Tony Horwitz: In Love With the History Our Teachers Never Told Us

Historians in the News

Tony Horwitz’s new book, “A Voyage Long and Strange,” is about the American history most Americans never learned, including the story of the short-lived, early-17th-century colony established on this windswept island eight miles west of Martha’s Vineyard.

The book starts with the Viking discovery of North America, dispels a number of myths about Columbus (a much lousier navigator than we were taught) and then traces the various Spanish and French explorations of America before turning to the English settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth.

That the Pilgrims were very tardy latecomers is one of the themes of “A Voyage Long and Strange,” just published by Macmillan. Another is that much of what we think of as heroic exploration was bumbling and misguided. And a third is that large chunks of our past are preserved these days less by scholars than by passionate amateurs. Who knew, for example, that some evangelicals in Jacksonville, Fla., were keeping alive the memory of the French Huguenots who settled there and were massacred by the Spanish?

Mr. Horwitz is himself a passionate amateur of sorts. For his book “Confederates in the Attic,” about Civil War re-enactors, he camped out at Antietam with a man whose specialty was making himself resemble a bloated corpse. For this book he joined some conquistador re-enactors in Bradenton, Fla., and tried on their homemade armor. The breast plate, he said, made him feel as if he were wearing a car hood on a sweltering summer day. He also baked himself — to the point of mummification, practically — in a Micmac sweat lodge in Newfoundland, and in a vain attempt to withstand the steamy climate of Santo Domingo, where Columbus may or may not be buried, he spray-painted his torso with Arrid Extra Dry and blotted himself with rolls of paper towel....

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