After a chance visit to Plymouth Rock (which resembles a five-foot “fossilized potato”), Tony Horwitz realizes that, despite being a college history major—not to mention the celebrated author of historical travel books like Confederates in the Attic and Blue Latitudes—he has only “a third-grader’s grasp of early America.” In A Voyage Long and Strange (Henry Holt, 448 pp., $27.50), Horwitz sets out to rectify this embarrassment. As in previous books, he combines historical research with personal travel accounts, this time exploring sites he associates with what he calls the “lost century” between Columbus’s discovery of the New World in 1492 and the establishment of Jamestown in 1607. (In truth, it’s more like five lost centuries, since he starts out by tracing the New World explorations of Leif Erickson and fellow Vikings.)
As Horwitz notes, by the time Jamestown was established, fully half of what would later become the lower 48 states had seen European visitation. By book’s end Horwitz, too, has visited much of the nation, along with parts of Canada and the Caribbean, following in the steps (and occasionally the canoe routes) of such explorers as Coronado, De Soto and a band of 300 French Huguenots who tried to settle in Florida in 1564. The result of these travels is an eclectic mix of historic anecdote with rural scenes and characters. Past reviewers have aptly compared Horwitz to Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux—he possesses the former’s eye for comic yokels in obscure settings, and the latter’s ability to blend observed detail with carefully researched cultural analysis.
But perhaps the two works that Voyage most evokes are William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways and Ian Frazier’s Great Plains. Like them, this book provides more than one man’s idiosyncratic travels around America: it is rather a collection of trips assembled in search of America. In this case, the America Horwitz finds is not, by and large, the one taught in schools, because history, as he puts it, “isn’t sport, where coming first means everything.” The winners—those colonists who endured—got to write the histories in schoolbooks, to the neglect of all those people who came before them. “But losers matter,” Horwitz argues, “especially the history of early America.” In assembling an intriguing collection of such “losers,” punctuated by the interesting characters he finds living today in still-remote places that the explorers largely failed to conquer, Horwitz has created a book that balances fascinating facts with travel writing at its quirky, off-the-beaten-path best.
“Early America, if you think about it, was a lot like America today—very diverse,” Horwitz recently told an interviewer from The New York Times, “and even the parts of the story we think we know, we don’t know at all.” At least, we didn’t until now.
Horwitz appears at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Friday, May 16, at 7 p.m.
I just got done reading your article, and really enjoyed it, thank you. Here is…
I hope Bonnie and Clyde is better than Mob City, which was - as far…
The only website you can call directly is 1-800-FLOWERS.com.
Not the first time Mario Lopez has been snubbed (see Kapowski, Kelly).
I was all like "how do you get the phone number for TMZ?!?!" you can't…