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The Idea of Florida in the American Literary Imagination.

University Press of Florida, 1992.

The Idea of Florida in the American Literary Imagination is an enchanting as well as an informative book. Rowe's style of writing, sharply critical but pleasingly anecdotal, draws the reader into a story that has long needed told: the "idea of Florida" (p. 10) in the shaping of the American literary spirit. By managing to avoid the staleness of academese, Rowe is able to weave a story marked by both tragedy and triumph. Florida's triumph is its aboriginal splendor; Florida's tragedy is the denudation of that splendor. One cannot help coming away from Rowe's portrait saddened, for through the eyes of some of America's finest writers we see Florida transformed from a natural paradise to a fantasy island.

Rowe makes certain that the reader is saddened through her own deft commentary. She helps the reader to see, on occasion through the portholes of irony, that Florida's triumph inevitably led to her tragedy. "Rape" is a word not used lightly by Rowe. Indeed, this book is one step away from a sociological -- dare one say Marxist? -- indictment of the exploitation of Nature at the hands of human ingenuity. The irony is that this exploitation is necessary for the story to unfold, a paradox that Shelley recognized in "Ozymandias," his fictional Ramses II whom Rowe mentions.

Nevertheless, it would be misleading to characterize Rowe's work in theoretical language, other than to say that her approach is marked by a sense of text. She does not read "into" the writers she cites; instead she reads "with" them. Rowe carefully allows writers as diverse as Emerson and Hemingway to speak their own words, although she does occasionally provide critical commentary when the complexity of their language requires it. Her commentary on Wallace Stevens's "The Idea of Order at Key West" is but an example of her wise use of critical insight. She acknowledges the "variety of interpretations" of the poem; then she asserts her posture: "[I]t is clearly about the dialectic of the creative imagination with nature and reality" (p. 134). Nothing momentously revisionist here. Rowe cuts to the heart of her point, which is Stevens's point: art creates reality. In her view, the creative impulse of the artist is one way to save Florida from the horrors of exploitive reality. The poet, as social prophet, sees and records what the tourist, as social misfit, exploits and destroys. There is, however, a deep dilemma in all this. How does the poet, to paraphrase Wordsworth, get the tourist to read, much less to understand? The warnings implicit in "The Idea of Order at Key West" are surely lost on the modern-day glutton who cannot fathom the warning contained in the very presence of the Meglosaurus named Disney World.

If anything, Rowe misses her chance to be more dogmatic. She ends by citing the movie Midnight Cowboy to demonstrate that "Florida still evokes an imaginative response" (p. 138). In doing so she begs, I think, the more serious question of whether this is a sufficient response to Florida's growing travails, both creative and social. She points out that Disney World and Epcot "have been created out of the very swamps that Henry James despaired of, suggesting even if Florida the real is finally lost a man-made paradise will take its place" (p. 138). We assume here that Rowe is being, in part at least, sarcastic, for surely there is momentous difference between a "nature-made" paradise and a "man-made" paradise. One finds it difficult to accept that Disneyites and their minions are the poets, much less the prophets, of Florida's future. At this juncture, we would have appreciated more guidance from Rowe on this vital question of inheritance. Perhaps it would have been appropriate here as a balance to the Hollywood version of Florida to quote the warnings of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who entered her fears into the Congressional Record, or Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who has spent a lifetime trying to save Florida from the encroachment of person.

This is not to say that Rowe does not signal the warning, especially in her comments on Florida's move from a rural- to an urban-dominated state. Her remark "and still the people come" (p. 138) bristles with requisite irony. Further, the power of Nature to quell such intrusion in not lost on Rowe. She documents precisely, and at this writing prophetically, that Nature has managed to maintain an ecological balance through the power of hurricanes. Rowe notes that the Mammonite quest for riches has on occasion been interrupted, at least temporarily, by the devastating hurricanes of 1926, 1928, and 1935, the last putting an end to Henry Flagler's "overseas' railroad to Key West. However, human ingenuity overcame this setback: an "overseas highway" was built upon the remaining railroad pilings and Key West once again became a mecca for tourists. In dismay, reports Rowe, Hemingway hired an "aged black man . . . to impersonate him and run off tourists" (p. 97); and, when this failed, he abandoned Key West to the machinations of the entrepreneurial clan.

