I’ve never been a serious history buff. But as my home page points out, “I have a passion for great writing.” Lately I’ve been exploring historical writers, looking for tastes of “the exquisite beauty of a powerful idea expressed in expertly-chosen words.”
As readers of this blog know, I loved David McCullough’s stuff: John Adams (lately of HBO fame) and 1776. I also devoured his Truman, an unexpectedly delicious treat: that Harry S. certainly exemplifies the uniquely piquant flavor-smack we think of as “American.”
I’ve also enjoyed the work of my Amherst neighbor, professor Joseph J. Ellis: his Founding Brothers was a bestseller sensation a few years ago, and his more recent American Creation is even better. What amazing perspective he brings to this country’s founding years and impulses! He brings these people—the pugnaciously brilliant Alexander Hamilton, exquisitely diplomatic James Madison, perplexingly self-contradictory Thomas Jefferson—alive and weaves a context that puts present-day politics in a whole new light.
And I went absolutely nuts over Erik Larsen’s stuff: The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck and Isaac’s Storm: crime novel meets historical reconstruction, all well worth reading and frantically enjoyable: more fun than Arthur Conan Doyle or Ian Fleming!
But far and away my favorite historical writer, bar none, has turned out to be a guy named Tony Horwitz.
I’m right now reading A Voyage Long and Strange on my Kindle. It’s the story of the founding of America—the part we don’t know. The part that happened in the 100-plus years between the voyage of Columbus in 1492 and the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620.
This man has an absolutely giddy, hilarious mastery of the English language:
John Smith was the pivotal figure in the founding of English America, and the most vivid: a short bushy braggart, a con man, an escape artist, an accomplished klller. Smith saved Jamestown and set the Pilgrims on course for Plymouth. He demonstrated, in both word and deed, that the New World demanded a new type of man—one like him. Self-made, scornful of rank, and ceaseless in his salesmanship, Smith was apostle and exemplar of the American Dream.
If this sounds like hyperbole, it should: everything about Smith was overstated, usually by himself. He penned one of England’s first autobiographies, in the third person, starring Captain Smith as an early modern superhero, battling evildoers and impossible odds. England’s advances in American were all due to him: the discoveries of others, he wrote, “are but Pigs of my owne Sow.”
And there’s the rub, as a contemporary of Smith’s [i.e., Shakespeare—JDM] might have put it. The story of America’s English birth depends on a blowhard who is easy to dislike and even easier to doubt.
In researching this work, Horwitz himself criss-crossed the back woods of America, traveling in the European pioneers’ footsteps, from Vikings to Spaniards to French to English—and his recreation of early history is interlaced with his (variously hair-raising and sidesplitting) accounts of his own trek to experience these roots firsthand. Here’s a bit of his encounter with a putative descendant of Viking forbears in remote Newfoundland. In this scene, Tony is interviewing an old man named Job Anderson:
He mentioned that his gradnfather was Norwegian, and I asked if this had given him any sense of identity with the Vikings whose homes he’d helped unearth.
“Too far back,” Job replied. “I can’t tell you no lies. I never ran with them. I’m old, but not that old.” Then he broke into song: “Born here in the morning, quarter after two, with me hands in me pocket, and me old ragadoo.” When I looked at him blankly, he said, “A ragadoo’s a coat.”
Job patted his goat. “She’ll live till she dies, this one.” I nodded, bought a pair of socks, and retreated to my car, bewildered by my first contact with Newfoundlanders. Were they having fun with me? Or were they all barking mad?
Do you love this guy, or what?