A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World

From time immemorial, schoolchildren have whined, “When?ll we ever need to know this stuff?” Teachers of U.S. history can point to a poster bearing Santayana?s caveat, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Tony Horwitz?s A Voyage Long and Strange presents a variation on that theme: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to be really embarrassed.

Such was the fate of Horwitz, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, when he visited Plymouth Rock and drew a blank on everything between the singsong In fourteen hundred and ninety-two and the Pilgrims? touchdown, A.D. 1620, in the vicinity of an underwhelming chunk of Dedham granodiorite. He writes, “Expensively educated at a private school and university — a history major, no less! — I?d matriculated to middle age with a third-grader?s grasp of early America.”

One benefit of being a Pulitzer winner (and author of such beloved books as Blue Latitudes and Confederates in the Attic) is that if you find your ignorance oppressive, you can drop whatever you?re doing and go on a grand tour — in this instance from icy, flyblown Newfoundland to the sweltering Dominican Republic to the bone-dry Southwest to the swamplands of the Southeast — and preserve your findings for the benefit of those less mobile. The result of Horwitz?s peregrinations is the kind of “textbook” no student would dare question: a fascinating, funny, and digressive return to a period — sometimes exhilarating and sometimes tragic — about which most of us know disconcertingly little.

Horwitz, striving to be comprehensive (while never descending to pedantry), begins his journey on the trail of the Norsemen who made landfall in Newfoundland well before Columbus met the Arawak “Indians.” Horwitz views the Norse settlement at L?Anse aux Meadows, land of cod tongue, Viking reenactors, and blackflies that, by one estimate, “can exsanguinate a human adult in 23 minutes.”

It?s also home of America?s oldest racial slur, “Skraeling,” an “archaic Norse term that is variously translated as ?wretch,? ?ugly,? ?screecher,? or some combination of the three.” The clash of natives and visitors — or conquerors — is an ugly, inescapable problem of early American history, and one Horwitz treats with admirable judiciousness, never either a Pollyanna or a Howard Zinn. Suffering at a Micmac sweat lodge, he?s fixed by the impassive gaze of an “Indian out of central casting,” who finally cracks up: “Hollywood loves us like that.?You?d think Indians never laughed.”

Moments like this are a counterbalance to the horrors Horwitz must report. He allows that “he heroic version of Columbus?s story?is radically abridged?.All but forgotten Columbus?s?checkered career as a colonial administrator.” Then he points out the shortcomings of the cynical version, which ignores the role of personality. Columbus saw most natives as peaceful and “tractable,” but his mariners were given to suspicion, quick to panic, and prone to violence. If anything, he kept them in something like control.

Horwitz maintains that Columbus was “a fish out of water whenever he went ashore,” who left incompetents and brutes to maintain Spain?s colonies — for instance, Santo Domingo, “the first European city in the New World,” in Hispaniola — while he went on his merry way. In present-day Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, Horwitz awaits a chance to see what might be Columbus?s bones while observing a slum beset by blackouts, armed guards, and “barricades of burning tires.”

Some legacy, one might say, but when Horwitz meets with the Spanish ambassador, she still argues that “e weren?t the worst. Normally, we melded with the cultures in America, we stayed here, we spread our language and culture and religion.”

And much else besides. Horwitz doesn?t shy from the truth about Juan Ponce de Le?n, whose journey had less to do with a “mythic spring” to “cure his impotence” (he was a 39-year-old father of four) than with a more banal objective: gold. The same goes for Hern?n Cort?s, who landed in Mexico less than a decade later, in 1519, and toppled the Aztecs.

Then there was Alvar N??ez Cabeza de Vaca, who attempted an expedition from Florida to Mexico “that made Lewis and Clark?s ?look like a Cub Scout outing.” Cabeza de Vaca?s account of this near-disaster “evokes a psychedelic sixties road trip: four naked, shaggy guys adrift in a desert of peyote-smoking shamans.”

Horwitz isn?t playing this for laughs. The farther he explores, through the Southwest and the Plains with Francisco V?squez de Coronado and Juan de O?ate, two of the most despised conquistadores, the more he accepts that many of these men, however base their initial motives, were ultimately, in the words of one writer, “conquered by America.” Donning 50 pounds of steel armor at a reenactment in a “park between a Wal-Mart and a county jail” in Bradenton, Florida, Horwitz is confronted with the literal weight, the sheer physical improbability, of what men like Hernando de Soto (the first European to reach the Mississippi) achieved. Something more than greed and bloodlust compelled these men, whatever their moral deficiencies, to soldier on. As one reenactor put it, “Probably a drug kingpin is the closest you could get?ike one of those Columbian cartel leaders who can never get enough of the action, and can?t quit when they?re on top.” Greed and bloodlust, sure — but also a love of “the action” instilled by a country big enough to shape heroes and villains of its own.

Not all of the bizarre present-day characters Horwitz encounters — and presents in a way that is polite if rarely flattering — are so charitable. From fiercely isolationist Zunis to angry neo-Huguenots to GPS-wielding amateur archaeologists, many behave as though the bitter tragedies of history happened last week.

By the time he reaches the more familiar territory of Jamestown, Roanoke, and our revered Rock, he seems resigned to the fact that while exploding myths is fun and often necessary, there may be more enduring power in our stories than in our most hotly contested facts. What does it profit us to know that John Smith had no romance with the child Pocahontas, if it means forfeiting a national treasure? Like Plymouth Rock, you just “couldn?t dislodge it from American memory.” By dishing up, along with the “turkey and pumpkin pie,” a succotash of fact, nonsense, and American eccentricity, Horwitz proves that his is the best, most palatable history we?re likely to read.