“…only a lucky writer can write a classic, and it’s only a rare classic that can be perennially relevant.” So writes Lauren Groff in her essay, “The Lost Yearling” (Harper’s, Jan. 2014, pgs. 89-94), a eulogy of sorts, for the fading Pulitzer prize book, The Yearling, written by Marjorie Kennan Rawlings and published in 1938. Whereas other classics like, To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Catcher in the Rye have continued to sell copies in the tens of thousands, Rawlings’ book has sold a scant 6,000 in the most recent annual count.
Groff struggles to understand why the book, which tells the tale of a boy living in poverty in the wilds of Florida and who is forced to kill his beloved pet, should be falling into obscurity. The work, she notes, is well written; its descriptions of the natural world – nearly lost to Florida’s burgeoning population – are “transcendental”; and the story honors the lives of homespun people with straight forward realism. (Ibid pg. 90) Nonetheless, the times seem to be against the work. Not only does The Yearling recall a lost world but also a way of life no longer acceptable in modern times. Its setting is the Depression, a period when the rural poor lived exclusively off the land and where killing a bear for food was celebrated without any thought to ecology. “Nigger” is a constant reference in the book — a term used without excuse or apology and without the element of respect which can be found in the works of Mark Twain. The world, it seems, has spun so far from Rawlings’ depiction that it seems inevitable The Yearling must die. Groff honors that passing by shining a last and loving light upon a book that was once held with reverence in the public’s mind.
In response to Groff’s essay, I confess I’ve often wondered why we expect art to be eternal. Perhaps it’s our wish to embrace immortality. Perhaps that’s why we preserve every jotting, every scribble, every musical note ascribed to paper in a futile attempt to preserve the human record. But consider, would earth have lost its place in the universe if the whole of Rembrandt’s paintings had been lost to us in a fire? If Homer’s tales had not miraculously been passed down through the ages would the sunshine less brightly? if Shakespeare had been denied his hour to strut and fret upon the stage would the stars twinkle less?
Frailty, thy name is man.
(First published 1/20/2014
(Courtesy of wikipedia.com)