Truth is a Relationship: The Value and Vanity of “Finding Florida”

Ed note — I've made a couple of clerical edits since yesterday. Namely, I misspelled Canter Brown's first name, called Richard Feynman, Robert, and referred to the subtitle of FF in one place as “The True History of Florida,” not the “Sunshine State,” as is correct. A hazard of doing one's own copyediting. Apologies.

Back before B&O took our unplanned summer hiatus — sorry, it gets hot and busy and lazy, both here and in our New York bureau — we published Greg Garland's review of T.D. Allman's Finding Florida.

Depending on your point-of-view, FF has become the James Dean or Miley Cyrus of Florida history writing. It brashly heralds a new way of looking at our state or appallingly twerks in the rump of our sacred historical memory. In either case, it garnered T.D. Allman a lot of attention, and, presumably, rather robust book sales. Neither Gilbert King's Pulitzer-winning Devil in the Grove, nor Isabel Wilkerson's titanic Great Migration history, The Warmth of Other Suns (very much a Florida book) generated anything near the Florida-specific buzz that FF did. (And don't even bother with mine or Dan's books.) One need not render a value judgement about that fact to acknowledge it.

Greg thought this reflected a talent for opportunism:

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

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Florida in 1513. In the finest of Floridian entrepreneurial traditions the author seems otherwise to despise, T.D. 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.

Fast forward a couple months. Through chance or fate, T.D. Allman and I ended up on the same email thread and had a quick, pleasant exchange. I didn't want to start any relationship on false pretenses, so I made sure he knew about the review we had published. So ended the pleasantness.

Allman proceeded to launch at me a barrage of email artillery worthy of the Union's pounding of Pensacola's Fort McRee during the Civil War.

Because I thought the content of the emails would embarrass Allman, I asked him before writing this if he wanted me to publish them. He told me not to. (I try to think of email as a private conversation.) Of course, I've subsequently learned that he copied a pretty extensive list of his contacts on them. I'm still not going to quote from them, (misplaced sense of honor, I suppose) but if you were on the list, go read them. They were entertaining. You will learn that Greg and I are quite vile.

So ends the exposition. Let's get into the book.


Excluding the 20th century, where he either ran out of energy or lost interest, Allman has jammed a coherent character study of Florida into a single, fairly concise volume. And he made it fun to read. As a work, this is FF's greatest accomplishment. History writers should embrace fun. I don't think we do it enough, nor do I think the norms and traditions of academic research much encourage it. I'm “friends” with a number of prominent academic historians on Facebook. Their comments and posts are often witty, engaging, and wicked. I would love to see more of that in print. But there are many counterpressures at work against fun, or at least intensity. The greatest sin of institutional history writing isn't inaccuracy or attachment to false myth, it's boredom and bloodlessness. One can render Florida history, like all of human history, through a billion different perspectives. But none should be boring or bloodless.

With that in mind, it's most useful to compare FF to the two major comprehensive Florida histories with which I'm familiar — A History of Florida (Tebeau and Marina) and The New History of Florida (by a multitude of writers and edited by Michael Gannon, sort of the dean of Florida history, whom I've never met.). Allman has no use for either of them. He places them both in his “myth makers” list at the end and generally snarks at them at various places throughout the text.

My own impression is that Gannon's collection is far superior to Tebeau and Marina's work. But I have to confess that I haven't made it all the way through either of one them. I don't get a sense of the chapters and stories relating to each other, or how the actions of humans in one drive the actions of humans in another. I don't get the sense of Florida as a character, continually shaped and reshaped by the people who come and go and live and die within its unforgiving landscape. To be fair, that's probably by design. I think both function more as text and reference books than historical narratives. As such, they're extremely useful. But both manage to make Florida history rather boring. I think a very small handful of people, sad to say, will ever read them by choice.

Allman, for better or worse, makes Florida an important character in his book. It's the not the central character, of course; T.D. Allman is. (We'll address that in a moment.) But it's the second most important character. It has a story and a nature. It's essentially two-fold:

1) Florida lures the greedy and the feeble-minded with marketing lies and illusions of beauty and bounty. And then it punishes them, leaving only the strongest and most ruthlessly determined standing. And that lets the few winners create a fake history because everyone else is gone or dead.

2) Repeatedly, Florida offered tantalizing glimpses of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian, multi-class society built on basic equality long before the real thing started to emerge in the late 20th century America. Repeatedly the forces of white supremacist government, triumphalist religion, and industry — many of them chasing the mirages in number 1 — ground those hopeful communities to dust. But it never quite killed the idea of them.

