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Uncommon Sense

By Joseph M. Adelman · October 13, 2015

Florida at the Margins

conferences 8 min read

A New and Accurate Map of East and West Florida, Drawn from the best Authorities.

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

This week marks the end of our series highlighting the roundtables from the joint meeting of the Institute and the Society of Early Americanists. Thanks to all the participants for your contributions. Today’s post comes from Thomas Hallock, Associate Professor of English at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg.

Peninsular Florida, jutting from mainland North America into Caribbean waters, was juggled between empires during the colonial period, leaving methodological problems for us today.

If we approach this liminal area as a northern border of the Spanish empire, what happens to Anglophone narratives of early America? And what follows when U.S. scholars, barely proficient in Spanish, dip into the borderland with even less grounding in Latin American studies? Where do the disciplines connect? Where does the conversation break down? “Florida at the Margins” asked seven panelists at various stages of their careers — from recent PhD to senior researcher — to address a geographic border zone that is also an interpretative puzzle.

The responses resonated across generations. With a nod to decades of scholarship, Any Turner Bushnell observed that Florida would cease to be a “missing piece” if we wrote more interesting books, addressed broader audiences, and showed how our findings fit into larger literatures. Jonathan DeCoster boiled the same dilemma down to this simple comparison: of articles published in The William & Mary Quarterly, the word “Virginia” appears in the title 535 times, Florida twice. Why? What does that discrepancy mean? And how should our disciplines adjust course respectively?

Several panelists noted a crisis of narrative. Michele Navakas, with a preview of her forthcoming book The Edge of America: Founding Florida, defined a geo-political problem; that is, the physical but also social “uncontainability.” In a nation that would ground its identity in solid and contiguous land, Florida’s mangrove islands and sheet flow unsettle our stories of belonging. (Navakas saw this as a point of entry.) DeCoster likewise would maneuver la Florida out of the margins. Offering several reasons for the prior neglect (lack of Spanish, the leyenda negra, misplaced patriotism), DeCoster highlighted early English colonization efforts along the south Atlantic coast, noting how we cannot fathom later developments in Jamestown without considering first the British fixation with René Laudonnière and Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Alejandra Dubcovsky offered a similar lesson from the archive, that English colonists looked to the Spanish for models, and that rival endeavors were also “deeply connected.”

The conference’s joint SEA-OI sponsorship provided a welcome opportunity to address our history-literature divide. Several panelists hinted to the crucial, but often ummarked difference between reading “documents” and “texts.” Tom Shields pointed out a long bias towards participant-authors like Cabeza de Vaca, with blasé indifference to issues of representation. (Tom and I have worked to remedy the poetic neglect with a translation of Bartolomé de Flores’ ode to Menéndez, out soon in Common-place.) And Lisa Voigt identified a crucial keyword, circulation. Given its geographic setting, at the edge of the Gulf Stream, Florida’s importance lay in the transportation of not only people and goods and wealth but stories. These stories, like the land itself, were constantly contested. To what extent did such liminal spaces, Voigt asked provocatively, mark not the exception but the rule?

That led to a second keyword: unsettlement. Starting from the Virginia novelist James Branch Cabell, Anna Brickhouse observed how our narratives of early America continue to dwell on roots. As Anglophone and popular historians have bought into a past that anticipates later “rising glory,” scholars have less reason to think about failure. In the “history of American unsettlement,” Brickhouse emphasized, “Florida has much to teach us.” In a similar vein Bushnell broke down the Florida frontier into seven sequential stages, each of them part of a larger field: Marchland (conquest), Borderland (pacification), Periphery (license), Transfrontier (escape), Naval Bases (entanglement), Low Country (development), and Backcountry (disorder). Stories of unsettlement, needless to say, are open-ended.

God's protecting providence, man's surest help and defence, in times of the greatest difficulty, and most eminent danger.

Jonathan Dickinson, God’s protecting providence, man’s surest help and defence, in times of the greatest difficulty, and most eminent danger (London, 1700). Internet Archive,

Take as an example the Journal of Jonathan Dickinson, a Quaker who shipwrecked near present-day Jupiter Beach, on route from Jamaica to Philadelphia. This overlooked gem appears in none of the major anthologies of American literature, leaving readers to rely upon a long out-of-print 1961 edition. Published in 1699, the Journal (first titled God’s Protecting Protecting Providence) offers no story of foundations. Dickinson and his stranded cohorts wander, caught between linguistic realms, five of them dying from exposure. The story “unsettles” the border between English and Spanish occupation. Bushnell points us to the recent discovery by historian Jason Daniels of an ur-text, revealing changes to Dickinson’s account by the Philadelphia Quaker Meeting. In the differences between manuscript and published work, we see a breakdown in more settled hierarchies, with the castaways scrounging from the Ais, natives to the south Atlantic coast. I personally hold no hopes (or even desire) for Florida to vie with Massachusetts and Virginia as the center of a foundational, consensus narrative. Far better for this sandy and shifting spit to join other corners of empire, telling a story of how border regions constantly slip from the imperial grasp. Whether or not students of early America will show an interest in, or be encouraged to develop this narrative remains to be seen.

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