Monday, July 31, 2017

Florida a haven for writers

Members of the 1158 Literary Society pose for a group photo in 1895 in Orange City, Florida
Members of the 1158 Literary Society pose for a group photo
in Orange City, Fla., in 1895. The 1158 represents the total
of the ages of members. (Credit: State Archives of Florida)
I'm fresh from the wonderful #RWA17, and I’m all about books right now. Reading them, writing, them, talking about writing them …. It’s wonderful to get together with others who share your passion for the printed word. 

Some 2,000 of us gathered for the Romance Writers of America 2017 conference at Disney World in Orlando. I took for granted the interconnectivity: presentations, get-togethers, an app, live stream, downloadable handouts, social media, and the pre-conference logistical emails. How did writers in pioneer days network? Planning a conference by postal service and telephone seems fraught with delays and missed connections.

One thing writers did was form literary colonies. Florida was and still is a popular vacation and relocation destination among authors. Notable colonies and writers’ residences existed in St. Augustine, Winter Park and Key West. Is there a Western reader alive who doesn’t know Ernest Hemingway lived in Key West in the 1920s and 1930s? 

I'm surprised at just how many writers called Florida home at some point in their lives. You will be too, by the evidence in the dated but historically valuable The Book Lovers Guide to Florida (Kevin McCarthy, Ed., Pineapple Press, 1992). It’s just under 500 pages, and it takes the reader on a literary tour of the Sunshine State. You’ll find writers famous and forgotten, along with occasional tidbits about what drew them here. I like this 1926 quote by Rex Beach - an author I'm not familiar with: "Florida is the only pioneer state left in the Union." (Book Lovers Guide, 160-161). I wish more women and more ethnically and racially diverse writers were featured, or, I should say, I wish more diversity existed at the time. The guide's authors appear to have done a comprehensive job in their early internet era, when digitized records weren't yet available. 

No matter where writers gathered in Florida in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they did so without the benefit of air conditioning. Some lived here only during winter. Others were native Southerners accustomed to the climate. Some chose location carefully, such as in Key West where ocean breezes are a part of daily life. The presence of authors wasn’t so much a coordinated effort as it was a loose collaboration and shared recognition of pleasant working conditions.

Writers felt at peace in Florida in earlier years. Many weren’t recognized, or were given privacy if they were recognized. Fans may have heard them read at formal presentations. But readers, for the most part, stayed active with books through forming libraries and book clubs and especially literary societies. People couldn't hop online and download a a title, or make a quick trip to the nearest bookstore. 

The mention of bookstores brings me to a sad note about Book Lovers Guide, one which illustrates the book’s 25-year-old age. A 15-page appendix lists about 450 bookstores in Florida, many independent. Today, I sometimes wonder if there are 450 independent brick-and-mortar bookstores remaining in the entire United States.

Long live books.

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