If Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ name sounds familiar, it’s probably because she wrote The Yearling, the 1938 classic bestseller that earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 and became a movie starring Gregory Peck in 1946. But before she was a famous novel writer, Kinnan Rawlings was a newspaper reporter in Rochester. She was a features writer at the Journal American, a Hearst newspaper whose salacious approach to the news was considered a bit scandalous, though deliciously titillating, in conservative Rochester.
Owner J. Randolph Hearst liked to shake things up and make a splash, and he did so in Rochester. Their offices were at 128 St. Paul Street, at the corner of Andrews. You can still see the marquis over the door. (Side note: Cook Iron Store moved into the space in the 1930s, shortly after the paper folded, and has been there ever since.)
Before the world read Kinnan Rawlings’ books, women were reading her poetry. She wrote a column of light verse after she joined the staff at the Times Union, one of two Gannett newspapers in Rochester. Poetry, by men and women, was a regular feature in newspapers at the time. “Songs of a Housewife” ran six days a week for a couple of years and became so popular it was syndicated to 50 newspapers around the country. Her reflections on daily life for American women appeared just a few years after women had finally won the right to vote. In her twenties and coming into her own when she wrote them, Kinnan Rawlings tapped into a new sense of freedom and possibility that women were feeling at the time.
By the late 1920s, Marjorie and her husband, Charles, both journalists, were feeling restless in Rochester. They took a leap and bought a 72-acre farm in frontier Florida. Their new home provided a rich setting for her books to come.
But her time in Rochester was an important part of her growth as a writer. Her columns are an early peek at Kinnan Rawlings’ writing style and voice, and they reveal a lot about American popular culture. They were largely forgotten until the 1990s, when researchers resurrected them and published about half of them in Poems by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: Songs of a Housewife.
Photo: State Archives of Florida
Fresh from the ‘Rochester Writers Who Found Fame’ file:
Mary Jane Holmes – No, her name doesn’t ring a bell. But she was a bestselling and prolific writer (39 popular novels as well as short stories, magazine series and novellas) in the late 1800s. She lived in Brockport from 1852 to 1907. She sold 2 million books in her lifetime, second only to Harriet Beecher Stowe, and wrote about gender roles, race, class, slavery and war. None other than ‘The Nation’ published her obituary:
“It is an eternal paradox of our world of letters that the books which enjoy the largest sale are barely recognized as existing by the guardians of literary tradition. Mrs. Mary Jane Holmes, who died Sunday at Brockport, N.Y., wrote thirty-nine novels with aggregate sales, it is said, of more than two million copies, and yet she had not even a paragraph devoted to her life and works in the histories of American Literature.”
Photo: ca. 1865, SUNY Brockport / Emily Knapp Museum, Brockport NY