Hemingway is, of course, the best known of the literary figures who came to Florida in search of renewal. The home he built at Key West is now a national treasure visited by thousands yearly. Rowe's concise treatment of Hemingway's celebrated relationship with Florida is excellent in every respect. She discusses in some detail (in balance perhaps too much) the controversial novel To Have and Have Not (I 937), in which Key West is portrayed as "the last frontier, a place where there is still room for heroes" (p. 101). Hemingway identified with the ritual of life found in the primitivism of Key West, what Rowe calls "the last wild country" (p. 106). When the code of individualism disappeared from Key West, Hemingway, not surprisingly, left. Interestingly, as Hemingway made preparations to abandon Florida to the rich and famous, another celebrated writer, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, moved in. However, a physical comparison between Key West and Cross Creek, the tiny hamlet in North Central Florida, is meaningless. Cross Creek, when Rawlings moved there in 1928, was still a part of Florida's "largely unspoiled paradise" (p. 108). This setting became the background for nearly all of Rawlings's fiction. Indeed, her fiction is a meta-chronicle of life, particularly "Cracker" life, in rural Florida. Rowe examines Rawlings's presentation of Florida in the partly fictional autobiography Cross Creek (1942), seeing the book as a sort of "Florida Walden" (p. 109). Regrettably, however, Rowe only mentions Rawlings's The Yearling (1938) and ignores entirely South Moon Under (1933), each of which contributes greatly to the transcendental realities of life in remote Florida. Also, there is no discussion of Rawlings's short fiction. This is particularly disappointing since Rowe devotes over twice the space in the same chapter to a lesser writer, James Branch Cabell, who, she claims, countered Rawlings's realism with "absolute fantasy" (p. 112). One does not begrudge the space given to Cabell, but one wishes that Rawlings, perhaps Florida's most celebrated writer, had been given more prominence.

The lack of full critical presentation of Rawlings points to the only real weakness of Rowe's book: many of Florida's most prominent writers are not mentioned at all. The most glaring omission is Zora Neale Hurston, who, among other things, is the most important spokesperson of the African-American experience in Florida. Rowe provides an informative discussion of the African-American Albery Whitman, whose Twasinta's Seminoles, or the Rape of Florida (1865) "transformed the eviction of the Seminoles from Florida into an allegory of the pillaging of the New World" (p. 20). In the light of the treatment of Whitman, it is especially regrettable that Hurston is ignored. Her Seraph of the Sewanee (1948) is noteworthy if for no other reason than it is a novel written by a black woman about white Florida "Crackers." Then, there is Mules and Men (1935), a compendium of folk tales, many of them about Florida, that Hurston gathered during visits to her home town of Eatonville. Also missing is the work of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, whose fiction stands as a permanent record of life in South Florida. Her Road to the Sun (1951), about the real-estate excesses in Miami, and her Freedom River (1953), about three boys growing up in the Everglades, are but two examples that Rowe could have used in her treatment of the destruction of nature in the so-called Southern corridor. There are other writers who wrote about Florida, such as Sarah Orne Jewett, Jolin D. MacDonald, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose work would have blended nicely into Rowe's panorama.

