Biographia Floridiana: Essaying Florida


Biographia Floridiana challenges how we see a place famed around the world primarily for producing oranges and theme parks. York starts by dipping into “the most difficult American birthing” in the Union. Florida was first a French threat to Spain, then a Spanish threat to Britain, then a British threat to the fledgling United States, then a gift from Britain back to Spain. Acquired by Washington politicians solely to thwart these foreign powers, the state soon after seceded to join the Confederate States of America. 


York also tracks Florida’s abrupt transformation in the twentieth century. In 1900, it was the thirty-sixth most populous state in the union, a swampy and poverty-stricken backwater with hundreds of miles of useless beaches and few good harbors. Key West was the state’s most populous city. When a Floridian invented air conditioning—his statue was one of two sent by the state to stand proudly today in the U.S. Capitol—he set the stage for millions of people to flock to the state. Today, only Hawaii draws more tourists, and Florida remains in the top five for population growth. “Florida’s civic dynamic,” writes York, “is transiency.” 


The author explores some of the characters that make Florida so unique, from the rich Scottish slave trader who fought to emancipate African Americans to the little-known literary brilliance of novelists Edith Pope and Harry Crews. He considers such quirky events as the two riders sent out by the first legislature from each coast, riding inland. Where they met was chosen as the capital, Tallahassee. 


Biographia Floridiana also reflects on Florida’s unusual geography and ecology, and the massive environmental changes wrought amid sprawling interstates and beaches shadowed by high rises. York makes a bold call for Florida to protect its vanishing landscape, and for it to catch up with other states of its size that rank far higher in political clout and cultural appeal. “It is time for the leadership to ask why the largest number of Nobel laureates teaching is gathered at a public institution in California, rather than Florida; why the largest endowment of any public college in the world is in Texas, not Florida; why the greatest municipal library in the world is in New York, and not Florida.” 


By turns enlightening and funny, Biographia Floridiana is, most of all, quietly reflective in that way of the best essays, gently overturning our conventional ideas about the Sunshine State. “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.” He leads us gently into what he calls his “private Florida, a place that exists in metaphor and memory.”