- A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World
- Henry Holt and Co., 464 pp.
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.”
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.