Concerning the first: Duh.

I hate break this to you, TD. But that's not original, nor controversial.

“Fire swept, war swept, though the land has been again and again, yet nature regains her dominion and erases the traces of attempted conquest. The hordes of painted savages, the bannered armies of later days, have melted into the earth and left no traces behind. The lofty pines throw down their fragrant needles in soft carpets over the paths worn by their feet. The flowers and the grasses hide their camping grounds and their graves alike from sight.”

That's from “Story of the Huguenots,” written in Daytona by Florian Mann in 1897. It recounts in wonderfully lurid detail Menendez's massacre at Matanzas inlet, “one of the many black pages of Spanish history.”

I grew up in Palatka, 30 miles from St. Augustine. Back in 1984, when we'd go over as school kids, it was cliche to mock the same St. Augustine schtick and Fountain of Youth that Allman mocks today. Never treated as anything but a joke. It's still cliche now.

The second dominant theme of Allman's Florida is much more important. And it's newer. In my experience, it did not get taught when I was a kid and does not get taught now in a systematic way in Florida education circles. It absolutely does not emerge, to my reading, in either of the comprehensive histories. FF is at its best exploring this, particularly from Negro Fort through Reconstruction. I genuinely enjoyed this core of the book, and the details Allman provided added greatly to my understanding of the Jacksonian era and the Seminole wars. I think he rightly attacks the “hot shot” theory of the Negro Fort body count as absurd — although I'm open to counterargument. I also enjoyed his character-study of the political/crony businessman generals to which so many monuments and official place names are attached: Clinch, Gadsden, etc.

All that said, nothing in Allman's book changed the way I think about Florida history. Nothing surprised me. Why?

Because I've read Paul Ortiz's Emancipation Betrayed. I've read Dan Weinfeld's The Jackson County War. I've read (most of) Larry Rivers' Rebels and Runaways. (By the way, Allman cites and or footnotes each of these books approvingly in FF.) I've been to the Dade Battlefield and seen the outstanding dual point-of-view re-enactment the park has put in place, which honors Black Seminoles and would perplex the park's old-time monument makers

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I've read The Warmth of Other Suns and Devil in the Grove and Irvin Winsboro's collections of Florida civil rights essays, Old South, New South, or Down South. I've listened to Kathleen Deagan, whom Allman also claims to revere, and a host of other distinguished scholars at Florida Historical Society events. And, not to toot my own horn, but I suspect I've read through more north Florida newspapers from the teens and 20s than anyone alive in researching my own book, Age of Barbarity: The Forgotten Fight for the Soul of Florida.

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This remarkable burst of work emerged in just the last few years. These writers and professors and self-taught experts build on the work of people like Mike Denham and Canter Brown and Gary Mormino and Steve Noll and David Tegeder and David Nolan and Kevin McCarthy, etc. etc. They're enabled by people like Flo Turcotte and Jim Cusick at UF's special collections library and Ben Brotemarkle, Barbara West, and Ben DiBiase at the FHS. They're celebrated and publicized by writers and reporters like Craig Pittman, Cynthia Barnett, Joy Dickinson, Jeff Klinkenburg and Ben Montgomery. And I'm forever meeting smart multi-threat history/culture/literature experts and teachers like Leslie Kemp Poole and Ashley Lear and Doris Weatherford.

You might call these people the Florida Historical Memory establishment. As a group, they look nothing like the “tenured notables of the Florida History establishment” with whom Allman likes to contrast himself.

In just one example, Paul Ortiz, is the director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at UF. It shares space in a gorgeous new facility with the Bob Graham Center for Public Service located in the heart of the UF campus. Can't get much more establishment than that.


Not only does this actual establishment generally accept Allman's second point about Florida, it largely provided the raw material for him to make it. He utterly fails to recognize that and rails against a history establishment that doesn't really exist.

Allman is welcome to correct me, and I'm sure he will, but I get the impression he did very little original history. I see only a few obvious instances in which he took an unexamined primary source and broke historical news with it. FF synthesizes other people's work, which is fine, because so does most history writing. But its simultaneous dependence on and contempt for Florida's historians makes Finding Florida feel dated. He's forever quoting something from the 50s as if it reflects on today's historians.

And frankly, as Greg Garland points out, Adam Wasserman made a comprehensive case for Allman's “people's history” narrative back in 2009. I'm still plowing through Adam's book, which uses more direct quotation from primary sources than Allman and takes a far more clinical and dispassionate tone, even though he's not dispassionate.

