Introduction. Porous Foundations
What does it mean to take root on unstable ground? Ground that shifts, seeps, expands, and erodes cannot sustain the familiar practices of settlement that British colonists brought to North America's Eastern Seaboard in the early seventeenth century. Enclosure, demarcation, and improvement—in the form of fixed dwellings, sturdy fences, and cultivated fields—defined landed property according to John Locke and many Enlightenment philosophers. These practices also marked ownership in British colonial America, and later they enabled political participation in the United States. Yet these practices, which have historically signaled and secured belonging in much of North America, are difficult to imagine, let alone pursue, on shifting ground. For such ground cannot bear fixed markers of possession.
People have taken root in Florida for thousands of years, despite the fact that Florida's liquid landscape challenges crucial notions of land, space, and boundaries that underlie familiar British and Anglo-American forms and practices of founding. The Calusa, one of Florida's many indigenous societies, established themselves on the shifting shoals of the southwest coast by way of wooden dwellings that floated above shell mounds when the waters inevitably rose. Florida wreckers, who salvaged distressed ships, made the Florida Reef their permanent home and source of income during much of the colonial and antebellum period by moving continually over coral terrain in small boats. Seminole Indians, who migrated south to Florida and there joined many Africans who escaped slavery during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, maintained communities on the spongy flatlands of the Everglades by constructing homes of thatched palmetto raised above the earth on poles made of cypress logs, and by planting crops on natural rises of dry ground known as hammocks. And the challenges of taking permanent hold on elusive, porous, and shifting ground continue to inform architectural choices in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Florida, from coastal homes on stilts built to withstand hurricanes that alter the shoreline to the offshore dwellings of Stiltsville, a group of houses constructed on Biscayne Bay east of Miami in the 1930s, and still standing just above the shallow coastal waters of the Atlantic. These historical examples of living in the absence of solid, stable ground reveal that Florida's porous landscape has always necessitated modes of settlement, attachment, and belonging that differ from, yet are no less durable than, those that developed on firmer ground.
Recognition that Florida's unstable land required different modes of use and possession infuses a broad archive of imaginative reflections on root-taking in Florida that circulated widely in North America from the late colonial period through the late nineteenth century. This archive attests that many people living across the continent during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were aware of and interested in local, Floridian forms of taking root—forms that did not depend on the stable ground that a Lockean tradition of landed property required. A different narrative of U.S. founding and expansion emerges when we focus on widely read accounts of settling a particularly unsolid part of the continent. Reflections on Florida from Revolution through Reconstruction reveal that, from the moment of founding onward, the United States was a nation deeply interested in imagining roots, and thereby personal and collective identity, in the absence of solid ground.
A large number of early observers of Florida and other southern parts of North America felt these spaces could never be founded, and thus dismissed them as "problems" for an expanding settler empire. Early maps, settlers' guides, travel narratives, novels, and other texts characterized these spaces as "undeveloped," "deviant," "retrograde," "uncultivable," "degenerate," and even "impenetrable." But Florida's porous foundations frequently elicited another type of response as well. To many early Americans the liquid landscape appeared not as an obstacle to settlement, but rather as a provocation to think beyond more familiar ideals of land and boundaries that made it possible to imagine the United States as settler nation and empire in the first place.
While Florida's local topographic features have always raised pronounced physical challenges for those who pursued long-term settlement there, this study focuses on the many conceptual possibilities the prospect and process of Florida settlement raised, particularly for those living in other areas of the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Sometimes this involved imagining how an individual or community might best take root on Florida's shifting foundations. At other times, it involved the larger political and cultural task of envisioning unstable Florida's incorporation into the United States, an event that many struggled to imagine long before Florida's official annexation in 1821, and struggled to pursue thereafter, during Florida's long Territorial period (1821-45). But whether personal, national, or imperial in scope, founding Florida challenged fundamental understandings of land and possession. Florida's founding mattered well beyond its liquid landscape, exposing how some of the nation's most politically significant concepts of self, nation, and empire rested on assumptions that were as contingent as its topography.
