Review Essay by Vivian May
Vol. 16, No. 2, 1994, pp. 13-17
“There came to me, in answer to prayer, a reward for my sufferings, the perfect maid. She is well trained, as good a cook as I, well educated, with almost my own tastes in literature and movies. She loves the country, she loves my dog, she loves company dinners, she dislikes liquor and has no interest in men”—Marjorie Rawlings, Cross Creek.
Idella: Marjorie Rawlings’ “Perfect Maid,” by Idella Parker with Mary Keating (University of Florida Press, 1992, 156 pages).
Cross Creek, by Marjorie K. Rawlings (Collier/Macmillan, 1987, 384 pages).
Cross Creek Cookery, by Marjorie K. Rawlings (Scribner/Macmillan, 1971, 256 pages).
Idella Parker has written her 1992 autobiography, Idella: Marjorie Rawlings’ “Perfect Maid,” in dialogue with Rawlings’ 1942 autobiography, Cross Creek. When the two books are considered together, the results are startling. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896-1953) was the author of many works of fiction and non-fiction, but is most remembered for her Pulitzer Prize winning 1938 novel The Yearling (made by MGM into the 1946 Gregory Peck-Jane Wyman movie) and her Cross Creek Cookery (1942) collection of recipes. From 1940 to 1950, years in which the writer was living in and fictionalizing north central Florida, Parker worked as Rawlings’ domestic. Unlike Rawlings, who lived outside the South until 1938, Parker was a Florida native who later taught in black schools, worked as a beautician, and taught homemaking skills to educable mentally retarded children. She lives today in Ocala.
Both Cross Creek and Idella are unusual because their authors are relatively invisible, portraying themselves indirectly through the people and geography around them. Yet each woman’s invisibility-as-visibility functions differently. Rawlings obscures her privilege and her exploitiveness: her descriptions and actions seem neutral, objective. Parker mimics or parodies her invisibility as a domestic worker. She uses her circumscribed voice against itself. Parker highlights how constructed her situation is, whereas Rawlings is blind to the forces shaping her point of view. Parker emphasizes the lack of power ascribed to marginalized and denigrated people; unwittingly, Rawlings does the same.
Parker’s ostensible aim is to examine Rawlings’ claim in Cross Creek that she was a “perfect” maid. As she does this, Parker reveals how unaware Rawlings was of her own prejudices and problems. Seeming to write in a deferential manner and in congenial dialogue with her “friend,” Parker actually writes in opposition to Rawlings and the white culture she represents. Her narrative voice is passive, removed, and frequently obsequious. Parker gives more space to their “friendship” than to other facets of her life. In fact, because Idella is not about the times in her life when she is happy and/or not exploited (childhood, schooling, college, her second marriage, her other careers), it is an autobiographical account of one part of
her life: exploitation and her escape from it. By depicting their friendship and the “superiority” of Rawlings in a passive, deferential tone, Parker reveals her own considerable virtues and her capacity for survival. Moreover, Parker shows Rawlings’ self-portrait in Cross Creek as an independent adventurer to be an illusion upheld by Rawlings’ physical and emotional dependence on Parker.
Rawlings is differently invisible in Cross Creek than Parker is in Idella. Her voice is more personal and active, yet she, too, does not discuss many parts of her life (marriages, family, childhood, friendships). As she tells about her neighbors and herself farming, hunting, and arguing, she evokes the local plants and animals, painting a romanticized portrait of her environment. Her narrative emphasizes the ways in which Nature and the seasons of the year affect the inner workings of the community. Rawlings’ “natural” surroundings include, however, African Americans, whom she animalizes and exoticizes.
Cross Creek is modeled on the “man contemplates nature” genre (Thoreau) rather than the more introspective or private “domestic” autobiography and fiction which were still, in the 1940’s, considered more “appropriate” for women to write. Rawlings also writes against the American ideology of industrial progress. Her text is unemotional and un-“feminine.” She presents herself as independent, self-sufficient, and possessing “masculine” characteristics. Through differentiation from black people, Rawlings imagines herself as an active, knowing, subject. More concretely, she is as ‘one of the [white] guys’ who enjoys hunting, farming, and a good, stiff drink, or two.
