The Gulf of Mexico, by Jack Davis’s telling, has been forgotten, not as an environmental feature — in that regard the Deep Water Horizon spill of 2010 brought the Gulf back to national attention — but as a historical entity. Davis’s 500-plus page tome will help us remember it.
In The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea Davis traces the history of the Gulf from its geological formation to the present day. But by the end of the book it is clear that Davis’s designation of the Gulf as an “American sea” is not meant as a compliment — either to the Gulf or to America. The Gulf is American only because Americans, always better conquerors than stewards, have subjected it to the destructive march of manifest destiny. We killed or drove out the indigenous peoples; we overfished the estuaries; we drilled the salt domes; we decimated the bird population; we polluted the water with chemical byproducts and farm water runoff; we ripped out the protective mangrove barrier lining the coast and replaced it with condominiums and casinos — we did all this in the name of progress, we did all this in the name of making the sea our own.
Davis deals deftly with the unavoidable problem presented by any book of this scope (some 500 years and hundreds of thousands of square miles): there is simply too much to write about. Davis’s solution is to write less about more. He jumps quickly from person to person, story to story, decade to decade, weaving together a history organized loosely by chronology and subject matter, but never settling in one place for very long. This strategy is risky: a story told in this manner may quickly reveal itself to be little more than a tedious recitation of dates and names.
But Davis proves himself a master at popular history. His biggest asset is his prose, urgent, precise, and confident, wholly devoid of jargon or academic pretense, constantly driving the reader from one topic to the next. His other asset is his expertise. Davis is a professor of environmental history at the University of Florida and he writes like a man who has sailed, studied, and loved the Gulf of Mexico his entire life.
With Davis at the helm, you’ll come to love it too — and hopefully, you’ll come to protect it.
Good For: Gulf visitors; history lovers.
Not Good For: Land developers; oil barons; feather-hat connoisseurs.