A Terraqueous Counter-Narrative in US History

By D. Berton EmersonFebruary 18, 2018

A Terraqueous Counter-Narrative in US History

Liquid Landscapes by Michele Currie Navakas

FLORIDA IS WEIRD (or so they say).

Since 2000, Florida has reliably provided a host of images and events that stand in for the current tensions and dysfunctions in US cultural and political life: a viral photo showing a federal agent holding a terrified Elián González at gunpoint, the 2000 election debacle and popularization of the term “hanging chad,” the sensationalistic coverage of the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case.

More recently, Florida has served as exhibit A for the housing bubble bursting in 2008 and representations of all the cluelessness and bewilderment that went with it. In George Packer’s The Unwinding (2014), no place earns a less flattering portrayal than Florida — Tampa, to be more specific. The Gulf Coast city earns its own chapter titles to go along with other representative types demonstrating the breakdown of structures that had formerly propped up the American dream (*for many citizens). Unlike the largely uplifting stories of persistent central figures taking entrepreneurial risks in alternative fuels or transitioning from factory work to community organizing, and unlike the rather disturbing celebrity profiles of unwinding-contributors like Oprah, Newt Gingrich, and Sam Walton, the gut-punching composite portrait of Tampa reveals a city and state offering all types of promises and delivering on none. Packer’s profile of Tampa features some important recent history. Noting that boosters started promoting Tampa in the 1980s as the number-one US site for growth, development, and enrichment, Packer cleverly notes the irony: “The selling point wasn’t America’s Next Great City after all […] No, the growth was actually hostile to urban life. What it offered was the American dream in a subdivision, the splendid isolation of a new homestead an hour’s drive from downtown.” With the surrounding county offering “vast tracts of unincorporated farmland and ranchland and wetland,” the prospects for growth were presumably unlimited. A few local critics raised questions, “But everything kept growing and no one paid attention.” With other places and peoples in Packer’s book, few seem directly culpable for the unwinding. Florida and its people, on the other hand, garner little sympathy; their blind, selfish greed brought down an obvious house of cards.

A similar scapegoating portrait of Florida as national outlier/embarrassment appears in two particularly poignant scenes in the 2015 film The Big Short. Following an accidental tip on the housing market bubble, two lead investigators from a New York hedge fund check out a Florida neighborhood of recently built McMansions littered with for-sale signs, knock on the door of one foreclosed home, and find a perplexed renter shocked to learn that his habitation was no longer secure. Later, Mark Baum (played by Steve Carell) joins his associates and, in less than 10 minutes of film time, gets the full skinny from a vapid real estate agent gloating over the rapid appreciation of sale prices while admitting a temporary price “gully,” two bloody-mary-soaked bros bragging about the dozens of unverified mortgages they broker every month for immigrants and strippers, and an exotic dancer who is shocked to learn that a kick-in of her adjustable rates would likely quadruple the premiums on her five houses and one condominium. No one in Florida has a clue. Florida, it seems, has the perfect mix of weirdness and plasticity to make it the representative stooge within a nation filled with abstract people — neither you nor me, of course — who either gluttonously filled their pockets or absent-mindedly fell asleep at the wheel.

Of course, such depictions in the USA are nothing new. This melting pot of a nation has always singled out representative-ness — good, bad, and ugly — in specific sites and/or constituents (for instance, Alexis de Tocqueville’s fascination with New England towns, the “heartland” producing people with true American values, the white working class and the 2016 election). In these days when comprehensive immigration reform seems distant, when democratic elections seem compromised by voter fraud and/or foreign corruption, when the American dream (*for many citizens) seems less and less available to younger generations thanks to the security-obsessed protectionism of the Boomer generation — see what I did there? — 21st-century Florida has provided an invaluable punching bag of representativeness, a place that stands out from the rest of the honest hard-working nation as peculiar and unsettled — that is, weird.

Turns out our current use of Florida as national outlier has quite a long history. Michele Currie Navakas’s Liquid Landscape: Geography and Settlement at the Edge of Early America convincingly demonstrates that Florida has always — and importantly — compromised master narratives of US nationalism. In this meticulously curated monograph ranging from the colonial era through the early 20th century, Navakas marshals evidence from explorers, cartographers, botanists, geologists, and imaginative writers to support a compelling interdisciplinary argument concerning the centrality of Florida’s peculiar position in North American history. Demonstrating the centrality of Florida in shaking up conventional conceptions and rhetorics that have undergirded property ownership, national expansion, and domestic practices ever since the Enlightenment, Navakas foregrounds a distinctive Florida environment — its marshes, hammocks, reefs, and shoals — as one of the strongest checks on national incorporation and its imperial ambitions. As critics continue to challenge the organizing myths of the US nation and the “roots and routes” of its literary history, Navakas adds an important and impressive new study to the conversation. As it turns out, Florida’s long-term weirdness is kind of a good thing.


