South of Sane

Finding Florida BY T. D. Allman. Atlantic Monthly Press. Hardcover, 528 pages. $27.

The cover of Finding Florida

“Nude face-eating cannibal?” Carl Hiaasen wrote last year, when the infamous video surfaced. “Must be Miami.”

It sounds like a joke, but throw in the overpass, homeless victim, and fundamentalist drug-addict murderer, and there really are no other contenders. At least the rest of the world has some inkling of this now. As Hiaasen says, explaining the Sunshine State’s endlessly inventive dysfunction has gotten easier since the 2000 presidential election. But even natives may be surprised, reading T. D. Allman’s tremendous, five-hundred-year history of the state, Finding Florida, at learning just how little of the insanity is new under the sun.

Almost a century and a quarter before Bush v. Gore, the outcome of the 1876 presidential election hinged on a Florida recount. Although Samuel Tilden, the Democrat, had clearly won the popular vote, the electoral college tally was uncertain. “If the Republicans have carried” Florida, said the New York Times, “they will have 185 votes, a majority of one.” Initial numbers suggested that the Republican nominee, Rutherford B. Hayes, won the state by 43 of about 45,000 votes cast. After a contentious recount, Hayes was declared the victor in the state and consequently the nation, giving rise to the belief “that the Republicans stole Florida.”

In fact, as Allman explains, “while irregularities did occur on both sides,” the evidence showed “a clear pattern of white supremacist interference.” Democrats had taken illegal measures to prevent Republicans from voting. Polling locations were kept secret. A former Confederate commander led “mounted men in cavalry charges through crowds of potential voters” in one area. Then-governor Marcellus Stearns testified to seeing armed men threatening voters who “were universally Republicans.” The most remarkable thing about all this electoral malfeasance is how unremarkable it is. From the moment the Spaniards set foot on the peninsula to the present day, the true story of the place has been one of the privileged few disenfranchising everyone else, while claiming they’re the ones being taken advantage of.

Land seized from the Native Americans was given to rich white settlers. “Actual pioneers, mostly poor whites from Georgia, were evicted from lands they had cleared and cultivated,” which were also handed over to “powerful, often absentee speculators.” The state’s early banking system was a slush fund that only the wealthy could draw upon. “The $2,000 a landowner took out of the bank was a gift, the $1,000 he supposedly left on deposit an illusion.” Disney World, established as a “drainage district,” has quasi-sovereign powers that insulate it from regulation while allowing it to rake in money hand over fist.

A supposed paradise, prone to hurricanes and mosquito-borne viruses, Florida outpaces any efforts to satirize it. Fakery is so pervasive, it’s invisible. Ponce de Leon’s quest for the Fountain of Youth was invented by Washington Irving. In fact, de Leon never set foot in Saint Augustine, and the purported history of “America’s oldest city” is a complete fabrication.

The settlement’s true founder, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, landed in Florida in 1565, in the midst of a hurricane, and promptly effected a mass slaughter of French Huguenots. (Well, first he offered clemency to ensure their surrender; then his men slew them with clubs and axes.) Few Floridians know that the great Seminole chief Osceola was imprisoned in Saint Augustine, and despite the Indianesque shrunken head on display at the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum, fewer still know that a white man kept Osceola’s scalp as a trophy. Mass killings of Indians and free blacks have been wiped from the history books.

Confederate memorials proliferate, commemorating triumphs that never occurred while failing to note that the first Union shots against the rebellion were fired in the state. The great black Florida politicians of Reconstruction go unsung. Even the first native-born Floridian governor of the state, a white man named Ossian Hart, has been consigned to oblivion, essentially because he was “not sufficiently racist.” Occasionally the fates have dealt justice. Carl Fisher conceived of Miami Beach as a “Gentiles-only Paradise.” By the time he died an alcoholic in 1939, it was “America’s premier Jewish resort.”

For all its passion and erudition, Allman’s study is sometimes frustratingly organized, weaving around in time, making the same points repeatedly, explaining minutiae in painstaking detail while referring only coyly to historical events that call for at least a thumbnail sketch. At times I longed for the economy and humor of John Rothchild’s 2000 book Up for Grabs. Still, Finding Florida is an immense and important work, an overdue survey and indictment of the Sunshine State—and of the way Americans increasingly live now.

In Allman’s telling, Saint Augustine’s “oldest city” attractions prefigure “the theme parks—and theme communities—of twenty-first-century Florida.” The Villages, an eighty-thousand-strong retiree enclave in central Florida, features twenty-nine golf courses, eleven country clubs, and a town square into which the right-wing chatter of Fox radio is routinely piped. In case Johnny Rockets doesn’t provide enough prefab nostalgia, the complex features a host of entirely fictional historical landmarks.

The Villages is privately owned. Residents willingly divest themselves of their rights, trading in “the ballot box for the corporate suggestion box.” Current Florida governor and walk-in-clinic fat cat Rick Scott, who oversaw hospital chain HCA as it perpetrated the largest health-care fraud in US history, cut aid for poor seniors in his 2011 state budget and then signed it into law in an absurdly fitting Villages ceremony. The age demographic may have changed, but the Florida model of governance remains intact into the new millennium.

Maud Newton is a writer and critic from Miami.