Michele Currie Navakas. Liquid Landscape: Geography and Settlement at the Edge of Early America. Early American Studies Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. 248 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4956-9.
Reviewed by John Nelson (University of Notre Dame)
Published on H-Early-America (January, 2018)
Commissioned by Joshua J. Jeffers
Michele Currie Navakas’s new work on Florida pushes readers to grapple with an understudied region of the early republic and its atypical topography, showing how a geography that was treated as peripheral to the American narrative actually proved formative in the decades between Revolution and Reconstruction. The deliberate tension in Navakas’s title reflects the difficulties experienced by newcomers to Florida’s distinct yet intangible terrain. Neither terra firma nor outright seascape, the swampy interior and reef-lined coasts confused Americans as they struggled to situate Florida within their dichotomies of maritime and terrestrial spaces and comprehend its place in the expanding settler republic.
Navakas’s work examines settler colonialism and US expansion, adding to a growing literature that explores the intersection of space, identity, and American nationalism. For years, historians and literary scholars alike have demonstrated how access to open and controllable land played a direct role in the creation of American sovereignty, identity, and society as settlers and the state expanded westward. Proverbial yeoman farmers and political leaders of the early republic relied on stable ground to bolster the United States’ economy and uphold the political hierarchy. Scholars such as Myra Jehlen, Mark Rifkin, and Stephanie LeMenager have shown the central role accessible and arable land played in the creation, stabilization, and expansion of the American settler colonial state. Navakas builds on this rich scholarship but advances new questions about what happened when this nation of land-based ideology attempted to expand across less stable ground. To American onlookers, Florida seemed like an untenable space for US settlement in many ways. The peninsula provided little in the way of arable land, its geography confounded categorizations, and its population seemed maritime and mobile to a troubling extent.
Liquid Landscapes explores how the process of “root taking” worked in a land of such shaky ground, from early mapmakers’ efforts, to American imperialists, African American maroons, Seminole Indians, wreck salvagers, pirates, and even transplanted northern abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe. As Navakas demonstrates, many struggled to find a stable niche in this turbulent geography, but some groups—typically, those marginalized elsewhere—succeeded in sinking roots in Florida, often because of the secluded and unstable geography.
Navakas begins by examining how Florida’s geography defied Anglo-American attempts to chart the peninsula for centuries. The combination of sandy keys along the southern edge, inshore reefs, mangrove swamps, and the vastness of the watery Everglades all confounded Euro-American notions of space. Mapmakers, explorers, and surveyors tended to conflate land and water in their representations of Florida as either an island, a peninsula, or a disorienting archipelago that bled into the islands of the Bahamas and Caribbean. As Navakas points out, the inclination to display an amorphous Florida persisted well into the nineteenth century. Variations in Florida’s portrayal on maps demonstrate a begrudged “recognition of the continent’s resistance to geographic systematizing” as Europeans, and later Americans, struggled to depict an accurate representation of the peninsula (p. 59).
Driven by sharp literary analysis, Navakas presents both fictional and nonfictional accounts of Florida by notable figures, including William Bartram, James Fennimore Cooper, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, along with lesser-known works of natural history, geography, and Indian captivity. The author shows how all these accounts fixated on the amorphous landscape and seascape of Florida in their accounts—sometimes as empowering and sometimes as menacing. Bartram’s account of the flora and fauna of Florida highlighted how the region’s water lettuce adapted to the varying water levels with a floating root system. Other authors noted the distinct ecology of mangroves that build their own islands up from the mudflats by incrementally compiling dirt and debris within their interlocking roots. Meanwhile Cooper’s fictional naval officers worry over the reefs of the Florida Keys as they struggle to bring control to the mobile Gulf waters. The works collectively offer alternatives as well, showing how authors, writing beyond the familiar terrain of America’s agrarian and commercial heartland, necessarily treated space in different ways when considering Florida.
Of particular interest is Navakas’s insistence that such accounts of Florida’s elusive landscape fit into our wider pantheon of early American texts and offer a different reading of American expansion. Bartram’s account of the permeable coast and its aquatic vegetation, Navakas suggests, might sit alongside familiar works like J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782) or Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Likewise, Cooper’s tales of the disorienting Florida reef might offer an antidote, or conversely, a corollary, to his more familiar Leatherstocking series about the formative frontier landscape of the continental interior. As Navakas points out, “Florida’s fluidity gave Americans useful ways to think beyond concepts of land and attachment that underpinned settler colonialism more broadly” (p. 18). By contrasting these accounts, scholars and educators might demonstrate the diversity of ideas that animated writers during the early national and antebellum periods of US history as they wrestled with the relationship between geography and national identity. By analyzing early American literature on Florida, Navakas shows how Americans thought of space and expansion in different ways in alternative geographies, thus complicating our own understandings of the settler-colonial narrative.
Even with a largely published source base, Navakas manages to illuminate the experiences of more marginalized groups in Florida’s history. The analysis continually highlights how the unstable ground of Florida’s swamps could empower those who found no firm foundation in mainstream American society. As Navakas phrases it, “Florida’s unfounded ground gave many people from other parts of the nation new and necessary ways to pursue and imagine roots” (p. 10). Blacks and Indians both found opportunities in Florida that had become closed off or remained unavailable to them in other US states and territories by the early republic. Navakas shows alternative ways in which exiled and indigenous peoples could root themselves in Florida’s landscape through adaptation and flexibility.
Navakas also eloquently articulates the ways in which Florida’s maritime access along its southern tip cut both ways as a space of vulnerability and strategic potential for US officials. Identifying “a familiar quandary for imperial expansion,” the author demonstrates how sites that failed to fit the template of agrarian settlement and easy control could yet be considered key for US imperial schemes based on illusions of strategic geography. The southern end of the Florida reef, though only a patchwork of coral islands and keys, also buttressed the main sea passage running between the Gulf of Mexico and the wider Atlantic. The passage off the Dry Tortugas was thus “both critical to and potentially disruptive” for American imperialism in Florida and the wider Gulf region (p. 81). The fraught construction of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key represents the extent of American ambitions in the Gulf, and at the same time, the environmental and geographic limits of such expansion.
Navakas sometimes undersells the argument of the book by hewing her claims exclusively to Florida; the implications of this study extend far beyond the peninsula’s swamps and mangrove forests. Florida serves as the best example, but porous lands existed across the continent, and challenged the early republic’s agrarian ideal of expansion from the north woods of Maine and the Great Lakes to the bayous of Louisiana. As Navakas points out, “roughly 41.3 million acres of wetland” stretched across eastern North America at this time (p. 24). Geographic features stymied US imperial ambitions from the very outset, especially as American officials projected a vision for mappable, controllable, and farmable land onto a diverse and indeterminate landscape to the west. Indeed, American settlers and officials across the continent had to adjust their expectations for the landscape in the face of real geographic difference and varying terrain. Spaces that seemed “geographically and historically exceptional in their irrelevance to U.S. national and imperial identity were surprisingly central to it” (p. 67). Places such as Florida proved formative in a national discourse of expansion and state building.
By raising these points, Navakas has provided a work that should resonate well beyond scholarly circles concerned with the history and literature of Florida. This is an American story—one that holds implications for a wide array of scholars concerned with questions over Manifest Destiny, early republican expansion, settler colonialism, and the relationship between American identity and American geography.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-early-america.
John Nelson. Review of Navakas, Michele Currie, Liquid Landscape: Geography and Settlement at the Edge of Early America.
H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews.
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