Monday, May 28, 2012

Analysis of "A Voyage Long And Strange"

A Book Analysis of "A Voyage Long And Strange"

For History 207A With Dennis Judd

Yesterday I finished reading author Tony Horwitz' wonderful history-adventure yarn "A Voyage Long And Strange: Rediscovering The New World". The non-fiction sub-genre of history travel adventure in the wrong hands can be cliched and hackneyed but not so in this case. The basic premise is that Horwitz comes to realize he knows little about the real history of the land that would later become the United States of America and by extension its surrounding zone of influence, to wit, Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean. Horwitz then proceeds to visit all the significant historical locations where Old World first visited New World. Horwitz starts in the prologue at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. He quickly becomes disillusioned by the disconnect with American prehistory (and early history) that he sees not only in the tourists there but also within himself. This leads him to bone up on American and New World history starting at the various points of First Contact between Europe and the Americas both North and South. There he finds all kinds of fascinating tales, themes, interconnections, ironies, horrors, mundanities... and myths. This, claims Horwitz, inspired him to undertake a "pilgrimage" to various significant sites related to early European contact in the Americas and retrace some of the more relevant paths that various explorers blazed. Or perhaps Horwitz visited Plymouth, MA, while suffering from "writer's block" and upon visiting the place realized a clever new concept for a book.

The first stop in this journey of discovery is the location of First Contact which would not be achieved by Western Europeans (French or English) or Southern Europeans (Portuguese or Spanish) but by Northern Europeans (Norsemen) half a millennium before the others. The others usually get all the credit because they wrote the histories most of us Moderns digest be it reading or watching television. One of the underlying themes in this tome is the truth many of us come to realize as we travel through this life that our mental image of a place and the reality of it are two quite different things. And it also quickly becomes clear reading this book that this concept applies to historical events as well.

In what is now Newfoundland (New Found Land... get it?) the author visits the site of the first European settlement in North America. Unromantically, it turned out to be nothing more than a farm settlement (founded by Leif Eiriksson... and no, that is not a misspelling of his name) at what is now L' Anse aux Meadows which is nothing more than a moribund fishing village at the ass-end of Canada. After studying the real history of this place and what happened here (and not all of it pretty) and the back-story to it involving Leif's father Eirik "The Pathological Murderer" The Red and his wife (Leif's mother) as well as North America's first recorded psycho-bitch, Freydis, Leif's illegitimate half-sister by another than his mother. After researching this paleo-trailer trash saga, the author pays a visit to the modern descendants of the types of folks the Norsemen encountered and labeled Skraelings which was apparently similar in meaning at that time to the later expressions Digger, Nigger, and Beaner given variously by more southerly Whites as pejoratives for Reds, Blacks, and Browns respectively. What Horwitz finds of Canada's modern aboriginal community is an attitude of circumspection about what history has dropped in their lap. They have adapted to the circumstances while trying to retain as much of the past as possible with mixed results. This is a pattern that will be seen time and again by the author-adventurer throughout his journey.

The author next addresses the matter of Christopher Columbus in view of the fact that most of us Moderns think of him as being the first European to find the New World. The facts of his contributions to this historical happenstance have become blurred by mythology. Horwitz conducts some research of this matter and discovers some unexpected (to him and most of us) facts that run contrary to the myths. For example, Columbus was an idiot who was probably the most ignorant man in his class with his only redeeming quality being his seamanship and boundless enthusiasm and self-confidence bordering on the Quixotic. He was convinced, NOT that the Earth was flat but that the Earth was much smaller than just about any intellectual living at the time knew it actually was and one of his stated goals for his journey west was to visit China directly across the Atlantic Ocean from Europe. D'Oh!

Horwitz next hits the road and visits Santo Domingo in what is now the Dominican Republican, site of the first Southern European settlement in the Americas. Not only does he explore a rather surreal and Kafkaesque Santo Domingo but then he explores other locations on the island of Hispaniola, home to both Dominica and Haiti. He finds history all over the place but most locals are too busy fatalistically living a hellacious existence in the Here & Now to care much about Way Back When. With that being said, it is impossible for even locals to avoid their tangled history in which race played a significant role as it still does. Hispaniola it seems is divided by racism with darker-skinned folks occupying a lower social strata than lighter-skinned folks. There is also an overabundance of mythology even this far south. Dominicans proudly assert that Columbus is buried there, not in Spain as the Spanish insist. This is ironic given the horrors Columbus brought there. Why would they want to proudly celebrate his internment there? Tourism? Hardly any tourists visit the dirt-ass poor nation for the purpose of visiting Columbus' alleged grave site.