“What does it mean to take root on unstable ground?” With this opening question, Navakas points out that all the Enlightenment principles that British settler-colonialists brought to North America in the 17th century met unexpected challenges in Florida. While the increasingly valuable peninsula had been inhabited for thousands of years prior to British arrival, Florida-dwellers did so without the more familiar principles of possession, enclosure, and development that came to be the norms for both property ownership and political rights in the early United States. With US expansion into the Mississippi Valley and the increased importance of Florida as gateway for commerce in the Gulf of Mexico, the unique landscape inspired widely read works in which authors imagined alternative terms for settlement, for belonging, and for claiming roots. “To many early Americans,” Navakas writes, “the liquid landscape appeared not as an obstacle to settlement, but rather as a provocation to think beyond more familiar ideals of land and boundaries that made it possible to imagine the United States as settler nation and empire in the first place.” While some might assume Florida to be simply a minor exception in the master narrative of US incorporation and merit scholarly assessments as regional outlier, Navakas makes a strong case that “Florida’s fundamental porosity and dispersal made it part of North American thinking about personal, national, and imperial identity even before there was a coherent nation […] [Furthermore,] these seeming peripheries of early America should matter more centrally to our own scholarly understanding of early U.S. literature and culture.” With confusion about the actual topography of Florida in the early colonial periods — some cast it as an island or group of islands, some thought it a more conventional peninsula — as well as the lifestyles of the highly mobile indigenous populations, the peninsula endured different periods of European rule: by the Spanish from 1565 to 1763, by the British from 1763 to 1783, by the Spanish again from 1783 to 1821, and finally by the USA from 1821 on. As Navakas cannily demonstrates, few imperial rulers had much success in securing a stable hold on the shifty land and its recalcitrant peoples. Due to Florida’s perpetual undermining of a cohesive master narrative of US continental mastery, Liquid Landscape makes a case for itself by stating that “no other North American ground combined topographic instability, geographic indeterminacy, and demographic fluidity as obviously and dramatically as Florida.”

The opening chapters focus on early surveyors and cartographers who delivered conflicting reports on the curiosity that was colonial Florida. The first delves deeply into the limitations of conventional wisdom on ownership that required what Florida presumably lacked: terra firma. Such theories — John Locke and David Hume are cited here — were securely in place and evidenced in two texts spurred by England’s acquisition from Spain one decade earlier, the anonymously published American Husbandry (1775) and William Gerard De Brahm’s The Atlantic Pilot (1773). The former argued that Florida offered no prospect for cultivation and development due to poor weather and the absence of arable land; even as colonial Americans had some success draining swamps in other parts of the continent, Florida was deemed permanently “maritime.” Such a report displeased boosters from the British Board of Trade, who had appointed De Brahm to survey the recent acquisition. Because of his dual interests in promoting settlement and producing a scientific assessment, De Brahm found that Florida demanded “a new language to describe shifting ground as land and even as property.” De Brahm did not provide all the answers here, and Navakas shows how later writers like William Bartram (through botany) and Frank Hamilton Cushing (studying Indian mounds) took up the challenges in the 19th century and complicated Enlightenment theories of property as well as theories regarding who was most entitled to the land — for Cushing, the indigenous mound-builders who had demonstrated an ability to “remain on changing earth.”

Changing conceptions of Florida from surveyors’ reports were also evident in the various cartographic efforts at mapping Florida’s unique landscape. Well into the post-Revolutionary period, mapmakers produced different visualizations of Florida’s space, and the “representational multiplicity of early national maps of North America depicting Florida as islands announces the contingent, provisional nature of U.S. geographic nationalism.” Even after Bernard Romans in his A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida (1775) assured readers that island maps were inaccurate and thus antiquated, later maps, like Amos Doolittle’s 1784 map of North America, continued to visualize Florida as a group of islands well into the 19th century. Navakas includes numerous maps demonstrating the hit-and-miss attempts to capture Florida’s true shape and outline, many of which suggest that Florida appeared much less a part of the continental domain but rather the northernmost points of the Caribbean islands. With the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 fueling the more traditional narrative of organized settlement, the conflicting reports on Florida’s geography undermined the conception of the United States as its own island, “[c]ompact, integrated, and self-contained.” To demonstrate how this odd mapping played out in the cultural imagination, Navakas turns to John Howison’s “The Florida Pirate” (1821). While the eponymous figure never sets foot on any part of what later readers would understand as Florida, Navakas demonstrates that the story nevertheless counters traditional land narratives with one that “generated models of habitation, community, and economy sustained by mobility.”