So to sum up a bit: Does Finding Florida portray a more “true” history of Florida — tonally, factually, morally — than do the two comprehensive histories? I think I have to say yes. He takes a position where taking a position is required — if only by the language one must use to accurately state what happened in many cases. His character “Florida” is truer to life than the more “objective” character “Florida” that emerges from those two works. As a concise, fun introduction to Florida, I recommend FF (at least until its abysmal treatment of the 20th century.) I wouldn't even say take it with a grain of salt. The tone makes it impossible not to, frankly. Just go with it.

But it is far inferior to the character study of Florida that has emerged from the collected work of Florida historians and writers — professional and amateur — in recent years. Allman's failure to reflect on this is graceless. But grace isn't terribly relevant to the work.

That covers Finding Florida's success purely as a work. But I need to touch briefly on its success as a phenomenon, which is probably more important.

Look, I suspect every name I mentioned above would love the level of attention to his or her work that Allman has enjoyed and/or commanded. I would say only Isabel Wilkerson eclipses him in hype — and only nationally, not in Florida.

I had never heard of T.D. Allman before Finding Florida. So I don't know how he managed to get institutional backing for his book that Adam Wasserman couldn't. But he did. Either through talent, or connections, or excellence of his pitch, or luck, or sheer force of will, he powered himself and his book into becoming the prime driver of historical conversation in this state during its 500th anniversary of written record of European discovery.

Give the man his due. I couldn't do it. Yeah, he's not the most pleasant guy in the world. But he gives a damn, if for no other reason than his
own vanity and pride. There's almost no chance I sit down to write this godawful long state-of-Florida-history piece if he doesn't repeatedly unload on me via emails over a review I didn't even write that probably 20 people read.

He could have easily written off me and Greg as gnats on his behind, but he didn't. He treated us like barbarians at the gate. That's fun. I like to mix it up. Allman has injected energy into a space that always needs it. I'll take fierce engagement over institutional indifference any day. So I disagree with Greg that Allman primarily seeks to “cash in on all the hoopla.” I don't doubt that his agent and publisher are thinking that way. That's their job. But the personality I've run into does not seem terribly calculating. I just think he wanted to be the man, the lone brave truth-teller in a state full of Disney sheep. Look how awesome I am and how much the rest of you suck. Now excuse me while I footnote your book or article.

That's an approach almost guaranteed to get a reaction. And so he has. Finding Florida's greatest accomplishment, I think, is to make indifference to Florida almost impossible for anyone who reads it or comes across Allman.


To read Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State (a rather unfortunate subtitle) is to believe that Richard Feynman is a far more important Floridian than Harry T. Moore or James Weldon Johnson or Peter Hagan or Marjorie Rawlings or the soldiers of World War I, black and white, who led and put down the first Civil Rights movement in the 1920s. I like Richard Feynman as much as anybody, but his O-rings moment is pretty irrelevant to the long arc of Florida's history. (By the way, I remember that cold day well. They closed the schools because of frozen pipes. I was 100 miles from away from the launch but too busy playing outside to notice until after.)

FF's treatment of the 20th century is useless and lame. Disney, Challenger, Hanging Chads. Congratulations, you watched the evening news in the last few decades. And frankly, Allman largely abandons the compelling and worthy multi-racial American conflict theme of the earlier portions of the book.

What's particularly damning is that Allman had access to much better and more important stories, as his own words and footnotes make clear. In writing about the martyrs of 1920 election, the capstone of Ortiz's Emancipation Betrayed, Allman writes: “Occasionally someone like Ortiz…drew attention to some particular outrage. Otherwise the repression of the truth went hand in hand with human repression.”

If Allman actually read all of Paul's book, he knows the importance and moral courage of the black men and women who fought in World War I, supported the war effort at home, and risked everything to migrate north or stay at home to launch the first Civil Rights movement — which failed, and of which Florida was arguably the most important state. All of that gets something like three paragraphs in FF. The agency and humanity of the actual black men and women, which is the core of Ortiz's fantastic book, disappears in Allman's. They are only props for the wickedness of white society, which is all he seems to care about.

Finding Florida spends page upon ponderous page on the creation of St. Augustine schtick. But “The True History of the Sunshine State” can't muster enough intellectual energy or curiosity to even mention the Great Migration. For that matter, it can't muster the energy to figure out what this statue means to fake St. Augustine:

St. Aug Footsoldiers

So is Allman helping to “repress” the truth that Ortiz so clearly and meticulously laid out? Or is he just lazy?

