REFLECTIONS ON AMERICA’S BIGGEST SANDBOX—ESSAYS ON FLORIDA: PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE
In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin reflects that given the opportunity, he should like to live his life over, correcting the “Faults” of the first. Nevertheless, he states, “since such a Repetition is not to be expected, the next Thing most like living one’s Life over again, seems to be a Recollection of that Life; and to make that Recollection as durable as possible, the putting it down in Writing” (44). He then proceeds to make the story of his life a treatise on the way to live a moral, productive, and upright life. Lamar York’s Biographia Floridiana: Essaying Florida is not an autobiography—or even a biography—in the traditional sense, but, like Franklin, York uses this collection of essays for a broader purpose: to examine Florida’s past, present, and future status in the United States today through his imaginative reconnection to his personal roots, his family having migrated from South Carolina to Florida in 1842. A native Floridian who spent most of his adult life in Atlanta, Georgia, York claims in his Preface, “writing about Florida naturally appealed to me as the subject in which I could express my own voice and as the subject of the biography I would write. These essays have become my larger ‘biographia’; not a biographia literaria, but my Biographia Floridiana” (v).
York’s allusion to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria is no accident, as York himself points out in his Preface. Besides providing the inspiration for the title, Coleridge’s work also serves as a model for York’s technique. In A Preface to Coleridge, Allan Grant observes that the Biographia Literaria “is not Coleridge’s philosophical system, his Organon or Logosophia, but a miscellany, a disparate collection of writings held together, in intention at least, by the thread of the writer’s own life as a man of letters and the history of his literary opinions” (89). Except for the opening and closing chapters, York’s Biographia avoids the first person perspective, making his work less narcissistic than Coleridge’s. But in his essays—originally written or published on different dates and in a variety of publications—York echoes Coleridge’s purpose, which critic Jerome J. McGann notes parallels the focus of The Lay Sermons where Coleridge writes, “The Object was to rouse and stimulate the mind—to set the reader a thinking—and at least to obtain entrance for the question, whether the [truth of the] Opinions in fashion . . . is quite so certain as he had hitherto taken for granted” (qtd. in McGann, “The Biographia Literaria and the Contentions of English Romanticism” 19).
A subtitle on the title page—“To essay: ‘to attempt to explain’”—suggests a third influence on York, the essay tradition itself. Once again in his Preface, York points to this source, relating a story about Miss Langlois, his tenth grade English teacher, who introduced the class to the principles and practice of writing essays. From this tradition York crafts his work, embracing the spirit of Michel de Montaigne who, according to the editors of The Norton Anthology of World Literature, “knew that the world he inhabited was undergoing dramatic cultural and geopolitical changes, and he understood that the idea of the self was being transformed along with it” (2nd ed., vol. C, 2632). York declares, “Every inch of Florida is at risk. Florida grows too fast to take its time in deciding what is most valuable . . . . Florida’s endowment is history and water. Both have been mortgaged” (178). As he ponders his “reverse migration” (3) back to his home state, thinking of his “next move not as retiring but as returning to Florida” (1), York wonders “what kind of Florida awaits” him (3).
One of the most impressive features of this collection of essays is York’s extensive research on Florida’s history, from its aboriginal origins, through the Spanish conquest and the English occupation, to the Disney invasion. Even though his Whitmanesque cataloging of names and facts can often be tedious, with his characteristic wry humor, linguistic acumen, and detached wisdom, he presents a unique interpretation of events, circumstances, and geography, maintaining that Florida is unlike any other Southern state. Quoting V. O. Key’s Southern Politics (1949), York agrees that even though Florida “occasionally gives a faintly tropical rebel yell, it is a world of its own” (84). York laments that Floridians have stressed the development of tourism—particularly beaches and highways—at the expense of culture and political leadership. He notes that “[t]heir agenda is set by AARP more than by the needs of twenty-first century Florida” (145), and “socially, it [Florida] often appears suspended between a child’s playground sandbox and a nursing home” (147). York believes that the “dream of the Florida to come” can only become a reality if “free individuals . . . put goals of the common good first” (176) and focus on funding education, establishing sensible zoning practices, and preserving the fragile natural environment.
Like James Joyce who exiled himself from Ireland to gain the perspective he needed to write about it, York has distanced himself from Florida—literally and figuratively—in order to present what he perceives as a more balanced assessment of Florida’s position in the United States. This assessment, however, is most troubling.
Emphasizing the minimal role Florida played in the Civil War, its separation from mainstream Southern fiction and Southern heritage in general, its dearth of art museums and symphonies, its blatant disregard for and destruction of cultural artifacts, and the list goes on, York implies that Florida is worthless, nothing more than an aberration. What, then, is Florida’s value beyond being America’s “biggest sandbox” (25)? Applying Gestalt psychology to Biographia Floridiana, perhaps considered together these essays convey a larger meaning, greater than any single element. But that meaning remains unclear, perchance by design. The answer may lie in the derivation of the form itself: the verb “essayer,” from the French, “to attempt.”
Whatever York is attempting to explain in this collection of essays, it is certain that he has a great affection for Florida, albeit an ambivalent one. He closes his Introduction by asking, “How does Florida continue to mesmerize?” then stating, “These essays attempt to illustrate the guileless charm of one of the world’s first choices among the perfect places to be, a choice shared by the author” (viii). The final essay celebrates the importance of family and the true meaning of home, which is, after all, the essence of biography.