Florida: The place where reality goes to die, where men’s dreams turn to rot. where history is an inconvenience consistently trumped by comforting legends.
This book, I tell you.
Finding Florida was published in 2013; I found it in my local library, and am I glad I did. (It’s still in print.) It’s 450-odd pages of mythbusting excellence. Not only did I learn a lot about why Florida is the way it is, I also learned a lot about why the whole U.S. of A. is the way it is.
Which is to say, a place built on myths and legends, a place fond of ignoring complicated truth.
Allman starts with the early Spanish explorers — who weren’t explorers so much as they were clueless treasure hunters. Ponce de Leon never got anywhere near St. Augustine and didn’t search for the Fountain of Youth; he came to Florida to search for gold. He lost his life for his trouble.
As for the other “heroic explorer,” Hernando de Soto, he spent three miserable years wandering the American Southeast in a real-life Aguirre: The Wrath of God situation: a treasure hunt turned slow-motion death spiral.
Sorry. “Spoiler Alert”
Ponce and de Soto, as we know them today, are entirely the creation of 19th Century American writers, Washington Irving and Henry Schoolcraft, who valued a great story over the truth.
Florida, meanwhile, continued to cast a spell on white folks from far and wide. Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Monroe wrested the peninsula away from the Spanish, who cared so little about the Godforsaken place that they put up virtually no resistance. Those distinguished Founders then embarked on a three-decade campaign of genocide against the Seminoles — who were, in fact, a few thousand natives, whites, free blacks and Hispanics who lived side-by-side, mostly practicing subsistence agriculture.
Indeed, the Seminoles’ great chief Osceola was born William Powell, son of a Creek woman and a Scottish trader. As Osceola, he became the leader of the mixed-race settlers — and died, naturally, in an American prison. Osceola was a farmer and statesman, not at all a warrior. He bore no resemblance whatsoever to Florida State University’s face-painted, horse-ridin’, war-whoopin’ Injun chief leading the crowd in tomahawk chants.
But let’s get back to the genocide, which was capably led by Old Hickory himself, Andrew Jackson — first as the “conqueror” and military governor of the region, then as the violent racist president. The war with the Seminoles was a thirty-year slow grind that ended, inevitably, in the demise of virtually every enemy — combatant and noncombatant alike.
Here’s a depressing truth about Jackson and his fellow military “heroes.” They earned their reputations by blatantly lying to their superiors about their great victories. The bosses were only too happy to believe the lies. In fact, generals who brought inconvenient truths to Washington found themselves drummed out of the armed forces or sidelined in dead-end jobs.
Speaking of blatant lies, take Stephen Foster, composer of “Old Folks at Home,” whose first line is known to us as “Way Down Upon the Swanee River” — but was originally “Way Down Upon de Swanee Ribber.” It was written entirely in unflattering slave dialect, from the viewpoint of an old Negro wishing he was back on the plantation happily slaving away. (Foster chose “Swanee,” shortened from “Suwannee,” because he needed a two-syllable name to fit the meter.) It eventually became Florida’s state song, complete with deeply racist lyrics, which remained unchanged until 2008.
There’s more, much more. As a state, Florida was a place where politicians and plutocrats made common cause — to take the land and fleece the government and to use racism as a way to keep poor white voters in their pockets. It has a long and wretched history of political violence, usually aimed at black people.
The violence has mostly been tamped down, although Trayvon Martin would tell you otherwise. But when you read Allman’s history, you understand why George Zimmerman was acquitted and why Florida’s government consistently caters to the elite and where the “Florida Man” phenomenon comes from.
Because Florida has been profoundly weird since white folks started superimposing their own aspirations on the place, and usually ended up impoverished, crazy, dead, or all three.
Although Allman’s book is about Florida, it applies just as well to all of America. “When people are unwilling or unable to come to terms with reality, a politics based on unreality becomes necessary,” Allman writes in his epilogue.
Although this book was published in 2013, I doubt that Allman was much surprised by Donald Trump’s elevation to the presidency. In fact, although he couldn’t have intended it so, Finding Florida helped me understand why the faults in our national character — as reflected in our painful, destructive history and our ability to replace that history with a simple, satisfying series of legends — made the seemingly outlandish Trump almost inevitable. The fault, dear Brutus, is in ourselves.
Meanwhile, Florida soldiers on — the “Sunshine State” that is actually our second rainiest, the place whose most renowned crop (oranges) is actually an import from China, where Americans flock to vacation or retire and sprawl runs wild even as climate change threatens to drown the whole place.
But hey, nothing new here. It’s been this way since Ponce de Leon came a cropper.