In truth, this episode and many others of the 20th century make it obvious how dependent Allman is on the very historiography he considers unreliable and shoddy. Finding Florida has the same giant hole around World War I, Prohibition, Anti-Catholic, Great Migration, Land Boom and Bust, and Rosewood/Ocoee/peak Klan and racial violence era that the comprehensive histories do.

I'm obviously biased because my book seeks to fill that hole and relate all of those things to one another through a single coherent story. But I do happen to think this era is the most important of the 20th century in deciding what Florida and America would be; the most compelling just in terms of stories and characters; and the most relevant to our own time. (SEE SOCIAL AND RACIAL CONSEQUENCES OF FAILED DRUG WARS). Yet, for whatever reason, the Florida academy has not spent much time with the 20s.

The WWI and 20s chapters in both comprehensive histories are vapid. This is from Gannon's, which is way better than Tebeau's:

“In race relations Florida's record was bad, although lynchings declined from eight in 1920 to one in 1930. The revived Ku Klux Klan had a large membership, influenced politics, and used extralegal violence to perpetuate white superiority and black inferiority. The Klan declined toward the decade's end but kept its organization into 1930s.”

Quite a few questions present themselves there, don't they?

How did dozens of blacks die violently in 1920 in Election-related violence when there were supposedly only eight lynchings? Have we not accurately accounted for the different styles of anti-black, anti-Catholic violence? How did lynchings decline? How did the Klan fade? Did all the “bad” guys just get bored?

No. Vigilantes didn't lose interest. Men and women, black and white, bled and died to stop them. People like Peter Hagan, the first white sheriff in 20th century Florida to violently repulse a lynching attempt. Willie Steene and Ed Chisholm, murdered trying to rescue Steene's mother from a flogging. Coy Herndon, the prominent Chicago Defender columnist and vaudeville performer from Palatka nearly killed on a Florida East Coast east train in a vicious attack. Father John Conoley, the UF-based priest abducted and sexually mutilated by the Klan. Mary Jane Lawson, a black woman who ran the only hospital in Palatka. Herbert Rider, the Labelle prosecutor who became the first to bring charges against a 20th century Florida lynching party. The Democratic voters of the 1928 Putnam County election, who ended Klan rule by 52 votes. All struck blows for civilization just between 1923 and 1928, when striking a blow meant risking everything. You most likely haven't heard of any of them. T.D. Allman has done nothing to help change that.

As you can see, there are endless human stories behind that bland paragraph in “A New History…” They've been waiting for anyone on newspaper microfilm for decades.

I only tracked down these stories because I read Paul Ortiz's towering work, which ends at the start of the 20s, and got curious. That's how a great historian moves understanding, by inspiring curiosity in others. Paul Ortiz changed how I understand almost everything about my state's history.

Allman also read Ortiz's book. But he got curious about St. Augustine's “Oldest School House,” I guess. That's his right. But as trail-blazing truth-telling, it's a pretty curious subject matter decision. And the stories he ignored would have fit beautifully into the Negro Fort/Seminole war/Reconstruction narrative.


Outside of the St. Augustine obsession, most of the 20th century in FF reads like a book report with a snarky sentence or two thrown in to each perfunctory episode to make it sound like Allman has the real scoop and actually did some work. Its greatest sin isn't inaccuracy or unfairness. It's lack of interest.

Let me show you what I mean with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

Quick background: My great grandfather and great aunt, J.V. Walton and Kate Walton, were the lawyers who sued Marjorie Rawlings for invasion of privacy on behalf of Zelma Cason, who objected to her portrayal in Cross Creek. I find that lawsuit, and everyone who touched it, fascinating. Today I'm on the board of the Marjorie Rawlings Society. I know a little something about Rawlings. So let's look at some excerpts from Allman's take on her — and my answers to it.

Rawlings's initial purpose in relocating to Florida from Washington, D.C., was to make money growing citrus; when her trees died she turned to writing…

Uh, no. Rawlings was a fairly successful newspaper writer and columnist by the time she came to Florida in 1928. And she was in the process of writing Blood of my Blood, a mediocre autobiographical novel in which her writing ambitions and need to get away from her mother play a major role. She sold a novella and a collection of stories about Florida in 1930, which means they were written before that. So she always wrote — before, during, and after the move to Florida. I don't doubt that she wanted to make money raising citrus. Who would do it for free? But to say
she only turned to writing out of financial desperation is silly. The idea of being a writer — even more than the act of writing itself — defined Marjorie throughout her life, for better and worse.

