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.


Sunday, March 4, 1945: “Florida Still Undeveloped, Says Caldwell”

I’m now in possession of what’s left of the Walton case file for the Cross Creek trial. While rummaging through various transcripts, depositions, and letters of support for Zelma, I came across a small manila envelope containing five immaculately creased and folded copies of Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union state news pages from March 4, 1945. That date marked Florida’s centennial as a state.

There’s nothing about the case in that edition. But Marjorie shows up twice, as the star of unrelated stories. That suggests something about her prominence in 1945 Florida following the success of The Yearling and Cross Creek.

The first story, an AP wire dispatch headlined “Movement to Honor Negro Teacher Starts,” noted Marjorie gave the keynote speech at an event honoring Mary McLeod Bethune and calling for a nationwide day of honor for the famous educator.

Key passage:

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of Florida folk novels, was the principal speaker on the program. She said the founder of Bethune-Cookman College at Daytona Beach and former negro director of the NYA had set an example of “pride, dignity and responsibility” for the negro race.

This was completely in character for Marjorie, who aggressively cultivated relationships with black men and women in writing and academia as one way of addressing “the Negro question.” We’ll delve into this further when we talk about Zora Neale Hurston and others in future posts.

A separate story, describing some Florida centennial festivities, reported that Marjorie provided a “special message” printed in the Congressional Record in honor of Florida’s big day. The state contains “such an array of garden flowers and of garden vegetables as to make one wonder why the Capitol of the United States was not placed in the Floridian eden instead of Washington, D.C.,” wrote Marjorie, according to the news story. “And the climate, take the lies of California, and in Florida, they are truth.”

But the truly fun story in that paper, another AP dispatch, has nothing to do with Marjorie. It quotes from Gov. Millard Caldwell’s article published for the centennial in “State Government,” a magazine of state affairs. “Florida Still Undeveloped, Says Caldwell,” reads the headline. Because this was an AP story, it likely ran in every major state newspaper at the time. I’m going to reproduce the whole thing here, just because it’s so cool. AP can sue me.

One hundred years ago today Florida became the twenty-eighth State in the Union, and now, on entering its second century of statehood the State “is still undeveloped, its destiny still unfulfilled,” according to Governor Millard Caldwell.

The State chief executive in an article “Florida’s Second Century” appearing in the current issue of State Government, a magazine of State affairs, reviewed the first 100 years of statehood. He said:

“Our State has experienced prenomenal [ed-typo?] development. From a frontier region sparsely inhabited around the northern shoreline and boundary, with a few primitive industries, one shortline railroad, a few scattered links of ungraded woods roads, and an economy based on general farming, the open cattle range, and lumbering, Florida has forged ahead to a prominent position in the Nation.

“In taking stock of our resources, of our accomplishments, and of our goals, in this centennial year, we find that we have neglected opportunities and wasted resources.

“One of the immediate tasks before us is the conservation of our surface and artesian fresh water supply, with attention to problems in drainage, erosion, and contamination. Discovery of oil in Florida may lead to development of a profitable commercial field and we are taking steps to conserve the supply and to tax the production equitably.

“Floridians are not satisfied with our State’s educational standing, and we are laying the groundwork for further development in our public school system.

“In many ways, Florida is having growing pains. We have a rapidly increasing population and the load carried by our governmental units, institutions, and services steadily grow heavier. It is our aim to put every tax revenue dollar to work earning dividends and building a greater Florida. We do not, however tolerate the false economy of starving services essential to our continued growth. We are prepared to pay reasonable taxes to build a greater State.”

In conclusion the governor commented, “Florida has no State debt, has a post-war construction reserve of $15,000,000, and all bills are paid. We are in excellent financial and physical condition to face the post-war era squarely, with courage and with confidence in the future.

“Florida, on the eve of its second century of statehood, is still undeveloped, its destiny still unfulfilled.”

Any of that sound familiar, Floridians?

I thought of Caldwell’s remarks when I read this USA Today story a few days ago:

Last month came the most jaw-dropping announcement of all: The state that made population growth the linchpin of its economy for more than 60 years lost a net 58,000 people this year [2008-2009], according to newly released estimates for April 1.