Florida's indeterminate, shifting ground contributed to the complex history of U.S. founding by raising large conceptual questions about root-taking that had wide-ranging political and cultural implications for a country seeking to expand over and beyond the continent. First and foremost, for a significant number of U.S. observers more familiar with stable, contiguous, solid ground, Florida proved difficult to imagine as land. This initial difficulty, in turn, frequently prompted a reconsideration of root-taking. And, across a vast time span and many forms of representation, Florida's shifting ground gave rise to new ways of imagining roots, and thereby personal and national identity, that did not depend on solid ground.
This does not mean that Florida prompted all early observers to ponder the difficulty of settling there personally or incorporating the land and populations politically. After all, some people who reflected on Florida had no difficulty establishing themselves in familiar ways. In fact, a thriving plantation culture developed in certain parts of the panhandle (known then as "Middle Florida") and the east coast near Jacksonville; during several decades of the antebellum period, these places looked no different from the rest of the U.S. South. Furthermore, some who wrote about Florida had no interest in settling there at all—indeed, this study includes many texts by people who had no plans to live in Florida or develop it as an extension of the United States.
Yet this study unearths a widely circulating, though largely unexamined, archive demonstrating that local Floridian features—such as saturated swamps, shifting shorelines, coral reefs, tiny keys, and various native and non-native populations—frequently provoked people throughout North America to engage with pressing questions about place, personhood, and belonging that animated U.S. culture and literature during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This archive includes settlers' guides, captivity narratives, military accounts, images such as woodcuts and lithographs, continental maps, natural histories, tales of adventure, and coastal and inland surveys, as well as works by canonical authors such as William Bartram, James Fenimore Cooper, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Importantly, published texts provide nearly all the evidence for this study's claims. A number of these texts were extremely popular among their original readers and viewers. Many were reprinted during the period, and many more proved valuable to Americans long after the date of initial publication. In fact a large number of texts about Florida that were published prior to the founding of the United States exerted significant influence in the new nation after the Revolution. Especially during the decades after the 1821 U.S. annexation of Florida, U.S. readers and writers relied on information about Florida from earlier accounts produced for and by naturalists, government officials, explorers, and prospective settlers during Florida's First Spanish period (1565-1763), its British period (1763-83), and its Second Spanish period (1783-1821). Telling the story of what Florida settlement meant to those living in North America between Revolution and Reconstruction thus requires analysis of the large variety of materials published on both sides of the Revolution that circulated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These materials establish that Florida's local land and populations were more than local in meaning.
Too frequently, Florida remains a topic confined to regional studies because of a persistent notion that it somehow had its own, separate, self-contained history that was only occasionally part of a more familiar national historical narrative or literary history. Yet Florida's fundamental porosity and dispersal made it part of North American thinking about personal, national, and imperial identity even before there was a coherent nation. From the early sixteenth century onward, reflections on Florida capture the region's resistance to containment, borders, and regulation, and its influence on other places and peoples on and beyond the continent. This historical context is the basis for Liquid Landscape's central claim that the farthest southern reaches of North America already mattered to people in many other places on the continent at the moment of the founding of the United States, and thus that these seeming peripheries of early America should matter more centrally to our own scholarly understanding of early U.S. literature and culture.
The Florida known to North Americans at the time of the nation's founding had already challenged European and American thinking about the very nature of land, boundaries, and foundations for centuries. From the first Spanish landing on its shores in the sixteenth century, Florida's topographic, geographic, and demographic indeterminacy shaped maps, travel accounts, surveys, and other texts. Ponce de León, who landed near present-day St. Augustine and claimed "La Florida" for Spain in 1513, recorded his discovery of the "island" of Florida, while immediately subsequent explorers affirmed Florida's attachment to the continent. These conflicting geographic descriptions confused European mapmakers: some chose to map Florida as an island, and others as a peninsula.
By about 1520 some of the initial geographic uncertainty about Florida's location and contours gave way. But just as more maps began featuring Florida as a peninsula rather than an island, another spatial discrepancy emerged. Spain began to apply the name "La Florida" to an area that stretched far beyond the peninsula to include much of the present-day southeastern United States. Thus, alongside maps of Florida as an island and maps of Florida as a peninsula, maps locating "La Florida" along the entire southeastern portion of the North American continent appeared. This designation for the region persisted among many European mapmakers and even American colonists for nearly two hundred years.