In the end, however, such omissions do not compromise Rowe's work. It would be difficult, indeed, to include every writer who wrote about Florida. One has to select. And what Rowe does include is impressive. She begins by presenting Florida through the eyes of the naturalist William Bartram, whose Travels (1791) is the first sustained record of Florida and its edenic qualities, what Bartram called "Elysium" (p. 3). Ralph Waldo Emerson, prone to dislike everything outside of his transcendental New England, was also charmed by the genial atmosphere when he visited in the 1830s to seek warmth for his consumptive health. Harriet Beecher Stowe was no less impressed, and finally purchased land in Mandarin near Jacksonville to enjoy the life of leisure she once so roundly condemned in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). As Rowe quietly points out, Stowe, in her Palmetto-Leaves (1873), a sketch-book on the people and customs of Florida, encourages "southerns to take advantage of the cheap black labor now available in the South" (p. 30). Nothing more needs said. One of the more entertaining moments is provided by the inimitable nineteenth-century traveler Sidney Lanier (the same Sidney Lanier who according to legend is a direct descendent of Shakespeare's Dark Lady), who, after boating up arid down the Oklawaha River, pronounced it the "|sweetest water-lane in the world'" and Silver Springs a " |crystal lymph' " (p. 35).

Henry James, as fortune would have it, is slightly more artful than Lanier, calling the St. Johns River " |Byronically foolish' " (p. 59). James, of course, liked nothing American. All was too vulgar for his tastes, and in The American Scene (I 907), he looked on Palm Beach as "'Vanity Fair in full blast"' (p. 61). Florida, in spite of its " |velvet air' " that reminded him " |of Naples or of Genoa,' " was to James " |quite remorselessly . . . a complex of few interweavings' " (p. 60). Stephen Crane saw it otherwise. With the publication of "The Open Boat," Florida gained, according to Rowe, "a place in the mainstream of American Literature" (p. 50). The immortality the story brought to the Jacksonville beaches needs no rehearsal here. What is of equal interest in Rowe's account is the discussion of Crane's Cora, the madam of Hotel de Dreme, whom Crane finally disappointed by dying. Undaunted, Cora returned to her old ways in Jacksonville by opening up another hotel for ladies of the evening called The Court. One wonders what influence Cora had on Crane's other Florida stories -- "Flanagan," a sort of "Open Boat" in reverse, told from the view point of the social scene created by the rescuers, or "The Clan of No-Name," a love story and a war story which opens and closes in Tampa.

If we begin to take James and Crane too seriously, we need only turn to the nomad of American letters, Ring Lardner, who, after relentlessly chasing Black Sox scandals, became "the ideal satirist to create a portrait of Florida in the 1920s" (p. 80). Lardner is funny, and what's more, he knew it. Lardner's most famous Florida story is "Gullible's Travels," the account of a middle-class couple who, because of their lack of taste, are unable to purchase happiness, at least in the aristocratic Palm Beach. "The Golden Honeymoon" is equally satiric, but the subjects this time are the retirement communities and tourist resorts of St. Petersburg. The question to Lardner is when does humor cross over into pathos. The story caught the judgmental eye of H. L. Mencken, who boldly pronounced that " |There is more sheer reality in such a story . . . than in the whole canon of Henry James' " (p. 88), which is curiously reminiscent of Carlyle's assertion that "There is more Reality in Bret Harte than in Charles Dickens." In the end, Lardner found silly what Hemingway was to find heroic, "grace under pressure," coded or otherwise. Lardner seemed unable to find any "grace."

It should be noted that The Idea of Florida in the American Imagination was first published by the Louisiana State University Press in 1986. The University Press of Florida has reprinted it in paper cover in its high-quality series "A Florida Sand Dollar Book." We are grateful to the University Press of Florida for making the book available to a larger audience through this reprint. Yet at the same time we cannot help regretting that Rowe did not seize the opportunity to expand her study to include notable writers not covered in the first printing. Rowe's pioneering study has set the stage. But, as Kevin M. McCarthy's recently published The Book Lover's Guide to Florida (Pineapple Press, 1992), documents, there are literally hundreds of writers, great and small, who have helped and are helping to shape the idea of Florida in the American literary imagination. We can hope that Rowe is now at work on a sequel.
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Author:Tarr, Rodger L.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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