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Socky O’Sullivan: A Leading Scholar of Florida Historical Literature

March 2, 2010 - Maurice “Socky” O’Sullivan, Kenneth Curry professor of literature, believes that disciplinary boundaries should be cracked. Rather than looking at a discipline with a single lens, O’Sullivan shares the same perspective of Academy-Award winning director James Cameron: “Everything now is in 3-D.” Socky O'Sullivan, Rollins College

This interdisciplinary view is evident in O’Sullivan’s scholarly pursuits.  Co-director of the Florida Center for Shakespeare Studies, he has written extensively on literature, Shakespeare, Florida, popular culture, Irish culture, religion, and education. He is the author, editor, and co-editor of more than a dozen books (including five on Florida) along with 40 peer-reviewed publications and has presented over 300 lectures on these areas of study.

Recently, O’Sullivan was chosen along with Associate Professor of Modern Foreign Languages Alberto Prieto-Calixto, to participate in the Florida Humanities Council (FHC) Scholar Summit on the 2013 Quincentennial held in St. Petersburg, Fla. The summit brought together forty prestigious Florida scholars and representatives of cultural organizations for a brainstorming session on the planning of the state’s 2013 Quincentennial celebration commemorating Ponce de Leon’s arrival in Florida. Scholars were invited to help shape a deeper understanding of both the historical and cultural importance of Florida’s relationship with Spain, which began almost 500 years ago.

During the summit, O’Sullivan led a discussion on the “Spanish Legacy in Florida Literature,” and Prieto-Calixto presented a lecture on “The Lingering Black Legend in Florida.” 

“It’s exciting that two Rollins scholars participated in this important conference celebrating such a significant milestone in Florida’s history,” said Vice President for Planning and Dean of College Laurie Joyner. “Rollins is home to some of the state’s top experts in the fields of environmental studies, political science, literature, history, as well as modern languages and literatures.”

O’Sullivan’s interest in Florida history and literature came about in the 1980s when he realized that his sons were not receiving enough formal education about the state in which the lived—specifically its history and culture. At that time, there was not a lot written on Florida history, and he wanted to help his sons develop a “sense of roots” for their state—the same type of roots he developed growing up in Jersey City, N.J., where he learned first-hand about the history, politics, Irish culture and anecdotes of his hometown from his father.  O’Sullivan said his desire to increase his sons’ awareness of their state, along with his knowledge of early Florida literature, initiated his interest and research into Florida’s rich history.

The more O’Sullivan uncovered, the more fascinated he became.

In the mid-1980s, O’Sullivan and Jack Lane, Alexander W. Weddell professor emeritus of american history and Rollins College historian, were invited to participate in a FHC summer program for Florida educators.  It was in preparation for this program that O’Sullivan and Lane decided to develop an interdisciplinary workshop on the topic of “Florida as Paradise.”  O’Sullivan was teaching a course at the time on "The Bible as Literature" and began to research early Florida Spanish literature through the language of the Bible, specifically the repeated imagery of Florida as a “paradise” and “garden of Eden” that was echoed in early Florida literature. 
It was from the work undertaken for this FHC interdisciplinary summer workshop and the positive responses O’Sullivan and Lane received from workshop participants that led to their first book The Florida Reader (Pineapple Press, 1991), which has been recognized for initiating the Florida Studies movement.

O’Sullivan’s commitment to Florida Studies has continued to grow over the past 25 years. He has served in leadership roles for FHC programs as a resident scholar, evaluator, and director of multiple institutes and workshops on Florida history, poetry, and Shakespeare.  He currently serves as a resident scholar of the Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston and her Eatonville Roots summer workshops held annually on Rollins’ campus. 

O’Sullivan’s teaching, scholarship, and service aren’t limited to Rollins, the FHC, and its predecessor, the Florida Endowment for the Humanities. He has had a long relationship with the Florida Historical Society and, in September 2009, was elected to its board of directors.  He has also served as president and member of the board of directors for both the College English Association and the Florida College English Association. Since 1997, he has served as co-director of the Drey Summer Shakespeare Institute.

O’Sullivan credits the inspiration for his scholarly exploration and interdisciplinary work on Rollins’ commitment to the liberal arts: “The work I’ve done would not be possible in a large research university, which emphasizes disciplinary specialization. Only in a school like Rollins can we let our imaginations truly free.”

He also praises the resources that are available on campus.  “The Rollins Archives are an invaluable and extraordinary resource for Florida historical research. Ninety percent of what I’ve needed for my scholarship has been found in the archives.”  In fact, his latest co-edited book (with Wenxian Zhang, head of archives and special collections) A Trip to Florida for Health and Sport: the Lost 1855 Novel of Cyrus Parkhurst Condit (Florida Historical Society, 2009) was discovered in the College’s Florida Collection by Zhang. It was an unpublished novel about a young man’s winter visit to Florida and was one of many gifts to Rollins from Frederick Dau, an editor, collector, and the author of Florida: Old and New (1934).

“What I prize most about the Rollins tradition is that it expects all of us on the faculty to see ourselves as teachers in the broadest sense of the term.” For example, Professor of Environmental Studies Bruce Stephenson’s work as an urban planner enriches his classes and  George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Professor of Politics Rick Foglesong brings his deep involvement in Central Florida’s political life into the classroom while O’Sullivan connects his students to the living legacy of Florida literature with the remarkable work being done by his colleagues.

O’Sullivan stated, “the essential part of our students’ education is learning to question boundaries.  Our scholarship, our service to the College and community, and our professional activities are all part of that teaching. As a result, all aspects of our lives as professors inform each other.”
Combining his prismatic interests with his 3-D interdisciplinary perspective, O'Sullivan continues to generate scholarly dialogues in the classroom, among his colleagues, and in the community. By cracking disciplinary boundaries, he has become recognized as a teacher-scholar who infuses the liberal arts ethos in every facet of his life.
Click here to view a video of Socky O’Sullivan’s lecture at the FHC Scholar Summit on the 2013 Quincentennial.

To read more about his recent co-edited book, A Trip to Florida for Health and Sport: the Lost 1855 Novel of Cyrus Parkhurst Condit (Florida Historical Society, 2009) click here