The Things You Discover
With the bustle of Christmas preparations behind us for another year (and the sound of tearing wrapping paper still fresh), I began my usual year-end review of the many things I meant to do in 2013, but never got around to.
I also started making an updated list of the things I probably won’t do next year, either.
I’ve been extraordinarily blessed with new acquaintances, good relatives and great friends this past year, but my bride and I also have many pressing family issues to deal with right now (life is always like that, isn’t it?).
I wasn’t doing my usual patient search for literary things to write about, so it took me by surprise to come across a notation about the year 2013 that I had overlooked.
This past year was the seventy-fifth-anniversary celebration of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings 1938 novel The Yearling.
So, you ask, what’s the big deal?
A Best Seller
Well, for one thing, The Yearling was the best-selling novel of 1938. It held the number one spot that year for twenty-three consecutive weeks, sold millions of copies and has been translated into Spanish, Chinese, French, Japanese, German, Italian, Russian and twenty-two other languages.
It was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1939.
But it’s only vaguely familiar today to young American readers, and in 2012, it only sold about six-thousand copies … in all formats.
Although that’s an annual sales figure that would thrill most indie authors … they’re dismal numbers for a book considered a classic.
Running Out of Steam
It seems The Yearling is slowly sinking into obscurity. Why? How does such a classic novel run out of steam?
It wasn’t as if The Yearling was Rawlings first book. She also wrote the little-remembered South Moon Under (which, remarkably, was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize … in 1933).
One factor might be Marjorie Rawlings herself. Matronly and angry-looking, she was not a very good public speaker … and she was certainly not a sexy figure. As a woman of independent means, Rawlings could live as she chose, but her abuse of alcohol increasingly ruled her life.
She advanced no politics and didn’t have a spectacular, memorable “rock star” life or death that was covered by all the available news media … just a lonely, broken-hearted alcoholic one (1896–1953).
Despite her apparent successes, some critics considered her writing to lack the depth of great literature, although they praised her skill in reproducing the color, characters, speech, local customs and way of life of backwoods Florida.
“Writing is agony for me,” she once told an interviewer. “I work at it eight hours every day, hoping to get six more pages, but I’m satisfied if I get three.”
Another factor in its apparent demise might be the prevailing view today that The Yearling – despite a few uses of the “n-word” – is a book for young readers. I find that surprising, because Pulitzer’s are not an award for children’s books.
Perhaps, in the final analysis, sales of The Yearling are fading because the story reflects a world view here we’re also losing … a much more simplistic time, where self-sufficient farming and hunting were individual necessities, and families only survived by their daily hard work and wits.
As that world disappears it seems almost inevitable the book, and the stunning landscape it evokes, would continue to lose audience.
Readers today expect their protagonists to come face-to-face with the true meaning of hunger, loneliness and fear in other ways … like road rage, sex, vampires and zombies.
As someone who read the book at a fairly young age and who also remembers the many early television broadcasts of the old, tear-jerker black & white film based upon it, it seems the world spins now at a different rate. Faster and more unrelenting.
Perhaps … just perhaps … the book, with all its heart-tugging sentimentality and backwoods charisma, is fading away because it can no longer keep up with the pace.
I think that’s sad.
It’s like forgetting that it’s the intention you bring to the simplest gift of time, love, laughter or friendship that is worth far more than anything you could put a bow on, because the best gift you can give your loved ones is you.
Hmmmmm. I think I just made my resolution for 2014.
Happy New Year.