Searching for Gloria Jahoda

One Man’s Quest to Discover the ‘Outsider’ Writer Who Captured the Spirit of North Florida

Photoillustration by Marc Thomas

In the fall of 2000, when I knew for sure I was going to be moving to Tallahassee, I browsed through a used bookstore in Nashville, Tenn., and found a book called “The Other Florida.” I didn’t know anything about the author – Gloria Jahoda – and the only thing that made me buy the book was that the endpapers consisted of a map of the Gulf Coast, with Tallahassee right in the middle.

And then I read it.

The book just knocked me over. It was so beautifully written and observant, a combination of poetry and scientific inquiry steeped with the perspective of someone – an outsider – stumbling across something beautiful and bypassed.

When I finally did move to town, I was determined to meet Jahoda. I looked her up in the phone book, found the listing and called the number, only to be told she had been dead for 20 years, and her husband, in poor health, had remarried. I did not try to contact him again.

Over the next several months, I located all of Jahoda’s other works of nonfiction – “The Road to Samarkand,” “The River of the Golden Ibis,” “The Trail of Tears,” and her 1976 history/study of the whole state, “Florida: A Bicentennial History.” While none quite matched the sheer power of “The Other Florida,” they all were very well written and informative, from the typewriter of someone who had quite obviously fallen in love with her surroundings. Emotions are not always easy things to put into words; Jahoda was good at it.

Along the way, I learned a little bit more about her: She was a Chicago native with a B.A. in English and an M.A. in anthropology from Northwestern, which explained her writing ability and powers of observation. She was a pianist of no mean talent and more than a little bohemian. (“I don’t live in a world of polished silver,” she once said.)

Those who did know her were never sure exactly how her name should be pronounced; Was it “Jahoda” with a hard J, or was it a Y, like “ja,” the German word for “yes”?

Her father once told her she made up her mind too quickly and was too emotional, something she never denied. A former university anthropology professor, she moved to Tallahassee in 1963 when her husband took a job teaching library science at Florida State University. When he lost his sight, she devoted hours reading to him.

I also found her two earlier books: “Annie” and “Delilah’s Mountain.” They were novels, one set in 17th-century England, the other in 18th-century Virginia, and both early indicators of the theme that would consume her: the interaction of the human spirit and the land. It is a timeless theme, of course, but one that she brought to the Gulf Coast.

And I learned that she had died, quite suddenly, at the age of 53.

I began to meet or correspond with people who had known her: Dr. William Warren Rogers, professor emeritus in the Florida State University history department; Dr. Leo Sandon, retired professor of religious studies, also at FSU; former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, and members of the Tallahassee Historical Society.

Almost uniformly, they remembered someone who could be difficult and outspoken, but whose sense of wonder and love for this area seemed to know no bounds. And all of them recognized the contribution she had made. When I – in vain, as it turned out – tried to get her inducted posthumously into the Florida Writers and Artists Hall of Fame, Rogers, Sandon and Graham (along with others) wrote letters of recommendation, with Sandon calling her the “Marjorie Stoneman Douglas of North Florida.” High praise indeed, considering Douglas lived past the age of 100 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Graham wrote: “She has given the generations of today and the future the opportunity to understand and appreciate the beauty of our environment . . . as well as the early culture of our state.” As governor, he had signed a resolution honoring her.

Gloria Jahoda captured a moment in the history of Tallahassee and the Gulf Coast. It’s tempting to say it was the last moment before the world came rushing in – pre-Bowden, pre-St. Joe development, pre-hanging chads – when it really was the Forgotten Coast and all Florida’s action was down south, from Titusville to Miami.

Tallahassee was, she wrote, “two hundred miles from anywhere else.” How much she was responsible for changing our world is debatable, but when “The Other Florida” was published in 1967 by the very prestigious New York publisher Scribner’s, it went through at least three printings in one year. Since that time, it has been periodically in print, but as of now has been out of print for five years. (However, it and her other books can be purchased from used-book dealers through Amazon.com.)

Why, then, isn’t she in the Florida Writers and Artists Hall of Fame?

