Crossing the Creek: The Literary Friendship of Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
University Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL , 2010
Literary friendships are relatively commonplace, but a friendship which reaches across racial barriers at a time when racial lines were very finely drawn is a treasure. Anna Lillios, the author of this slim, insightful, and delightfully readable volume, brings a wealth of scholarly research to her subject. Lillios, who is assistant professor of English at the University of Central Florida, is not only the Director of the Zora Neale Hurston Electronic Archives, she is also the executive director and trustee of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society as well as the co-editor of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Journal of Florida Literature. Lillios knows her subjects intimately-- from their books, their personal letters, and the wealth of scholarly literature available on each woman.
Rawlings and Hurston met at a hotel in St. Augustine, Florida, in the early 1940s when each had achieved a measurable degree of literary fame. Both writers had just published a memoir: Hurston had published Dust Tracks on a Road and Rawlings has published Cross Creek. Rawlings, who had received the Pulitzer Prize for The Yearling in 1939, reached out to Hurston as a fellow writer whom she greatly admired. Hurston, whose critically acclaimed novel Their Eyes Were Watching God had been published in 1937, was not unaccustomed to seeking out patrons, and she responded warmly to Rawlings' invitation to meet. A rich and complex friendship ensued that lasted until Rawlings' untimely death in 1953. The book concentrates on the relationship between the two and on the life and works of each woman from their meeting in July of 1942 through Hurston's final letter to Rawlings in 1948.
Hurston, who was known for embroidering the truth, always claimed to be from the town of Eatonville, Florida, and indeed she did spend her childhood in that privileged town which was the only incorporated black township in the United States. However, Hurston was actually born in Notasulga, Alabama, some nine years before she claimed to be born in Eatonville. After her mother died and her father remarried, Hurston found herself somewhat of a child without a county and, henceforth, lived primarily by her considerable wit. Tale telling was a gift that served Hurston well as she delved into the stories and folkways that characterized the African-American Heritage. Hurston became a world renown anthopologist after studying anthropology under the famed Franz Boas and working with Ruth Benedict as well as Margaret Mead.
However, in Florida in the 1940s the world was still a harshly segregated one, and Crossing the Creek provides intimate insights into Rawlings' struggle with what she discovered, to her horror and dismay, to be her own racism. Not only was Rawlings successful in confronting her own ingrained prejudice, but she also became an advocate for Hurston and a relentless crusader for racial equality.
In Crossing the Creek (the title is aptly drawn from Rawlings' autobiographical book Cross Creek), readers are given the unique opportunity to peer into the lives of two amazing and talented women and to glimpse a world that many of us either have forgotten or perhaps never ever knew.
----reviewed by Penne J. Laubenthal