“It’s the end of an era,” says Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. “Florida represents an entire postwar vision of the good life — palm trees, low cost and no taxes, just easy living. They could turn it around, but in the short haul, it’s paradise lost.”

One wonders to what degree Marjorie’s great success as a sort of Floridian spokeswoman and de facto marketer contributed to the relentless post-war growth. Consider this editorial published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Feb. 19th, 1943, lamenting the lawsuit:

In Cross Creek, Mrs. Rawlings offered every urban dweller with a speck of imagination the perfect means of escape from the hurly burly, the financial worries and the artificiality of the modern big city. In this account of her life as a transplanted resident of the hammock section of north central Florida the author invited us in beautiful prose to cast off the bonds of urban routine and come live among the kindly, simple people of the backwoods.

Mrs. Rawlings was not the only writer who has in effect extended such an invitation. It has been done for both the woods and rocky coasts of Maine, for the placid villages in the valleys of Vermont, for the farming sections of Ohio. But ‘Cross Creek’ was among the most convincing of escapist literature; and it is safe to say that, although not more than a handful of her readers ever would have mustered up their courage to make the break, life was made easier for thousands of them by the thought, that some day, if the scramble for a standard of living became unbearable, they would pack up and seek the quiet life of the country where human relations meant more than financial success.

Whether they came for the “quiet life of the country,” or for the quasi-luxurious life of the tawdry beach condo or gated community, one wonders how many Plain Dealer readers did, indeed, make their way to Florida between the end of the war and the land crash of 2007-08. Hundreds of thousands? Millions? I’ll be reseaching some of those numbers in the coming weeks. In the meantime, in the same vein, consider this editorial from a previous incarnation of my former employer, the Tampa Morning Tribune, from Jan. 1, 1947, the year following the trial.

We invite, probably, a shower of brickbats when we suggest Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings as Florida’s “Woman of the Year.” This far-famed author of Florida fiction wrote her masterpiece “The Yearling” and received the Pulitzer Prize for it prior to 1946, but it was in 1946 that the story was made into one of the acknowledged great motion pictures of all time. [ed. - Really? Of all time? Like Citizen Kane? ] For her literary achievements, in addition to the far-reaching favorable notice she has brought to the state, this adopted Floridian, who has immortalized our “backwoods,” is entitled to the top place among Florida women.

Could it be that the siren of the “backwoods” helped kill it by her very sirenity? Who knows? Whether Marjorie and her work served as a catalyst of this “postwar vision of the good life” is probably unanswerable in an empirical sense, though I’ll be taking a shot at it. But in the lawsuit and trial, I don’t think you could find a better cultural emblem of that particular inflection point in Florida and U.S. history. It announced an era that has culminated in another inflection point – the crash of Florida’s second great land boom and the election of Barack Obama as president, with the overwhelming backing of Florida’s non-white population. Whatever one thinks of either of these developments, they do seem to herald the emergence of a different type of Florida than we’ve known.

The participants in the Cross Creek case seemed aware of their presence at the conception of the new Florida, which itself was a function of the new US and its dominant technological and cultural role in the post-war global order.

Consider, as a conclusion to this post, these passages from Aunt Katie’s first appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, demanding a trial. She filed this pleading on Oct. 19, 1943:

The advance of civilization and the consequent necessary development of manners and customs suitable to our society, wherein specialization, speed of transportation and communication and increased population have made men inter-dependent, have been reflected in the growth of law. Duels are outlawed, self-help to right a legal wrong or to avenge an injury is frowned upon. We look to the courts for recognition of rights of individuals and for remedy for personal injury.


It is particularly fitting that the right of privacy should have been first recognised and integrated as an actionable right under the common law in the United States, for this is a necessary corollary from the principles of individual sovereignty and of personal freedom under laws which are corner stones of our theory of government; and it is not inappropriate that this cause should come before this court in a year of war when the very status of man is in issue, for it is with the dignity of man as a free-willed individual that the law of privacy concerns itself, and, in the last analysis, we were constrained to wage this war, not for numbered freedoms, not to assert the superiority of one form of government over another, but by an urgent need to maintain our concept of the equality of man and of his status as a free individual.