Book excerpt: The Gulf by Pulitzer Prize winner Jack E. Davis

The 2018 Pulitzer Prize in History was awarded in April to University of Florida History Professor Jack E. Davis for his nonfiction book “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea.” 

"Davis, who grew up in Pinellas County and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of South Florida, focuses on the Gulf of Mexico in his sweeping, deeply researched and elegantly written book,'' writes Colette Bancroft, Book Editor at the Tampa Bay Times. "The Gulf, published in March 2017, has already won the Kirkus Prize and been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award.''

Davis talked with Bancroft about the award shortly after the prize was announced in April. You can read the interview at this link.

Below is an excerpt from The Gulf that tracks the evolution of attitudes toward Florida's beaches:  

THE HISTORY OF THE MODERN GULF BEACH, another unfamiliar story of the past, could begin with the following quote: “I wondered how the summer visitors could leave so lovely a summer land ... when the sunshine was softest, the sea breeze saltiest, the fishing at its best, and a surf bath was worth a whole course in athletics and hygiene.”

The passage dates to the 1890s and comes from an article in the New Orleans Daily Picayune by Martha Field. Her lilting descriptions don’t sound like typical newspaper writing in the day when every page was hopelessly crammed with text boxes in tight columns filled with bare-bones copy. Field worked for Eliza Jane Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson, the country’s first female publisher of a major daily newspaper in the United States.

After taking the helm of the Picayune in 1876, having succeeded her husband on his death, Nicholson proved to be an innovator who wanted to elevate her newspaper above its inconvenient name (“picayune” means “petty”). She lit up its offices with electricity, installed telephones, and converted the press to linotype, at the same time that ink bottles and blotters made room on desktops for bulky new machines called typewriters (shunned by pen-and-paper traditionalists). As for the page itself, she revamped the Sunday edition, traditionally treated by the industry as the week’s throwaway sheet, by adding sections on a range of subjects, from travel to children’s fiction to household concerns, offering something for every family member.

To open up those tight, boxy columns with a wider variety of interesting subjects, she assembled a stable of women writers at a time when female journalists had few opportunities beyond editing the social page. Under the pen name Pearl Rivers, Nicholson wrote her own opinion column, titled “Nature’s Dumb Nobility,” which was devoted mostly to the subject of animal cruelty. She brought in Mollie Evelyn Moore Davis, a well-known writer and poet from Texas, to weigh in on progressive issues of the day; Dorothy Dix, who, with Nicholson, introduced the advice column; and Kate Chopin, whose fiction, deploying self-emancipated women as protagonists, gained a national audience. Their talents, along with that of Martha Field, helped Nicholson triple the newspaper’s circulation.

Hired in 1881, Field contributed a regular column under the pseudonym Catharine Cole. Female journalists generally adopted pen names to shield their husbands from the social embarrassment of a working wife, and even though she was widowed, Field followed the practice. Born in Missouri, raised in New Orleans, and educated at Macé Lefranc Institute, she was employed by three papers before being enticed to the Picayune by Nicholson and her exciting vision.

Like her boss, Field was small and dainty, with resolute feelings about the intellectual capacity of her sex. She was equally a fearless interviewer and traveler whose most popular pieces were about Louisiana. Although sometimes swelled with Victorian flourish, her writing was full of life, whether the topic was a Cajun fisherman or the bayou that gave him a living. She introduced readers to Louisiana’s ethnically diverse population (black, white, Chinese, Croatian, Italian, Spanish, and Creole) and similarly diverse landscapes (pine forest, swamp, bayou, coastal marsh, and dune).

In 1891, Nicholson sent Field out on an eighteen-hundred-mile statewide assignment, to all thirty-nine parishes. A buggy drawn by “wiry little Creole ponies” and driven by a “small colored lad” took her over land, and schooners and pirogues (a Louisiana-vernacular hand-built canoe-like boat) drew her along the coast, through two years of fitful movement. She was ambushed by rainstorms, threatened by lightning, bogged down in mud, and turned back by washed-out roads, alligators, and insect swarms as thick as confetti. The experience energized her. Although you can sense stiffening in essays that mention cruel bird hunters—including the Pierre who shot sandpipers on the beach -- she otherwise met no disagreeable person. Similarly, she encountered no disagreeable landscape. With its marshy edges, beaches, and surf, the coast tugged hardest. She referred to herself as “more or less amphibious.”

Only in recent decades had Americans become drawn in the same seaward direction. The constantly expanding cities of the nineteenth century were growing woefully loud, confining, and insalubrious, where the downy green of parks was not yet common. People increasingly craved escape from the dull slabs of gray and brick, at least temporarily. Initially, they took a breather in the pastoral countryside. Gradually, oceanside sandy spots gained appeal as attitudes about modesty and the body, and about relaxation as recreation, began to change -- but especially, as deep-seated fears of the sea dissolved.

Before leisure seekers were beachgoers, they were surf bathers; that is, they flocked not to the beaches facing the open sea, but to those along inshore waters -- a bay, sound, or lagoon. The summery seashore as an altar of vacationing escape had to evolve in apprehensive minds. As beach historians Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker put it, the beach we know today -- where people lie in the sun, play in the surf, and look out to the infinite sea horizon -- had to be invented. Centuries of attitude adjustments were required, as were aficionados like Martha Field, to push things along.

“Excerpted from The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea by Jack E. Davis. Copyright © 2017 by Jack E. Davis. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.”

To read a review of the book, check out this Tampa Bay Times story

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