UF history professor wins 2018 Pulitzer Prize for History

April 16, 2018
UF News
photographer: Gigi Marino

University of Florida history professor Jack E. Davis is the winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea,” the Pulitzer Prize Board announced today.

“Jack’s considerable talent lies in his ability to take on large, sweeping subjects, boil them down to the human level and make them a compelling read,” UF Provost Joe Glover said. ‘The Gulf’ is no exception. It is a remarkable book, and we are incredibly proud to have him on our faculty.”

Davis said he was in his office Monday afternoon meeting with a student when his phone began pinging repeatedly. He didn’t know why.

“Then I looked at it and it said I’d won the Pulitzer and I was speechless,” he said. “It’s been wonderful. Everyone here at UF – the department, the dean the university, President [Kent] Fuchs has been very supportive of this book from the very beginning. That kind of support means a lot to a faculty member.”

In his review of “The Gulf” for the New York Times in May 2017, Philip Connors wrote, “In Davis’s hands, the story reads like a watery version of the history of the American West. Both places saw Spanish incursions from the south, mutual incomprehension in the meeting of Europeans and aboriginals, waves of disease that devastated the natives and a relentless quest by the newcomers for the raw materials of empire. There were scoundrels and hucksters, booms and busts, senseless killing in sublime landscapes and a tragic belief in the inexhaustible bounty of nature.”

“The Gulf” also won the Kirkus Prize, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, was a New York Times Notable Book, and made a number of other “best of” lists in national publications.

“Jack Davis’ book on the Gulf of Mexico is spectacular contribution,” said David Richardson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which is home to the UF history department. “We are thrilled that the Pulitzer committee felt the same way in awarding him the prize in history. In the tradition of the best historians, Jack weaves a story of a place and its peoples and their uniquely American identity. Jack excels as a scholar and writer in the classroom and beyond. We are proud to have him among our faculty.”

When Davis first conceived of “The Gulf,” the Deepwater Horizon accident that dumped 130 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico had not yet happened. That Davis was writing a history of the Gulf around the same time as the largest oil spill in history was coincidental, and allowed him to focus on aspects other than the spill, which he says, “seemed to rob the Gulf of Mexico of its true identity.”

“I wanted to restore it, to show people that the Gulf is more than an oil spill,” he said. “It’s got a rich, natural history connected to Americans, and it’s not integrated into the larger American historical narrative. That’s a wrong I wanted to correct.”

Davis received his Ph.D. in 1994 at Brandeis University. He works with students whose interests lie in environmental history. Before joining the UF faculty, he taught at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he was director of environmental studies; the University of Jordan, where he was a Fulbright scholar; and Eckerd College. In 2004, he launched the department’s student journal, Alpata: A Journal of History, and remains its faculty advisor. His “Race Against Time: Culture and Separation in Natchez Since 1930” won the Charles S. Sydnor Prize for the best book in southern history published in 2001.

He has edited three anthologies (on the civil rights movement, female activism in Florida, and Florida environmental history) and a collection of writings by Marjory Stoneman Douglas. 

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