I’m something of an iconoclast; I used to enjoy telling people (smugly, as only an over-informed grade-school boy can be) that George Washington was the 8th president1. I took fewer cheap thrills from knowing that Columbus wasn’t necessarily the saint we so often make him out to be, though I stopped of damning European imperialists and other overindulgent tropes of that sort—more on this later.
The premise of A Voyage Long and Strange seemed to me straightforward: our usual thoughts of America’s discovery tend to either Columbus’s bumbling voyage (which never actually touched the eventual U.S.) or the landing of the Pilgrims, who teemed ashore on Plymouth rock with armfulls of pumpkin pies, turkey legs, and ornate wicker horns filled with inedible gourds.
This didn’t happen, of course, which is Horwitz’s point. When visiting the underwhelming Plymouth Rock on a sightseeing trip, he was amazed to discover just how little he knew about the humble origins of our county, and so began a long trip to discover just how we came to be.
The points he covers are everything you might expect: he begins with the Vikings, Greenland, and Newfoundland; he then veers far south for Columbus, and then hops all over the country for several different Spanish conquistadors (Cortes, de Soto, etc.); finally, he returns solidly to the east coast in time for the pilgrims and other hardy peoples from England. At this level, Horwitz provided nothing new under the sun.
What surprised me, however, was how far Horwitz went into order to research his material. A Voyage Long and Strange is something of a tell-all history book, yes, but it also contains quite a bit of travel writing, as well, usually flitting between the two more quickly than seems warranted. When researching Columbus, for instance, he visits the Dominican Republic; his own travails as a report almost overshadow his story of Columbus, in fact, the D.R. being so readily available for comedy.
I don’t like Horwitz’s travel writing as much as that of Bill Bryson. He tries to be funny, but he’s not that funny; he attempts to tie his experiences as a traveler back to the historical topic he’s contextualizing, but I feel as though the result is highly inconsistent, certainly made that way in part by Horwitz’s inexpert switching between his gonzo journalism and the People’s History-style exposé. The silent mirth we may imagine as he interviews whatever yokel in his latest destination who protests dumbly that [insert topical explorer] is the real discoverer of America only lasts so long: it’s akin to watching trashy TV under the guise of it “being funny.”
This, I think, is Horwitz’s attempt to deal with a difficult topic—that is, most of the people to whom we ascribe the discovery of America were not nice people, the Spanish conquistadors in particular. But in any in-depth conversation about America’s discovery and colonization, we come to the inevitable and unpleasant notion that Europeans despoiled the land and—whether purposely with guns or inadvertently with smallpox—thousands or millions of indigenous peoples. It is impossible for us to simply say “Well, the Europeans shouldn’t have come over,” because otherwise we’re wishing for the nonexistence of our country as we know it; neither can we simply shrug our shoulders and say that, horrible though it may have been, it happened a long time ago and there’s nothing we can do about it (and eggs, omelet, etc.).
And perhaps that’s the whole point: America’s history is messy, violent, and occasionally glorious2. It would be silly and disingenuous to pretend that the whole thing was a Coke commercial, but that doesn’t necessarily condemn America as a land defined by the mistakes of its discoverers. I don’t sing Columbus’s praises, though I do recognize that he somehow fits into the complex historical choreography that ultimately caused me to sit here typing this review3.
Like Horwitz himself, A Voyage Long and Strange wandered considerably, and not always for the better. It’s excellent fodder for thought, though, if nothing else. As the Los Angeles Times opined: “Part history, part travelogue—and mostly just great fun… This is history on a global scale, and Horwitz tells it surpassingly well.” I will agree with the sentiment if not the degree.
- John Hanson was the first, under the Articles of Confederation. Since the nation, even under the earlier laws, was the United States of America, it only stands to reason that presidents under the articles count in the lineage, after all…..[↩]
- Compare the slaughter of Native Americans with, say, the construction of the Constitution[↩]
- Insert whatever “Last best hope” references here; I love my country despite its faults, but I refuse to effuse like a jingoistic protester.[↩]