Salty Scribe

With his hard-hitting history of Florida, T.D. Allman raises more than a few hackles and eyebrows. And that’s just fine with him.

"It's my duty to tell the truth," Allman says.

It’s a spring evening at Barnes & Noble in The Villages, the retirement megalopolis an hour northwest of Orlando, and about 65 prosperous-looking seniors have shown up to hear T.D. Allman read from his scathing new book, Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State. Perhaps some of the residents know already that Allman has skewered them as “conquistadors in golf carts’’ or has written that in The Villages, “the normal chain of human existence is aborted’’ because children are forbidden.

If they do know, they don’t seem to mind. As Allman reads, many of the retirees chuckle or nod in agreement at his brazen observations. Afterward, though, one woman confides she could get only a third of the way through the book and says with disgust, “He trashes everything.’’

Indeed, it often seems so. A few days later during an informal seminar at Rollins College, Allman shoots down the myth of Ponce de Leon discovering Florida at St. Augustine in typically outrageous fashion, calling the explorer “the state’s first celebrity homicide victim’’ (shot with an arrow by Indians) and saying that Ponce “was less attentive to sepsis than alert to heresy.’’ Then he lights into Rick Scott, charging that the governor is part of a “culture of corruption and incompetence” that has stretched over the state’s leaders for centuries. When Allman’s monologue is complete, political science Professor Rick Foglesong, who organized the gathering, asks with a faint but not-unfriendly smile, “T. D., how come you’re so mean?”

The answer is obvious but unspoken: practice, practice, practice.

Allman has gotten plenty of it crafting this book, which coincides with Florida’s 500th anniversary. The author takes a magisterial rip at the state’s invaders, conquerors and rulers, with a focus on violent European and white supremacy, genocide, slavery and the dispossession of Native Americans and free African Americans. The fact that few people have heard of the 1816 massacre of black slaves by U.S. forces at a Panhandle fort, or the execution of hundreds of mostly black captured Union soldiers after the Civil War Battle of Olustee are evidence of a falsification of history that has been aided and abetted by historians, Allman says.

The myth-busting starts with Ponce. The Spanish conquistador established the 500-year template of fortune hunters including the three Henrys—Flagler, Sanford and Plant—who came to Florida only to squander their wealth. (The author acknowledges that later entrepreneurs, from Walt Disney to hotelier Harris Rosen, fared better.) Other targets that take withering fire in Finding Florida: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her beloved The Yearling (Allman characterizes her as a one-book wonder) and Clermont’s Citrus Tower (a ludicrous monument to groves long decimated by frost and development). There’s even a sidelong diss of author Carl Hiaasen, seemingly a natural ally if not at least a kindred spirit.

As the comedian Lenny Bruce used to ask, “Are there any groups here I haven’t offended?”

While he can be cranky at times, Allman is no crank. The legendary war correspondent, left-wing author and raconteur extraordinaire likes to boast, “I’ve been everywhere, I’ve done everything, and I’ve met everyone.” Born in Tampa, he served in the Peace Corps in Nepal after graduating from Harvard in 1966, and later earned a doctorate at Oxford. He made his journalistic reputation as a reporter in Southeast Asia in the late 1960s and 1970s, best known for exposing the CIA’s secret war in Laos and once rescuing survivors of a massacre in Cambodia. He was nicked by a bullet in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and covered more recent wars in Bosnia and Iraq. He’s interviewed Yasser Arafat, Boris Yeltsin and Manuel Noriega.

These days, Allman divides his time between Brooklyn Heights, a home in the south of France, and an oceanfront condo in Miami Beach. At 68, he has long aged out of the enfant terrible category. Yet there is something of the Hunter S. Thompson mystique that lingers around him and his prose. Allman, who has no website and does not tweet, is barely recognizable from photos taken during his days as an elfin swashbuckler. He is a portly man with thinning brown hair, twinkly eyes and a mischievous smile. He is mostly charming but occasionally imperious, speaking with a vaguely upper-class, gravelly New England accent.

The contract for Finding Florida followed his 2007 National Geographic article, “Orlando Beyond Disney,” which argued, without the new book’s bile,  that Orlando is an avatar of America’s future. Rereading the article today, it’s easy to discern the outline of Allman’s larger thesis about Florida: “Welcome to theme park nation.”  Similarly, a 1980 assignment for Esquire also turned into a book, Miami: City of the Future, which is being reissued next year. When a newspaper reporter suggested during Allman's current statewide book tour that the author must love Florida since he writes so much about it, Allman quipped, “Well, I wrote a lot about the Khmer Rouge,” the genocidal rulers of Cambodia, “and I didn't love the Khmer Rouge.”

Allman says he decided to write his latest book “because Florida is important to America and because America is becoming more and more like Florida. Florida was widely misunderstood, and many misconceptions about it needed to be corrected.” More than that, he says, “it’s my duty to tell the truth.  It always has been, whether it's the truth about the CIA secret war in Laos or the truth about U.S. ethnic cleansing in Florida.” He’s pleased with the reception during his tour stops, saying, “It's the people who have made this process so moving for me. Everyone has stories to share.”

But not every attendee ends up being a fan. At the St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Allman exhorted students to “reclaim your past” from historians who have failed them. This was too much for Professor Francis J. Sicius, who had brought his history class to the talk but stalked out before it ended. Later, he dismissed Allman as “a snake oil salesman.” 

Allman is only energized by such criticism. During a taping of WMFE-FM’s Intersection show in Orlando, he lost little time in placing the shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin squarely in the context of the 1816 fort massacre, and the acts of racial violence through the centuries. He writes in Finding Florida, “According to the killer, George Zimmerman, it was the victim's fault. His presence had made him feel threatened. That was why he had followed the boy, and ultimately killed him, so the police said what they would have in 1980, 1935, 1920—or 1876 or 1818. It had been okay to kill him. They told Zimmerman he could go home.”

The book has received national recognition in the Wall Street Journal  and The New York Times, necessitating a second printing less than two weeks after publication. The WSJ review was positive and historians from Yale, Cornell and UCLA have lent their support. However, a retired University of South Florida historian called the book “unbalanced, mean-spirited and arrogant’’ while another academic slammed the book for being “too blunt an intstrument’’ to make its point.

Allman downplays comments like this, along with other off-the-record grumbling of historians about his book. “This ‘throng’ exists primarily in the minds of journalists trying to inject some drama into the publication of Finding Florida. The drama is inside the book. Read it!”

And in fact, Finding Florida is not completely negative. Allman celebrates many of the state’s unsung heroes, including Seminoles like Osceola and the unnamed slaves who fought for their land and their freedom, whites who opposed slavery and secession and fought for the Union during the Civil War, and Reconstruction Governor Ossian Hart (“Never was there a more valiant Floridian, a nobler American”).

Maurice J. “Socky” O’Sullivan, professor of literature and Florida studies at Rollins College, says he plans to read Finding Florida, even though he adds that “Allman seems to ride roughshod over countervailing points of view.” One thing is certain, O’Sullivan says: Finding Florida won’t become a standard text for the state’s public schools anytime soon, and Allman shouldn’t hold his breath waiting for invitations to speak at commencement ceremonies.

Mark I. Pinsky

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