Monday, April 14, 2008

A Voyage Long and Strange

In his latest travel/history, A Voyage Long and Strange, Tony Horwitz explores the paths of the explorers and would-be settlers and exploiters of North America as well as how the current populace sees and uses the past. The historical elements of the book provide a basic history of people and experiences with which modern American readers should be more familiar. While most of these people were at least somewhat familiar, some were completely new to me.

One of these was the sad story of the brief Huguenot colonization of Florida, which met its demise at Spanish swordpoint. Fleeing general persecution in Europe, the Huguenots were found, ejected from La Caroline (near Jacksonville, FL.) The Spanish then founded St. Augustine nearby. Horwitz meets a evangelical who seeks to drive out the spirits of the Spanish evil, as well as National Park staff who find that the local right-wingers get upset when they find that the cool sounding Fort Caroline park, in fact commemorates the French. This book is in some ways the opposite of Confederates in the Attic. That book dealt with history that is still lived today by a wide swath of people, while this one deals with history that is nearly forgotten or grossly misunderstood.

Horwitz closes with a discussion about national myth and how we remember what fits the myth and not what doesn't. Because so many of the stories in the book don't jibe with the hard-scrabble story of the hard-working Pilgrims, they are ejected from the national story. Of course as the national self-image changes, it is possible that the stories of Cabrillo, John Smith and Jamestown and the French and Spanish colonization of Florida will become more important stories for everyone.

Horwitz introduces his book and its genesis on He seems a rather cheerful fellow, which may explain his apparent ease at meeting and bonding with locals. He talks about his participatory history where he tries to get a feel for the past by direct experience, including his joining up with some Spanish conquistador re-enactors. While it isn't as extensive as his re-enactor writing in Confederates in the Attic, it is quite funny.

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