Next up, Horwitz touches briefly upon the next two most famous Southern Europeans early in the Americas, Hernan Cortez and Francisco Pizarro. However, he largely avoids those guys probably because there is less mythology surrounding them than any other major figures from this period. The ugly facts about them are largely known to a greater extent than any other Spanish soldiers of fortune from this period. Mythology, as it turns out, is what this book is really all about and where there is no mythology there is no point for discussion in this book.

As it turns out, Ponce de Leon beat those other two guys in traipsing around the New World, having landed in La Florida six years before Cortez ever saw Mexico who in turn preceded Pizarro's bizarro visit to the Inca Empire in South America. De Leon didn't last long getting himself killed early on but he did help blaze the path to North America. His journey was followed by another explorer named Panfilo de Narvaez who was an idiot and got himself and most of his men killed in another expedition to La Florida. However, a remarkable member of his team, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca managed to survive the ordeal undertaking a remarkable eight-year odyssey across all of what is now the Deep South, Texas, and Northern Mexico. The trek by Cabeza de Vaca could perhaps be best described as the Odyssey meets the Heart of Darkness as written by Jack Kerouac... in the 16th Century. Such a story I have never read the likes of and why Hollyweird has never given this story a deserving treatment on the Big Screen escapes me considering the artist class is supposed to be more enlightened than The Masses. 

For purposes of brevity I will not get into too many details of his nearly decade-long ordeal but let us just say that Cabeza de Vaca finds himself part of a group of survivors of Narvaez' incompetence deep in hostile Indian territory far from supplies and unfamiliar with how to survive in an alien land. Over time he gets stranded without supplies, abandoned by first his ships and then by his also-abandoned leader, shipwrecked, captured by Indians, enslaved by those Indians, escapes those Indians, journeys with two other surviving Spaniards and a black Arab slave named Estevanico, gets captured again and enslaved by yet other Indians, escapes those Indians, finds still other Indians who revere him and his companions who "heal" them. This begins the most unlikely and gonzo part of the entire escapade as this motley crew acquires a guru-like persona replete with Estevanico as interpreter and spokesman for the Spanish whom acquire a rapidly growing retinue/entourage that pillages the next village which in turn joins the party and moves on to the next village and pillages it repeating the cycle time and again until they reached Spaniards in Mexico who couldn't believe their eyes. Of course, the Indian followers get variously slaughtered or enslaved (or both in that order) to the chagrin of Cabeza de Vaca & Co. He reported his experience up the chainmail of command having acquired a respect for and sensitivity to the Indians. Needless to say this is sadly atypical of the Spanish during this period. He was then assigned a governorship in what is now Paraguay where he tried to use his office to protect the downtrodden, most notably, Indians. This failed, of course, and after being falsely accused of malfeasance and being later vindicated he died in obscurity.

This saga is incomplete without some explanation of the subsequent deeds of Estevenico and it must be noted reality here was even stranger and more improbable than mere myth. Estevanico acted as a guide on a subsequent Spanish raid... er, expedition north in search of gold... er, lost souls led by a friar named Marcos de Niza.  Estevanico soon recreates the gonzo parade of his prior trek with the Spanish but now with himself as the star this time and Marcos is left to follow his trail disillusioned Indians northward. Our retro-rock star pushes his luck once too often and the Indians of Cibola having had enough of his greed and letchery and contradictory claims finally offed him and the expedition came to an end. However, some wrongly-interpreted intelligence gathering on this journey inspired the next raid north from Mexico.

Horwitz next recounts Francisco Vasquez de Coronado's raid... er, expedition into what is now the American Southwest. He, like other Spanish before him is soon in over his head. Through pluck and luck and cleverness and cruelty he finds his expedition wending its way across what is now Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas... and back home again. Horwitz also traces this trek via roadtrip of his own following the original path as best as he can with the modern roads and our limited knowledge of where precisely the expedition actually trekked. Along the way the author meets a motley crew of Indians and descendents of of Spanish settlers as well as Anglo-Americans living now where this story unfolded back then. Most surprising of all is the enmity now between the descendents of the Indians and the Spanish settlers in New Mexico over the legacy and memory of Coronado. Despite the passage of years and the fact Spain and later Mexico's control of the area was supplanted by Americans the Indian versus Spanish dynamic is the most powerful according to Horwitz.

Horwitz then heads out into the Great Plains where Coronado's expedition was the first experience by Europeans of the agoraphobia that I sometimes experience on that great flat expanse of the Earth's crust. It struck me as a bit ironic how the small towns along Coronado's estimated path across the Great Plains despite being very White and redneckish are nonetheless very attached to their own perceived part in the Coronado story by way of belief in being situated on the very trace of his  journey even when such claims are competatively contradicted by other nearby towns. Again, as has been the case since the prologue of this book, mythology is  more important and more powerful and more enduring than historical facts.

