St. Augustine – Creative Minds in the Ancient City
St. Augustine, Florida has many claims to fame, with the largest being the fact that it is literally the oldest city in the nation. In this amazing historical location tourists discover the Oldest Jail, The Oldest House, The Fountain of Youth, The ‘Haunted’ Lighthouse…they have a little bit of everything. The ghosts that roam and the stories that have come from St. Augustine range from the startling to the highly entertaining, with historical thrills at every turn. What St. Augustine also has is a list of ‘creative’ types who have either lived, loved or wrote their famous works within the boundaries of this truly amazing city.
Writers need ideas; they also need that ‘room of their own,’ as Virginia Woolf once said, where they can connect with their subjects, their characters, and every aspect of life. And the writers who have been a part of St. Augustine over the years have been true ‘voices’ during times of severe strife and the battle for civil rights.
Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891, and during the time of the Harlem Renaissance she was one of the most memorable writers in the world. Being a folklorist, as well as an anthropologist brought her many ideas; she also had a way of being able to look at and reveal the controversies faced by the African-American community. She had people up-in-arms at times, being the author of four novels and over fifty short stories, plays, and essays – because Zora was a true spirit when it came to exposing and speaking about the issues that were completely wrong in the nation at the time.
In 1937, it was Zora’s brilliant mind that created, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was an extremely controversial work set in central and southern Florida in the early 20th century. Although it caused many to come to anger, Zora presented her facts and beliefs extremely well, and the novel garnered a great deal of attention. Both good and bad views came from the reading of this novel, but it was so amazingly written that it came to be included in the 100-Best English-Language Novels from 1923-2005 (TIME).
The recently departed, William Stetson Kennedy was an American author and a true folklore collector who traveled a bit with Zora. Kennedy will always be known for how he infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940’s and exposed the secrets of this hideous organization to authorities, leading the State of Georgia to revoke the Klan’s national corporate charter with a book titled, The Klan Unmasked.
Kennedy was a true visionary as well as detective, and visited turpentine camps near Cross City and traveled throughout Florida with Zora Hurston. Of course back then – because of Jim Crow laws – they were forced to travel separately for the most part. Kennedy claimed that he became the “most hated man in Florida” for a time, which probably wasn’t a far-off assessment, considering his home at Fruit Cove was firebombed by rightists causing him to eventually move to France and stay there.
David Nolan, although born on the East Coast, has called St. Augustine his home since 1977. Nolan is the son of a journalist, and was extremely active in the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Living in the nation’s oldest city gave him many ideas for books, from working on the first official survey of old buildings in the ‘Ancient City’ to his first book, Fifty Feet in Paradise: The Booming of Florida, that dealt with the economic booms and busts in the state’s real estate industry. Being a contributor to a literary tour guide of the state called, The Book Lover’s Guide to Florida, one of his finest books came in 1995 when he collaborated with artist, Jean Ellen Fitzpatrick, and photographer Ken Barrett to bring about the publication: The Houses of St. Augustine. This not only became a bestselling book, but no matter where you live in the United States, readers will still find this absolutely beautiful as they are basically ‘walked through’ the Ancient City’s historic buildings.
He, too, was involved in keeping the St. Augustine ‘deeds’ during the civil rights movement in everyone’s mind. In fact, in 1963 and 1964 in the ‘Ancient City,’ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. held demonstrations which resulted in landmark legislation for the State of Florida.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is another amazing author who lived in rural Florida and is extremely well-known for, of course, the monumentally known work – The Yearling – which is truly a classic, and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This is a book that was written long before the world of YA fiction became the biggest and best-selling genre in the market, but now all students are usually assigned this incredible novel as they head through school.
Rawlings also did other fantastic pieces that concentrated on poor Florida residents which, unfortunately, ended up with Rawlings being sued by one of her neighbors who believed that her son was a character in one of the books. Rawlings never ‘backed away’ from a subject. She truly brought to life the poor and downtrodden in her Cross Creek location, even living with a moonshiner for a week to study up before writing her first novel South Moon Under. For this story, she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, before she would go on to win it for The Yearling, which was then made into a movie.
Rawlings was truly a hands-on author. She always did a ‘study’ of her subjects before writing the book to make sure that the characters, locations, and plots were as precise as possible. For her final book, in 1953, she actually rented a old farmhouse in New York State in order to really get the feel for the plot of her incredible work of fiction titled, The Sojourner.
Rawlings was a much celebrated author who was a very good friend to Ernest Hemingway, as well Wolfe, and Fitzgerald, Frost, and Margaret Mitchell.
Because of the fact that many of her pieces were centered in and around the Northern and Central Florida area, Rawlings was sometimes seen as a regional author. Not to mention, she, too was friends with the great Zora Neale Hurston and paid her visits at Cross Creek. Civil Rights came into play in Rawlings’ life in many different ways. Such as, when she would visit certain authors, she did have to face the subject of race relations, and was made to sleep in tenant house’s with the African-American maids in certain areas.
Without these amazing authors of their time periods, the world would’ve missed out on a great many titles and in-depth information that truly ‘broke open’ the civil rights movement and made the ‘truth’ be seen. And to have it happen in the stunning ‘Ancient City,” was really not a shock, considering that St. Augustine supplied then – and, still today – some of the most beautiful views that inspires an author to put that pen to paper and explore the world.