens of this county, women and men, both white and black. There had been two murders and two incendiary fires and not an arrest. We told you that it was commonly rumored on the street that W.I. Minton, Chief Deputy Sheriff, was reputed to be the whipping boss and asked you to cause his removal from the office as such Deputy.”

The letter later states: “[J.V. Walton] has been fighting this lawlessness openly and fearlessly without fee or thought of reward, as you know from his visits and statements to you.”

We’re going to delve much farther into the Battle of Palatka. In fact, it’s become more than the theme I first envisioned. I now see it as an equal historical event to the Cross Creek trial, with J.V. and Kate Walton, and their silence, as the key link between the two.

But for now, it’s important to understand that when J.V. Walton questioned Marjorie 30 years after the Battle of Palatka, the savage consequences of “yielding to the expressed will of the community” would not have been an abstraction to him.

Between 1919 and 1923, would-be lynch mobs attacked the Palatka jail three times with the intent of killing black suspects. Three times, Sheriff P.W. “Pete” Hagan and others repulsed the mobs. The last time, the mob of about 15 men from a state road crew left dozens of bullet holes in the outside of the jail, as well as one each in Hagan’s left hand and the nightgown of his wife, who had slept with him at the jail. She escaped unharmed. The mob eventually withdrew.

J.V. Walton represented at least one of the black men who would have been lynched and overturned his conviction on a Florida Supreme Court appeal by proving he shot a train conductor in self defense. I have reason to believe he helped Hagan, who was a close political ally, fight off that particular lynch mob, but I can’t confirm it yet. In any event, despite – or perhaps because of – his bravery and sheer badassness, Pete Hagan, was narrowly defeated in the 1924 sheriff’s election by R.J. Hancock.

Less than two years before, on June 9, 1922, the Ku Klux Klan had initiated 30 men into its ranks during a ceremony at the local baseball stadium, which we now call the Azalea Bowl. It still stands and is maybe the prettiest high school baseball setting in Florida. Babe Ruth once patrolled its outfield during offseason exhibition games. Less importantly, I played third base there for Palatka High School between 1987 and 1990. I had no idea that 65 years before, the “whipping boss” W.I. Minton, Hancock’s chief deputy, prowled across the same infield for a more sinister purpose. As a charter member of the Putnam Klan, he wore a slightly different uniform than I did.

Later, in February of 1924, two Gainesville men thought to belong to the Klan abducted a popular Catholic priest affiliated with the University of Florida in Gainesville, brought him to Palatka, beat him severely, castrated him, and dumped him on the steps of St. Monica’s Catholic Church, where we held the funeral for my grandmother – J.V.’s youngest daughter – just a few weeks ago.

In 1926 and early 1927, the full Klan and Klan-sympathizer violence was unleashed on Palatka and Putnam County, ostensibly in the service of promoting civic virtue and enforcing prohibition. In addition to the multi-racial floggings and the Steen/Chisholm murders, a young white man of “good family” was gunned down on a fancy Palatka street. One of his friends, a young lawyer, was found shot to death, body bound and dumped in the Oklawaha River, a few weeks later. Both had odd ties to bootlegging, according to the local papers. And one deputy shot and killed an “insane negro” inside his jail cell after the man attacked W.I. Minton, our “whipping boss” chief deputy, according to a newspaper account.

This doesn’t count the run of the mill street violence, which seemed to pervade much of Florida in 1926. Palatka’s population during this time was about 5,000. The larger county reached about 17,000, roughly split between black and white. This was Tombstone with oranges, where people could be killed or beaten at any time for racial, economic, or moral reasons, and their families had little hope of recourse. Anyone who thinks we were civilized in the good old days is delusional and intellectually lazy.

In any event, not yielding to the will of the expressed will of the community, fighting lawlessness “openly and fearlessly” in 1926 Palatka, meant something.

Compare that with Marjorie’s writings, especially her letters, collected in a pair of wonderful books edited by Illinois State University English professor Rodger L. Tarr. I think Marjorie is something of a genius letter-writer, prolific in the extreme. And she lays herself remarkably bare in many of the letters, particularly those addressed to her husband, Norton Baskin, while her served in World War II. Her frankess isn’t always flattering.

