In September 1953, a young new teacher, Miss Eleanor Langlois, walked into my tenth grade English classroom at Wildwood High School and wrote on the blackboard "essai-essay: to essay is to attempt to explain." She began to talk about the essay as a literary form: take a point of view about something of little consequence and make it interesting by the language employed to write about that topic. She went on to describe the work of essayists Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Thomas De Quincey, Michel de Montaigne, Francis Bacon and, as became clear, her favorite, Robert Louis Stevenson. I have thought of her since as my Essayist-in-Chief.
Miss Langlois was gone after one year, back to graduate school. But by the end of that sophomore year I had an entirely new appreciation for the English essay. I was sure this was the genre for me, though I didn't yet know about literary genres. As a result of her class, I was committed to the essay. I never dreamed I might write a poem, or a play, certainly not a whole novel, but here was a form, which I had known heretofore only as a class assignment, and it seemed possible to actually learn to write an essay with the model in mind that we now had explained to us and had practiced. I was eager for my next assignment.
Before that sophomore year was over, we read Shakespeare, George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne and others. A great discovery for me was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I had heard of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," but was totally unprepared for "Kubla Khan" and the description of Xanadu. The greatest treasure for me lay in the pages of Coleridge's autobiography, Biographia Literaria. I could not get far in the prose of the text; it was not light reading for a high school sophomore. But it was not the text that would hold my attention so much as it was the astonishing title, Biographia Literaria. This title became my talisman, and I've thought often of someday using the title—for something really important.
Moving from Wildwood High School to Florida State University, the essay became much more serious. Essaying about the whole range of English prose and poetry from Beowulf to William Faulkner nearly convinced me that essaying meant literary criticism exclusively, at least for me, as Coleridge had meant the essay. FSU meant the bare minimum of science, but otherwise all things English. My campus haunts were Strozier Library, the Presbyterian Center English Coffee Hour on Friday, Conradi Theater, the Leon County library in The Columns, Professors Ben Carroll, Sarah Goodman, Griffith Pugh, Carmen Rogers, George Yost, Claude Flory and others. FSU and Tallahassee meant Westcott Hall, LeRoy Collins, Goodwood, Wakulla Springs, the old Capitol, and driving Agriculture Commissioner Nathan Mayo, which meant all things Florida.
Then, after five years learning to teach, it was on to Atlanta, and a very different life, but never far in mind from Florida. Atlanta meant the Atlanta Symphony and Ballet, Emory Village, Piedmont Park, raising my kids with the help of Fernbank Elementary and Druid Hills High, but most of all it meant DeKalb College, where I found my vocation. I thought I had learned to teach at North Florida Junior College, but after rural Madison, Florida, the international cast of characters at DeKalb meant African, Asian, Latin American, Fijian, Iranian and more; an astonishing mix of students and colleagues from everywhere with whom I could talk about essays.
But most of all, it meant the launching and editing of the campus literary magazine, The Chattahoochee Review, which came into being in 1981. This put me in touch with writers everywhere. Now I moved from teaching freshman English essay writing to editing the writing of professional writers from around the world. This was a different way altogether of working with the essay.
Soon, I would envy those writers so much that I would get back to my own essaying and to writing about Florida, where everything was grist for the essay mill. Unforgettable childhood hours in my grandfather's barn and hayloft and slaughterhouse, to more exotic Florida scenes such as Tampa's Ybor City, the Fuller Warren Bridge over the St. Johns River, the Seaboard Railroad where my father worked, the Castillo de San Marcos, the Wahoo Swamp, Osceola, the Green Swamp, Panasoffkee, Dade Park, Okahumpka, Mars Hill Primitive Baptist Church, Cedar Key, the Withlacoochee River, heroes like Cabeza de Vaca and Osceola, and Oxford, to such ordinary delights as guavas and smoked mullet.
With the Southerner's love of homeplace, and Southern writing's concentration on sense of place, 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.