Complementing Florida's early spatial fluctuation among island, peninsula, and continental Southeast is the mobility of its indigenous and nonnative populations. Reports penned by Spanish missionaries who founded Catholic missions during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries frequently characterize Florida's variety of mostly nonagricultural Indian societies—including the Calusa, Guale, Tequesta, and Timucua—as "scattered" and nomadic. Such descriptions probably emerged from the difficulty of converting indigenous peoples who moved seasonally from place to place, and even lived offshore in fishing villages.
Indigenous populations, along with a variety of newcomers to Florida during this period, both contested and enabled Spanish rule, which lasted until 1763. Imperial rivals from France sought to establish a colony near present-day Jacksonville. Pirates of many nations attacked the Florida coast seasonally, sometimes capturing Spanish forts and seizing vessels. Some indigenous Indian groups helped sustain the Spanish mission system, but missionization was always a contested process, and by the early eighteenth century many converts began to flee, Indian revolts had challenged the authority of the missionaries, and Spanish-borne diseases ravaged the population. Further challenges arose when Indians in other parts of the Southeast began coming to Florida. Yamasees and Lower Creeks, armed and sometimes led by the British, raided the peninsula for Indian captives to use and sell as slaves.
Yet not all populations drawn to Spanish Florida (1565-1763 and 1783-1821) contested colonial rule. Many became allies in exchange for freedom. African slaves, who began escaping to Florida from British colonies during the late seventeenth century, gained sanctuary and liberty in Florida upon conversion to Catholicism. And during Florida's Second Spanish period, when civil war broke out among the Creek Nation of the Southeast during 1813, many of these Indians—today known as Seminoles—began streaming southward onto the peninsula, where Spain recruited them to protect the colony from other Native groups and European imperial competitors. African and Creek migration to Florida would long outlast the end of Spanish rule in 1821, for Africans continued running south to freedom until the Civil War, and Creeks arrived in waves until the 1830s. By and large the two groups lived as allies, and the Seminole augmented their Florida chiefdoms by absorbing outsiders. They granted African newcomers protection in exchange for tribute, and welcomed some formerly missionized "Spanish Indians," the U.S. name for Florida's indigenous populations who had been almost entirely decimated by warfare and disease by the mid-eighteenth century.
Early encounters and alliances among various populations in Spanish Florida produced new cartographic understandings of the region on European and American maps. During the early eighteenth century many of these maps began to represent Florida as multiple islands. The islands of Florida likely originated when slave raiders from the British colonies solicited topographic information about the Everglades from local Indians who may have described the southern part of Florida as a flat expanse of water studded with innumerable rises of dry land. A cartographic conception of Florida as islands persisted on some of the most popular maps of North America from the early eighteenth century until well into the nineteenth century, while other popular maps featured the region as a peninsula. These competing spatial representations of Florida influenced geographic conceptions of the whole continent, for on many maps of the continent the islands of Florida are scattered so widely that they blend with those of the Caribbean, making it difficult to tell where North America ends.
An inaccurate sense of Florida's location and terrestrial shape exacerbated the enormous challenges to colonial rule that Great Britain faced upon gaining Florida from Spain in 1763 at the end of the Seven Years' War. The British Board of Trade quickly launched a massive cartographic project to survey and map the peninsula, reef, and keys. This project was the first step toward defending Florida from imperial and Native rivals and enticing British settlers who would render the region a southern extension of Great Britain's continental empire. The British divided Florida into two provinces: West Florida included the panhandle and adjacent parts of present-day Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana; East Florida consisted of the entire peninsula stretching south of the Georgia border.
British planters from the Carolinas came to East Florida enticed by generous land grants, and soon "Florida fever" spread through New England, producing new maps, surveys, and natural histories, such as Bernard Romans's lavishly illustrated Concise Natural History of East and West Florida (1775). British plantations exploiting the work of slaves and indentured servants spread along the St. Johns River near Jacksonville, where agriculture flourished until the outbreak of the American Revolution. Briefly during the war this area became a stronghold for Loyalists who fled south from Charleston and Savannah along with their slaves. Yet as fighting disrupted plantation labor and slaves escaped to Seminole villages in the interior, British planters fled Florida for good.
