USF St. Petersburg Alum Awarded Pulitzer Prize in History for The Gulf

Historian Jack Davis during a book signing for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea.

Historian Jack Davis during a book signing for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea.

Second Year in a Row a USFSP Alumnus Receives a Pulitzer Prize

Jack E. Davis, a University of South Florida St. Petersburg alum and University of Florida professor, was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in history for his engrossing book The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea. The Gulf interweaves geologic, environmental, cultural and political history to tell the story of the critical natural and man-made events, as well as the people, that shaped the Gulf of Mexico.

“I conceived the book a few months before the [2010 BP] oil spill, which dominated the headlines for 87 days and really robbed the Gulf of its true identity,” said Davis. “I wanted to restore its identity, showing the Gulf as more than an oil resource or just a sunning beach.”

The Gulf is much more than a book to Davis. He had an intimate relationship with the region growing up in Pinellas County, Florida and over the decades witnessed the rapid transformation of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico as a whole. He wanted to tell the story of change that took place over those decades and the centuries before.

More than a year after publication, what still stands out in the book is the many people who cared for the natural environment amidst this change.

“In the book are many people who cared about the Gulf of Mexico’s wildlife, water and estuaries,” Davis said. “People like Linda Young and the Bream Fisherman Association of Pensacola who cleaned up the five bays around Pensacola. There is Diane Wilson in Texas, who was a shrimper and worked hard to stop the petrochemical industries from polluting Lavaca Bay.”

Davis added, “There are a lot of heroes and their stories and their dedication to protecting the Gulf that make up this book. There is a long history that just as soon as we start messing up the environment, others step forward to stop that and clean it up.”

The book also provides readers a sense that though the region itself consists of five states – Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas – that surround the Gulf of Mexico, all Americans are connected to the area in one way or another.

“There are 85 rivers that run through the Gulf states and connect the Gulf to the Midwest, to the Northeast, to the Rocky Mountains even,” said Davis. “Our beautiful white sand beaches in the Florida peninsula were once the top of the Appalachian Mountains, and are the product of millions of years of erosion.”

Davis obtained his Bachelor’s in political science in 1985, during which he discovered his love of writing through an expository writing class with Professor Herb Karl. He then went on to study history. Working with USF St. Petersburg professors Ray Arsenault and Gary Mormino, Davis received his Master’s in 1989 and found that history opened up a space for writing creatively.

“Jack has become a first-rate scholar with a talent for writing to broad audiences, and with The Gulf has written a beautifully crafted book,” said Arsenault.

“I have known Jack a long time, being his advisor for his master’s degree, and was just deliriously happy when I first heard the news,” Arsenault said. “I told him in a text message that I wasn’t totally shocked [he won the Pulitzer.] I read the book and actually assigned it to my students this semester in my Modern Florida class and knew how good it was.”

Davis is currently a faculty member in History at the University of Florida, where he works with students whose interests lie in environmental history. His other books include An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century (2009), which received the gold medal in the nonfiction category of the Florida Book Awards, and Race Against Time: Culture and Separation in Natchez Since 1930 (2001) which won the prestigious Charles S. Sydnor Prize for best book in southern history.

“For me this recognition is just as much about the appreciation for the Gulf of Mexico as it is about the book itself,” said Davis. “I find it really heartwarming. It’s a testament to how Americans appreciate the Gulf of Mexico for more than just this oil supplier, and the Pulitzer reaffirms that.”

Davis added, “I’m shocked and still in disbelief and of course deeply honored.”

This is the second straight year a USF St. Petersburg alumnus was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Last year, reporter Eric Eyre with the Charleston Gazette-Mail received the award for investigative reporting for his series on the opioid drug crisis and related overdoses in West Virginia.