Florida is having a moment: the twenty-first century. Entering the last century as the least populated southern state, Florida’s debutante ball was not until Bush v. Gore. Now, the behemoth state is the swirling id of climate change and the Rorschach blot of consumer capitalism. A bellwether. A tragedy and farce. A multilingual alternative universe. Trump’s Paradiso. The catchment for all the cultural detritus, and drugs, meant for the drain. Floridians are not just beguiling, or bemusing, the nation, but also finally shoehorning the alligator into our national literature, dramatizing what Florida is for the US and the world. For years it seems Northeasterners have wanted to nail up a sign at the state line: FLORIDA: TOO FRIVOLOUS TO TAKE SERIOUSLY. We can pay for our own sign now, and it says, proudly: FLORIDA: WEALTHY STARLET OF THE END TIMES.
When in 1939 the renegade Tallahassee librarian Lou Miller made a failed attempt to found Florida Literary Studies with her thesis Florida in Fiction, which exists in one bound edition, undigitized, in the Florida State University library, the nascent idea of Florida literature was occupied by since-forgotten tales of shipwrecks and hurricanes. It seemed, frankly, pathetic: few scholars cared of a world of settlers and snowbirds not focused on letters. There was plenty of there there, but not in the library. Now, we see that history has bequeathed Florida authors to call its own, in particular Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (who may be remembered less for The Yearling than for having a visiting Hurston sleep in the maid’s quarters). But for most, it still seems that Florida literature is a promise, a glass library at sunrise, with a few books of Lauren Groff and Karen Russell, not an inheritance. Peter Matthiessen spent years getting the Everglades right, but he was a sojourner, not a neighborhood bard.
All this changes when recognizing that Flannery O’Connor, identified in her time as a Georgian and Southern author, is among the greatest writers of Florida-ness: of freaks and of modern real-estate development, with its automobiles, strangers, and compression of space and time.
O’Connor described her story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” in remarks at Hollins College, as “something more than an account of a family murdered on the way to Florida.” That family, of course, met literature’s first Florida Man: The Misfit, based on newspaper articles, as the scholar Victor Lasseter reports, of a Florida escapee. There is an argument that the Florida Man meme, which makes humor from news accounts of bizarre criminal behavior in Florida, is blandly attributable to the ready availability of police documents through Florida’s open records laws. A contribution, certainly, but the joke is rooted in representations of degeneracy in the tropics: a peculiar swamp grotesque that O’Connor’s work presages. One can see the story “Good Country People” turned into a Florida Man headline: “Florida Man Posing as Bible Salesman Steals Prosthetic Leg From Philosopher.” Sure, Georgia has a Six Flags, but in Wise Blood the amusement-park-like zoo and the man in a gorilla costume outside the theater recall mass amusements more on the scale of Central Florida’s theme park industry.
At the time of O’Connor’s writing, Georgia and Florida were more similar culturally and geographically than they are today. In the midcentury, Georgians were the largest migrant group to Florida—my own grandparents, for instance, who trickled from Atlanta to Tallahassee after World War II. In O’Connor’s biography, folks are always visiting to or from Florida, reminding us of its literal proximity; in such stories as “A Circle in the Fire” Florida figures as a place of death, retirement, sexuality, and violence. That both states came close to electing African American governors in this year’s midterm elections reminds us that Florida is a southern state structured by racism. When we remember the similarities between Georgia and Florida in midcentury, the legacy of O’Connor, including her racism, becomes the legacy of Florida, too. O’Connor, known as an author of place, was very much an author of non-places: trains, cars, highways, and the cold, anonymous encroachments of modernity. While Atlanta is often the symbol of a New South, Florida is the truest New South: so new, its southern-ness is erased.
The iconic peacocks that dominated O’Connor’s farm are a final argument for her Floridiana. They were ordered from an ad in Florida Market Bulletin, as Brad Gooch reports in O’Connor’s biography, fitting for a state known for the domestication of ostriches, alligators, and other “exotic” critters. They were iconically Floridian: a bizarre, ostentatious surprise, an ecological flair. They were weird, maybe even queer in how they didn’t fit in, like Florida, like Flannery, like the stranger arriving from the highway.
John Moran is an MFA candidate in fiction at Brown University and a PhD candidate in anthropology at Stanford University. His fiction has appeared over at our other gig, Little Star (issues #6 and 7).
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