330: Tropic of Hopes by Henry Knight

by Gerard


330.9759: Knight, Henry. Tropic of Hopes: California, Florida, and the Selling of American Paradise, 1869-1929. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2013. 198 pp. ISBN 978-0-8130-4481-1.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 300: Social Sciences
  • 330: Economics
  • 330.9: History
  • +759: Florida

After the Civil War, the United States tried many different methods to re-unify its broken landscape and bolster the economy. While the gold rushes of the 1840s and 1850s helped to pull people to the hills of California, that particular strategy was wearing thin during the antebellum years. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 changed things, however. Folks could go from coast to coast in a matter of days, not weeks or months. Travels guides and boosterism became the main method for garnering interest in the two coastal states of California and Florida. Henry Knight’s Tropic of Hopes investigates the history and outcomes of the promotion of these two states.

There was an interesting and tangled web of motivations and history involved in settling California and Florida. These states were seen as large waste space where Americans could move and terraform the land to their wishes. Large swaths of the states could be “upcycled” into agricultural paradises to grow exotic (and possibly costly) produce. But, of course, this came in direct contention with environmental concerns. Secondly, the states were sold as semi-tropic wonderlands where bliss and sunshine intermingled. On the flip side, these advertisements were implicitly colonialist by saying that the American tropics were better because they didn’t have pesky island natives dotting the landscape. Each aspect of selling California and Florida folded into the political and social landscape of the time and this continued until 1929 (when the economic boom time came to a sudden halt).

Knight’s writing is academic first and historical second, but not truly intended for the amateur reader. It is largely an economic history, so it’s naturally a bit dry. There are a ton of resources in the bibliography for further reading and the author does his best to cover all the bases here. It’s not the first book I would run to, but it was definitely interesting to think about the affect of boosterism on the social landscape and how the states became defined in the American psyche. This would make a good addition for those interested in small-scale histories or economic trends.