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. Today Rawlings is to what the objects on display at the Believe it or Not “castle” are to Florida history: an oddity, a curiosity, an irrelevancy that nonetheless reveals a lot if you take the time the trouble to look. What went wrong with Florida's momentarily great novelist? In spite of its ostensible realism, Rawlings's novel portrayed a Florida as fake as the Fountain of Youth. There were no “colored people,” as they would have been called at the time, in her book, even though black people at the time constituted nearly 40 percent of Florida's population.

First, this doesn't seem like much of a plantation.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Park, Cross Creek, Florida

But I understand opinions differ.

I actually consider The Yearling a bit overrated myself. On the other hand, it's important to remember that her editor Max Perkins steered Rawlings into writing it as a children's/young adult book. It's more akin to Where the Red Fern Grows than The Bear, with the accompanying plot-driven simplicity and idealism one might expect.

Overall, it seems Allman wasted little of his precious time actually taking “the trouble” to look at Rawlings' career and writing. First of all, South Moon Under, her first published novel, is by far her finest in my opinion. It's all about bootleggers and encroaching industry and poverty and the death of ways of life — virtually every theme Allman accuses Rawlings of ducking except race. It is patient, character-driven, beautifully-written and emotionally satisfying. I would compare it favorably to Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove for its languid artistry. Is it a literary triumph? I think so, but I'm not so all powerful as Allman to pass judgement. On the other hand, at least I've read it. Have you, T.D.? Commercially, it did well enough to establish Marjorie as a significant writer in the Scribner stable. And it cemented her longterm relationship with ubereditor Perkins.

Concerning race, Allman's contempt further reveals that his knowledge of Rawlings's writing begins and ends with The Yearling. Race obsessed Marjorie. It's all over her letters and short stories. Her wrestling with her own personal cowardice in the face of racial mores is one of the core sources of the self-loathing she often battled. Her fraught friendship with Zora Neale Hurston is well-documented if one takes the trouble to look at it. And the chapter “Black Shadows” in Cross Creek is perhaps the single most complex and fascinating essay on race I've read from a writer in this era. Its opening few paragraphs alone are astonishing in how they reveal the casual racial propaganda that even elite, racially-sympathetic public intellectuals trafficked in. I found nothing else she wrote in Cross Creek as rich or personally felt. The content of that chapter became a centerpiece of my great grandfather's cross examination of Rawlings during the Cross Creek trial.

Rawlings' citrus grove having failed, and with her literary endeavors failing as well, she took in boarders at [St. Augustine's] Castle Warden [later Ripley's Believe it or Not]. Florida's most renowned novelist was making sure the sheets were clean when misfortune struck. Two guests were burned to death as fire swept through Rawlings' hotel.

In fact, Rawlings' second husband, Norton Baskin, was an experienced hotel and restaurant manager. Together, he and Rawlings bought Castle Warden in 1941, in part using money she earned from writing. This included a $30,000 check for the movie rights to The Yearling, after which she never again hurt for money. Baskin ran Castle Warden himself until 1943 when he enlisted in the World War II ambulance corps and served in Burma. Anyone who knows anything about Marjorie's snobbery and her obsession with maids knows quite well that she touched no sheets she didn't have to. Someone else managed Castle Warden for her and Baskin. She was at Cross Creek when the fire happened. In fact, her absenteeism is probably the most damning thing about the fire, which killed family friend Ruth Pickering.

If he wanted to make a point consistent with his own narrative, Allman might have used the fire to paint Rawlings as a disinterested elitist who suffered no consequence for what might be considered negligence. That's pretty close to the figurative narrative my aunt hung on her as a writer.

But to paint Marjorie as a woman broken by failure — financially and otherwise — in April 1944 is simply wrong. To the extent she suffered, and she did, it came from worrying about the Cross Creek lawsuit and Norton Baskin's absence while off at war.

Unless I'm missing something, Allman bases his entire Marjorie Rawlings passage on a single entry in a book called A Guide to Historic St. Augustine, Florida. That's his only endnote. I think FF's take on Marjorie reflects his thoroughness.

To me, this is worse than inaccuracy; it's dishonesty. Allman doesn't make himself do the work that might earn the right to dismiss Rawlings as a failed irrelevancy. So he just jams false facts into a pre-conceived narrative, rather than letting facts dictate the narrative. Coincidentally, that's a vice Allman shares with Marjorie. Cross Creek, although well-loved and lucrative, is a dishonest book. It repeatedly selects and bends “facts” that serve Marjorie's narrative interest and self-image.

