Monday, December 29, 2008

Help the Economy! Help Yourself!

I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas, got to be with his or her family, and left feeling overstuffed and a little guilty, as I did, for the abundance of blessings. It's been a good holiday for me, and I'm going to refrain from any of my usual jeremiads against the materialism and acquisitiveness corrupting American society. Why rant and rave when you're satisfied?

I've had a number of emotional needs fulfilled the past few weeks. That makes me grateful. Now I'm going to be greedy and expose two items from my personal wish list that, after Christmas, I'm still pursuing.

The first is an essential for anyone interested in the culture and history of that wild territory of swamp, quail farms, and cracker settlements that spans the Florida-Georgia border. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is best known for her classic novel The Yearling, which stands alongside Sounder, Where the Red Fern Grows, and perhaps A Day No Pigs Would Die in the tender coming-of-age-via-tragic-pet-death canon. But Rawlings was more than just a sentimentalist, and her observations of her poor, white neighbors are praiseworthy for their sensitivity and restraint. The latter is an especially honorable quality in a literary age in which the Southern grotesque was the rage (see Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White's nearly repulsive book of photographs, Have You Seen Their Faces?)

Chief among Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' treatments of her north Florida environment is Cross Creek, an autobiography of her time there. However, reading summaries of her work, at the moment I'm equally attracted to Cross Creek Cookery, a work I hope to pair with its North Georgia cousin shortly. For a treacly modern and fanciful account of Rawlings' north Florida environment, watch the Michael J. Fox's Doc Hollywood, filmed in nearby Micanopy, a brief and quaint moss-strewn place south of Gainesville. (If you're looking for the view from the Georgia side of the border, Harry Crews and Janisse Ray are recommended.)

The next author is a continuance, stretched fifty miles south, of the theme--and a man whom I've been thinking of since Christmas, for no particular reason. Proud son of Zellwood, Florida, Charles H. Baker Jr. should be every thinking man's friend and every dipso's darling. He's such an extraordinary and unique type that there's almost nothing to say; he defies approach. With that in mind, I leave Baker's introduction to the writer who introduced me, thanks to the Oxford American's 2008 Best of the South issue. St. John Frizell uncovers the definitive gallant and travel guide. Whoever coined the term "an absorbing read" was surely thinking of Baker's life (make sure you click to page two and Baker's "lusty" take on Florida crackers).

For another writer from Baker's neck of the woods, albeit one drastically different, try Zora Neale Hurston.

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