by Megan Spring
The sun had started her downward arc when the Key West Literary Seminar’s second session of the afternoon gathered authors, Jack E. Davis, Craig Pittman, Diane Roberts, and Les Standiford to the stage. Once they had all sunk into the plush sunset-colored chairs to chew over Florida’s wild places and weird politics, and how both inspired a literary tradition, they emphasized almost immediately that Florida, known and jeered for her residents’ antics (mostly of an anti-intellectual sort) has carved a place in the foundation of the American literary canon. And so as the breeze played with the strands of the palms’ fronds and as the heat of the day settled upon the audience and as the writers’ northern Florida accents washed over the amphitheater and out to the marina behind, so did the powerful assertion that Florida’s literary culture is an American literary culture, and her wild places and weird politics have imbued our national literature so that Florida remains in the echelon of literary places.
The panel began their segment by refuting the idea that Florida is a relatively new fixture in canonical American literature. Iconic American writers such as Henry James, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson embarked upon Floridian tours, and as such, Florida is imprinted on the consciousness of American literature even upon its inception. Even Emerson, who is credited with calling for the idea of a unique American identity through literature and who was not enamored with Florida upon his visit, kept several conch shells in his home in Concord—as a reminder of what, we can never know, but perhaps like the mosquitos that swarm our beautiful state, he was left with a lingering reminder of Florida long after he left our waterlogged home (even if for him the memory of Florida was swollen and itchy). While not Floridians, these authors were influenced by Florida, and as founders of the American canon, these authors exercised (consciously or unconsciously) a political power of American culture in perpetuity. Thus, as the panelists exposed, Florida known for her raucous residents, is actually foundational to American literature and, furthermore, American culture, canon, and identity.
But then that begets another point discussed by the writers on stage: Florida in and of itself is an idea more than a place. Palm trees grow in Tallahassee because they are planted not because they are inherent to the land. They grow in Tallahassee to fulfill the image and idea of Florida, not her reality. We construct her environment and make her a paradise with a haunting past—new and shiny and beachy as Diane Roberts said, while paradoxically and simultaneously ancient and patinaed and haunted. And so Florida becomes the paradox we love her for and the paradox others may jeer her for. Florida becomes a state who is known for debauchery and buffoonery whilst impacting the founding figures of the American identity and the history of the nation. She becomes a state whose environment is constructed meticulously in order to maximize an illusion of utopic paradise, yet a state whose natural powers only deign to allow her residents to construct her façade. She becomes known for her wild places–both untamable and crazy–and her weird politics–both bizarre and uncanny—so that for Floridians, it’s only when we leave her that then we realize her weirdness and wildness, her fickle and paradoxical nature that figures her entrenched in the literary and political realms.
Megan Spring is a native Floridian and PhD student at Florida Atlantic University, where she teaches composition and literature.