PORTRAITS: The Artist as a Young Girl

Cover of The Yearling 1938 Original

It was Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' second published novel, The Yearling, that made her internationally famous and won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel (now called the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction). The best-selling novel in America in 1938, translated into a multitude of languages, turned into an Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck, The Yearling gave Rawlings the freedom and stature to take her writing in whatever direction she wished. 

Her schoolmates and friends in Brookland probably weren’t surprised by her success, given the childhood essay contests she often won when she lived here.   But The Yearling and most of the rest of her works were set in rural Florida and don’t tell us much about her childhood in Brookland…except for one.

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In 1929 Rawlings submitted a manuscript for the Atlantic Prize. awarded to “the most interesting novel of any sort, kind, or description by a living author.” It was titled Blood of My Blood, and it was her very first book. It was rejected, perhaps because although it was written in the form of a novel with a third person narrator, it was clearly more autobiography than fiction. She submitted it nowhere else and put it away. Years later, she sent it to the daughter of her publisher, who had become a protégé.  It was finally published in 2002, nearly fifty years after Rawlings’ death.

In it, using everyone’s real name, she tells the story of her parents, Arthur Kinnan and Ida Traphagen, and her youth from birth through college. It is primarily the story of Rawlings' relationship with her mother, but it is no sweet coming-of-age story. It is a clear-eyed, brutally frank account of her mother’s failings, and her own. And Brookland does play a part.

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Arthur Kinnan (left) and Ida Traphagen (below) both came from midwestern farm families, but neither wanted to stay in farming. According to Rawlings, Arthur wanted to continue his intellectual growth, while Ida longed for a more patrician life. They moved to Washington after Arthur passed the Civil Service exam and was posted to the U.S. Patent Office where he would become an examiner. They lived in a boarding house on P Street while Arthur studied law at night. Ida was excited with the move to Washington, thinking it would open social and economic doors for them. She soon began to realize that it was difficult to break into stratified Washington society. Arthur began to look for a neighborhood to build a new home. He chose Brookland, and bought three lots on Providence Street, later renamed Newton Street. In Blood of My Blood, Rawlings recounts the situation as the house went up: 

They made frequent trips across town in the slow trolley to watch the building. Arthur so trusted the development of the city that he considered it a toss-up as to which section they built in. He was privately certain that only good could come of any land he bought. But as time went on, it was apparent that he had chosen the cheaper part of town, and that the development in its direction was low-class. As a matter of fact, he had bought his site in the raw suburb because he could get three times as much ground for the same price.

A rather harsh assessment of Brookland, but the Kinnans weren’t the only ones who thought the neighborhood would become a high-toned enclave and were disappointed when it didn't. Still, the house at what is now 1221 Newton was lovely. Here is Rawlings’ description: 

In late May, 1896, the Kinnans moved into the new home, acceptable even to Ida, in the shade of the oak trees. The furniture was decent enough. Her linens were impeccable. There were lace curtains, a Polar bear rug, a silk scarf draped over the black marble mantel in the double parlor, a settee upholstered in mulberry silk, a reed chair, two gilt chairs for the hall; the Stag at Bay; the portrait of the lion whose eyes followed you; all the up-to-date paraphernalia of the era; and over all the shine and polish of Ida’s blood-sweating housekeeping."

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1221 Newton Street NE, the birthplace of Marjorie Kinnan.

Marjorie Kinnan was born in a second floor bedroom of the home in August, 1896. Ida had wanted a blonde child, but the baby was born with straight, black hair. Still, Ida felt she could give her daughter many of the things she didn’t have - social standing, wealth, and a prestigious husband. Ida began to live her life vicariously through Marjorie.

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As the girl grew, Ida kept a close eye on Marjorie's activities and her friends. She considered them common and the neighborhood middle class, and she aspired to more. She had another child, a boy named Arthur, but the bulk of her attention was focused on her daughter. Marjorie went to the Brookland School at 10th and Monroe, and Ida arranged for dancing lessons and staged elaborate parties for the children. 

In 1905, when Marjorie was almost ten years old, Arthur Kinnan bought a large tract of land in Garrett Park, Maryland, to turn into a dairy farm. He had never lost his affinity for the land, and even though Ida was not enthused by the idea, he went ahead with his plan. According to Blood of My Blood, Arthur decided that “He would exchange their present house, the lot on which it stood and the lot on the east side, for the farm. He could mortgage the west lot and put up another house on it.” That would indicate that the Kinnans owned lots 15, 16 and 17 on square 21 in Brookland. The original house, 1221 Newton, was built on lot 16. The new house was built on lot 15 - 1215 Newton. (see 1903 Baist real estate map below. The three lots are marked in red.) 