Hernando De Soto's lengthy and ultimately catastrophic expedition starting in La Florida and ending in Mexico (without him) was next on the author's itinerary. Given the incredibly complex and nuanced racial and cultural history of the Deep South and the fact this part of the book delves deep into that rich tapestry of multilayered history over the course of the author's next road trip the book gets more complicated at this point. Horwitz starts in Florida and retraces the itinerary of De Soto's expedition northward through Georgia and the Carolinas and down into Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana (a tiny sliver), and Texas en route to Mexico by sea for the relative few remaining survivors. The author does not follow Do Soto's path into Mexico at this point, however.

It is hard to ignore the observation that immediately comes to mind reading this next part of the book that De Soto, like Coronado, was over-the-top barbaric and utterly ruthless to the point of excess. This was not done by either man nor by Columbus and Cortez and Pizarro and others without thought but was terrorism intended to intimidate local populations into submission. It is generally accepted that terrorism by outsiders never works and although an uncareful and unsophisticated analysis would suggest that terrorism for the Spanish worked I would counter that it did not but that disease and superior systems of technology and organization worked instead. I believe the Spanish triumphed despite and in spite of their barbarity. Had disease not been a major factor nor the wow factor of their technology they would have been in for a far more expensive undertaking than was economically viable. I feel the Spanish would have been forced to deal with the aboriginals on a more equal footing as trade partners and the same goes for the English further north and a bit later on in time.

Getting back to the present in the Deep South Horwitz' own journey through it is as interesting and multi-cultural as De Soto's albeit in entirely different ways and contexts. De Soto met many exotic tribes and destroyed them ultimately if not immediately through deception and treachery in combination with "shock & awe" and terrorism by atrocity. As might be expected the great number of "characters" were found by the author along this leg of his journey and interviewed in the book. He met ambivalent historical reenactors, contrarian historians, park rangers reminiscent of the Carpenter and the Walrus in Alice in Wonderland, a Confederate sympathetic Indian, a dugout canoe-carving Seeker, and others. In the process of this leg of his journey he once again found myth fogging up the murky view rearward into history and thus absorbing it into itself and creating a new reality more real to people than historical fact.

Before reading this book I was unaware that Huguenots from France with the blessing of their Catholic queen had attempted to settle in what was then Spanish-claimed La Florida in 1562.  Of course, it resulted in catastrophe for the French as a result of poor planning and execution by the Protestant French and climaxed with atrocities (live burnings at the stake, etc.) perpetrated by the Catholic Spanish. In a modern-day mirror to that sectarian strife the author found the Catholics and Protestants in modern-day St. Augustine, Florida, (which was built as a result of the presence of the Huguenots in the area) and near where the aforementioned atrocities occurred to be still waging their spiritual... er, spirited war. He met a Pentecostal Protestant nutcase continuing the struggle of the Huguenots. Conversely, the local Catholics purged their own interpretation of their local history of any acknowledgement of their forefather's war crimes. It seems that once again like everywhere elsein the author's journeys for this book St. Augustine as badly as anywhere else reinterpreted its own history in a fashion rifted in divided cultural interpretations each steeped in their own self-affirming mythology devoid of factual basis. Worse than most and probably matched only by Plymouth, MA, St. Augustine provided a tourist trap-y interpretation of its local history and only a handful of locals seemed to appreciate this with circumspection and ironic bemusement.

With the Spanish-flavored part of his journey of historical exploration behind him, Horwitz focused the stretch run of his book on the English part of this story starting with Roanoke, VA, and then moving to Jamestown, VA, and finally concluding back where he started at Plymouth, MA.

To be blunt Roanoke was an English S.N.A.F.U and F.U.B.A.R and C.F. with the "F" in each of those acronyms being the "F" word we all know and love. Given this analysis is about the book primarily and not about the historical details covered in the book I shall be brief in prefacing. Needless to say the details Horwitz gives about Sir Walter Raleigh's Roanoke Colony are ample and uninspiring. It quickly becomes clear that the English are no better than the Portuguese or Spanish or French when it comes to bad behavior. That the English ever succeeded in North America is amazing but certainly the Spanish unwittingly helped out by pre-thinning the native population by means of smallpox which the English reinforced by bringing more. Without smallpox this story would be a very different one.

It is worth noting that the mythology surrounding the Lost Colony is about as strong as any mythology encountered in the author's journeys for this book. The Lost Colony was actually never "lost" but simply moved and went "native" in order to survive and then probably got slaughtered by a different group of natives (Powhatan). At this point in the story it is worth noting that things really begin to get complicated when the descendents of black slaves and the descendents of Indians find themselves at cross purposes, especially in light of the fact there were and still are now folks with a lot of DNA from both groups in their ancestry.

