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Review: Allman's 'Finding Florida' has teeth — and subtlety — of a gator

Engaging, passionate and ambitious, T.D. Allman's Finding Florida is also unbalanced, mean-spirited and arrogant. Finding Florida takes no prisoners.

The subtitle holds the key to understanding the ambitious study: The True History of the Sunshine State. In The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad asks whether the Preacher Casey is speaking the truth. "He's telling the truth," Uncle John explains, "The truth for him." In a bibliography Dante would approve, Allman conveniently divides authors into two categories: "Truth Tellers and Eye Witnesses" and "Myth Makers and Their Propagators."

Allman brings sterling credentials to the ambitious task of uncovering the "true history of the Sunshine State." A native Floridian and a graduate of Harvard, Allman has exposed government shenanigans, interviewed Yasser Arafat and written for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. The author's ego, larger than a Wolfie's corned-beef sandwich, asserts itself on page 459, where he modestly contends, "My 1980 article in Esquire changed the way the world sees Miami and helped alter the way Miami sees itself." Allman's article and subsequent book about Miami were perceptive, although one suspects that Mariel, a race riot, Tony Montana, Miami Vice and Joan Didion may have also contributed to our understanding of the city.

Finding Florida is provocative, demanding an accounting of this place we call home. What happened in the 500 years between Ponce de León's birth myth and 2013? Allman takes the reader on a ride wilder, or at least more unsettling, than the Cheetah Hunt Triple-Launch Roller Coaster at Busch Gardens.

Allman skewers Florida's historical establishment for trivializing and marginalizing "the true history." Strangely, if fittingly, he relies upon those very historians of Florida to uncover the facts he accuses them of excising.

In the last three decades, the study of Florida has flowered. Once, American history textbooks typically began with the saga of Jamestown and Plymouth Colony. Because of breathtaking research and scholarship by Michael Gannon (unfairly dismissed as a "myth maker and propagator"), Kathleen Deagan, Eugene Lyons and Jane Landers, students now encounter La Florida, St. Augustine, the Spanish missions and the "forgotten century." Anthropologists, folklorists and historians have sharpened our understanding of Fort Mose, the Seminole Wars, the role of Black Seminoles and figures such as Billy Powell (better known as Osceola).

Finding Florida might be better re-titled Finding Fault with Florida and Floridians. Allman takes special delight in exposing the historical mistruths and myths sprinkled in our literature. Not surprisingly, Andrew Jackson's reputation takes a horse-whipping. A steadfast patriot, the military hero of Horseshoe Bend and New Orleans, and the symbol of frontier democracy, Jackson also owned slaves, killed Indians, invaded Florida where he hanged two British citizens on foreign soil, and killed a man in a duel. Which Jackson should we teach our children? I would hope we teach both Jacksons and try to understand the values of the 19th century frontier.

Finding Florida's lack of balance is troubling. Admirably, the heroes in Allman's book are Floridians we should all emulate: the men and women who championed racial tolerance, democracy for all and a respect for the land.

But consider Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. In what can only be called snark, Allman charges that Rawlings came to Florida "to make money growing citrus." He adds, "It was while observing the laborers she hired to work her seventy-four acre plantation that Rawlings got the idea of writing The Yearling which proved to be her only literary triumph." So many mistakes, so little space! If Rawlings wished to make her fortune in Florida, would she have moved to Cross Creek? Honestly, is a small orange grove in Cross Creek a plantation? And The Yearling was not Rawlings' only literary triumph.

Writing without fear or research, Allman continues his assault. "In spite of its ostensible realism, Rawlings' novel portrayed a Florida as fake as the Fountain of Youth. There were no 'colored people' in her book." The setting of The Yearling is not Cross Creek; rather, it is set in the post-Civil War Big Scrub, on Baxter's Island. No African-American characters exist there because the Big Scrub and its austere environment never supported cotton. Few blacks lived in this sparsely settled section. Fake? Rawlings immersed herself in the ways and lives of neighbors and land. The Yearling received the Pulitzer Prize in 1939. Moreover, Rawlings was one of the South's first authors to portray poor whites with a sense of dignity.

The subject of Rawlings and race is complex and complicated. In Cross Creek (1942), Rawlings wrote about her white and black neighbors. Compared to most white Southerners of the era, she was a strong advocate for civil rights. Rawlings' maids have written bittersweet memoirs of their lives and relationships with Marjorie. She once hosted a historic lunch at Castle Warden with Zora Neale Hurston. And yes, Zora slept in the servants' quarters. But Hurston also wrote of Cross Creek, "You have written the best thing on Negroes of any white writer who has ever lived."

Rawlings is not the only well-known Floridian treated this way. In a single paragraph on page 335 that begins with segregation at Silver Springs in 1949, Allman concludes with a discussion of Paradise Screwed, "a collection of writings by the genially shameless south Florida columnist Carl Hiassen . . . (who) has wound up another classic Florida loser." What happened to topical sentences? To respectful criticism?

Claude Pepper the Younger is one of Allman's heroes, admired for his moral rectitude and as one of the few Floridians who "transcended his situation." Claude Pepper's career as a U.S. senator, 1936-1951, is, indeed, inspiring. A modern Don Quixote who tilted at corporate windmills, Sen. "Red" Pepper, however, was not so daring or "independent-minded" when it came to issues of race, and his actions in April 1944 might not seem as transcendent. The U.S. Supreme Court had declared the White Primary as unconstitutional and Pepper — who was running scared for re-election — declared that Florida must ignore the court's misguided decision and maintain the South as a white man's country. Pepper also filibustered against an antilynching bill. Does this mean that we should demonize Pepper as a racist? Allman's moralistic judgments lack nuance, context and research, qualities essential in historical writing.

The book's back cover claims, "The product of a decade of research and writing, Finding Florida is a highly original, stylish, and masterful work, the first modern history of this important place." His is not the first study of modern Florida. Mark Derr, David Colburn and others have also written significant works.

Curiously, Allman never defines when "modern" Florida begins. His study is oddly organized. It contains almost 70 pages devoted to the destruction of the Negro Fort in 1816. World War II, arguably the watershed event in modern Florida history, is never mentioned. Nor are Reubin Askew, Ybor City or Marjory Carr found in the index. Marjory Stoneman Douglas is only mentioned briefly in passing.

The Yearling contains one of literature's most touching scenes. Jody Baxter adores his beloved fawn, but his father insists the deer must be killed. His mother shoots the deer and Jody runs away. Upon his return, Pa Baxter confronts his son. "You come back different," he says. "You ain't a yearling anymore." Nor is Florida.

More than ever, Floridians need to read about Florida to understand its complexities. Allman does astutely observe that today, "Florida is the pivot."

Gary Mormino is professor emeritus of history at USF St. Petersburg and the scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council.

Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State

By T.D. Allman

Atlantic Monthly Press, 556 pages, $27.50

Meet the author

T.D. Allman will discuss and sign his book at 7 p.m. Thursday at Inkwood Books, 216 S Armenia Ave., Tampa.

Review: Allman's 'Finding Florida' has teeth — and subtlety — of a gator 03/09/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 7, 2013 1:27pm]

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