Once Upon a Time in Florida Tells the Stories of Our State

You can meet the book's editor and writers March 15 at Selby Library.

By Kay Kipling March 7, 2024

The cover of "Once Upon a Time in Florida," featuring "The Champion, Florida East Coast," by Leslie Ragan. Courtesy of the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, Gift of Samuel H. and Roberta T. Vickers.

New to Florida and eager to learn more about the state’s often colorful history and culture? Or a longtime resident who’s looking for a refresher? You might find what you’re seeking with Once Upon a Time in Florida, a lavish new coffee table book published by the Florida Humanities, in celebration of its 50th anniversary.

The state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities has long published a magazine, Forum, which currently reaches its readers three times a year. Throughout its decades, Forum has run stories by such Florida eminences as longtime St. Petersburg Times writer Bill Maxwell, environmental reporter Craig Pittman, novelist Lauren Groff, Miami Herald reporter and mystery writer Edna Buchanan, and Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Caputo. But once such stories were first seen, they often vanished into the Forum archives, unavailable to today’s readers.

That changed with the idea for the 50th anniversary book, put together by former Forum editor Jacki Levine. “When I was the editor,” Levine says, “and I was thinking of assigning a story, I’d want to see what was written before. Our archives go back to the late 1980s, and once I was into them I’d find it very difficult to get out, because the stories were so fascinating. It was like going down into one of Florida’s caves and finding your way out.”

Powerful Timucua chief Outina, painting by Theodore Morris.

She realized, she says, “These stories are so incredible, so timeless, and most people are not seeing them. I always thought they needed to be seen again, and when I talked with Nashid [Madyun, Florida Humanities executive director] about doing an anthology, I was so excited by the prospect of bringing these stories back to life. They tell so much about the state”—a state, that, for better or worse, is constantly changing, and too often ends up as the butt of “Florida Man” jokes.

“Florida is not a meme,” says Levine. “Florida is not ‘Florida Man.’ Florida is very complicated, with a bounty of treasures, environment, people, history—it’s a really rich state. That’s what I wanted people to see.”

Ernest Hemingway with sailfish, Key West 1940s. Courtesy of Florida Photographs Collection, State Archives of Florida.

To that end, Levine took the deep dive into the archives and faced the daunting task of winnowing through some 800 stories to select the 50 that appear in Once Upon a Time (along with plentiful and often fascinating photos and illustrations). “The first time I went through, I picked those things I couldn’t live without,” Levine says. “What I decided is that I wanted it to reflect the history of Florida. So the book is divided both chronologically and thematically, into seven sections. I needed to find a structure.”

Golfer on elephant caddy, 1927. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Those sections ended up including Beginnings, Florida Comes of Age: Promise and Paradox, All Things Unequal under the Sun, When a Deadly Pandemic Strikes, We Were Strangers Here Ourselves, This State of Inspiration, and, finally, Roots and Rivers. Overall, this means the reader will discover tales about the early Native residents of the state, going back 14,000 years in time, to more recent parts of history like the Jim Crow era, the space program and the many immigrant experiences of Florida newcomers. The book also takes time to explore the state’s literary, music and art contributions.

Levine spent about six months assembling the stories that made the final cut. “Overall, there’s a desire for people to see Florida for the rich and deep and substantial place that it is,” she says. “It’s not so much a love story to Florida, because there are shadows and light. We look at it as you would look at a beloved relative who has flaws.”

Levine and some of the book’s contributing writers have been on a tour of the state for the book, one that brings them to Sarasota’s Selby Library on March 15. On the Sarasota panel will be longtime teacher, writer and filmmaker Maurice J. O’Sullivan and award-winning journalist Craig Pittman (a sometime writer for Sarasota Magazine). For more information about that, click here. And if you’d like to purchase your own copy of the book, before or after the panel discussions, click here.

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