Horwitz next visits Jamestown past and present and we get into all the facts that my History 207A class has already gone over in detail so for the sake of brevity I will not rehash it all. It is notable in this section that the author visits the Pamunkey, about the only tribe other than the Zuni and Navajo and Hopi to not ever leave their own territory and NOT be living on land given to them by the U.S. government, ergo living on the "rez". In this section more Black-Indian complications arise as this is former slave country still being it is in Virginia and there are also plenty of folks with Indian ancestry. Because of the Black-White racial divide Indians didn't want to get grouped with Blacks in times past despite the fact there were always many hybrids of both just as there have been of Whites-Blacks and Whites-Indians (I'm one such). Sadly, this racial dynamic continues in Virginia (and unrelated to any mention in this book it also occurs to this day elsewhere, as well).

For the first time in this story we encounter secret societies based upon historical revisionism which is mildly interesting given it has nothing to do with the Klan. The author visits Henricus where John Rolfe toyed around with tabacco and met Pocahontas... or rather what is left of it which is now simply reconstructed park structures attended by a silver-tongued Creek Indian hottie named Melanie Wright who works as a living interpretation docent there. I would give my eye teeth to be introduced to this young lady. Again, as with the Roanoke story it boggles the mind that the early colonists ever ultimately succeeded in spite of their heavy casualties and many failures and shortcomings. Of course, it helped that the local native population had its own problems at the time with droughts, famines, pestilences (brought by Europeans) not to mention inter-tribal fighting.

In wrapping up his journey, Horwitz ends where he began in Plymouth, MA, but with an entirely different attitude and understanding. Unlike the first time he was there this time he delves deeper into the fabric of the local community following the pattern he established on his visit to Santo Domingo and followed since then of going "local" for a short time and not merely playing tourist nor reporter but getting himself "embedded" in the local community. Upon his return to Plymouth and as a result of this deeper delving the author comes to realize that the inhabitants of Plymouth have a surprisingly sophisticated and circumspect understanding of the historical reality of their town and its place in American history. They even seem to embrace their myth as history and their history as myth quite honestly and openly to the point of being able to poke fun at themselves. A historical reenactor/docent who worked at the replica Mayflower ship anchored in the port of Plymouth made the rather insightful observation in relation to why the story of the Pilgrims was always taken precedence over that of the earlier and more significant Jamestown Colony: "The Virginia story is a lot more exciting, but as a founding myth it's a lousy fit. No one wants to build a national story around a man killing and eating his pregnant wife, or colonists too lazy to grow their own food. Shiftlessness isn't part of the American self-image." True dat!

The most significant quote of the entire book was quite serendipitously delivered to the author near the end of his journey and quite intentionally and appropriately was located near the end of the book. The Reverend Peter Gomes, an American man of Black (Cape Verde Island origin which is owned by Portugal) and Portuguese ancestry and a distinguished member of an exclusive fraternal order in Plymouth known as The Old Colony Club. Gomes sagely posited "Myth is more important than history. History is arbitrary, a collection of facts. Myth we choose, we create, we perpetuate." That is the theme of the entire book encapsulated into two sentences.

This is not to say we should wallow in our own myths and buy into everybody else's myths and ignore facts and truths. But I do set forth that we should neither adhere to myths and ignore facts nor ought we to merely cling to facts and repudiate all myths. Both serve an important function in understanding why things are the way they are and what happened before and thus gain insights into what we might expect in the future. Our myths also offer us insights into who we are as individuals and groups. Strangely enough these sorts of themes have already been swirling around  in my head much in recent years as I find my intellect wrapping itself around many things that for most of my life have seemed inexplicable and to which I now hope I'm on the verge of making some sort of breakthrough realizations regarding. As the haunting recurring theme in the Battlestar Galactica television series states: "This has all happened before and it will all happen again." Or does it have to?


  1. This is awesome reflection on the book! Helped me a lot!

  2. I love you. Hi Cory J

  3. Anonymous #1, I'm glad you found it useful!

    Anonymous #2, Love you back!

  4. That being said, I agree with you that the book can best be enjoyed by not cruising through it faster than one can follow what is contained therein. I did not read it for pleasure, but rather for school so I went through it faster than I would were I reading it for pleasure. However, if one is really "into" it then reading it is not the least bit hard as it is stylistically easy to follow. It may be dense in content but not dense in style. This is not a scholarly treatise, but rather for the mainstream reader. Tony Horwitz is no Edward Said and I mean that as a compliment to Horwitz without any intended disrespect to Said.