"This is a very good book . . ."   Midwest Book Review.

Daytona Beach News-Journal, May 7, 2009

Looking at Florida's pop image
Book looks at Florida's strange, shifting image in pop culture

Florida's place in pop culture is a topic near and dear to your correspondent and something of a preoccupation of this column. So he approaches writing about Florida with the prickliness of a local and the snobbery of an aficionado.

Yet he was pleasantly surprised when Steve Glassman, a professor of communication and humanities at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, sent over a collection of essays he edited, "Florida in the Popular Imagination."

This is a rich cross section of Florida as it is, and, more important, as it's imagined to be.

Your correspondent first happened upon Glassman's books out of his appreciation for Sunshine State noir-style crime novels. The 1997 collection of essays Glassman edited, "Crime Fiction and Film in the Sunshine State: Florida Noir," and "Florida Crime Writers: 24 Interviews" are outstanding places to begin answering the nagging question, "Why are all those crime books set in Florida and are we really that weird?"

Nor is this guy some sideline critic. Glassman tried his own hand at the genre by immortalizing Bike Week Daytona Beach in the novel, "The Near Death Experiment."

The new collection covers the vital issues of Florida's image. Monster theme parks and their back-road predecessors? Of course. Extreme weather? Naturally. Shark attacks and poodle-eating alligators? Just as one would expect. Snowbirds, rev-heads, Spring Breakers, drag-show tourists and roadside landscape painters? All there.

Sure, there are quibbles. A Spring Break piece that doesn't mention MTV or the epochal Spring Break 1989? A run-through of Florida-based TV shows that mentions Hulk Hogan's one-season bomb "Thunder in Paradise" but not the more mythic, surreal, hyper-Florida one-season bomb "Maximum Bob"? A piece on snowbirds that doesn't get into Canadian tourism and restaurants that hide artificial sweetener packets in winter months?

But your correspondent particularly enjoyed the pieces about NASCAR and its effects on Florida and the Daytona Beach area. (He is grateful it includes a list of all seven cars and motorcycles named "Daytona.") And the essay about Florida weather that included hurricanes, tornadoes, thunderstorms (we are the nation's lightning strike capital), waterspouts (yes, we are also the nation's waterspout capital) and even, although they're not exactly weather, wildfires and amoebas that eat people's brains. Send a copy to relatives who talk about moving here.

It ends with a piece about the 2000 presidential election recount. For the nation, this event helped launch the disasters of the Bush II administration. For Florida, it cemented our national image -- heck, our international image -- as a baffling place of political seediness and perpetual confusion and conflict among a modest-IQ population that can't follow simple directions. All summed up in the headline, Flori-DUH.

So why do depictions of Florida in popular culture matter?

Well, more than any other place, Florida is still making up a lot of its identity. This makes us susceptible to the effects of other people's imaginings about us. People tell lies about us and when we try them on for size, find they often fit OK. Before too long, they're what we are.

Which is why this is such a fun place. Culturally speaking, anyway.




forthcoming Midwest Book Review

Florida in the Popular Imagination. Edited by Steve Glassman. McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, Jefferson NC  and London . ISBH: 978-0-7864-3964-5 $35.00

  Reviewed by Elizabeth Nelson, enelson8495@att.net

Professor Steve Glassman has put together a collection of essays on Florida ’s culture which is full of interest and variety. Naturally the state as a playground for tourists is highlighted: families bringing their children to the theme parks in central Florida—every child wants to see Mickey Mouse and Shamu, college kids flooding in for spring break,  motorsports fans drawn to Daytona’s NASCAR races early in January and February, motorcyclists roaring in for bi-yearly festivals in Volusia County, retirees and snow birds seeking relief from northern climes.

But who would have thought of Florida as being welcoming to gays and lesbians; or that Florida can boast of noteworthy architecture—the Mediterranean Revival architecture of Palm Beach, the Art Deco restoration of South Beach in Miami, the amazing, intricately designed and lavishly decorated resort hotels built by Henry Plant in Tampa (the Tampa Bay Hotel, with its striking Moorish design, is now a part of the University of Tampa), and by Henry Flagler in St. Augustine and Miami, as he extended his railway line to Key West.