It is a largely pro-forma honor that consists of a plaque in the state Capitol selected by the Division of Cultural Affairs of the Department of State. During the years I nominated her, she lost out to three painters (including the Highwaymen), a dancer and a circus clown. It may be that she was not a native, but then, neither was Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, or about half the others. It also may be that she has not had anyone of note to push her nomination or family to accept induction for her and provide publicity.

It also may be because Jahoda was one of those writers who bled on the page, despite her best efforts, and that bleeding caused a mixed reaction to her work, at least in some quarters. Her scientific training forced a degree of objectivity in her language that sometimes was just barely sustainable and often was not.

For example, the Tallahassee establishment may not have been amusing to read her slyly ironic description of St. John’s Episcopal Church as “the gentleman’s path to Heaven.”

Listen to the emotion that runs beneath the surface in this passage from “The Other Florida” comparing a visit to her family’s traditional Anglican church and a visit to an African-American church at Bethalonia, near Tallahassee:

Once before in my life I had sat apart in a church. In the autumn of an earlier year, I had returned to the town of Norfolk, England – Attleborough – from which my family had come to America in 1700. I had been installed in the Lord of the Manor’s pew in a sanctuary dating back to the Saxons and I had been troubled because I believed there shouldn’t be special places for anybody in any church. Afterwards I had been stormed by Attleborough’s questions. Would I please explain Governor Faubus in Arkansas? Was it true that migratory workers in America starved to death? Why did we bully Negroes? . . . I had felt very foreign indeed though Americans aren’t called foreigners there. I had also felt charged with the heaviest of tasks: to tell the truth about my country, especially the problem south where so many of my relatives lived. At Bethalonia things were different. Again, two universes, one of American whites, and the other of American Negroes, came together. I was again a visible foreigner in a separate place. But there was nothing to explain. We all knew what the struggle had been, and what the maladies were. None of us at Bethalonia were social reformers. We were, merely, simple and also immensely complex people sharing a wild earth that would soon be drenched before our eyes in a tidal wave of modernity.

That same sense of detached emotion came into her other works, particularly “The Trail of Tears,” which she admitted was not an impartial book. “Historians stronger than I will have to resist the temptation of passing judgment on an enormity,” she wrote. Jahoda’s sympathy for the underdog was palpable, and appreciated. The book caused the remnants of the Creek Nation in Florida to elect her registrar and, when she died in 1980, members scattered her ashes in the Gulf.

Jahoda was aware of all this. “My role in Florida,” she wrote in response to a fan letter from Washington state, “is more or less that of the Village Idiot. At first the populace suspected me of sinister motives when I made criticisms (and even jokes) but they have learned I mean well in my Yankee way and that I am apt to say mad things but ‘it don’t mean nothin’. Which, in these parts is a literary tribute.”

Jahoda’s writing ability was poetic in the sense of the Imagist poets from the early part of the 20th century. She was able to wring emotion from seemingly objective descriptions. There was her rather harrowing description in “Florida: A Bicentennial History,” of what she described as a culture of death in the land of sun and youth:

The one feature of retirement in Florida that few people in the state or out of it mention is that it is segregation as blatant as any racial segregation. It may, too, be filled with the deep but unspoken knowledge that one’s children back home are glad to be rid of a parental burden …

Such unflinching writing was the mark of both a great writer and a great reporter, and her book on Florida, intended to celebrate the state, instead became more and more ambivalent as it neared the end until her anger and pain spilled out, as her final paragraphs of the book illustrate:

Florida has been devastated by man, much of the devastation was inevitable because Florida in nature could not be lived in except by Indians inured to it. Heat and mosquitoes and tropical diseases killed even Indians. The kitsch that white men brought is something else again; yet is it uniquely Floridian … Was there not a Disneyland before there was a Disney World? Florida has learned that when you wish upon a mouse, you get many of the things your heart desires – jobs for instance – and plenty it doesn’t: traffic jams, inflated hotel rates and pick pockets. But it is too late to turn back to the primeval. What can be turned to is a major conservation effort unfettered by ecology amateurs who mean well, but do not always know what they are talking about. Poets cannot, by themselves, save Tampa Bay.

