South Moon Under by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1933)

South Moon Under by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was this author’s first novel, published in 1933. She struggled to gain any traction in her writing career until she and her first husband bought an orange grove in Cross Creek, Florida.

She was fascinated by the locals of Cross Creek,  poor white natives of the area who were called “crackers” in the vernacular of the time. At first wary of this Northerner, they eventually warmed to her as she gained their trust. Once she began weaving the dialect,  flora and fauna, and foodways of the people of the “big scrub” into her writing, she finally found success.

The story centers on Lant, a young man who supports himself and his mother by making and selling moonshine. It captures the flavor of Cross Creek and the life of moonshine makers. South Moon Under was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, an honor Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings would achieve just a few years later with The Yearling (1938), her most famous novel.

South Moon Under was generally well received; the admiring review just below is typical of its reception. Some reviewers were put off by the harsh descriptions of the backwoods life described in the novel, an example of which is in the second review in this post.


A 1933 review of South Moon Under

From  original review in The Tampa Bay Times, March 12, 1933: We who live in Florida cities, and along the sea shore, know little or nothing of the life of the natives in the scrub. the Florida scrub is unique, and has a life all its own which is described with singular power in this novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

This is an area practically untouched in writing, though it resembles the mountain stories of Maristan Chapman and Elizabeth Maddox Roberts, as it deals with primitive people on their native soil. They are simple and uncouth perhaps, but with a certain dignity. They’re unlearned, slow, and peaceful, but gallant and brave.

The book is only a picture of their everyday life, their rich and picturesque individualities, and of the sights and sounds of nature which surround them. Mrs. Rawlings renders her scenes with a profound knowledge of the people and their habitation. Evidently she has lived among them and loves  the “Big Scrub.”

Rawlings has a most interesting style, her short, crisp sentences carrying no wasted words, and yet, having an almost poetic rhythm.

The story concerns one Lantry and his family, who live in a clearing  in the scrub, wresting a meagre existence from the sandy soil. It’s a picture of American life that will be a lovely to the reader of fiction in that this strange, enchanting setting and its primitive people have never yet been presented. And to Floridians, of course, it will have a special appeal.

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The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1938)

See also: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1938)
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A more critical 1933 review of South Moon Under

From the original review of South Moon Under by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in the Louisville (KY) Courier-Journal, March 12, 1933: A regional novel, introducing in fiction an unfamiliar part of the American scene, the Florida “scrub,” and the “Crackers” — illiterate, poor white natives of the isolated sections of the Deep South.

It is a first novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, full of detail, teeming with backwoods crudities in dialect: bearing the star of first-hand acquaintance with the Crackers and the plant and “varmint” life of their surroundings. It belongs to the unvarnished statement of fact school of American writing, a school that has had many recent recruits — regional books by writers who see a great deal, and record it all, camera-like. It’s all true but singularly unbeautiful — somehow diminishing life and making it seem paltry.

Here are shrill voices, strong epithets, further additions to the dreary literary trope of women in childbirth.

One family, the Lantrys — father, daughter, and grandson — is depicted for a genera in the pine scrub, with the woman working in the fields, cooking longing for tender words that never come; the men trapping in winter, ‘gator hunting in summer, moonshining when crops are bad, obeying their own clan code and flogging the transgressor.

“South Moon Under” refers to a stage of the moon, the stage when it is directly under the earth. The Crackers, who believe in the zodiac signs and live principally by hunting, think that game stirs at the four moon stages, moon-rise and moon-down, south-moon-over and south-moon-under.

Young Lant, the grandson, a great woodsman, understands all but the influence of south-moon-under. That “the creatures” should obey an invisible call from another planet is to him strange and eerie. In his halting way he reasons that a Power shapes our destinies, “rough-hew them how we will.”

He was born, he hunts for food, in the end he slays a “revenooer’s” spy, all in the south-moon-under; so the major events of his life seem beyond his control.

The boy’s mother especially, Piety (pronounced Py-tee), has pathetic dignity and commands respect but often this reviewers reaction to the story is distaste, revulsion at being brought to read about the trapped “varmints” boiling for the chickens. “their bodies looking like newborn babies.”

One is emotionally depressed, as if the tragic muse, Melpomene, were being seen on a spring wagon, driving through the scrub, corn pone beside her in a tin pail.

As a revelation of how the other half lives, it’s all significant and interesting. But it’s not the particular province of fiction to explain unfamiliar people. That is, rather, the function of ethnography, the branch of science that is purely descriptive of people and races. To this reviewer, at least, South Moon Under seems to be merely ethnography humanized.

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Quotes from South Moon Under

“Perhaps all men were moved against their will. A man ordered his life, and then an obscurity of circumstance sent him down a road that was not of his own desire or choosing. Something beyond a man’s immediate choice and will reached through the earth and stirred him. He did not see how any man might escape it.” 

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“The worst things I knows of is rattlesnakes and some kinds o’ people. And a rattlesnake minds his own matters if he ain’t bothered. A man’s got a right to kill ary thing, snake or man, comes messin’ up with him.” 

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“Hit don’t make no difference what a man perfesses. I been in a heap o’ churches. There’s the Nazarene Church and the Pentecost and the Holy Rollers and the Baptists and I don’t know what-all. I cain’t see much difference to nary one of ‘em. There’s a good to all of ‘em and there’s a bad.”

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“Men had reached into the scrub and along its boundaries, had snatched what they could get and had gone away, uneasy in that vast indifferent peace; for a man was nothing, crawling ant-like among the myrtle bushes under the pines.”

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