Consider this letter from Marjorie to Baskin, dated April 16, 1944, concerning the famous Florida politician Claude Pepper:

“I have been a Claude Pepper supporter, in spite of his patent demagoguery, for the reason that he has taken a courageous stand on many unpopular questions. Well, the Supreme Court of the United States, as I think I wrote you, ruled that Negroes must not only be allowed to vote, but to vote if they wished, in the Democratic primaries. It created a terrific stir in the South, and there were threats from various quarters, and Claude, who is being hard pushed for re-election to the Senate, came out with the statement that Florida would find a way “to maintain white supremacy.” Probably Claude’s opponents are as great demagogues as he, but I mean to investigate. Actually, I think that once Claude was safely in again, he would be liberal, for he always has been, and has fought the poll tax laws. He is fighting for his political life – and of course I am being just as cowardly, in holding my horses on the Negro question until the lawsuit is settled.” [Emphasis mine]

And this there’s this jewel from a Marjorie letter to Max Perkins, the Scribner’s uber-editor who handled Marjorie’s books, as well as Ernest Hemingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald, and many others. He was sort of the Harvey Weinstein of his day. Marjorie and Perkins maintained a long-running and warm correspondence. But she wrote to him exactly once about the lawsuit, shortly after she won the trial in 1946. She felt understandably triumphant. And she exulted over the exchange concerning Black Shadows, while managing not to acknowledge what it concerned.

“One of the most amusing incidents of the trial, to me, was when Zelma’s lawyer was cross-examining me. I could see the petty pit-falls he was trying to lay and could anticipate him. He had asked me an inane question, and I said, ‘Now do you mean so and so, for the answer in that case would be one thing, or do you mean thus and so, in which the answer would be quite different,’ and so on. He floundered around, and Phil May jumped up and said, ‘Mr. Walton, you don’t have to answer her question. She has no right to ask you questions.’ The courtroom and the judge all but had hysterics.”

And what was the “inane” question J.V. Walton asked, which Marjorie could mock, but not remember, when writing to her eminent mentor?

Did you realize that that was an unlawful act in going there in the nighttime with these guns and breaking into [the negroes] house?

Aug302009

Introducing Cason v Baskin: Florida’s Most Fascinating Lawsuit

“Object to the question; a written instrument is its own best evidence as to what she meant or intended. If she uses words she is presumed to intend a reasonable meaning of those words, and to vary the terms of that description by her own testimony would not be proper.” - Kate Walton, June 1, 1946

After writing literally millions of words in preparation and litigation of Cason v. Baskin, that paragraph in a court transcript, spoken without ums or tangents or ellipses, contains the only 50 words my Great Aunt Kate Walton ever got to speak to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Baskin during Marjorie’s testimony at the Cross Creek invasion of privacy trial. Kate Walton was a woman after all, and this was 1946. Even in a case brought, prepared, and bled for on both sides largely by women, concerning in no small part what it meant to be a woman, a lady lawyer in Florida could question only ladies, and then, as Marjorie’s testimony shows, only when they were incidental to the case.

Four years earlier, in 1942, Marjorie had followed up her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Yearling with Cross Creek, a best-selling, pseudo-autobiographical collection of portraits of life in the rural central Florida neighborhood associated with Orange Lake and Lochloosa and the marshy creek that connects them. Marjorie wrote about her actual neighbors, friends, and acquaintances, using their real names.

One of them, Zelma Cason, objected to her portrayal in a chapter dubbed “The Census.” She particularly resented this passage:

“Zelma is an ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary. She manages her orange grove and as much of the village an country as needs management or will submit to it. I cannot decide whether she should have been a man or a mother. She combines the more violent characteristics of both and those who ask for or accept her manifold ministrations think nothing of being cursed loudly at the very instant of being tenderly fed, clothed, nursed or guided though their troubles.”

“You have made a hussy out of me,” Zelma is said to have told Marjorie after publication. And she decided to sue.

At the time Marjorie published Cross Creek, Kate Lee Walton was a 29-year-old lawyer working in the well-known firm of her father, my great-grandfather, Judge Vertrees (J.V.) Walton, in my hometown of Palatka. Dr. T.Z. Cason, Zelma’s brother, was her physician – or at least treated her from time to time. Zelma apparently sought out Aunt Katie. And Aunt Katie took up Zelma’s case, alleging libel, and the more novel, and ultimately more successful tort – invasion of privacy.

Distilled to its essence, the invasion of privacy doctrine meant that Marjorie did not have the right to publish a description of Zelma Cason, who was not a public figure, without her permission. The implications of that concept for publishing, not to mention journalism, are, and were, obvious.

After nearly four years of pleadings, many of which contain marvelously written, bravura arguments about the very nature of American democracy and law, Marjorie found herself inside the ceremonial courtroom of the ornate old Gainesville courthouse, testifying in the 1946 trial before a huge crowd of press, gawkers, and the neighbors she’d used for material.

