2023 isn’t the easiest time to be a Floridian. The Sunshine State is troubled by both divisive politics and growing environmental risks. Housing and insurance costs have many of us wondering how long we can afford to stay in paradise. Some might say that what this state needs now is love, sweet love. And that’s exactly what Florida Humanities’ new collection, Once Upon a Time in Florida: Stories of Life in the Land of Promises (Florida Humanities, 2023) delivers. It’s 330 glossy, lavishly illustrated pages of Florida love.
Fifty Years of Florida Humanities
Once Upon a Time in Florida celebrates the 50th anniversary of Florida Humanities, the Florida affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Editor Jacki Levine points out that Florida’s NEH affiliate has always been distinctive in “zeroing in” its programming on its home state — a topic as juicy as a Florida orange.
“The state has been portrayed as a sunny paradise or a temple to all that’s crass and pretentious,” Levine writes in the volume’s introduction. “But the complex reality has been harder to fathom.”
The collection explores many corners of that reality that complex reality. It features stories on Florida’s early and modern history, the arts, nature and ecology, and cultural identities across the state. Its 50 chapters are drawn from the pages of FORUM, the thrice-yearly magazine of Florida Humanities, which Levine edited from 2017-2021.
State of Inspiration
One of the many charms of Once Upon a Time in Florida is the sheer diversity of its contents. In one sitting, you can learn about coquina construction in St. Augustine or go folklore hunting with Zora Neale Hurston. You can venture into space with former Florida congressman Bill Nelson, or uncover America’s first free Black settlement, Fort Mose. You can glimpse the happily-ever-afters of elderly Jewish residents of South Beach, photographed by late Florida photographer Andy Sweet. The book has something for everyone, all delivered by some of the state’s premier scholars and writers.
My favorite section is “This State of Inspiration,” which looks at Florida through the lens of arts and letters. These chapters explore the rich creative vein running through our state. Here you can meet crime writer Edna Buchannan, singer-songwriter Tom Petty, and Seminole Indian poet laureate Moses Jumper Jr. You can learn that in 1900, James Weldon Johnson penned a song for children at his Jacksonville school to sing for Lincoln’s birthday. That song? “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Don’t Leave It on the Table
The collection is a balm for weary Florida souls, capturing so much of what is unique, fascinating, and extraordinary about our state. The handsome hardcover volume is elegantly formatted and filled to the brim with historical images and vibrant contemporary photography. It would be quite at home on the coffee table with your volumes on Lego art and Japanese interior design.
But take my advice and don’t leave it there.