Welcome to FloWriter! You find yourself at Matt’s List of the Most Essential Florida Books©, graciously offered free of charge, and with the most incredible humility.
As of writing this, the list is a good old MySpace style Top 8 with a few honorable mentions. But the list lives!!! So check back frequently for any updates (or subscribe to FloWriter for ALL THE UPDATES). Also, if you think that I have missed something absolutely critical to Florida canon, historical or otherwise, leave a comment, find me on Twitter, or shoot me an email! I love getting recommendations, and I’d be happy to include any forgone masterpieces on the list.
You can also download this list in pdf format for maximum enjoyment. Many of the links are Amazon affiliates that I’d really appreciate you click. Buying stuff after clicking things is even better!
Mormino discusses what he calls Florida’s Big Bang: its transformation—occurring in the second half of the 20th century—from the smallest state in the south to a social and economic giant, home to over 16 million people. Writes Michael Gannon, another Florida historian featured on this list, “This is the first comprehensive social history of Florida in any of its epochs. A brilliant compilation of data, it will be the standard against which all future such efforts in Florida will be measured.” And it has a pretty cover to boot.
Ditch of Dreams: The Cross Florida Barge Canal and the Struggle for Florida’s Future by Steven Noll and David Tegeder
A historical account of the Army Corps of Engineers’ bold attempt to split the state with a nearly 200-mile long canal, a seemingly impossible feat of engineering and financial innovation that would surely solidify man’s dominion over the wilds of the great peninsula. Thankfully the plan failed miserably, and it remains the largest public works project in American history to be stopped in the middle of construction. Ditch of Dreams details the victory of good old fashioned citizen advocacy, led by Marjorie Harris Carr (one of the Great Florida Marjories), and the clash between economic growth and environmental preservation in Florida.
Carr’s work leading the Florida Defenders of the Environment has had lasting impacts on the way in which a projects’ impacts to the environment are quantified, and forever changed Florida’s political landscape. Portions of the project, namely the Kirkpatrick Dam and Rodman Reservoir, are still the subject of political dispute, but the constructed corridor was converted into the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway State Recreation and Conservation Area.
South Florida had so much potential. There were fortunes to be made in every corner, if only there was a way to rid the land of the mosquitoes, the alligators, the natives, the miraculous floral and faunal biodiversity, and, of course, the water. Grunwald’s The Swamp recounts 500 years of Florida history, detailing how rich developers and richer politicians slashed, maimed, trenched, drained, tamed, and killed the Everglades and its inhabitants. If you have the strength to make it to the third act, you will be introduced to our heroine, Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Depressingly, the battle wages on today; Jeb! Bush almost sold off water rights to a subsidiary of Enron for god’s sake! Contested even is the restoration of what little is left. As Guy Martin states: “What we think of as the still-wild part of the Everglades has in fact been dying for at least 50 years; despite its nominal wildness, it must now be de-conquered or “restored.” Naturally, there’s a fight about that, too.” If nothing else, The Swamp teaches us that politicians, at both local and national levels, do their very best to ignore the mistakes of their predecessors and repeat them ad nauseam.
Davis brought the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in History back to the Sunshine State with this baby. In it, he explores America’s complicated social, political, and economic relationship with the Gulf of Mexico, tracing its development from a beautiful and fruitful ecosystem to a “national sacrifice zone.” Perhaps most notable is Davis’ ability to flip the traditional enviro-historical narrative and discuss the Gulf itself as the agent of change in the region, rather than a passive victim of colonialism and conquest.
In addition to the Pulitzer, The Gulf was also awarded the 2017 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, and is recognized as a National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction Finalist, a New York Times Notable Book of 2017, and one of the Washington Post’s Best Books of the Year. If you enjoy breathing air, this book is for you.
Davis also wrote Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century, and is a professor of environmental history at UF.
Michael Gannon is a giant in Florida history circles, and his Florida: A Short History is perhaps one of the most comprehensive yet accessible pieces of Florida historical nonfiction. Most valuable is his ability to contextualize thousands of years of Florida history with deft humor and skillful perspective: “By the time the Pilgrims came ashore at Plymouth, St. Augustine was up for urban renewal. It was a town with fort, church, seminary, six-bed hospital, fish market, and about 120 shops and houses. Because La Florida stretched north from the Keys to Newfoundland and west to Texas, St. Augustine could claim to be the capital of much of what is now the United States.”
Although his account begins in pre-contact Florida, his treatment of the prehistory of Florida is admittedly lacking. This is, however, coming from an archaeologist, so I’m willing to let it slide. Sidenote: If you are looking for a great introduction to native Florida, I recommend Florida’s Indians from Ancient Times to the Present by Jerald T. Milanich.