Both women write about the same place, but their sense of local geography is very different. Rawlings’ opening chapter, “Cross Creek,” maps out the area for the reader:
Cross Creek is a bend in a country road, by land, and the flowing of Lochloosa Lake into Orange Lake, by water. We are four miles west of the small village of Island Grove, nine miles east of a turpentine still, and on the other sides we do not count distance at all, for the two lakes and the broad marshes create an infinite space between us and the horizon. We are five white families…and two colored families…. The Creek folk of color are less suspect [of madness] than the rest of us. Yet there is something a little different about them from blacks who live gregariously in Quarters, so that even if they did not live at the Creek, they would stay, I think, somehow aloof from the layer-cake life of the average Negro. (1-2)
Cross Creek lies at the center, with the surrounding area defined in relation to it. The population, both white and black, is located geographically and psychologically: “[m]adness is only a variety of mental nonconformity and we are all individualists here.” (2) The distinction Rawlings makes between “us” and “them” not only distinguishes Cross Creek “folk” from other “folk”—it distinguishes between black and white, between the “layer-cake life” and the “individualist’s” life of “mental nonconformity.” Rawlings implies that although the “Creek folk of color” are different from the “average Negro,” they are, nonetheless, not part of the “we” of individualists in the same way that white Cross Creekers are.
She portrays Cross Creek as serenely beautiful, contemplative, “unpopulated,” and rather innocent:
I walk at sunset, east along the road. There are no houses in that direction, except the abandoned one where the wild plums grow, white with bloom in springtime. I usually walk halfway to the village and back again…. The Negroes touch
a finger to their ragged caps or pretend courteously not to see me. Evening after evening I walk as far as the magnolias near Big Hammock, and home, and see no one. (5-6)
The black people she meets are considered no one, invisible.
Rawlings’ perspective is that of a white landowner when she uses “we” to discuss “members” of the community. For example: “We at the Creek need and have found only very simple things. We must need flowering and fruiting trees, for all of us have citrus groves of one size or another. We must need a certain blandness of season, with a longer and more beneficent heat than many require, for there is never too much sun for us, and through the long summers we do not complain.” (3) Certainly not all the inhabitants of Cross Creek own citrus groves. And, was it true that those who worked for the grove owners never complained of the “more beneficent heat” as they threshed the fields, repaired fences, and cooked in woodfired ovens? Self-centering is expected in autobiographies, yet with her “we” Rawlings erases people or makes them mute.
For Parker, Cross Creek is not a place of quirky madness and romanticized agrarian individualism. “Cross Creek,” she writes, “does not fill me with longing for the ‘good old days.’ It stands as a reminder to me of how far we have come from those days of hard work and segregation.” (xi) Parker is from Reddick, a small town a few miles from Cross Creek. Reddick does not exist for Rawlings—even though she finds her “perfect” maid there. At the beginning of her book, Parker provides a literal map that shows the larger geography of northern Florida. One among many small towns, Cross Creek is not a center on Parker’s map. She describes the locale(s) of her narrative quite differently than Rawlings. The places which Rawlings finds beautiful, peaceful and intrinsically “pure” are often places of loneliness, alienation, and danger for Parker. She writes,
There was no social life for me there at the Creek at all, because the other workers and I had very little in common. I didn’t enjoy ‘jukin,’ and there was no church for me to belong to nearby. Including Mrs. Rawlings’ house there were only five houses in Cross Creek, all owned by white people. There were no churches, no stores, no telephones, and no transportation except what was provided by Mrs. Rawlings. The nearest town was five miles away, and you didn’t dare try to walk. Few cars passed, and all manner of snakes were always crawling across the road, so you were afraid. I felt like I was stuck in Cross Creek. (40)
Parker’s fear has more to do with the innocuous town “five miles away”—Island Grove—than with snakes. Parker’s mother says to her, “‘You know you can’t work in no Island Grove, child. They’ll kill you!’ I knew what Mama was talking about. I’d been hearing stories about how sometimes colored folks mysteriously disappeared in Island Grove ever since I was a child, and those scary tales came rushing back into my mind. Island Grove was a white man’s town, a place where colored people were not welcome.” (17)
Rawlings and Parker write about the same area, yet it has different meanings for each. Having come from the invisible, non-existent Reddick, Parker’s perspective challenges the romanticized beauty of Cross Creek. She reveals Rawlings’ natural paradise of evening walks and studies of local flora to be a space of social alienation, spiritual deprivation, physical entrapment, and psychological loneliness.
