Tony Horwitz makes a rather startling confession in his introduction to A Voyage Long and Strange. After viewing the famous rock in Plymouth, Massachusetts, he writes:
“I scanned the data stored in my own brain about America’s family of Europeans. ‘In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue’…John Smith and Jamestown…the Mayflower Compact…Pilgrims in funny hats…Of the Indians who met the English, I of course knew Pocahontas, Squanto, and … Hiawatha?
“…As far as dates, I’d mislaid an entire century, the one separating Columbus’s sail in 1492 from Jamestown’s founding in 16-0-something. Maybe nothing happened in the period between. Still, it was disturbing not to know. Expensively educated at a private school and university --- [and now an even more shocking admission!] – a history major, no less! I’d matriculated to middle age with a third grader’s grasp of early America.”
But it gets worse. Horwitz later writes: “…like most Americans, I was ignorant of the Jamestown story, even though I’d spent much of my life in Virginia.” [!!??]
His confession reminds me of a story the late Lewis Grizzard used to tell, which ended with the punch line, “Damn brother, I don’t believe I woulda told that.”
But Horwitz sets out to fill in the void in his knowledge of early American history and he succeeds admirably. He may have been a poor historian, but he is an outstanding journalist who has traveled the world and been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his work, strange though it may be that he would be so curious about what was happening around the globe, but not be intellectually engaged with what had happened in his own backyard.
His book is really a pretense for travel. After extensive research, he writes about that century that he knows nothing about, and then he melds the past and the present by traveling to the areas where the significant events occurred and writes about what he finds there today. So, even if, unlike Horwitz, the reader is familiar with the people and events of that era, the current information will still be worthwhile.
Finally, Horwitz entertains the reader with his wit and charm and at the same time provides an opportunity to learn American history in a painless fashion. And after those confessions in his introduction and what he has done about them, I’m sure he now feels better about himself. I would.