The last three chapters turn primarily to 19th-century imaginative literature, with James Fenimore Cooper and Harriet Beecher Stowe joining less familiar writers and their strange representations set within and around Florida’s distinctive land- and seascape. Chapter three yields a provocative account of a lesser-known novel from Cooper’s late career, Jack Tier (1848), juxtaposing its narrative with the broader phenomenon of Florida wreckers — the specialized sailors and watercrafts that rescued cargo from wrecked ships — and the strategic Dry Tortugas. The westernmost point of the Florida Keys, the Dry Tortugas served as one prospective launching point for US expansion into the Caribbean and beyond as well as key site for protecting commerce flowing in and out of the Mississippi River. Cooper’s curious novel about the Florida coastline offers a less-than-flattering depiction of the US Navy, deeming their efforts to command the Gibraltar of the Gulf of Mexico to be well off-target. Navakas presents a similar story with the Army’s efforts to build Fort Jefferson on the shifting landscape of the Dry Tortugas. The Fort Jefferson project, which lasted more than four decades, ended up a complete failure. At midcentury, Florida continued to compromise attempts to secure the national domain through strategies employed in other parts of the continent.

Chapter four returns to the mainland of Florida with a number of little-known white-authored narratives touching on the lives of native inhabitants and fugitive slaves who found the liquid landscape of Florida to be an invaluable place to avoid capture and to establish homes. In the decades of the conflicts of the Second and Third Seminole Wars (1835–1842 and 1855–1858), which pitted US soldiers against Seminoles and their African allies, numerous official reports and maps appeared, all claiming that Florida was virtually impenetrable. A number of imaginative fictions appeared and suggested otherwise. From titles like The Captivity of Mary Godfrey (1836), A Sketch of the Life of Elizabeth Emmons, Or, the Female Sailor: Who was Brutally Murdered While at Sea, Off the Coast of Florida (1841), Young Marooners on the Florida Coast (1852), and The Exiles of Florida (1858), Navakas demonstrates a wide range of texts that “challeng[ed] concepts of subjectivity and space through which the nation was to be made manifest.” Whether distinguishing between “runaways,” “maroons,” or “exiles,” or reflecting on the inability of typical acts of domesticity to take hold in Florida, these imaginative tales offer an important counter-narrative to better-known writings contributing to the imperial fantasies of Manifest Destiny and national incorporation.

In the final chapter, Navakas transgresses a common boundary line in US literary history — the US Civil War — to show how postbellum imaginings of Florida continued to compromise the cultural work of nation-building. A champion of national coherence as well as what Amy Kaplan has called “manifest domesticity,” Harriet Beecher Stowe took her civilizing program to the poorest state in the South. But there she was forced to adapt the ideals of her domestic plans that had been detailed in the book co-written with her sister, The New Housekeeper’s Manual (1874). Deviating from her New England sensibilities, Stowe came to “delight in domestic disorder.” While her discourse would evolve in later publications — a development that Navakas attributes to editor William Dean Howells wanting more local color that fit within a conventional national narrative — Stowe, as well as Beecher, found a rare opportunity in 1870s Florida for the poor and landless to find ideal accommodations:

Like many other frontiers, Florida during the latter part of the nineteenth century became a major destination for those who lacked or abandoned “old foundations” and sought to experiment with new ones. During this time ground frequently disparaged as unfounded sometimes became the ideal foundation for a nation and empire in which incorporation must take on a variety of forms.

Such moves become evident in a tidy coda that brings the book’s historical genealogy forward through Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which memorably depicts all-black communities having opportunities that existed nowhere else while also acknowledging the contingency of new settlements in the portrayal of a hurricane and its aftermath.

Altogether, Navakas’s cultural history readily demonstrates how contemporary Florida — especially in response to the 2008 financial crisis — bears a history that has long provided a ready-made site for misrepresentation and scapegoating as well as remediation and new possibility. Offering countless curiosities and novelties that obliterate neat, settled formulae, Florida no doubt will continue to demand new assessments of place and attachment while also demanding new imaginings for the precarious and the vulnerable.

To that end, I say, “Stay weird, Florida.”


D. Berton Emerson teaches American literature and culture at Whitworth University. 

LARB Contributor

D. Berton Emerson teaches American literature and culture at Whitworth University. He has written essays that have appeared in American LiteratureESQ: A Journal of the American RenaissanceNineteenth-Century Literature, and Avidly. He is working on a book titled Local Rules: Antebellum Misfits and their Alternative Democracies.


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