In “The Highwaymen and Other Black Icons,” Edmondson Asgill gives us another Florida phenomenon. In the 50s, a landscape artist, A.E. Bacchus retired to an artists and writers community in Fort Pierce . Somehow he became known to a group of  African Americans who worked in the citrus groves. These men aspired to a better kind of life than was ordinarily open to blacks in that period. Bacchus befriended them, opened his home to them and made them acquainted with the tools and working methods of a painter. Without any training beyond the encouragement they received from Bacchus, but with natural talent, they developed vivid renderings of the brilliant colors of the Florida skies and lush landscapes they lived in the midst of. Without agents or commercial connections or savvy, they sold their paintings at roadsides, displaying them in  pickup trucks or leaning them against fences—thus their sobriquet “highwaymen.” They were surprisingly successful, and made good money. Today some of these paintings sell for thousands of dollars. It is a remarkable story, and Bacchus a remarkable man for his generosity in mentoring these aspiring artists, and welcoming them in his home and among his friends, at a time when the south was going through racist convulsions.

Rafael Miguel Montes, in “Cuban Miami: Manufacturing Casablanca,” asserts how wrong are the insights of three well known established writers of travel literature—Joan Didion, the British Alexander Stuart, and David Rieff--on the culture of Cuban Miami. His detailed analyses regarding what he sees as the superficiality and myopia of their approaches makes me wish that he had provided further commentary of his own on the subject—he is a Miami resident and has published several studies of the culture of his town.

I was astounded by Alan Pratt’s account of the extent of motorcycle culture in his essay “Motorsports Rev Up the Economy,” astounding. He describes the ubiquitousness throughout Florida of motorcycle dealerships, motorcycle clubs, biker bars, tattoo salons, free barbecues at rallies, poker runs, retail sales of biker helmets, and leather and metal clothing and other paraphernalia, law firms touting their expertise in motorcycle law, motorcycle drawn hearses, a new biker cemetery in Palm Coast—“Wings and Wheels National Biker Memorial.

Florida’s 400-mile thrust out from the mainland into the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, as well as its 230 miles of the Panhandle mainland shore, along with hundreds of lakes, rivers, ponds, freshwater springs, in its interior—all this makes Florida naturally encouraging to sailing and boating and all manner of water sports. Duncan H. Haynes fully explores this watery state in “Taking to the Water.”

Not neglected in this survey are Key West , with its iconic relationship with Ernest Hemingway, the thrilling activities at the Space Coast , and movie and television treatment of Florida in all its variety. The range of subjects and the unusual nature of some show Glassman’s impressive editorial acumen. The same assured competence was also demonstrated in another collection of Floridiana which he co-edited with Maurice O’Sullivan, Professor of English at Rollins College : “Crime Fiction and Film in the Sunshine State : Florida Noir,” 1997.

Glassman himself has contributed three essays to this new collection, two of which can be considered of particular value for new arrivals in Florida and even long-term residents. They constitute advice and warnings concerning certain natural conditions and dangers which are endemic to Florida , and which should be thoroughly understood and prepared for. “Weathering the Climate” concerns Florida ’s often erratic weather conditions, including hurricanes, tornados, and lightning strikes; “Dangerous Game: Snakes, Gators and One-Ton Sharks” speaks for itself. Glassman’s third piece concludes the series, a thorough examination of the part Florida played in the 2000 presidential election. Troubled, baffled, bemused, the writer ends on a faint note of hope that lessons learned will be acted on in the future.

This is a very good book. The essays Professor Glassman has selected are of very high quality, well written and quite evidently thoroughly researched. This would be a most appropriate gift book, especially for anyone planning to visit Florida , and most especially for out-of-state college students who are attracted by the climate and some very fine private colleges and universities, among them the University of Miami , Eckerd College , Stetson University , Rollins College , and Glassman’s own institution, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University .