Rawlings’ Cross Creek is harmonious because black people are one-dimensional, part of the scenery, mute: “Florida is a country of the work-dog, even where that dog is a pointer or setter and so something, always, of a pet. We live a leisurely life, but while our dogs lie, as we, in the sun, they are also expected to serve us, as the Negro serves.” (32) Rawlings claims African-Americans are like a “black ape,” (186) a “seething mass,” (280) and “a cage of birds.” (324) Of one of her servants—Geechee—she writes:
She was the ugliest Negress I had ever seen….I dressed her….In my clothes she looked like a battered black rag doll. As the weeks passed I bought her a cautious cheap uniform or two. Even in their white formality she seemed always about to burst into belligerent dance, tearing her garments from her, prancing naked in savage triumph. The effect came from her lioness stride, from her unkempt hair which shot in black electric spirals from her skull….I could have beaten her raw those first months and it would not have mattered. She cleaned my house…She was as wild-looking as some fresh-caught African slave. (82-90)
While Rawlings implies that she is sexually self-controlled, culturally civilized, and normal, she exposes her desire for power over others—to clothe, hire and fire, and beat them. The African Americans she portrays are visible only through the myopic lens of racist figures of speech.
In Idella, Parker manipulates the stereotypes of domestics as non-subjects. Parker’s reminiscing is friendly and deferential, yet there is a derisive or cutting under-
tone which is most evident in her endless descriptions of the mundane aspects of Rawlings’ life. One of her first descriptions of Rawlings begins in a complimentary tone that degenerates rapidly into one of disdain, disapproval, and pity:
Mrs. Rawlings usually weighed about 180 pounds, and was about five foot seven inches tall. From the waist up she was small but bosomy, with very small hands and short, slim fingers. From the waist down she was heavy, with nice, well-shaped legs and the smallest feet. She must have worn a size three or four shoe. Her eyes were grayish blue. Her hair was unruly and she seldom gave any attention to it….Mrs. Rawlings didn’t care about how she looked. She was always clean, of course, but the types of dresses, shoes, and socks she sometimes put on would make me laugh. (1)
On the following page, we see Rawlings “with very thin lips” and “covered with dog and cat hair.” By the next, we learn that Rawlings “drank far more than she should have….She would cry readily.”
Parker is contradictory when describing their personal relationship. “I think fear caused us [employees] to be obedient and do as we were told,” Parker writes. “I say ‘told,’ because even Mrs. Rawlings, kind as she was, never asked her workers to do anything, she told them. In our first years together Mrs. Rawlings was just like other white people; she talked at me, not to me. Whatever she said do, I did.” (xii) Yet a few pages later she states, “Although I was black, and knew that I could only do or say just so much, we were more than servant and master. We were close friends and companions. She confided in me and I have always kept her confidences. Even now that she is gone, there are many things about her I do not feel free to say.” (1)
Parker appears to balance her portrayal of Rawlings by referring to her loyalty to their friendship. She performs this balancing act throughout Idella. “Our friendship was an unusually close one for the times we lived in,” she writes on the book’s final page. “Yet no matter what the ties were that bound us together, we were still a black woman and a white woman, and the barrier of race was always there. In private…there was deep friendship and respect, and no thought of the social differences between us. But whenever other people were around, the barrier of color went up automatically.” (128) The idea that there was “no thought of the social differences between us” is hard to believe after having read of her servitude—a servitude Parker parallels to slavery. (115) Her apparent obsequious fondness becomes derisive or mocking as Idella‘s narrative unfolds and Parker reveals the kind of physical and psychological exploitation she suffered in the employ of her “friend” Rawlings.
