Two Women, So Many Books

Submitted by Flo Turcotte, Literary Collections Archivist

As library staff members, my colleagues and I are frequently drawn into conversations about books during social encounters with others. When I meet somebody new and I tell them where I work, I’m often met with the exclamation: “Oh, you have such a great job! I love reading!”  This remark reminds me of one of those internet memes about “what I do/what others think I do,” with an image of me reading with my feet propped up on my desk. But what also happens quite often is that people share details about their reading life with me, and I add to my own reading agenda.  In turn, I can share some of my favorite titles with others and make connections.

I was reminded of this “book-talking” phenomenon in my personal life during the editing process of Marge and Julia: the Correspondence of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Julia Scribner Bigham. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Rawlings was first introduced to Julia Scribner (later Bigham), daughter of publishing magnate Charles Scribner III, shortly after the legendary Scribner House published The Yearling to great success in 1938. Though Julia’s New York City life was far removed from the rural world of Cross Creek, the two women remained close until Rawlings’s death in 1953. In this documentary edition of 211 of their letters, Rawlings’s and Bigham’s perspectives on the world are woven through over a decade of intimate discussion and advice about relationships, motherhood, mental health, politics, art, and literature.

Detail of Julia Letter - Don Quixote
Julia discusses new reviews and books (underlined) in a letter to Marjorie dated April 18, 1944

As a literary archivist and historian, I have read a great number of letters back and forth between writers. But none have as much book-talking as the letters between these two women. When they first met, they discovered a mutual interest in outdoor activities. Marjorie found in her young protégée a companion for hunting and fishing expeditions, exploring her local lakes, forests and rivers. As the correspondence between them developed, however, Julia‘s background as the daughter of Marjorie‘s publisher begins to emerge. A host of author’s names and book titles from the 1930’s and 40’s soon pop up everywhere in the letters. As the daughter of a famous publisher, you can well imagine how Julia would have grown up surrounded by books. 

For her part, Rawlings was always a voracious reader. It is understandable that they should seek to share their reading habits and lists with one another.  Julia introduced Marjorie to many books about religion, notably Diary of A Country Priest, by Georges Bernanos, and The Idea of the Holy, by Rudolf Otto.  Poetry was also an obsession with Julia, especially Charles Peguy. Her letters have a decidedly leftist bent, and reveal a precocious young woman with a passionate interest in music, visual arts and a budding interest in photography. She enjoyed novels set in Europe and considered herself a cosmopolitan. Marjorie had similar tastes in fiction, and both women disliked Henry James intensely.

Book-talking, then and now, helped to strengthen the bonds of friendship between these two women, and helped Rawlings find her own voice as a writer. So, don’t hesitate to strike up a conversation about your reading with a fellow book lover: it may end up resulting in a future Pulitzer Prize!

Marge and Julia: the Correspondence of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Julia Scribner Bigham is now available from the the University Press of Florida.

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