Spending time at the Gulf of Mexico can be a great vacation spot for many, but there is more to the story than some may know.
Jack Davis, a USF graduate and current history professor at USF St. Petersburg, won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in History on April 16 for his book, “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea.”
An environmental historian, Davis said he felt compelled to write the book to help restore identity to the Gulf of Mexico.
“No one had written a book on the history of the Gulf of Mexico and as someone who grew up (near) there, it was a good fit for me,” Davis said. “I had this wonderful opportunity to be the first to write one and bring it into the larger American historical narrative where it belongs.”
Davis said winning the Pulitzer Prize came as a shock to him.
“It was a total surprise,” Davis said. “I didn’t know whether the book had been nominated, but I had suspected it might have been. The Pulitzer folks don’t announce the finalists until they announce the winner, so it’s very top secret. A lot of journalists know who the finalists are, but as far as the authors who are up for very literary categories, I don’t think anybody knows. I had no suspicion, I was stunned. It came as a complete surprise.”
According to Davis, he began gathering research materials for his book during the same time as the BP Oil Spill, a major event polluting the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Wanting to educate the public, Davis feared this incident would cover up the true history of the Gulf.
“I wanted my readers to know that the Gulf of Mexico was more than just this oil spill and some vacation spot,” Davis said. “It’s a place with rich and wonderful history that’s very much a part of the larger American historical narrative. In college and high school textbooks however, there’s a good chance you won’t even find the Gulf of Mexico in the index.”
Published in 2017, Davis’ book touches only slightly on the oil spill’s destruction.
“The oil spill has very little mention in my book,” Davis said. “I did not want it to dominate the story. One event does not define a place any more than one event does not define an individual. That was really a shaking force in the way I developed this book. When I write about the history of a place, it’s like a biography.”
Growing up in the Tampa Bay area, Davis said his connection with the Gulf started early.
“I’d spend all my time out on the water, and I ended up developing this intimate relationship with the Gulf of Mexico that was really important to writing this book,” Davis said. “The lifelong experience I’ve had with the Gulf really is what conceived this novel.”
Having a personal connection with the Gulf and its history, Davis felt as though general audiences deserved to know more about the area than a simple online search would provide.
“With the BP Oil Spill, it was a nightmare in the ways it became headline news,” Davis said. “If you do an online search for the Gulf of Mexico, you’re going to come up with the oil spill. Again, I wanted my readers to know that Americans have both a historical and ecological connection to the gulf way beyond oil. It’s much more complex than oil, that was one of the main driving forces in writing the book.”
With a history heavily undocumented, Davis said he hopes his book can shed light on the Gulf’s past while detailing how to respect its future.
“One message that I’m trying to convey in the book is that it’s one of the richest marine environments in the world, and for thousands of years people have lived alongside the Gulf of Mexico,” Davis said. “We’ve taken a lot from the Gulf of Mexico and that’s okay as long as we give something back, which is the respect for what makes this living sea a giving and vibrant being. We need respect for the environment and its clean water, even its biodiversity which includes us as well. If we do that, we’ll live in a much more stable relationship with the Gulf of Mexico.”