Many early U.S. political figures were intrigued by the prospect of including Florida within the new nation. From their point of view, U.S. control over the region would bolster the emerging nation's claims to the continent by guaranteeing mastery of the Gulf of Mexico and adjoining commercial waterways such as the Mississippi River. For this reason John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison urged claims to the Floridas from the moment independence was declared. Soon these and other U.S. observers had additional cause to do so: upon the war's conclusion in 1783, Great Britain retroceded the Floridas to Spain, which immediately revived its sanctuary policy, drawing to the Floridas an ever larger number of slaves from plantations across the U.S. South.
For a newly emergent, slave-holding nation with expansionist designs on the continent, Spanish Florida was an unavoidable topic of concern and debate. The unstable borderland harbored populations both black and white from across and beyond the country, and many of these groups were averse, or even hostile, to the prospect of U.S. rule. After the American Revolution Spain opened a generous land grant policy to foreign and non-Catholic immigrants, encouraging planters with their slaves and servants from all over the Caribbean and North America to settle in Spanish Florida alongside Cuban planters and homesteaders. And although in 1790 Spain yielded to U.S. pressures to rescind the sanctuary policy, Africans and Creeks continued migrating to Seminole country. The savannahs and swamps of the Florida interior would remain a stronghold of black freedom for many decades to come.
Spanish Florida's threat to U.S. chattel slavery compelled Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe to pursue the Floridas during the first decades of the nineteenth century. In 1812 agitated planters, who lived north of the Florida-Georgia border and called themselves "Patriots," independently invaded East Florida in an attempt to overthrow Spain. Although Seminoles and Africans joined together and repelled the planters, this unprovoked invasion caused fighting that destroyed what little plantation culture had developed in Spanish Florida after the Revolution. It also provoked Spain to bring a militia of Africans from Cuba to defend the peninsula. Soon the British also armed Africans in Florida. During the War of 1812 British troops engaged both Seminoles and Africans to build a fort near Tallahassee and enticed additional Africans to Spanish Florida by offering freedom for loyalty to the British crown. Unable to tolerate an ever-enlarging population of Indians and free, armed blacks from the Caribbean and the U.S. South on the nation's borders, Andrew Jackson invaded Florida in 1818. With the tacit approval of some government officials, Jackson seized Florida for the United States, intensifying local border skirmishes into what we now call the First Seminole War (1817-18), and compelling Spain to relinquish Florida for good.
By the time the United States annexed Florida officially in 1821, its local populations and landscape were already infamous subjects of national interest. Florida had long challenged plantation slavery as well as control of the Gulf of Mexico, border security, and the burgeoning project of Indian removal. The new U.S. territory of Florida thus raised challenges to national cohesion and imperial expansion over and beyond the continent—challenges that only intensified as expansionist ambitions burgeoned. For this reason the federal government sponsored several costly interventions in antebellum Florida to prepare the territory for statehood. Government officials believed that Florida's settlement by a landholding populace loyal to the United States would peacefully expel maroon communities, discourage additional Africans from arriving, and guard the coast from imperial opponents and independent profiteers.
Yet Florida's populations and landscape continued to complicate efforts at U.S. settlement and sovereignty. A territorial survey, required for public land sales, began in the mid-1820s, though it was delayed for decades by bad weather, swampy ground, preexisting Spanish land grants, and conflicts with the Seminole. A reliable map including the Florida interior south of Lake Okeechobee was not available until the mid-nineteenth century. Military officials began surveying the Florida Reef and Keys during the 1820s, and plans for lighthouses and coastal fortifications soon developed, but difficulties of weather and topography stalled these projects also. Although some lighthouses appeared along the reef during the 1830s, there was no complete reef survey until 1851, and coastal forts proved altogether impractical. In fact, on tiny Florida islands that were supposed to become the U.S. "Gibraltar of the Gulf," the remnants of one partially built fort still stand. The construction begun by slaves in the 1840s was abandoned after four decades of struggle during which hurricanes, waves, and sinking sands continually undermined the fort's foundations. Plans to drain Florida's interior swamps also ran aground. This initiative garnered national interest and funding on a number of occasions, beginning when Congress sponsored an expedition to the Everglades for reclamation in the late 1840s. But the sponge-like flatlands repeatedly confounded such projects.