Smith’s historical fiction covers over 100 years of pioneer Florida history, and follows three generations of MacIveys as they struggle to make a living off Florida’s harsh scrub after migrating from Georgia. We open in the 1850s, shortly after Tobias MacIvey settles into his new and short-lived home in the Florida scrub with his family. Growing amidst crackers, cattle, mosquitoes, hurricanes, oranges, frosts, wars, starvation, and greed, the MacIvey legacy is passed first to Zech, who builds it into a cattle empire, then to Sol, who becomes a Flagler-esque real estate tycoon. Nearing the end of his life, Sol leaves his Miami Beach mansion and retreats to his father’s modest cabin near Punta Rassa, contemplating his role in the conquest that directly led to the demise of the very land that sustained his family, and that of his Seminole half-brother.
A Land Remembered is widely recognized as great Florida fiction, has been listed as the Best Florida Book by Florida Monthly Magazine ten times, and has been awarded the Florida Historical Society’s Tebeau Prize for Most Outstanding Florida Historical Novel. Florida accolades aside, this is easily one of the best books I have ever read.
Marjorie Kinnan is the next Great Florida Marjories to make the list. Rawlings’ tale of Jody and Penny Baxter, the Forresters, and old Slewfoot was born from her editor’s demand, after multiple manuscript rejections, that she write about what she knew from her own life. The story follows Jody as he raises a fawn he orphaned while struggling with farming life in the unforgiving scrubland 1870s central Florida. It also happens to be an amazing catalogue of Cracker culture, language, and food (but if you really want to learn how to eat like a Cracker, check out Rawlings’ Cross Creek Cookery.
Set in what is now the Ocala National Forest, hikers can visit sites from the novel (and the 1946 film starring Gregory Peck) and stop at the Long Family cemetery along the Yearling Trail. If possible, I highly recommend following my lead and reading this book while doing archaeology in the area in which the story and subsequent film were set. Our excavation crew was hosted by the Juniper Club near Silver Glen Springs (“the Glen springs” in the book). The club also hosted Rawlings in 1939, and their cabin boasts a letter from Rawlings thanking the club members, and a large bear skull on the fireplace mantel, said to be that of old Slew Foot. Rawlings’ follow up to The Yearling, Cross Creek, is certainly deserving of an honorable mention.
Perhaps the most well-known of all of Hurston’s works, it was initially poorly received as Hurston’s colleagues were critical of her failure to make racism a central theme. Simply put, it did not mesh with the Uplift agenda of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston’s response—and the novel’s focus—perhaps highlights her desire to simply write creatively without being restricted by her background as an anthropologist: “…I was writing a novel and not a treatise on sociology…I have ceased to think in terms of race; I think only in terms of individuals. I am interested in you now, not as a Negro man but as a man. I am not interested in the race problem, but I am interested in the problems of individuals, white ones and black ones.”
The all-black town of Eatonville was based on the eponymous Florida town in which Hurston was raised, and the book’s climactic hurricane was inspired by the great 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane—also known as the San Felipe Segundo hurricane—one of the deadliest on record. Hundreds of square miles flooded after the failure of Lake Okeechobee’s levees, and the storm left over $1.4 billion (adjusted) in damages over 4,100 dead across the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and the Southeastern US.
Hurston remains a colossal presence in the pantheon of great Floridians, and Their Eyes Were Watching God is considered a seminal work in both African American and women’s literature.
Its importance to the state is monumental, and its influence on the nationwide environmental movement is akin to that of Carson’s Silent Spring. Stoneman Douglas—the third Great Florida Marjory on this list—is aptly lauded as The Grande Dame of the Everglades, used poetic imagery to bring the attention of the world to her cause of Everglades preservation: “The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades of Florida. It is a river of grass.” Mandatory reading for the entire country.
Cross Creek by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Rawlings’ memoir of her life at the Creek, in Florida’s backcountry. Another American classic.
Everything by Carl Hiaasen. Perhaps the most ‘Florida’ of all Florida writers. He’s been trying to scare people away from the peninsula since the 80s, but apparently northerners don’t read closely enough. Non-Floridians seem to fancy him a satirist. Floridians know better.
Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country by Craig Pittman. It takes a true native Floridian to encapsulate the extremes of Florida’s pull on the country. Pittman will have you thinking that Florida Man™ is simply a state-sponsored front to distract the rest of the county while the state’s courts decide the fate of the world.