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Even if his wife was not enamored of Brookland, Arthur had become a firm part of the neighborhood establishment. He was a founder of the King David Lodge and helped build the Masonic Temple at 12th and Monroe. He was a member of the Brookland Baptist Church along with many of Brookland’s most prominent residents, and he was president of the Brookland Citizens' Association during a critical time in the neighborhood’s growth. He pushed very hard, but unsuccessfully, for a Carnegie library to be built on the corner of 12th and Newton. And he spearheaded a successful campaign to extend Monroe Street over the railroad tracks to Bunker Hill Road (Michigan Avenue), which allowed streetcar service into the heart of Brookland. 

Arthur spent much of his free time on the farm, and persuaded Ida to come there with the children during the summers. There they lived in a large tent with side walls and a board floor. The children loved the farm, especially Marjorie, who inherited her father’s love of the land. Back in Brookland, Marjorie continued her schooling and began to develop a new interest - writing. She entered a number of essay contests, won a few, and had some printed in the Washington Post. She wrote under the pen name Fidelity, and the pieces often centered on the farm. Here is an excerpt from a 1910 story in the form of a letter, written when she was fourteen:

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The other morning father took me down to the pasture to show me some 'fairy circles.' Do you know what they are? In case you don’t, I will tell you. They are lots of toadstools forming perfect circles, on which some of the fairies are supposed to dance while the others sit on the toadstools and watch them. Father and I walked right across one of the 'fairy circles.' I asked whether that would bring good or bad luck. 'Good luck' promptly laughed father, but I think differently, for I hadn’t much more than reached home when I cut a big gash in my finger. I believe they must have been goblin circles, don’t you?

Marjorie had some boyfriends, or “beaus” as Ida called them during this time, but they weren’t long-lasting or numerous. Looking back, Marjorie felt she had been too self-satisfied, more interested in herself than in them, and somewhat stiff and self-conscious. Ida was concerned about the girl "going wrong,” and getting herself in trouble. A local Brookland girl had gotten pregnant in the sixth grade and it was the talk of the neighborhood. She needn’t have been concerned. When she told Marjorie the facts of life, the girl was shocked and distressed. That pleased Ida. According to Blood of My Blood, she also had some new plans:

When Marjorie was ready for high school, Ida knew that she must make a move. Brookland had been getting shabbier and shabbier. Mr. Kinnan, even as president of the Citizens' Association, would be unable much longer to keep out stores from the corner lot next to their home. The way must now be prepared in earnest for the girl’s future. Brookland was no place for a battle ground. The farm was draining them dry, but she would manage somehow.

Jessie Moon Holton, a former neighbor and friend of the Kinnans, offered to take Marjorie into her new school, The Holton-Arms, gratis. Ida declined, feeling Marjorie would be viewed as a “charity student.” Instead she chose to send the girl to Western High School. From Blood of My Blood:

As long as she could not afford a private school, the thing to do was to send the girl to the high school in the northwest section that drew from the better classes. Its roster bore the names of the sons and daughters of congressmen and senators, bankers and diplomats. They would take an apartment near the school. She had already, it appeared, seen a charming apartment at Thirtieth and Q, at a rent they could afford. It did not matter to Arthur when or where he went. He lived, breathed and had his being on the Maryland acres.

And so the Kinnans' time in Brookland was over. Arthur died just a few years after the move to Georgetown. He was only 53. When Marjorie graduated and moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to attend the University of Wisconsin, Ida went with her. She lived long enough to see her daughter marry Charles Rawlings, though she didn’t approve of him. Ida Traphagen Kinnan died in 1923, five years before Marjorie would write about her in Blood of My Blood.

All photographs in this post, with the exception of the two book covers, come from the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Collection, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida.

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n.b. Although for the most part the history presented in Blood of My Blood  is accurate, there are some discrepancies. The major one is that the book says the Kinnans built their first Brookland home at 1221 Newton in 1896. I looked up the building permit, which gives the date as 1890. I also checked the building permit for 1215 Newton, which was issued to Arthur Kinnan in 1905, and is reflected correctly in the book. I will be checking deeds at the DC Archives to clarify the information.

© Robert Malesky 2016