In his typical humorous and inquisitive style, Tony Horwitz sets to trace the roots of the "discovery" of America, and more importantly - to dispel some of the most prevalent myths around it. It appears that most Americans believe that Columbus discovered America and that the US soil was first colonized by pilgrims aboard the Mayflower, that landed in Plymouth (a bit south of modern Boston) in 1620. The truth is far from that. Horwitz spends the 400 pages of this book telling about the real story behind America's colonization, starting with Viking discoverers at the turn of the first millennium, through first Spanish and French settlements and finally the founding of Jamestown, a colony in Virginia that preceded Plymouth by several years. The book is composed of two intermixed themes. The one is a historical account, facts and research the author gleaned from the all material he could find on the subject (and in the end of the book you can see a quite complete bibliography). The other is a more personal story of Horwitz's own travels through the sites he describes in his historical accounts, trying to find traces of history and talking with local people. In his discussions, he mainly tries to dig up the "hard questions" - of why some historical facts are popularized and spread, and others, while objectively more important, are forgotten and sometimes even knowingly hidden. There are a couple of nice quotes on his conclusions near the end of the book. This is from page 387:
[...] "So you're saying we should honor myth rather than fact?" I asked. "Precisely." [...] "Myth is more important than history. History is arbitrary, a collection of facts. Myth we choose, we create, we perpetuate". [...] "The story here may not be correct, but it transcends truth. It's like religion - beyond facts. Myth trumps fact, always does, always has, always will."
And from page 390:
Gould attributed this to "the psychic need for an indigenous creation myth." Humans, whether contemplating the genesis of their customs or of their species, yearn to locate "an explicit point of origin," rather than accept that most beginnings are gradual and complex. "Creation myths," he concluded, "identify heroes and sacred places, while evolutionary stories provide no palpable, particular thing as a symbol for reference, worship, or patriotism."
Interesting points to ponder on how "pop history" is formed and maintained, indeed. I wouldn't call it a great book, and it's not even one of Horwitz's best books, but "A voyage long and strange" is well written and fun to read. If you're interested in the history of America's colonization, you can do much worse than start with this readable introduction, and dig into its sources for more eclectic research.


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