Fairly early in her two-day testimony, Marjorie’s exceedingly honorable lawyer and loyal friend Phil May asked her how she chose the handful of sentences that created the entity she dubbed “My friend Zelma.”

“I ask you to turn to Chapter 5, to the characterization that you say was written in 1941, and interpret it as it was written in your mind and heart.”

And that’s when Aunt Katie called bullshit, as noted above.

The judge overruled the objection and let Marjorie interpret away the literary bones she used to construct Zelma Cason for amusement of audiences in New York and combat theater of World War II. But Aunt Katie’s moral meaning reverberates out of the legal: If you own people enough to define them for money, then own everything else. Own what you write. Own what you do. The money, the fame, the satisfaction, the consequences. Don’t qualify it away. Who owns Cross Creek? Marjorie asked in the final chapter and paragraph of the book and answered like this: The redbirds, I think, more than I, for they will have their nests even in the face of delinquent mortgages. You think? What an act of modesty. The fact that Marjorie felt entitled to ask such a question and adjudicate it in favor of redbirds, rather than her neighbors, suggests more about her notion of ownership than the actual words she used.

No individual in a society of governed by law gets to act with the impunity of ownership over another, and a deed is a deed, subject to its consequences. I think those principles lie at the heart of Aunt Katie’s willingness to take this difficult-to-prove case and pursue it zealously. They serve as the backdrop to the many other great American dischordances that that prmeate Cason v Baskin, both within the legal realm and without.

In the end, the case became a bloody stalemate. The jury of Marjorie’s peers – there’s no other way to put this – laughed Zelma and Aunt Katie and J.V. out of court. It took them 28 minutes to find for Marjorie. But the Florida Supreme Court overturned the verdict in 1947, finding that Zelma – and Aunt Katie, who wrote the appellate briefs – had both established that a right of privacy exists in Florida and proved that Marjorie invaded Zelma’s privacy in Cross Creek.

However, the justices also limited damages to $1 plus attorneys fees, finding that Zelma had been wronged, but not harmed. From my vantage point decades later, that Solomonic decision looks awfully wise.

It’s clear, as I’ll document later, that both sides felt they had lost. But it’s hard for me as an American, native north Floridian, creative writing major, longtime – but now former – Florida newspaper reporter, son of a lawyer, and most importantly, adoring grand nephew, to feel anything but pride and fascination as I read about this case and the characters than animate it.

In 1987, a law professor named Patricia Nassif Acton, who now works at the University of Iowa, wrote a very useful history of the trial she eventually called “Invasion of Privacy: The Cross Creek Trial of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.” In researching the book, she interviewed my father, Bill Townsend, and Aunt Katie’s living sisters: the late Sophie Gibson, and my grandmother Lois Townsend, who died Aug. 8, 2009, at the age of 90. Kate Walton died in 1985, but it wouldn’t have mattered. She wouldn’t have talked about the case to Ms. Acton anyway. Privacy had real meaning for Aunt Katie, for better and worse, as we’ll discuss.

I think that I first learned about the case after Aunt Katie’s death, while Ms. Acton was researching the book. However, it’s also possible that I heard about it when the movie “Cross Creek” came out in 1983. I don’t remember. I was a middle schooler at the time, more interested in baseball and hiding from girls.

In any event, I’m grateful to Ms. Acton for her well-written account of the case and particularly her narrative of the legal concepts and procedures that drove it. I’m going to refer to Invasion of Privacy often as I move along. But I’m not interested in duplicating it.

At first, as I became more and more intrigued by what I did and didn’t know about the Cross Creek case, I imagined recreating it from what I could muster of Aunt Katie’s point-of-view. I’d act as a kind of literary kangaroo court. But as I continued to read and research, I found the themes that kept emerging far transcended the case itself. Given the necessarily narrow focus of Ms. Acton’s book, she wasn’t really able to explore how Cason v Baskin slogs through so many of the points of contention that have animated the American – and the Floridian – experience. That’s what I want to do. I’d like to write my own book, but I’ll admit to problems in figuring out how to structure it. The blog format, with its variable lengths, interaction, and organizational capacity, suits me well. What you’ll be reading, in a sense, is my note-taking and research as it unfolds, the process by which I collect and hone my thoughts.

I have no particular order or outline in mind. I’m just going to write my impressions as they occur to me. But there are a handful of broad categories that demand attention in my idiosyncratic reading of the case and its characters. Here are a few:

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:
Go back and read what Marjorie wrote about Zelma. Man or a mother. Ouch. I suspect that stung in 1942 much more than it would today. It seems obvious to me that Marjorie’s questioning of Zelma’s womanhood lies at the heart of Zelma’s anger. And 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.

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