Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Some Small Place of Enchantment

Just a week ago I was passing through central Florida and I thought about my very first posting on this blogspot back on December 1, 2008.  I touched upon inter alia my visit to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home and farm at Cross Creek, Florida, a place she called “some small place of enchantment” with its dense hammocks of dark, rich soil, and its live oaks and palmettos.  Each time I return to Florida I try to make it back to that magical place. The narrow country roads still pass under canopies of live oak festooned with long gray beards of Spanish moss, and white herons and egrets wade in the sedgy marsh shallows looking for their next meal. “And after long years of spiritual homelessness, of nostalgia,” Rawlings writes, “here is that mystic loveliness of childhood again. Here is home.”  I know what she means, and even though I did not make it over to Cross Creek this time around, it was still on my mind.

I returned home to find Sally Ann reading the late Al Burt’s The Tropic of Cracker (2009), a collection of his Florida columns written for The Miami Herald.  One of these focuses on Norton S. Baskin, Rawlings’ second husband whom she met in 1933, some five years after her arrival at Cross Creek, and whom she married in 1941.  Over the years she and Baskin entertained numerous famous visitors at the farm, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mitchell, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, Gregory Peck, Ernest Hemingway and Max Perkins, her and Hemingway’s editor at Scribner’s. And, as it turns out, there were two other famous visitors to Cross Creek that I was not previously aware of.

Rawlings’ first novel, The Yearling (1938), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 and Scribner’s chose to publish a newly illustrated second edition with original artwork by famed illustrator N. C. Wyeth. This edition remained on the best-seller list for almost two years and sold almost a quarter of a million copies. What I didn’t know was that Wyeth and his 21 year old son Andrew traveled to Florida for the first time in early 1939, when Andrew was still actively studying with and doing some illustration work for his father, and both were guests at Baskin’s hotel in nearby Ocala for three weeks while they traveled around Cross Creek and the Big Scrub doing sketches and painting.

Jake (J.T.) Glisson, one of Rawlings’ young neighbors at Cross Creek, describes in his 1993 memoir, The Creek, which includes many of his own fine sketches of life at Cross Creek, how N.C. Wyeth talked to him about painting while the eleven year old boy watched him sketch a tall palmetto at the edge of a hummock. “The drawing that materialized while I watched was more wonderful than anything I could imagine . . . he did it so easily and the result was better than the drawings in Mrs. Rawlings’s magazines.”  Glisson then paid the elder Wyeth perhaps the supreme compliment.  “It was the Creek, and better than the real thing.”

Andrew Wyeth, Florida, 1939
According to Baskin, he took N.C. to various sites connected with the novel while Andrew remained behind at Cross Creek to paint.  Baskin mentions a certain watercolor of a meandering Cross Creek with Orange Lake in the background that Rawlings was particularly fond of.  In a February 22, 1939 letter to Perkins, Rawlings wrote how the “Young Wyeth did some stunning water colors while he was here with his father.”  She noted that Andrew, who two years prior to his visit had his first one-man exhibition of watercolors at the Macbeth Gallery, in New York City, “works very fast, direct from the landscape, without sketching, and does not work on the pieces again. He has the genius to get away with it.”  Rawlings had hoped she might purchase one of the young artist’s watercolors, a marsh scene he did just up the road from her farmhouse, but she could not afford the $150 asking price.  More precisely, “The Scotch in me rebelled against that price for an hour’s work from a twenty-one year-old boy, which is an asinine way to look at it.”

I have been to many museums and galleries exhibiting Andrew Wyeth’s paintings and sketches and I have never seen anything done during his visit to Florida.  Nor have I found any significant references to his Florida visit and work in any published biography of profile.  I did, however, manage to locate a citation to one such painting which upon viewing certainly looks like it could have been painted at Cross Creek.  Too bad Rawlings did not snap up that painting she mentioned when she had the chance.  I can easily imagine the selling price today would go high into six figures.

Anyway, I missed a visit to the Creek, but I did learn something new about that “small place of enchantment.”

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