Marjorie's conflicted character, on-again off-again talent, voluminous social criticism, and huge importance to the image of developing Florida call out for many critiques. She's also, thanks to my ancestors, the only significant 20th Century American author with whom I'm familiar who ever had to defend the quality and honesty of her work under cross examination at trial. She's the only writer around whom a new doctrine of privacy was built. There's a reason the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society is thriving and growing 60 years after her death — among academics and fans alike. It's not because she's boring.

I am more critical of Marjorie than most of her admirers, but that's part of what makes her fun. And when I critique Marjorie, I can back it up with work, not just my ego. If you'd like to learn actually something about Marjorie Rawlings, you can feel free to read the essays at this link. They're a little more detailed than Allman's guide to St. Augustine. The curious Richard Feynman would read them. But, of course, when Feynman “took the trouble to look” at something, he actually took the trouble to look at something.

The same goes for Olustee.

Allman's discussion of the Civil War in Florida is one of Finding Florida's high points. I learned a number of details I didn't know. And he's very good on the idea that Florida was a Confederate state functioning as a Union naval asset. In discussing how Floridian ex-Confederates chose to remember the war by its late war land battles, he asked a good question:

Is it really true that nothing worth mentioning on a Civil War memorial happened in Florida between the end of 1861 and the beginning of 1864?

I point this out because questions are so rare, even as rhetorical devices, in FF. Questions imply uncertainty. And Allman doesn't have much use for uncertainty. Even the question above isn't really a question.

So with that in mind, let's look at Allman's treatment of the Battle of Olustee, the massacre of wounded black soldiers there, and its place in historical memory. Allman is precisely correct that the battle served as a bastion of Floridian Confederate myth for more than a century. In fact, he's even more correct than he knows. Revival Ku Klux Klan chapters in the 1920s gave themselves inspiring Confederate names. Florida's 20th chapter, the St. Petersburg chapter, called itself the “Olustee” chapter.

The battlefield monuments — which I think date to the early 20th century, like most others — are indeed monuments to Sherman hatred. They speak of Confederate valor turning back U.S. soldiers bent on pillage. They're embarrassing and vital to read now.

But then Allman also writes this about the annual re-enactment and its crowds:

“Every year the Confederates advance gloriously. Everyone whoops and hollers as the United States gets defeated. Neither the organizers's promotional literature nor their websites mention the words massacre, colored, black, or Negro. None of the participants reenacts white Confederates murdering wounded black soldiers.”

This is simply hooey. As a passage and a tendency, this deserves intellectual and moral scorn.

For starters, the following paragraph resides on the Olustee Festival website.

The Blue-Grey Army and organizers of the re-enactment have been sensitive to how the annual event is perceived and has successfully confirmed to demonstrate the horrors of war, our heritage and local history. This has been helped and promoted by the participation of local African Americans within our organization and those who participate with the re-enactment as part of the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment, whose valor and honor has been chronicled in history and further publicized in the movie “Glory.”

That paragraph or one similar was there in 2011, when I took my son and dad to the Olustee re-enactment. And I sincerely hope that Allman's defense for his grossly inaccurate statement isn't, “Well, they didn't say black or colored.”

Of the 10,000 or so spectators arrayed in 2011, exactly one guy whooped once when the Confederate re-enactors took the field on the Sunday we attended. The rest of the crowd reacted with stony silence. When the battle ended, everyone stood at solemn attention for a rendition of Taps or the National Anthem, I can't remember which. I won't swear to it, because I wasn't taking notes, but I do think the killing of wounded black soldiers was part of the re-enactment. There was no voice over, so you had to infer it. I do know that the murder of wounded black soldiers was part of the overall package of discussion; I just don't remember how exactly.

And I can say with certainty that the role of the 54th and black soldiers was integral to the re-enactment because I observed it myself. Black re-enactors took part in the camping and battle. And the crowd included significant numbers of black people. Not a majority, nor even a percentage that reflects population. But there were a lot more than none. The Olustee re-enactment I saw came way closer to Ken Burns than The Birth of a Nation. Ken Burnsism has its own mythology problems, but it's progress over Thomas Dixon and D.W. Griffith's fever dreams.

I have to assume Allman actually went to Olustee at some point to watch the re-enactment for himself. Maybe a few a years ago it happened exactly as he said. But that's not how it happened in 2011. Here are a few snippets of how it looked. By chance, we sat on the rebel side of the field.


