Finding Florida? Adam Wasserman did it better than TD Allman
As Dan Weinfeld and I quietly plod along peddling our humble contributions to Florida’s Reconstruction and Post Great War eras, we’ve both witnessed the power that major commercial publishing houses still wield — and that we lack.
It’s fascinating to watch how the marketing machinery behind Devil in the Grove and now TD Allman’s Finding Florida drive cultural presence. Reading any book of substance requires a real investment of time and energy. Publishing houses exist to channel that investment to their products. They still do it effectively.
I haven’t read Finding Florida yet. But I do love underbelly history. And I think it’s healthy for institutional history — or any institution — to justify and defend itself from time to time. So the mini battle royale over FF’s accuracy and fairness and tone has value. And if FF opens up the underbelly history market a bit for upstarts like Dan and me, all the better.
But what about the book itself? Well guest blogger Greg Garland, a Blood and Oranges friend, isn’t terribly impressed. Greg is a career Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State, currently assigned to Afghanistan. Originally from Lakeland, he traces his Florida roots to the Minorcan community of Spanish St. Augustine. He graduated from Duke University and holds a Master’s in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He’s written a number of articles on international affairs — and a nice review of my book, by the way. A frequent speaker, he serves on the faculty of the Florida Chautauqua in Defuniak Springs, where he twice has been a keynoter.
In the review that follows, Greg points out another irony — that the very levers of institutional power Allman attacks have pushed his book to prominence while a similar, self-published book by Adam Wasserman in 2009 remains lesser known.
All in all, as I mentioned in our very first post, I think this is something of a golden age for Florida history writing. Maybe that can lead to golden age of reading.
Here is Greg’s review, which appeared first on Amazon, and which I reprint with his permission.
Here we go again, now that another anniversary means there’s money to be made. Here, the event is the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s arrival in Florida in 1513.
In the finest of Floridian entrepreneurial traditions the author seems otherwise to despise, TD Allman’s Finding Florida seeks to cash in on all the hoopla. The book does so in a OMG style that owes more to cable TV than to traditional narrative history, another topic he expends enormous energy denigrating. Some may find it riveting; others, headsplitting.
In any case, much of the story was better told in a self-published book that appeared in 2009, A People’s History of Florida 1513-1876, by Sarasotan Adam Wasserman, whose choice of title honors the influence of Howard Zinn. If you really want the full story on the Negro Fort, its aftermath in Angola, and the Florida War that ensued, pull out Wasserman’s text. It’s a labor of time and love, rather than a well-timed tirade puffed by all the publishing industry levers available to veteran scribbler Allman, even from his part-time home in France.
This is not to impugn Allman’s credentials as an investigative journalist, which go back many decades. In the case of Florida, they go back to the 1980s, when he joined a parade of writers riding the Miami Vice-era wave of celebrity with yet another book about who, what, and why Miami ticks. The irony is that Finding Florida suffers from the very failings that it endlessly lambastes Florida for: greed, prejudice, uncontrolled anger, lack of perspective, and ultimately, failure to understand his subject.
Then again his subject is not really Florida, but rather the many myths of Florida that 500 years of speculators and boosters have foisted upon gullible outsiders, mostly to make a buck or two. Placing them in the literary equivalent of a police line-up, Allman meticulously eviscerates them one by one, starting with Ponce and extending to characters known and not-so-well known: Pedro Menéndez, Andrew Turnbull, Andrew Jackson, David Levy (aka Yulee), Carolyn Brevard, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, Henry Flagler, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Charley Johns, Walt Disney, Claude Kirk, and the current governor, Rick Scott, to name a few.
There are few heroes in this tale. His inability to credit Jim Crow-era “Progressives’ (such as Broward) with any positive accomplishments betrays a Puritanical blind spot that is best left to the sermon-making he otherwise disparages. LeRoy Collins, often considered Florida’s greatest governor (though in Allman’s universe by mythmakers masquerading as historians), goes unmentioned until he makes a doomed race for the U.S. Senate in that most daunting of years, 1968.
The series of popular, effective men who governed in the last three decades of the twentieth century – Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, and Lawton Chiles – do not inhabit this diatribe. Instead, for more modern history Allman focuses his wrath on one-term governor Claude Kirk, who lost his re-election bid to that Panhandle Presbyterian, Askew. He climaxes with a screed against Scott, who even now is only barely past half-way into his first term.
Unfortunately, either careless editing or unrestrained vendetta betrays Allman’s real political agenda. Over and over, references surface to aspects of modern American political life that he clearly doesn’t like. Someone is “Nixonesque,” instead of deceptive and manipulative. His anti-Reagan sentiments creep in with use of “teflon” as an adjective. The Elian Gonzalez case becomes emblematic of Cuban exiles seizing control of the U.S. Congress. And undoubtedly the nadir of Florida in world history occurred in the 2000 election, at which point all the evil Allman portrays in the preceding five centuries coalesces to undo democracy and prevent Albert Gore from assuming his rightful place in the White House.
Somehow, however, Allman’s often justified assault on mythmaking has left out The Other Florida, to borrow Gloria Jahoda’s phrase. Somebody voted in Collins, Askew, Graham, and Chiles and re-elected them, white men though they were (another of Allman’s constant refrains).
Allman, nonetheless, teases us when he hints that this other Florida might actually exist. He makes a passing reference to Florida’s “smaller cities,” naming Lakeland in particular, as “genuine.” Tell us more, TD, about this Florida! But he doesn’t. Lakeland happens to have been Chiles’s hometown, perhaps worth at least as much attention as he heaps upon Claude Kirk, Edward Gurney, and the fake Disney city of Celebration up I-4 a ways. Alas, that sort of book would likely never sell.
The Other Florida is also missing from what may be Allman’s most revealing list: Florida-themed movies. After damning Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings for doing what he is trying to do – making money out of writing about a cartoon version of Florida – he then writes off her entire Florida literary oeurve as, well, too white (as in white people). Nowhere on his list of Florida movies does one find the two durable films based on her work, The Yearling and Cross Creek. Not even an explanation.
Think what you may of The Yearling, a story for young people starring Gregory Peck about an isolated, pioneer farm family, the movie was filmed in the lush landscape of the Ocala National Forest. It is possibly the outstanding example of Florida natural cinematography in feature films. Cross Creek, made in 1983 with Mary Steenburgen in the lead role, achieves something similar out of Rawlings’s mostly real-life sketches.
Nor does one find Ulee’s Gold, a 1997 production starring Peter Fonda and Jessica Beal filmed in Wewahitchka that shows a modern small-town Florida firmly tied to the land and nature.
Allman may have “found” the Florida he wanted to find ideologically, but he missed out on the figurative gold that is spread among hundreds of communities and millions of residents. Just like the adventurers and tycoons he castigates, he went (back) to Florida and left, always hoping to make his quick buck, too. Imagine reading HL Mencken’s abrasive ad hominem commentary wrapped inside a spiteful Noam Chomsky critique of the U.S., and that’s what you get in this tome.
Moreover, Allman’s critique is not particularly pointed towards Florida; like Chomsky’s, it’s pointed toward anywhere American. You could change the names and places and apply the same formula to just about any state. Carl Hiaasen, whom he cites and who can be as biting as anything in this book, at least has the advantage of loving the unique Florida landscape, and -crucially – of being funny. Unlike Allman.
Now, TD, how do you plan to cash in on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War?