While federally funded initiatives propelled Florida's swamps, shores, reefs, and keys into national discussion and debate, the most costly and galvanizing issue during this period was war. The United States waged a series of military conflicts with Florida's populations of Africans and Seminoles that erupted into war on three separate occasions between 1818 and 1858. The second of these wars—the Florida War, or Second Seminole War (1835-42)—was the nation's longest and most expensive Indian war. It drew thousands of American troops into the swamp, where they battled Seminoles and Africans in an effort to establish U.S. control over Florida, for sovereignty over this contested space had become essential to the preservation of plantation slavery throughout the South. Not all inhabitants of the United States supported the war, which prompted debates about the use of federal funding to sustain slavery and pursue Indian removal. In the end, the Florida War exterminated or expelled thousands of Africans and Seminoles. Yet it also pushed many maroon communities farther south onto the peninsula, where their justified hostility to encroaching American settlements initiated the Third Seminole War in 1855—a full ten years after Florida had become the nation's twenty-seventh state. While all three Indian wars drastically reduced Florida's populations of Africans and Seminoles, many members of both groups remained, and their descendants continue to live in Florida today.
During the post-Civil War period, when this study concludes, Florida's porosity and dispersal continued to challenge key understandings of ground and founding that made it possible to imagine the country as a single entity that could continually expand, yet still cohere. Florida differed dramatically from other parts of the U.S. South. It was the region's poorest and most sparsely populated state, and the only area where plantation culture had never flourished on a large scale. Decades of war against Seminoles and Africans had disrupted U.S. settlement and, while no decisive Civil War battles were fought there, Union troops repeatedly occupied and ravaged several cities after Florida seceded in 1861. It was difficult to travel in and to Florida as well, for public roads were in deplorable condition, and an extensive railroad would not exist until the 1890s.
Nonetheless, post-Civil War Florida's lack of traditional foundations gave many populations a home in the post-slavery United States. Freedmen came south to live as squatters on unoccupied lands or purchase farms cooperatively. Poor white Southerners became owners of Florida's inexpensive, abandoned lands. And well-established white Northerners, including Harriet Beecher Stowe and her extended family, pulled up stakes and came to Florida by steamboat to found farms, churches, and schools. As a place without a traditional plantation past, postbellum Florida accommodated Americans both black and white who could not manage—or did not desire—to belong in traditional ways on other parts of the continent. Even after Reconstruction, Florida's unfounded ground gave many people from other parts of the nation new and necessary ways to pursue and imagine roots.
The value of attending carefully to the large and largely underexamined variety of early American writings about Florida is twofold. From local surveys to classic works of literature, reflections on Florida offer new understandings of both the conceptual history of U.S. incorporation and the roots and routes of U.S. writing. The case of William Bartram in eighteenth-century Florida—a subject to which I return at greater length in Chapter 1—provides a useful illustration of how this study's consideration of Florida simultaneously enriches the conceptual history of belonging in North America and U.S. literary history. Bartram's Travels (1791), a natural history of the Southeast, portrays Florida as a place where land and water continually combine and trade places with little warning, dissolving property lines and even geographic boundaries: "porous rocks" channel waters "by gradual but constant percolation" through "innumerable doublings, windings, and secret labyrinths" just beneath one's feet. Fish "descend into the earth through wells and cavities or vast perforations of the rocks, and from thence are conducted or carried away, by secret subterranean conduits and gloomy vaults, to other distant lakes and rivers" (206); "vast reservoirs" of water "suddenly break through [the] perforated fluted rocks . . . flooding large districts of land" (226); "floods of rain" drive lake waters over their usual bounds and creeks "contrary" to their "natural course" (142); and "old habitations . . . [moulder] to earth" (95). There is a "deserted" British plantation, the "ruins of ancient French plantations," the "vestiges" of Spanish ones, and a functioning plantation that disintegrates when a hurricane flattens buildings and destroys fields of indigo and sugar cane (253, 407, 233, 143).
