One of the first Florida novels ever written remained unpublished for more than 150 years. For nearly five decades, the hand written manuscript was preserved but forgotten in an archive at Rollins College.
Wenxian Zhang is head of Archives and Special Collections at Rollins College in Winter Park. While doing an inventory of the Florida Collection in 2004, Zhang came across a hand written manuscript by the unpublished author Cyrus Parkhurst Condit.
“The manuscript was a gift to Rollins from Frederick Dau, author of the 1934 book Florida Old and New,” says Zhang. Dau donated the Condit manuscript and many other items to Rollins in 1955.
When Zhang rediscovered the Condit manuscript, he shared it with Maurice O’Sullivan, Professor of Literature at Rollins and a recognized authority on Florida literature. “I brought it to his attention, he being a literary expert,” Zhang says. “We feel that we found something significant.”
O’Sullivan instantly recognized the importance of the find. Written in 1855, the book was one of only a dozen novels set in Florida, which had been named a state just ten years before.
“Probably the most significant element of the book is that it’s the first novel that I would call a domestic novel about Florida,” says O’Sullivan. Unlike most other novels about Florida, this was not an idealized vision of the state written from afar, but the work of a man who had actually visited here, hunting, fishing, and participating in the daily lives of residents.
Little is known about Condit, except that he came from a wealthy New Jersey family. “He was apparently 25-years-old when he visited Florida in 1855,” O’Sullivan says. “At the end of that year he got married, had two children, and then died at 31.”
Condit never had the opportunity to finish revising his novel or get it published.
O’Sullivan and Zhang have turned the hand written manuscript into the book A Trip to Florida for Health and Sport: The Lost 1855 Novel of Cyrus Parkhurst Condit, providing an introduction and afterword.
With the help of student assistants, O’Sullivan and Zhang scanned the hand written manuscript into an electronic format, transcribed the text, and carefully edited the work. “That’s one of the great advantages to working at an academic institution,” says Zhang. “You have eager students who are willing to help you.”
A Trip to Florida for Health and Sport: The Lost Novel of Cyrus Parkhurst Condit is a coming of age story that contains detailed descriptions of everyday life in Florida in the years prior to the Civil War.
“17-year-old George Morton comes to Florida suffering from ill health and psychological problems and emotional problems because of his father’s death,” O’Sullivan says. “He recovers by entering into nature.”
During his trip, George Morton travels around north and central Florida hunting and fishing. He visits a lumber camp, talks with a survivor of the Seminole Indian War, goes to a wedding, and learns about the importance of Florida’s cattle industry.
By the time George leaves Florida, he is a healthy and confident young man.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s 1938 novel The Yearling is one of the most popular Florida novels ever written. In the book a teenage boy learns to hunt, listens to hunting stories, visits Silver Glen Springs and other central Florida towns, builds a fence, and takes a fawn as a pet.
A Trip to Florida for Health and Sport was written more than 80 years before The Yearling, and the plot similarities are striking.
It is possible that Rawlings had access to Condit’s manuscript through historian A.J. Hanna at Rollins College, who was good friends with both Rawlings and Frederick Dau.
“I suspect, however, that the similarity really has more to do with the fact that life was pretty simple in the 1850s, was pretty simple even in the 1930s,” O’Sullivan says. “Most of what happened (in both novels) was probably the average, everyday life of folks until World War II, until the enormous growth of Florida began changing our lives entirely.”
Thanks to O’Sullivan and Zhang, A Trip to Florida for Health and Sport: The Lost 1855 Novel of Cyrus Parkhurst Condit joins the pantheon of important Florida literature.
Dr. Ben Brotemarkle is executive director of the Florida Historical Society and host of the radio program “Florida Frontiers,” broadcast locally on 90.7 WMFE Thursday evenings at 6:30 and Sunday afternoons at 4:00, and on 89.5 WFIT Sunday mornings at 7:00. The show can be heard online at myfloridahistory.org.