By WARREN RESEN
Patrick Smith left us on January 26, 2014 at age 87. This article is a tribute to a man who made Florida history come alive. Patrick wanted to tell the rich history of Florida to generations unaware of what came before theme parks. In this he has succeeded. His words will live on as long as people still read and are curious about what came before.
“Tobias MacIvey was thirty years old and had been in the Florida scrub for five years. He had come south out of Georgia in 1858. In his horse-drawn wagon there was a sack of corn and a sack of sweet potatoes, a few packets of seeds, a shotgun and a few shells, a frying pan, several pewter dishes, forks, and a cast-iron pot. There were also the tools he would need to clear the land and build a house: two chopping axes, a broadaxe, crosscut saw, auger bit, a fro and drawing knife.”
So begins the story of Tobias, his wife Emma and son Zechariah in the Florida wilderness in the mid 19th century. The book is A Land Remembered, the story of three generations of a pioneer family in Florida and a story portraying the tenacity of American pioneers: how they survived and prospered in an often hostile environment. There are those still around today in Florida who sat across the dinner table from grandparents and heard similar first-hand stories from those who were there when it happened.
The novel for which Patrick Smith is best known, A Land Remembered vividly demonstrates his keen and penetrating eye as a gifted observer of the human condition. Not a word is wasted in what many believe is the definitive story of Florida‘s emergence into modern day. It is Patrick Smith at his best.
Smith was voted the most beloved of Florida’s contemporary writers several times by a major Florida magazine, and A Land Remembered has several times been voted the most insightful book ever written about Florida and how it evolved as settlers moved south. But more than that, it is a warm, rich story about people.
Patrick Smith’s first book was published more than 60 years ago. He has nine major novels to his credit, many of which tell of “the plight of the underdogs in life” according to him. His body of work has earned him honors and recognition unimaginable to most writers; three nominations for the Pulitzer Prize and multiple nominations for the Nobel Prize for Literature. But in his self-effacing “ah shucks” manner, Patrick told me, “Heck, I didn’t win none of them. I was just nominated.” At last count, Smith’s novels have been published in 48 languages around the world.
Patrick’s wife Iris was a native of Deland, and they were married there in 1948. After moving to Florida permanently in 1966, Patrick‘s focus as a writer shifted to issues facing a state where the dragline and bulldozer seemed to be everywhere. Forever Island, published in 1973, and Allapattah, published in 1987, tell of the Seminole Indians and their struggle to cope in the modern world. Angel City, published in 1978, is the story of migrant workers in Florida and the harsh working conditions and virtual slavery in which they were often held.
In researching material for these novels about the plight of the Seminoles, Patrick Smith lived among them down in Big Cypress and spent so much time there he said that his wife “thought I had a girlfriend stashed away down in the swamps.”
For the story about migrant workers in Florida in the 1960s, Patrick told me, “I would go out to the camps disguised as one of the migrant workers to get material for the book. It was hard work and dangerous for me. If they ever found out what I was doing, I would have been in big trouble.”
The honors bestowed upon Patrick Smith have been many. In 1999 he was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in Tallahassee, the highest honor that can be bestowed on any Floridian in the arts. When Patrick was presented with the statuette symbolizing this singular achievement, this man of letters was so moved he was able to respond only, “Wow.” He is only the second writer ever to receive this award while still living. The first was Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, author of the legendary The River of Grass.
The staying power of A Land Remembered, first published in 1984, is evident by its many reprints, but he spoke to me most often of his earlier works, Forever Island and Angel City.
In Smith’s own words
“One thing that has been especially gratifying to me,” said Smith, “is the hundreds of letters I’ve gotten from young people who have read A Land Remembered since the Student Edition was published and adopted by schools across the state. Many of them say that reading the book changed their lives…. They didn’t know about a time when people lived together, worked together without complaining, laughed together, cried together, loved together and died together, spending their lives together with the family always first….
“I spent over two years doing research for A Land Remembered. People I meet, whose families have been in Florida for generations, keep telling me that the story is actually about their family…. Many people ask me if all those things that happened in A Land Remembered are true. Most are…. The story about young Sol MacIvey selling baby buzzards to tourists in Palm Beach for $25 a pop is one I entirely made up. Folks seem to really get a kick out of it. I think that the story of Sol later buying up a big piece of what was to become Miami Beach for the price of a dozen baby buzzards was appropriate in light of what was to happen down there in the 1920s land boom when swamp land was the number one best seller.”
“Things have changed, and I wanted to show how Florida used to be through my books. In writing Forever Island, I wanted to give people an idea of what it was like in Florida before all the development and also show what happened to the Seminoles and how they were treated.”
— O —
Last month Gov. Rick Scott traveled to Patrick Smith’s home on Merritt Island to personally present him with the “Great Floridian” award. The governor said, “Patrick Smith touches the hearts of readers with his tale of Florida’s history. ”
After reading A Land Remembered, you can never again drive through Florida without thinking of its rich history, thanks to Patrick Smith’s vivid imagery. If we take the time to listen, we discover our heritage through his stories. Patrick Smith is in the same league as Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and others who have written so insightfully of the human condition.
Patrick Smith was born in Mendenhall (D’Lo), Miss., Oct. 8, 1927. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1947 from the University of Mississippi and a master’s in literature in 1959. He worked in public relations for several Mississippi institutions of higher learning and wrote for local newspapers until 1966 when he moved to Florida. He was director of public relations at Brevard Community College until his retirement in 1988.
— O —
The public is invited to attend a Celebration of Life for Patrick Smith to be held at the Bernard Simpkins Fine Arts Center on the Cocoa campus of Eastern Florida State College, formerly known as Brevard Community College. It will be at 2 p.m. Sunday, February 16. The campus is located at 1519 Clearlake Road, Cocoa, FL 32922.