Yet Bartram's Floridian ground fosters and rewards a model of permanent inhabitance nonetheless. Sailing along Florida's St. Johns River on "a fine cool morning," Bartram finds his small boat surrounded by "vast quantities of the Pistia stratiotes, a very singular aquatic plant" (88). This plant—commonly known as water lettuce—displays remarkable resilience in a volatile and watery landscape, a capacity for endurance that Bartram credits to its unusual roots. He writes that the water lettuce "associates in large communities, or floating islands" that, though tossed about by the wind and waves, remain "in their proper horizontal situation, by means of long fibrous roots, which descend from the nether center, downwards." Thus, in great storms, "when the river is suddenly raised" and "large masses of these floating plains are broken loose," "driven from the shores," and even "broken to pieces," the plant "communities" always "find footing" once more and, "forming new colonies, spread and extend themselves again" (89). In a place given to sudden, unpredictable fluctuations in the water level, rooting firmly to the earth is perilous; floating or moving continually best achieves stability.
Upon first consideration, the relevance of Bartram's liquid landscape to early debates about U.S. identity seems unclear. Yet for Bartram this land raised conceptual questions about belonging that were politically significant to his North American readers, many of whom were members of a new nation seeking to establish itself and expand over new and untested ground. Implicitly, Bartram's reflections on Florida raise several pertinent questions. How can one imagine or pursue long-term settlement in the absence of solid ground? And how can one take root permanently on a foundation that seeps and shifts both endlessly and unpredictably? First and foremost, such questions expose the limits of a prevailing ideal of land as firm and divisible. To post-Revolutionary Americans familiar with founding documents that describe a nation of small farmers achieving political belonging by demarcating, cultivating, and remaining on a single plot of ground, these questions expose additional limits. They suggest that this founding version of the emerging republic—and the Lockean account of the subject subtending it—is provisional and highly contingent on the particularities of the landscape.
Ultimately Travels suggests that some parts of North America require another version of personal and political belonging, according to which one achieves permanent inhabitance by taking very shallow root, spreading continually over the earth, or even floating just above it. For it is precisely because the Pistia stratiotes refuses firm fixity that it remains ineradicable, and can always "find footing" and "spread and extend" itself once more. Bartram's reflections on local Florida roots may thus be read as an important contribution to the history of landed possession on the continent. Considered as such, these reflections also constitute one reason for including Travels more centrally in U.S. literary history alongside other reflections on local landscape, such as those by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur. In Letters from an American Farmer (1782) Crèvecoeur's narrator moves across several American geographies and ultimately finds that different parts of North America produce different versions of character. In the frequently anthologized Letter III ("What is an American?"), for example, Pennsylvania fosters an idealized version of Jeffersonian agrarianism, but other parts of North America require a revision of this ideal.
If scholars have no trouble accepting Crèvecoeur's Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Nantucket, and Wyoming as valuable contributions to the literature of North American place, personhood, and belonging, then we should also accept Bartram's Florida as such. After all, early Americans living in the United States easily could have read Travels alongside Letters: editions of each text were printed in Philadelphia during the early 1790s. Furthermore, long after its initial publication, Travels inspired American artists, naturalists, travelers, and writers. Bartram's Florida landscape reached an enormous U.S. audience in particular through the popular works of François-René Chateaubriand, who never visited Florida and draws extensively on Travels in the novel Atala (1801) and later in Travels in America (1828). In fact Bartram's Florida roots in particular captivated Chateaubriand, for "floating islands of pistia" populate the setting of Atala.
If reflections on root-taking by both Crèvecoeur and Bartram supplied early Americans with metaphors of attachment to North American ground, then why not pair these authors in anthologies of American literature, in the classroom, and in our research and writing? Doing so establishes that the mosaic of U.S. imaginings of founding is richer than we have supposed. For Bartram provides what Crèvecoeur does not: a theory of landed possession in the absence of secure material foundations. Indeed, reading Travels as both a natural history of Florida and a complex theory of root-taking in North America paves the way for a consideration of other published and popular writers on Florida during the early national period—such as John James Audubon—as theorists of early U.S. identity no less fascinating than Crèvecoeur. Throughout the following chapters of this book I take such an approach to all materials, from maps of Florida to novels by canonical U.S. writers: these texts establish both the conceptual relevance of Florida to discussions of American character and the literary value of Florida to our understanding of various themes and genres of U.S. writing as the nation's borders emerged and expanded.
