- Grits & Grunts: Folkloric Key West
Stetson Kennedy was the dean of Florida folklife studies. He began doing serious folklore research in Florida in the 1930s, eventually becoming the folklore director for the Florida Writers’ Project during Roosevelt’s New Deal. His voluminous writing includes books and articles on the state’s folk culture, and the politics and history of the South. His infiltration and exposure of the Ku Klux Klan is presented in his own books and in Peggy Bulger’s doctoral research. Kennedy helped to found the Florida Folklore Society, and he has received many awards for his studies of folklife and his contributions to human rights. At the age of ninety-two, he published an important collection of folktales, oral history, foodways, and folk music from Key West.
Kennedy’s first major study of Florida’s folklife and history was Palmetto Country, which he describes as a “barefoot history” of the state. This classic work is an early example of a social history that blends folklife studies into the narrative; it also draws on the cultural pluralism of the New Deal era. It is significant that Kennedy was integrating these perspectives into folklore research by the 1940s, foreshadowing the wider adoption of a pluralistic approach to folklife studies in American scholarship that came decades later. Grits & Grunts continues this tradition. His writing feels fresh and vivid, as does his older work, almost seventy years after it was first published. His new book is the definitive study of Key West’s folklore.
Kennedy was born in Florida and first came to Key West in 1935. He married an island native and soon began collecting, documenting, and analyzing folklore in Florida, presenting his work through his writings and public presentations. Much of the research for his new book is based on his own fieldwork from this period, but he also includes material collected by WPA field-workers and his subsequent field research, completed over the past twenty years. The book begins by placing Key West—which natives often refer to as Bone Island or The Rock—into its larger historical context, and the work here is finely crafted. Kennedy’s distinctive voice emerges right away, as he gives a highly readable and thorough introduction that shows how Cayo Hueso has been explored, developed, and occasionally abused throughout its history. This historical overview sets the stage for vivid portrayals of the occupational folklife that is representative of this fascinating island’s unique culture. Kennedy’s descriptions of salvaging shipwrecks, hooking sponges, rolling tobacco, and making charcoal are presented with well-chosen excerpts from his own fieldwork, and Kennedy’s keen ear for colloquial speech is especially evident here. Part of the appeal of his writing is that Kennedy knows how to draw on both the voices of Florida’s residents and his own storytelling abilities. Reading Kennedy, one feels the presence of a master raconteur who appreciates and wishes to honor the verbal richness that he finds in folk expression.
A chapter titled “Key West Characters” will appeal especially to popular audiences, but folklorists will also appreciate the personal-experience narratives and local legends found here. Today, the island is known for its diverse and eccentric residents, and Kennedy’s accounts of individuals known as Fried Egg, Monkey Man, Coo-Coo Bobo, and Kill ’Em Grey only begin to sample their colorful narratives. The macabre story of “Count” Karl Tanzler von Cosel and his beloved Elena has to be read to be believed, and Kennedy includes photographs to further verify one of the strangest tales ever told in Florida. This section also includes narratives that will be of value to literary scholars. He provides readers [End Page 244] with the back-story of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, in which Kennedy reveals the model for the Harry Morgan character. Kennedy also includes another prominent Key Wester and personal friend, the brilliant folk artist Mario Sanchez, whose bas-relief paintings beautifully illustrate the book. Sanchez’s paintings, period and contemporary photographs, and clear illustrations are wonderfully presented...