|A 1493 woodcut of Columbus's landfall in the New World. Despite popular belief, Horwitz writes, the explorer never set foot on the American mainland. (John carter brown library, brown university)|
Challenging textbooks and received wisdom, a journalist digs into the less familiar side of early America
A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World
By Tony Horwitz
Holt, 445 pp., illustrated, $27.50
Near the end of "A Voyage Long and Strange," Tony Horwitz's latest mix of historical research and modern-day road trip, one of the people he spends time with says, "Myth is more important than history. History is arbitrary, a collection of facts. Myth we choose, we create, we perpetuate."
This remark perfectly sums up the obstacles Horwitz faces as he tries to ferret out what happened in North America between Columbus's first voyage, in 1492, and the establishment of Plimoth Plantation in 1620.
In the course of his three-year odyssey the author travels thousands of miles - around Newfoundland, to the Dominican Republic, through central Mexico into the American Southwest and Midwest, from Florida up through Georgia, the Carolinas, and into Virginia, and along the New England coast. He is assaulted by blackflies, startles a rattlesnake in the grasslands, dons 50 pounds of conquistador's armor in the blazing Florida sun, makes a crossing of the lower Mississippi in a canoe in the dark, burns his throat in a Micmac sweat lodge, and encounters an amusing variety of religious fanatics, genealogical snobs, scholars both actual and self-appointed, apologists for the Native American holocaust, and a quotable cast of ordinary folks from the fishing towns of northeastern Canada to the Zuni pueblo in New Mexico.
Along the way he unearths whole chapters of American history that have been ignored, and puts the lie to some of our most cherished beliefs. Here is a sampling: Columbus never set foot on the American mainland, and believed the earth to be breast-shaped, not round, with the Garden of Eden perched at the nipple. Ponce de Leon was not looking for the fountain of youth. Pocahontas did not fall in love with John Smith; in fact she married another, equally important figure, John Rolfe, who has been all but lost to history. Plimoth Plantation was not the first English settlement on the East Coast, nor did it house the first Europeans to seek religious freedom on these shores; in fact, its inhabitants had been drawn across the Atlantic mainly by the commercial impulse - including the desire to trade in sassafras, thought to be a cure for syphilis.
It is true, as textbooks tell us, that the history of the European settlement of this land is a tale of almost superhuman determination. The Vikings sailed the seas in open ships. Coronado and De Soto and their men marched thousands of miles through swamps and deserts. The first English settlers endured famine and disease.
It is also a story of incredible cruelty. Our myths and movies remind us that Native Americans scalped some of the first arrivals. They also cooked them alive and performed other unspeakable acts. But we pay less attention to the fact that the Europeans matched and often exceeded this barbarism with their drawing and quartering, their rape and pillage, their taking of native men for slaves and native women as concubines. Children are thrown overboard and shot. Jamestown settlers are tied to trees and starved - by other Englishmen. Desperate Spanish, French, and English expeditionary groups eat human flesh. While Horwitz's description of these events is never gratuitous or overly graphic, he persistently refuses to shy away from the disturbing truth.
These stories are not the kind of thing we want our kids to read in seventh-grade history class. But, while our wish to protect their tender sensibilities may be partial justification for the whitewashing of American history, there comes a point where we have to admit that we ourselves prefer the sweet myth to the ugly reality.
Again and again Horwitz shows that we have taken a yellow highlighter to the courage and determination of the first European explorers and settlers, and an eraser to their greed, lust, religious, racial and ethnic chauvinism, and pure stupid meanness. What saves all this truth-telling from being bleak to the point of misery is Horwitz's well-timed humor, his indefatigable pursuit of the facts, and his ability to have a conversation with almost anybody.
Despite his grit and journalistic skills, and the fascinating anecdotes he unearths, about two-thirds of the way through the book a certain monotony sets in. Coronado, De Soto, Oñate, Menéndez - their stories were remarkably similar. They came seeking gold and the gilding of their reputations. They were unable to see the Indians (or the French Protestants) as fellow human beings, or "Christians." They were unable to farm, fish, or hunt, and so ended up stealing and killing to keep from starvation. And the routes they took in their desperate search for riches - locations revisited by Horwitz - are often unappealing in the present day: overgrown monuments, bleak urban landscapes. Even someone with Horwitz's skill cannot always render that subject matter enjoyable. Enlightening, yes. Enchanting in places. Always instructive. But he is as limited by the truth as he is guided by it.
Which only serves to prove the author's point. Our story, our real story, is as painful, shameful, and grim as it is uplifting and grand. We have doctored the events of the past to make ourselves feel good about them. All cultures employ this collective denial mechanism, ignoring crimes and failures both ancient and recent in the name of an upbeat patriotism. It makes you wonder what we will say about ourselves 100 years from now. And it makes you think that "A Voyage Long and Strange" - disturbing, honest, wonderfully written, and heroically researched - should be required reading in every high school in the land.
Roland Merullo's political novel, "American Savior," will be published this summer.