Olustee crowd



It's perfectly legitimate for Allman to say: “Back in 1987 [or whenever], the Confederates advanced gloriously. Everyone whooped and hollered as the United States gets defeated,” if that's what he saw. But I'm pretty damn sure “everyone” has always been wrong. And to assume a moral quality in the present based on selective observation of the past is an act of terminally incurious vanity. It's the same thing Dunning school historians did in discrediting Reconstruction, burnishing the Lost Cause, and providing historical justification from Jim Crow.

I do think a strain of neo-Confederate Paula Deenism still runs through the Olustee Festival, as it's called. All you have to do is look at some of the events associated with it. That makes the awkward, but pretty sincere, I think, inclusion of the black Civil War experience fascinating. Is it an act of conscience? A grudging bow to those dread forces of multi-culturalism? A reflection of the growing power of multi-racial Florida and America. Or simply better, more conscientious awareness of history? These are questions actually worth exploring. Olustee, like Florida, is full of them. Ask Marianna.

Instead we get this from Finding Florida.

“The dramatization of the imaginary Battle of Olustee illustrates how the falsification of Florida's past is an ongoing process.”

No, it doesn't. In fact, it illustrates the opposite. My 10-year-old son knows far more about Civil War Florida for having attended the Olustee re-enactment than I did at his age. The fight against falsification is an ongoing process, but we're winning, gradually. Even at the very home of Lost Causism in Florida. And we were winning long before T.D. Allman showed up.

And that's another an intriguing question. Why is Florida's institutional, commonly understood history getting better at the same time its politics are getting worse? After all, Rick Scott and Dan Gaetz pay Paul Ortiz, in a manner of speaking. Maybe that's why they'd love to replace him with a computer and turn college into a coding farm.

Ultimately, Allman just isn't interested in these questions because I don't think he can contemplate that the world as he perceives it at a moment in time might not always remain objective truth.

I think Jeff Klinkenburg and Craig Pittman were trying to get at these periodic Rawlings and Olustee moments in FF when they wrote their “fact-check” story.

I have tremendous respect for the work those two guys do, but I didn't like that story very much.

If you start fact-checking any complex and streamlined work of history with the intent of finding errors, you will find them. Sometimes people just get things wrong; others are just bad or oversimplified interpretations and understandings. I suspect a similar story on the comprehensive histories would be bloody. I feel certain my book has errors. I've even identified one pretty significant candidate. The “fact-check” story held Allman to a standard no one else gets held to.

On the other hand, Allman called his book “The True History of Florida.” And he contemptuously fact-checked everybody who came before him, so he was asking for it. And when you attack people in personal and professional terms, expect them or their friends to fire back. I think Jeff and Craig's story was sort of collective middle finger to Allman from the Florida historical community. It's message was, “Oh yeah, well you're not worth reading, jerk.”

As such, I think it served Allman quite well and catered to his self-image. It let him play martyr to the supposedly stultified guardians of discourse. And it let him off the hook for FF's most egregious problem: its tendency to bad faith.

The book exists. Allman exists. The buzz exists. The bad faith exists. You can't address any of it without addressing it. That story sought to dismiss not address, in my opinion. And so this became a dialogue of the deaf in which actual work found in FF — or done by the historians it criticized — played little role. Allman's behavior is mostly to blame for that, but I think the attempt to discredit him and discourage people from reading actually gave him exactly what he wanted.


Because it entails the study and interpretation of the entirety of human interaction, honest history demands narrative self-awareness and humility. I have long thought that most history should be written in the first person. The historian tends to become the most important character in her or his story.

Indeed, one might call Allman's book, “Finding T.D. Allman: A Reasonably True, Woefully Incomplete, Partial History of What the Author Hates About Florida and Floridians.” That would be more accurate than “The True History of the Sunshine State.”

There is no such thing as “the true history of the Sunshine State.” Allman is absolutely right to place himself at the heart of Finding Florida. But his lack of humility and his bad faith too often poison what he wants to accomplish, especially in the 20th century. He never has enough intellectual courage to embrace his ignorance, which is ample in many places.

He could learn from another talented reporter/writer turned informal historian–The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates. I think Coates' personal exploration of the Civil War, from the point-of-view of a smart, but historically ignorant former black nationalist, has revolutionized popular study of the war. Or maybe it's just revolutionized my study of it. Other than the black nationalist background, he and I approach historical study from similar angles. His Fear of a Black President piece in the Atlantic is an absolute classic of living history. Anyway, he's an inspiration and model for me in my work.

