Wednesday, May 28, 2014

FLORIDA: CROSS CREEK AND MARJORIE KINNAN RAWLINGS

My husband knows I enjoy literary tourism, and when he was planning our trip to the South last January, he scouted out THREE author-related sites: The F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum, The Monroe County Courthouse (which houses artifacts related to Harper Lee and Truman Capote,) and Cross Creek, the Florida home of writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (hereafter referred to as MKR) for thirteen years. To be honest, before this visit, the only thing I knew about MKR was that she penned The Yearling, and that it won the Pulitzer Prize a long, long time ago.

It turns out that The Yearling was based on MKR's personal experiences in Cross Creek. Her farm is now a state historic site, and it is a great place to visit.


MKR's house and farm have also been designated a National Historic Landmark:
I recently read Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, and in many ways MKR's challenging experience trying to farm oranges in Florida among the backwoods people reminds me of Dinesen's struggle to make a living growing tobacco in Kenya among the Kikiyu and Masai people. Both women had husbands who were instrumental in purchasing the farms but then disappeared, leaving the women to make a go of it on their own. Both books are full of short, loosely related anecdotes about their experiences.
One of MKR's orange trees still grows in her yard, but most of her grove has been overtaken by the forest.
When MKR moved into the house, it was pretty decrepit, and over the next few years she remodeled it and connected two buildings on the property to make them one.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

FLORIDA: HIGHEST POINT AND STATE CAPITOL BUILDING

We left Mobile and drove due east through the Florida panhandle towards Tallahassee, the state capital, in a torrential rain storm.
Our first destination was Florida's highest point. At 345 feet, it happens to the lowest highest point in the nation. It's so unremarkable that we drove right past it and had to turn around and look for it again. Amazingly, we had a two or three minute break in the rain, just long enough to take a few photos:
Being the lowest high point is kind of like coming in last in the Miss America Pageant. You were good enough to get there, but that's about it. Of course, the advantage here is that we didn't even get winded walking up the .005% rise to the summit.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

ABOUT TOWN IN MOBILE, ALABAMA

On our trip to the South this past January, we spent a day in Mobile, the third largest city in Alabama. Mobile fit right in to my overarching impression of Alabama: quiet and slow. As a Californian, I kept looking around and wondering Where are all the people? Why is it so quiet? We were there on a Friday, a day that should be bustling with end-of-the-week, start-of-the-weekend activity, but it felt like a comparative ghost-town.

We parked right by what I thought at the time was the Masonic Lodge . . .
. . . because of the sphinx statues flanking the front door.
However, I've tried to find information about the building online and have been unsuccessful, so I'm not sure WHAT the building actually is.

We didn't ever get to downtown Mobile, but the skyline is dominated by the city's tallest building, which is also the tallest building in the state, the RSA (Retirement Systems of Alabama) Battle House Tower. Completed in September 2006, it is 745 feet tall.
Mobile is an arsty little town, with plenty of fun public art to enjoy, including this warrior outside the Centre for the Living Arts Museum just a block from the Cathedral-Basilica.

Friday, May 16, 2014

MOBILE, ALABAMA: CATHEDRAL-BASILICA OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION

Mobile, Alabama, was designated the first capital of French Louisiana in 1702, and the first Catholic parish on the Gulf Coast was established here the following year. It was the first religious congregation of any denomination in Alabama and the Mississippi River Valley. Several different churches served as the home for the parish, but in 1829 Mobile was elevated to a diocese, and Bishop Michael Portier set out to build a monument that would represent that new status. The cornerstone was laid in 1835, and the cathedral was dedicated after fifteen years of construction in 1850.
The church is a Roman basilica design, with interior columns that divide the space and a wide central aisle. The exterior portico with its massive Doric columns was added in the 1870s, and the 103-foot-tall gold-topped towers were completed in 1884.
At one time the Archdiocese of Mobile included all of present-day Alabama and Florida, but today it includes just the Catholic parishes in the twenty-eight southern counties of Alabama. However, it was still important enough to the region that Pope John XXIII designated this building a minor basilica in 1962, and hence the "Cathedral-Basilica" designation.
The beautiful iron gates reveal the French influence of the region:

Monday, May 12, 2014

ALABAMA: COTTON FIELDS, MONROEVILLE TO MOBILE

We found that driving around in the countryside near Monroeville was a bit of a Brigadoon or Shangri-La experience. We could have sworn we had gone back in time. It was eerily quiet, and a little bit of fog enhanced the mystical atmosphere.
One of the tiny towns we drove through had the sensuous name of "Burnt Corn." In an interview, Truman Capote said, "My favorite place in the whole wide world is Burnt Corn. I swear, it's just the most delightful wide place in the road, and the way the highway bends right there, with the church and the cemetery, and the little country store, and those people."
 
I'm not sure what "people" he was talking about, because we got a little lost and couldn't find anyone who could give us directions.
Later, we started driving south towards Mobile, and the landscape was just as interesting. As it was January, the cotton fields were barren. Bits of unwanted fluff left on the brittle stalks hinted at what must have been a glorious wash of white a few months earlier:

Thursday, May 8, 2014

MONROEVILLE, ALABAMA: TRUMAN CAPOTE

According the The Encyclopedia of Alabama, in 2010 the population of Monroeville, Alabama, was 6,519, with about 56% identifying themselves as African American, 42% as white, and 4% as other races. The median household income was just under $32,000. Eighty years before, the town was probably smaller than that and just about as poor.

How in the world did two major American authors come from a place like that?  Nelle Harper Lee was born in Monroeville in 1926, and Truman Steckfus Persons (who later took on his step-father's last name of Capote) came to live with his cousins next door to the Lees when he was just three years old in 1927, stayed there until 1933, continued to spend many summers in Monroeville as he was growing up, and visited many times as an adult. As a result, Harper and Truman grew up together as best friends. Harper Lee even modeled one of the main characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, a precocious neighbor boy named Dill, after her friend Truman. In return, Truman Capote based a character in his first novel on Harper--Idabel Thompkins in Other Voices, Other Rooms.
Truman as a young child
Truman was a year-and-a-half older than Harper (known by her first name Nelle back in those days), and they had many wonderful adventures together.
He looks like the kind of boy who had LOTS of crazy adventures.
Part of the Monroe County Courthouse Museum is dedicated to the life and works of Truman Capote:


Sunday, May 4, 2014

MONROEVILLE, ALABAMA: THE COURTHOUSE AND HARPER LEE

The 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning book To Kill a Mockingbird has been on my Top Ten Books list ever since I read it in my high school English class. I reread it once every five to ten years, and I've seen the 1962 movie about as many times as I've read the book, and so visiting Harper Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, was the equivalent of visiting Mecca.

As we drove in to town, it was pretty easy to tell we were in the right place. There was that mural of a mockingbird on the Lee Motor Co. building:
. . . a cute birdhouse/mailbox with a mockingbird and the words "Literary Capital of Alabama" painted on it:
. . . a mural of Scout, Jem, and Dill hiding behind a tree:
. . . Radley's Fountain Grille ("Where Friends Meet"):
. . . and Mockingbird Inn & Suites:
We were definitely in the right place.
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