Judith Rollins, in her book Between Women: Domestics and their Employers (1985), emphasizes that what “makes domestic service as an occupation…profoundly exploitive…[is] the personal relationship between employer and employee. What might appear to be the basis of a more humane, less alienating work arrangement allows for a level of psychological exploitation unknown in other occupations.” (156) Rawlings’ and Parker’s relationship was exploitive because of a variety of forms of deference. Linguistic deference is obvious in that Parker always refers to Marjorie Rawlings as “Mrs. Rawlings” and herself as “Idella.” Any white people she worked for are “Mr.” or “Mrs.”, while all black people are called by their first names.
At one point in Idella, Parker directly addresses the familiar kinds of linguistic, spatial, and political deference required or demanded at the time: “We weren’t allowed to
register, so we couldn’t vote. We didn’t enter white people’s houses by the front door, and we were taught to address white people with ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, ma’am,’ not just ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ We sat in the back seats on public buses and separate cars on trains, and we sure didn’t sit up front in a white lady’s car.” (19)
Parker lived in a small tenant house separate from the main house at Cross Creek. She did not eat meals with Rawlings, but served them to her in the dining room or in bed. Parker’s deference was essential to pleasing Rawlings: “To her I was perfect because I knew what to do without being told, and because I eased her mind.” (37) Really “[a]ll she was interested in was whether I could cook and keep her house, hold quiet, and let her do her work.” (61-64) At one dinner which Parker helped to cook and serve, she describes the anger she felt at the “way Mrs. Rawlings and her guests made fun of us black folks right to our faces, and supposed that we were too stupid to know it.” (80-81)
Perhaps most emotionally exploitive for Parker was her prescribed role as Rawlings’ confidante or “friend.” Parker emphasizes that Rawlings confided things to her that she told no one else. (1, 74, 85, 110) In Between Women, Rollins argues that using domestics as confidantes reinforces the “existential distance” between employer and employee. “Using a domestic as a confidante,” Rollins writes, “may, in fact, be evidence of the distance in even the closest of these relationships. Employers can feel free to tell domestics secrets they would not share with their friends or family precisely because this domestic is so far from being socially and psychologically significant to the employer.” (167) Parker writes that her and Rawlings’ “relationship was a close one, but it was one that often felt burdensome to me.” (85) She implies that her perception that they were friends she now sees as incorrect in phrases such as “it never occurred to me to question anything I was told to do.” (39)
In the first pages of Idella, Parker tells us that she is an excellent cook who learned all she knew from her mother. (9) Discovering that Parker can cook well, Rawlings asks “for some of [her] recipes (all of which were in [her] head and hands, but not written down).” (Idella, 3637) As Rawlings decides to write Cross Creek Cookery, Parker remembers,
[w]hen she got the idea to write the cookbook…we were months and months together in that tiny kitchen….As I have said before, my recipes were in my hands and head. I never wrote them down until Mrs. Rawlings started on that cookbook….Many of the recipes in the book were mine, but she only gave me credit for three of them, including ‘Idella’s Biscuits.’ There were several others that were mine, too, such as the chocolate pie, and of course it was me who did most of the cooking when we were trying all the recipes out. All I ever got from the cookbook was an autographed copy, but in those days I was grateful for any little crumb that white people let fall, so I kept my thoughts about the cookbook strictly to myself. (69)
Parker’s invisibility to Rawlings is nowhere more evident than in a detailed chapter in Cross Creek about cooking and food, “Our Daily Bread.” The pen and ink drawing on the chapter’s first page shows a black servant bent over peeling potatoes while appearing to be in conversation with a dog. Rawlings gives no credit given to the endless cooking that Parker has done. In Idella Parker describes the six- or seven-course dinner parties that Rawlings enjoyed, and how she and Martha (another domestic) would work for hours. Rawlings implies that she does all the cooking and preparing herself.
Parker writes against invisibility by showing Rawlings’ method of maintaining illusions. In her telling, Parker performs a change in consciousness. In her finally leaving Rawlings, Parker places her exploitation and escape in the larger context and history of race relations in the U.S. By contrasting Cross Creek and Idella, we learn that both women’s spatial, cultural, racial, and gendered perceptions are relative. Parker mirrors Rawlings back upon herself as the final irony against a woman who saw in Parker (and the rest of the black Cross Creek community) a mirror for self-aggrandizement.
Vivian May is a graduate student in Women’s Studies at Emory University in Atlanta.