Coates embraces what he doesn't know. He tests theories. He asks “why”? And Coates never forgets that history is always in motion, that it never loses relevance because it concerns human stories. Everything is permanent; and nothing is permanent. At the same time.

Above all, Coates wants to know, not just show off what he knows. He wants to talk to people that might know more about his interests than he does. I'm not sure Allman believes such people exist. And I've not seen any evidence that he's capable of actually having a discussion about Florida history or anything else. He'll tell you what's correct, and you're myth-making hack if you think differently. That's a shame.

The middle of Finding Florida is an accomplishment. I'd love to talk to him about it. I'll talk to anyone about my state and the underappreciated role it has played in the often brutal fight for the modern American nation. My porch is always open. And I hope Allman–or anybody else–will take this very long review as a serious consideration of his work and my state and an invitation to engage. (I have plenty of work out there to critique.) But I'm not optimistic, because I don't think engagement is what he's after.

I was struggling to find a way to end this piece last week when I stumbled upon Pope Francis' beautiful letter exchange with Eugenio Scalfari, the atheist former editor of La Republicca, the Italian newspaper.

I cannot imagine a more vital model for the power of humility and good faith engagement than the little old Argentinian man on St. Peter's throne. On a dime, Francis has forced probably the most important–and change resistant–institution in human history to speak with an entirely new voice. It now rings with humility and good faith. Who knows where it will lead institutionally? But that's how quickly truth changes, how the observation of truth just moments ago distorts or enhances the observation of truth in the moment we're living.

The nature of truth lay at the heart of Francis's exchange with Scalfari, who asked the pope if “absolute” truth exists. Francis wrote this in response. It refers specifically to religion, but its applications beyond are obvious:

To start, I would not speak about, not even for those who believe, an “absolute” truth, in the sense that absolute is something detached, something lacking any relationship. Now, the truth is a relationship! This is so true that each of us sees the truth and expresses it, starting from oneself: from one's history and culture, from the situation in which one lives, etc. This does not mean that the truth is variable and subjective. It means that it is given to us only as a way and a life. Was it not Jesus himself who said: “I am the way, the truth, the life”? In other words, the truth is one with love, it requires humbleness and the willingness to be sought, listened to and expressed.

I'm not the most humble guy in the world. And I'm pretty competitive. So I brought a bit of a chip on my shoulder — perhaps not as large as Allman's — when I began trying to bulldoze my way into the Florida history/cultural writing community a few years back. I flirted for a while with the University Press of Florida for Age of Barbarity. But UPF's institutional norms wouldn't let them publish a book that opens into a horribly graphic dramatization of a priest's castration. And frankly, I didn't want to subject my work to anyone's editorial approval. Getting around those structures by self-publishing appealed to my vanity. I'm gonna write something you've all missed. I'm gonna write it better than you. And I'm gonna do it in my spare time. With no help. So there. Look at me. I can remember calling “the history establishment,” of which I was largely ignorant, “a bit of a priesthood.” It sounds a bit like “tenured notables,” doesn't it?

Again, that was vanity and ignorance talking. Most everybody writes history in their spare time, even history professors. Their real world jobs revolve around teaching and managing students, handling budgets, fighting for resources, and just trying survive within their institutions. Those of us who do it outside academia have both advantages and disadvantages, but I don't think the time we have to write is all that much different.

And almost without fail, this “priesthood” I knew nothing about has welcomed my work and me personally. They haven't stopped everything happening in their lives and careers to lay palms at my feet. (Ya'll can start doing that any time.) But I'm not the center of the world, much as I'd like to be. I'm grateful for the growing sense of personal fellowship I feel with many of the names I've mentioned. But I'm far more grateful that they've taken seriously the stories I wanted to tell and the lives I wanted to count.

They've done it at a time when newspapers are suffering terribly; when our political and business leadership considers liberal arts superfluous; and when if you can't measure a thing it doesn't exist. Many of the people I've mentioned are under professional siege. But they've still taken the trouble to know the work of an arrogant, overbearing outsider like me who lives with none of their institutional pressures.

I can't do much about those pressures. But I can say that Florida's historical community — both inside and outside of academia and the state itself — is doing its job quite well today. Just look at the quality of work that has emerged recently. Collectively, we who care about a Florida historical memory built on a vigorous and good faith relationship with truth are placing Florida squarely into its rightful place in the American story. How does Allman fit into that community? Does he care at all about how Florida's past relates to its future? Or are we just a notch on his belt? I don't know.

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  1. Margaret Harris September 17, 2013
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