California Literary Review

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz

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August 6th, 2008 at 10:51 am

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A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz
A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World
by Tony Horwitz
Henry Holt and Co., 464 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

Innocent At Home

Once upon a time, a strange, deluded crowd of figures stumbled into a dream. For hundreds of years they blundered about in its fog, leaving their soggy footprints of death and disease behind, and then they were gone. It is the story of these shadowy European visitors to America – the Vikings, the Spanish, the French, the English – which Tony Horwitz seeks in A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World.

Mixing popular history with a kind of Bill Brysonesque meditation on modern life, Horwitz takes us from Canada to the Dominican Republic, from Florida to the Grand Canyon, and most places in between. Forget gold, his quest is the truth.

To that end, he begins by thoroughly scuttling any myths the country may still have about settlement. Far from being the first, the Pilgrims were the tail ends of a long line of visitors:

Samoset, the first Indian they met at Plymouth, greeted the settlers in English. The first thing he asked for was beer.

So back we go into history, and north into Newfoundland. Here, at the supposed site of the Viking settlement Vinland, Horwitz finds the remnants of the ancient colony and a modern community only just hanging on.

The white man is on tour again, only this time it’s historians in place of conquistadors, archaeologists in place of looters, and inhabitants trading tourist schlock instead of weapons. Adhering to the 21st century travel tradition, Horwitz attempts to immerse himself in native cultures – a sweat bath that flays your skin off, say – while he unearths the past.

And it is in his descriptions of the past that his book beguiles. Though not a scholar, he has spent a large amount of time consulting them, as well as tracking down firsthand accounts.

As we reach the Caribbean, for instance, Columbus suddenly springs out of his annoying couplets and into hard-nosed life. Here is the misguided mariner writing to Spain about seven men he has taken from San Salvador:

After they learn our language I shall return them, unless your Highnesses order that the entire population be taken to Castile, or held captive here. With 50 men you could subject everyone and make them do what you wished.

One wonders why he didn’t ask Queen Isabella if she would like her slaves gift-wrapped.

While Columbus and Coronado may still ring in middle school ears, names like Alva Núñez Cabeza de Vaca may not. A member of an ill-fated foray into the southern United States, de Vaca went on an incredible cross-country trek to Mexico, setting himself up as a trader and medicine man. Enslaved by a tribe, he escaped and with a slave named Estevanico finally reached “civilization.”

De Vaca’s tale would seem outlandish, if Horwitz did not then take us along with the glittering armies of Coronado into the Southwest and of De Soto into La Florida, the land of flowers. Weighed down with armor, immune to the natural wealth of the country, these stubborn conquistadors marched relentlessly towards a chimera.

Gold, jewels – that was what the new world promised and that was what the Spanish demanded. It is the same paradox that had English settlers starving on the shore while lobsters scuttled underfoot. If it wasn’t what they had imagined, it didn’t exist.

This willfulness spoke to a late-medieval imagination that I couldn’t wrap my modern mind around. Seven Cities of Gold, the Isle of the Amazons, El Dorado – these weren’t wild fantasies to the Spanish, they were vivid realities, just waiting to be found.

The Spanish never found their cities of gold, though they left a sizeable cultural legacy. The French had a tougher time. Leaving aside Canada, Horwitz jumps to the sporadic Florida settlements of the Huguenots. Looking for religious freedom, these ill-equipped mariners instead found the Spanish military and the sharp end of a pike in their guts.

Indeed, when one considers how naïve and grasping many of the first colonizers were, it is miraculous anyone made it out alive. In Roanoke, where the colonists mysteriously disappeared, and in Jamestown, where the egotist John Smith had to knock some common sense into his compatriots, Horwitz shows that stupidity never goes out of fashion.

Fascinating though these tales might be, we should not ignore Horwitz’s own odyssey through the modern landscape. He’s Alice through the looking glass, with each move landing him in worlds as strange and contradictory as any Carroll ever created.

