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Faculty Profile — Jack Davis, History

Telling America’s Stories

“Academics don’t usually publish books that get national attention — you hope, but don’t dare expect it,” says Jack Emerson Davis, UF professor of environmental history and sustainability studies. “I hoped for book reviews in The New York Times.

The Gulf — The Making of an American Sea, Davis’ latest book, exceeded his expectations. Not only did it get reviewed in The New York Times, but it also made the cover of The New York Times Book Review, saying, “In Davis’s hands, the story reads like a watery version of the history of the American West. Both places saw Spanish incursions from the south, mutual incomprehension in the meeting of Europeans and aboriginals, waves of disease that devastated the natives and a relentless quest by the newcomers for the raw materials of empire. There were scoundrels and hucksters, booms and busts, senseless killing in sublime landscapes and a tragic belief in the inexhaustible bounty of nature.”

In addition, The Gulf won the Kirkus Prize, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, was a New York Times Notable Book, and made a number of other “best of” lists in national publications. (See our book review.)
The Gulf is Davis’ eighth book. Two of his books focus on race relations and civil rights. When Davis was working on his PhD at Brandeis University in the early 1990s, he vacillated between specializing in environmental history or race relations. Both fields interested him, but environmental history was in its nascent stage. “I decided strategically to put myself on the market as a race relations historian who could do environmental history,” he says.

As it turned out, Davis’ first job was at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. “I was the first environmental historian they hired,” says Davis. “And I ended up in Pinellas County, where I grew up.” Davis then taught at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he directed the Environmental Studies Program before coming to UF in 2003 — where he also was the first environmental historian the university hired.

Davis is a committed academic who chose to publish with a trade press because he believed The Gulf was an important book that should have a readership outside of the academy. “This book is about America and its relationship with its sea,” he says. “I was very conscious about bringing in historical figures from the Northeast, Midwest, even the British Isles, to show how Americans, and not just Gulf siders, are a part of the Gulf of Mexico history, how the Gulf of Mexico was, as nature was, a historical agent that shaped the lives of people who not just dwelled beside its waters but people from other parts of the country.”

When Davis first conceived of The Gulf, the Deepwater Horizon accident that dumped 130 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico had not yet happened. That Davis was writing a history of the Gulf around the same time that the largest oil spill in history was having a profoundly deleterious effect on his subject was coincidental, and it gave him a focus not to be about the spill, which he says, “seemed to rob the Gulf of Mexico of its true identity, and I wanted to restore it, to show people that the Gulf is more than an oil spill, more than a sun beach. It’s got a rich, natural history connected to Americans, and it’s not integrated into the larger American historical narrative. That’s a wrong I wanted to correct.”

Davis’ next book is Bird of Paradox — How the Bald Eagle Saved the Soul of America, a natural and cultural history of the bald eagle. Says Davis, “I want to flesh out the connection between nature and national identity.”