Each chapter that follows centers on a different set of related, iconic features of the Floridian landscape—shifting shores, scattered islands, coral reefs, swamps and hammocks, and the roots of palmetto shrubs and orange trees, respectively—that provoked early observers to realize that founding required something other than firm fixity to a single section of ground. The cultural and political implications of this realization change, of course, as the book proceeds chronologically.
The first two chapters establish the influence of Florida's liquid landscape on early North American practices and perceptions of landed possession. These chapters show that the same shifting grounds that many observers declared "uncultivable" in fact generated ways to think in terms other than those of an emergent nationalist narrative grounded in terra firma. As the book proceeds into the mid-nineteenth century, it charts how reefs, swamps, and hammocks that many living in the United States dismissed as "impenetrable" prompted some writers to think otherwise. For authors of several popular antebellum genres—including captivity narrative, female picaresque, and frontier novel—Florida offered a way to see beyond the limits of plantocratic and imperial accounts of space and subjectivity that increasingly underpinned the intertwined projects of American slavery and expansion. This book then moves into the post-Civil War period. During this time many observers considered Florida's resistance to more familiar modes of root-taking to be evidence of the region's destiny to remain a "backward" periphery of the United States. Yet I show that some authors, such as Stowe, found that this resistance afforded productive alternatives to more familiar Reconstruction-era concepts of domesticity and reform. Altogether these chapters demonstrate that Florida's fluidity inspired a rich set of materials through which to observe something that scholars of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century U.S. literature and culture had already begun to suggest: imaginings of self, nation, and empire were more varied, conflicted, and contingent on the local particularities of various landscapes than many of the period's better-known philosophical, political, legal, and literary formulations of these concepts indicate.
By restoring reflections on Florida to the history of U.S. imaginings of self, nation, and empire, Liquid Landscape continues the work of unsettling an overly solid historical, geographical, rhetorical, and theoretical conception of the United States that was not shared by everyone calling it home. Certainly the conception of the U.S. nation as rightfully coextensive with a stable, solid, contiguous, and sharply outlined landmass served many nationalist purposes during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A number of literary, cultural, and historical studies have shown that this continental ideal fostered a much-needed sense of national independence at the time of the Revolution. It also signified the nation's destiny to become one people united under a single power during the post-Revolutionary period, and it sanctioned expansionist territorial claims during much of the nineteenth century.
However, while many North Americans embraced this idea in a wide range of genres—including classic works of American literature, decorative arts, and influential political essays and legal documents—many contested the continental ideal, even from the earliest moments of the nation's founding. For it promoted a political and cultural definition of the United States as a self-enclosed, ever-expanding nation of settlers united under a strong federal government—a definition that not everyone shared. As recent scholars of empire usefully remind us, the nation emerged from and never fully displaced a "variegated colonial world" of many peoples and polities with their own concepts and practices of space, place, and belonging. This fact challenges us to question the iconic imperial image of an evenly shaded map and recover imaginative alternatives to a nationalist narrative that depends on stable and contiguous land.
Liquid Landscape answers this challenge by turning to the farthest southern reaches of the continent, reasoning that no other North American ground combined topographic instability, geographic indeterminacy, and demographic fluidity as obviously and dramatically as Florida. Certainly other parts of the continent resisted agricultural development, compelled settlers to contend with changes in the land, posed geographic challenges, and hosted heterogeneous populations. Yet no other part simultaneously shifted perceptibly because of hurricanes, sinkholes, and swamps; belonged to the U.S. South and the Caribbean; and harbored itinerant enclaves of ex-slaves, pirates, Spaniards, and Native Americans. Put another way, we already knew that continental ground was rarely as firm, enduring, arable, and divisible as the abstract ideal of land informing so many familiar philosophical and legal conceptions of property, settlement, and expansion in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North America. But Florida tells crucial stories of U.S. space and place, settlement and belonging, territory and sovereignty, that emerge in the absence of secure foundations.