There’s the history fest in Florida, where Minutemen hobnob with pirates and Confederates with Jewish friars. There’s his meeting with the isolated Pamunkey, surviving descendants of Pocahontas’s tribe. And there’s his fruitless and improvisational quest (he knew no Spanish and almost no one) to the Dominican Republic:

I felt like Columbus, led on by islanders in his deranged search for gold. If there was any to be found here, one small nugget of hard information about Columbus, the natives weren’t sharing it. The D.R.’s comedy of incompetence had turned into a joke on me, the bullying, buck-waving Yankee.

One can’t help feeling some sympathy for his subjects, for while Horwitz is honest about his fumbling efforts to “make contact”, he is also first and foremost a reporter. It baffles him, for instance, that the Zuni, a tribe that Coronado encountered in his quest for the fabled seven cities, do not welcome his advances. After all, he comes in peace. But then again, so did Truman Capote when he went to Kansas. If non-fiction authors have a right to inquire about the state of society, society has a right to deny them. Not everyone wishes to give his/her treasures, story, character, free of charge to the world – especially if they have little control over its telling. To his credit, Horwitz doesn’t push too hard. Though some in his book may find their reflections a trifle skewed in print, it cannot be helped. Horwitz will always be looking in, and there will always be others looking warily out. History marches on, with or without the blessing of its protagonists.

What sustains us in this march? Horwitz finds it, in the end, back in Plymouth. Times have changed, as Cole Porter said, and the rock of reality hasn’t just landed on us, it’s squashed us flat.

Gasping for breath though we may be, we still have our myths. The idea of stumbling upon the unknown – a red canyon that stretches to the sky, a people as wise as the hills, a brave ancestor lost then found – we hold this dream to be self-evident.

There was never a virgin America. Before the people, there were animals. Before the animals, there was life. Still, like the scout Arthur Barlowe, who chanced upon the shore one day long ago, we will always remember Eden:

Like other early voyagers, Barlowe smelled America before he saw it: a fragrance so sweet that it was “as if we had bene in the midst of some delicate garden.”

  • http://calitreview.com/800 s

    this book is the stupidest book in the world. I had to read it for my AP history class and i thought this book was the most boring use-less book in the world. Horwitz is a very boring author and he just lists and lists use less information!!

  • http://www.espn.com Kyle

    this book sucks

  • http://aol.com keynan peanut

    this book is dunb i have to read it for my ap world history class and i freakin hate it may report is due on the third of september and i’m only 67 pages into it

  • Juandito

    i also had to read this book for my ap world history class… i think we all go 2 the same school… willow canyon anone? anyways yeah it was dumb, did not like it and did not want to hear about his travels of making it.

  • http://aol.com keynan peanut

    yeah I go to willow mr.ornstein is my teacher and he is pretty cool but this book sucks ass if i can be honest

  • book sucks

    most boring-est book ever, i read the first 10 pages, and closed it, btw, i go to willow as well

  • ODrive

    I think only the coolest of the social studies AP teachers would assign this book. If you did not like the book, you are not as cool as Chuck Norris or Mr. O

    TONY RULES!

  • http://myjaneausten.com Julia Braun Kessler

    i just read Tony Horwitz’s Voyage Long and Strange. And it was no school assignment for me, Just pure interest. Not for a minute did I find it disappointing. Horwitz was eager to learn which was myth and which true of his own and my history. And remarkably, with the help of newly found documents and sources, he was able to turn up so much that was unknown to me, and more that contradicted the tales taught me, and countless others, in grade school, that I read it with complete fascination from start to finish. Explorers like Coronado and De Soto in Florida, the mysteries of the Roanoake, Va. colony’s complete disappearance, along with such details as “grey eyes” appearing a few generations later in some Indian tribes, all of it was terrific reporting and solid history as well. Even his conclusion that myths still have their place despite all, is perfectly charming. If this be popularization of history, so be it! Bravo, Tony Horwitz!

  • Amy

    I thought this book was great!! As a college senior I have read some seriously boring pieces of work, but this book was scattered with humor, it is an excellent look into history that does not list off boring facts and dates, it tells a story, a damn good one.

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