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  • The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea by Jack E. Davis
  • Erin Stewart Mauldin
The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea. By Jack E. Davis. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017. 557 pp. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-8714-0866-2.

Jack Davis's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Gulf, is a beautifully-written, wide-ranging synthesis representing the best of what environmental history offers to both academia and the general reading public. The delightful prose and frequent use of intimate, person-centered narratives provide an entertaining package for Davis's thorough research, innovative interdisciplinary discussions, and deft handling of chronological and geographical scale. As most environmental histories do, this work blurs the line between human and non-human narratives in a way that restores the "natural struts of our existence" (9). Yet what could have been a standard, declensionist tale of nature's ruination at the hands of farmers, real estate developers, and oil men, is, in Davis's hands, a story of resilience and hope, focusing on the ways the Gulf "has long been and will continue to be a gift to humankind" (11). Of course, the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico encompasses a variety of environments and histories, and Davis is careful not to artificially conflate the history of Florida's Mangrove Coast with that of southern Texas or Louisiana. Zooming in to focus on developments in one area does not prevent the author from discussing more general developments across the Gulf states. Thus, he manages to produce a local, regional, and national history [End Page 159] all at once, for the events in and resources of the Gulf make their way into American life through trade, tourism, and technology.

The book is divided into nineteen chapters over four parts, each part organized by its temporal coverage. The early chapters highlight the contributions of little-known figures during the Euro-American "conquest" of and settlement in the areas around the Gulf of Mexico, from sea captains and mapmakers to nineteenth-century engineers and soldiers. Outside of the in-depth coverage of Native American groups often passed over in textbook explanations of pre-Columbian America (which tend to focus on either the Northeast or the Southwest), the basic narrative of this first section is not particularly revelatory for readers familiar with early American history. However, Davis intersperses explanations of the non-human history of the Gulf in a way that ably introduces the lay reader to geology, riverine and estuarine hydrology, botany, and field zoology—all of which are necessary to understanding the particular character of the Gulf and its attraction for humans over time. In this way, The Gulf diverges in its structure from many environmental histories; it organically threads science throughout the entire narrative, rather than using natural history as prelude or background before moving on to the human history of the Gulf of Mexico.

Exploration and discovery of the Gulf gave way to extraction, and the chapters covering the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cycle through the various things humans wanted from the area. Tangible resources, such as oysters, tarpon, snapper, grouper, exotic birds, and oil, are juxtaposed with more abstract attractions such as isolation, health, and vacation time. Throughout, Davis emphasizes the "invention" of the Gulf as we know it today—for centuries, fears of lashing rainstorms, unpredictable waters, perilous swamps, man-eating alligators, and swarms of insects kept large-scale settlements off the coastlines. Technological and transportation advances, breakthroughs in the treatment of tropical diseases, a thriving tourist business in fishing and hunting, the works of artists and writers who found wonderment in the Gulf, and changing attitudes toward leisure [End Page 160] time during industrialization all worked together, over time, to bring throngs of sun-loving beachgoers to the coast.

The most riveting sections of this work are those in which Davis describes the Gulf's ecology as it operates out of human control. Chapters Twelve and Thirteen, "Islands, Shifting Sands of Time," and "Wind and Water," respectively, are gripping disaster stories grounded in compelling portraits of individuals, such as Walter Anderson, who witnessed and were awed by the destructive natural forces at work in the Gulf...


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pp. 159-161
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