the story behind the book

Bringing a sense of place and history to the Gulf

david wilson for the boston globe

When Jack E. Davis was 10 years old, his family moved to the Florida panhandle, right on the Gulf of Mexico. The formerly land-locked boy was fascinated by his new surroundings. While writing his Pulitzer prize-winning “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea,” now out in paperback, Davis recalled his youthful explorations of “this wonderful playground,” where “the waterways were the streets; the docks were the sidewalks; my canoe was my bicycle; and my rod and reel were my bat and ball.”

“As I was writing the book, I was reflecting back on that,” Davis said, “and it just occurred to me that this is where it began, when I was 10 years old.” Now a professor of history at the University of Florida, Davis has published other books, but none with as wide a reach as “The Gulf,” which also won the Kirkus prize for nonfiction. “Every author hopes for the reception that this book has gotten,” Davis said, adding, “a lot of academics are quite happy with writing for other academics. I’ve never been satisfied with that.”

“The Gulf’’ braids together human history with ecological science, all imbued with a deep sense of wonder about this place that many outside the region don’t understand. The process toward publication was sometimes difficult, but Davis persisted, because, he said, “I really thought that the history of the Gulf was an important story that Americans needed to know about. This is not just a regional history; this is an American history.”


“Sense of place is really important to me,” said Davis, who opens the book with the New England painter Winslow Homer’s observations about the southern seascape. Because of his own lifelong attachment to the place, he added, “it was really a privilege for me to write this book.”

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Davis will read 7 p.m. Monday at Harvard Book Store.

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Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at