Such writing was not designed to win friends, any more than her description of Wakulla County in “The Other Florida,” with its hookworm, pellagra and primitive living and educational conditions. But embedded within the pain over human destruction was a genuine admiration for the tenacity of the human spirit that she saw all around her. Forty years after the publication of “The Other Florida,” in the light of the changes in Wakulla and other counties, what is one to make of these observations and what they prophesied?

 “Wakulla County is becoming Florida’s most accessible breathing room. Its nonagricultural acres have already been saved by sanctuaries and St. Joe Paper Company holdings. It is all there and waiting. Soon it really will be Florida’s last uncrowded playground. Wakullans are beginning to understand that all their tragedy will be their escape from destitution. They have begun to wield hammers at Fort St. Marks once more … They are digging up the bottles and uniform buttons Andrew Jackson’s raiders tossed behind and are building shelves to hold them … Because the largest proportion of Wakulla County’s population is of school age, parents have begun to go to public hearings and demand school boards which will do for their children what wasn’t done for them. The problem Wakulla must eventually face is that of preventing the destruction of its saving wilderness by its people’s deliverance from too much of it.

In 1984, four years after her death, Gerald Jahoda donated virtually all of his wife’s papers to Strozier Library at FSU, where they remain in a special collection. The collection consists of several photograph albums, boxes of memorabilia and awards from historical organizations and the like. But by far the largest portion of it is devoted to her research and various drafts of “The Road to Samarkand,” one of two of her books (“Florida: A Bicentennial History” is the other) that was never reprinted.

Jahoda identified with Frederick Delius (1862-1934), a British-born composer who came to the Jacksonville area in 1884, bought an orange grove and proceeded to merge the discipline of classical music with the folk rhythms of the crackers and the African-Americans 38 years before Gershwin. Delius wrote a full symphony, “Florida,” and the first opera, “Koanga,” devoted to African-American culture. Jahoda devoted a chapter to Delius in “The Other Florida,” and in 1967-1968 set out on a full biography, describing an artist ahead of his time whose work was controversial during his lifetime, and appreciated away from his place of residence before it was accepted within it.

Jahoda did not stop with the biography, but also wrote a series of radio programs promoting Delius’ importance not just as an international musician, but as a product of Florida as well.

Her message was clear: His accomplishment – like hers – would have been impossible without the shock of recognition that came from moving to a new environment.

Jahoda’s sudden death from a heart attack in January 1980 (she was a heavy smoker) caused a good bit of reaction in the state. Then-Gov. Bob Graham and the Cabinet released a resolution of regret, calling her one of the state’s “most prominent authors.”  The Tallahassee Democrat called her a “a poet of the people of North Florida, bringing to life the folkways of turpentine stills, quail plantations, canopy roads and the quality of life between the St. Johns River on the east, the Apalachicola River on the west and the area north of the Great Ocala forest.” State Librarian Ronald Kanen focused on “The Other Florida,” calling it “a book about non-tourist, untypical Florida … by an author with the vision to present the folkways of rural people with honesty and dignity.”

But the great loss was in what she never wrote. It would have been fascinating to get her take on Seaside or SouthWood and the new land development directions of St. Joe (those who assume she would have automatically opposed St. Joe are mistaken; in one of her last interviews, she stated that preserving too much land in the Tallahassee area would hurt the economy), or on the culture of Tallahassee as a football mecca, or on Bush v. Gore.

She undoubtedly would have worn her emotions on her sleeve, but would have made us think as well as feel.

The interesting thing about the best of Jahoda’s work is that – despite linguistic changes like the almost total omission of “Negro” from today’s vernacular – little of it has dated, despite the small window of time (1967-1980) during which she wrote.

She was much less concerned with the politics or circumstances of a particular time and place than she was of the people who inhabited the time and place. Her books all focus on human character, endurance, success and failure, without which physical surroundings are ultimately sterile. And that makes the best of her writing timeless.

Categories: History

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