Not long ago, before giving a lecture in Fort Lauderdale, the biographer Justin Kaplan had dinner with a few people involved in South Florida literary activities. There was the usual earnest, yet somehow disengaged, conversation you rely on to get you through an evening with acquaintances who aren't quite friends but share a common interest.
A Miamian said he had been invited to join a two-day symposium on the state of culture in Florida. Bemused, he added, "Two days on Florida culture -- I think we can finish up in two hours."
The genial Kaplan, down from New England, picked up the theme precisely on beat. "I was going to say . . .," he replied, and the table dissolved into a chorus of laughter.
Both the incident itself and the occasion for it prompt some observations about cultural life in general and literary life in particular throughout South Florida. Before I get to them, however, a definition is in order:
South Florida is a diverse, subtropical region extending along a narrow strip of the state's east coast 250 miles south from Palm Beach through Broward County (Fort Lauderdale), Dade County (Miami) and then across the archipelago of the Florida Keys. South Florida ends at Key West. In recent years, Key West has become a winter hideout for writers of every variety -- Alison Lurie, Ralph Ellison, Nancy Friday, John Ciardi, Richard Wilbur, Philip Caputo and Peter Taylor to name just a few. It is estimated that if the migration of this element continues, the production of books may one day challenge the supremacy of the other local heavy industry, drug smuggling.
A substantial percentage of South Florida's 4 million residents are transients awaiting a decent interval before returning to places where the leaves change color at this time of year. Here they do not change at this or any other time of year. Though it is perpetually hot in South Florida, the climate has not been "enervating" -- to invoke the quaint term textbooks once freely used to explain tropical indolence -- since the advent of central air conditioning, believed to have occurred sometime in the 1950s.
As for the people who actually enjoy living in South Florida -- and that includes me -- they often suffer a severe disorder caused by the perception that the region is barren of cultural and literary nourishment, a sort of intellectual's kwashiorkor. The condition is reinforced by those from other parts of the country who believe the same thing.
Whether the diagnosis comes from within or without, however, it is misconceived. Among other recent developments, Justin Kaplan's appearance helps explain why.
Mark Twain's Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer was here to present a lecture celebrating the centenary of the publication of Huckleberry Finn. His talkxploring why the novel has been in trouble with censors during its entire 100-year history, was the inaugural event of the Florida Center for the Book. The generic part of the organization's name ought to sound familiar in Washington. The Florida center, housed in the impressive new eight- story downtown Fort Lauderdale library, is the first -- and so far only -- regional unit allied to the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress. It had been in existence just a few months but is already bursting with energy and ideas for state programs designed to promote interest in books.
Meanwhile, Miami isn't idle either. On November 8-10 it will hold the first of what it hopes will become a yearly international book fair, and next year its own spectacular new main library, designed by Philip Johnson, is scheduled to open.
The book fair, organized by public librarians, downtown business interests and Miami-Dade Community College, is loosely modeled on " York is Book Country," the annual literary bazaar that takes place in midtown Manhattan drawing thousands to the city streets in a people's celebration of books. More than 50 exhibitors -- publishers, distributors and bookstores -- have agreed to take booths and more than 40 writers will be on hand for speeches and seminars or just to hang around and autograph their work.
IN JANUARY activity returns to the
keys for the third annual Key West
Literary Tour and Seminar. This season's program is devoted entirely to the life and work of the city's most celebrated former resident, Ernest Hemingway. Among the participants in a long weekend of panel discussions and riotous living, planned and ad hoc, will be Hemingway scholars from universities around the country; writers whose work has been strongly influenced directly or indirectly by Papa (Phil Caputo, Robert Stone, Tim O'Brien); his publisher, Charles Scribner Jr.; and his son, Patrick. George Plimpton, who has a Florida base in Palm Beach County, will also put in appearance and perhaps design a special fireworks show.
Growing in popularity each year, the Key West seminar is sponsored by the Council for Florida Libraries and The Miami Herald. The council, active in issues and causes on behalf of libraries all over the state, is the brainchild of Fred Ruffner, president of the Gale Research publishing company in Detroit. Healthy libraries are obviously in the best interest of a research publisher, but that does not detract from Ruffner's considerable contributions in shaping the Florida literary landscape. Ruffner, who owns a home in Fort Lauderdale, was elected president of the national Friends of Libraries early this year at the American Library Association's annual convention in Dallas.
As pleasant as all these diversions may be, they cannot hide the fact that the non-institutional literary situation in South Florida is not as encouraging. Outside of Key West, almost no writers of national reputation have chosen to live and work here. John D. McDonald's detective character, Travis McGee, may have roots in Fort Lauderdale, but McDonald himself stays further north on the state's west coast. While Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer's presence in the Miami area adds distinction to the neighborhood, he only stays for the winter.
Publishers don't look with much favor on the region's sales potential either. Although the chain booksellers have outlets in every large shopping mall, there are no landmark independent bookstores like those in other major cities. Miami is approximately the 20th book market in the country while Fort Lauderdale hovers in the 40s. Large publishers don't allocate many of their resources to such runts. These statistics, however, are seldom put in proper perspective. If the four-county South Florida area is taken as a whole, it comes close to being among the top 10 book markets nationally.
Economics aside, South Florida does have something few other regions possess: a unique identity in fiction. It began when the news was flashed to the world that "paradise" -- the catchword once employed to characterize the region -- was in peril from drugs, violent crime, Mariel boatlift refugees, and impoverished Haitians, literally washing up on our shores. Never mind that these breathless reports exchanged one stereotype for another. Out of the headlines came so many novels focusing on our seamy side that they constitute a crime sub- genre. It has become a clich,e to say that Miami is the American Casablanca.
Some of the novels, Thomas Palmer's The Transfer, Elmore Leonard's Stick and John Katzenbach's In the Heat of the Summer, for example, have been praised for transcending the form. Stick and In the Heat of the Summer are, as they say, soon to be major motion pictures.
A fictional personality drawn from native materials of drug deals and other crime may not be much upon which to claim literary permanance. But it's not boring. Imbedded in it perhaps is the beginning of an indigenous literary sensibility that will evolve and mature to reflect the full scope of humanity here.