Ponce de Leon never visited St. Augustine, much less discovered it. Pulitzer-prize-winner Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was a failed writer. The great Indian chief Osceola wasn’t an Indian at all — both his parents were white.
In his latest book, Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State (2013), author and historian T.D. Allman sets out to deconstruct what he describes as the myths and lies surrounding the Sunshine State’s 500-year history. Published by Atlantic Monthly Press, Finding Florida takes on some of our most foundational stories, tearing them apart like a pit bull with a slab of raw meat.
“Florida is the Play-Doh State,” Allman writes in the book’s prologue. “Take the goo; mold it to your dream. Then watch the dream ooze back into goo. People are constantly ruining Florida; Florida is constantly ruining them back.”
His work isn’t without its detractors: For instance, Gary Mornino, professor emeritus at USF St. Petersburg, wrote in the
Tampa Bay Times that Finding Florida is “unbalanced, mean-spirited and arrogant.” Times staff writers found numerous (though sometimes pedantic) “forehead-slapping errors” — such as the idea that the Ku Klux Klan, which hated Catholics, made common cause with the mafia, or his statement that Rita Mae Brown and Zora Neale Huston were born here (actually Pennsylvania and Alabama, respectively).
Allman vociferously counters by pointing toward positive reviews in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal as well as the fact that Finding Florida was a finalist for the National Book Award.
With Allman circling through town this week, Folio Weekly spoke with the bristly author about his work, his critics, Trayvon Martin and the “neo-Confederate, racist falsehoods” that he says comprise much of this state’s accepted history.
Folio Weekly: Tell us a bit about why you wrote this book.
T.D. Allman: There is a hunger to know about Florida. There is a visceral understanding that what is happening in Florida is terribly, terribly important — not just funny, not just wacky, not just crazy. I don’t have a Florida agenda. I have a truth agenda and that is what led me to write the book.
F.W.: Critics have called the book “mean-spirited” and said it’s full of inaccuracies. How do you respond?
T.D.A.: There is a small crowd that has conducted a vendetta against me. I can’t do anything about vicious local people. Instead of welcoming a new work, they make up lies about it.
F.W.: You’ve nothing good to say about the people who’ve written about Florida’s history, including some well-known college professors.
T.D.A.: When I set out to write this book, I did not understand that standard histories of Florida are infused with neo-Confederate, racist falsehoods that have made up the Florida mythology. These people are still writing as if Ponce de Leon discovered Florida. The general history of Florida is corrupt. I started this book, which took over 10 years of my life, without any preconceptions. I don’t work for the Chamber of Commerce and I’m not trying to get tenure from some state or regional university. I want nothing from Florida. All I want is to tell the truth.
F.W.: You’re particularly critical of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Yearling You said, in particular, that she “portrayed a Florida as fake as the Fountain of Youth.”
T.D.A.: I called her a one-hit wonder. She had one book which was a success. I have nothing against her, but she is part of the mythology of Florida. It’s a mediocre book and that’s why people love it. She is of little importance, in my judgment, in terms of the history of literature of Florida. People get upset because they want to believe it's great literature. It’s not. It’s a fable of a young boy growing up.
F.W.: You mentioned the trial of George Zimmerman in the book. Why is this case important?
T.D.A.: The thing that really hit me in the stomach was the killing of Trayvon Martin. Trayvon Martin shows us that Florida’s legal system is fundamentally racist. You can shoot a black boy and get away with it. You have absolute impunity for crimes against blacks.
F.W.: You’ve said you put a very strong demand on your readers. What do you mean by that?
T.D.A: They have to completely re-evaluate everything they think they know about Florida, and a lot of things they think they know about America. What I want from my readers is that when they watch a news and weather broadcast in Florida, they will know if they had read my book exactly what is happening.