Sunday, December 29, 2013

Amateur Travel History: Horwitz and Vowell

By Jeff Burns

Winter’s here, and many people kind of slow down and travel less, but you can still enjoy some great travel history.  I recommend a couple of authors who are amateur historians.  They don’t have degrees in history and spend their days in archives and libraries doing research.  Instead, they travel and talk to people, and then they share their experiences with us in a way that’s both informative and entertaining.

First, there’s Tony Horwitz.  Horwitz is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist by profession who spent years covering international events and conflicts before becoming an author.  He does his research and then sets out on his journey, but his gift is in drawing out detailed characterizations of the people he meets on the way.  He’s also very witty and intertwines his own adventures and misadventures with the adventures of his subject, while making connections between past and present. 

Here are his books:

Baghdad Without a Mapis his journey through Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq immediately after the Gulf war.

In Blue Latitudes, he follows the voyages of Captain James Cook, the British discoverer of Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii.

A Voyage Long and Strangeis all about the discovery of the New World, from Columbus to the conquistadors who forged New Spain in Central and South America.

In Confederates in the Attic, Horwitz turns his attention to the Civil War, but he approaches the story from a unique perspective.  The story is really about the Civil War re-enactors that he camps with and lives with.
19th Century Cabin
His most recent book, Midnight Rising, is perhaps his most historical work.  It’s the story of abolitionist John Brown and his 1859 raid on the Harper’s Ferry federal arsenal, a pivotal event in the march to the Civil War.

My second amateur historian recommendation is Sarah Vowell.  Vowell is an essayist and social commentator.  You may have heard her commentaries on NPR’s This American Life  or may have seen her occasional talk show appearances.  Or you may know her voice as that of the teenage daughter Violet in the movie The Incredibles.   She’s written several nonfiction books on American history and culture.  She doesn’t pretend to be an unbiased journalist, and her point of view comes across clearly in her work.  However, the history is spot on;  just be aware that you’re getting her interpretation of it.  Her interpretation can be hilarious, insightful, cynical, and enlightening.  At any rate, you will be entertained.

Her books:

The Wordy Shipmatesis about the Pilgrims on the Mayflower and the first settlements in colonial Massachusetts, and how misleading our image of them is.

The  Partly Cloudy Patriot  addresses a wide range of topics from Rosa Parks to Gettysburg Address to Bill Clinton and many more.

Assassination Vacationis about Presidential assassins and would-be assasins.  Vowell makes a cross-country trip to see for herself sites related to the events.

Take the Cannoliis another collection of essays on a variety of topics, including the Trail of Tears which had a direct impact on her own family.

Trail of Tears Map
Her most recent work, Unfamiliar Fishes, tackles American imperialism, specifically the annexation of Hawaii. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Jungle Books

By Jeff Burns

As a kid, I was a huge fan of Tarzan movies, especially the ones from the 30s starring Johnny Weismuller.  Heck, anything with jungle and natives and lost cities caught my attention.  The idea of exploring the unknown and initiating contact with people untainted by knowledge of the outside world excited me, and I dreamed of being an anthropologist on one of those expeditions.  Too bad jungles usually come with extreme heat and nasty bugs and other bitey thingies.

In junior high and high school, I read all of the Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but, let’s be honest, there’s not much history there, unless you read them for the subtext of the time.  They reflect the racism and imperialism of the time they were written, and Burroughs’ own personal racism and deep involvement in the eugenics movement that was very popular at the time, and in fact led directly to the Holocaust.

I thought I’d recommend some more historical titles that I’ve enjoyed recently.

The River of Doubt:  Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard tells the story of TR’s South American expedition following his presidency.  We know what a conservationist and outdoorsman he was, but did you know he nearly died in the rainforest in the process of finding a previously unknown tributary that was named for him?  TR dealt with the elements, Indian attacks, and deceit within his own expedition, and he very nearly failed to return.

Also set in the Amazon, The Lost City of Z by David Grann has all the ingredients of a great jungle story.  In fact, Brad Pitt is currently producing a movie version starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the eccentric British explorer, Percy Fawcett, leading an expedition into the Amazon rainforest to prove his crackpot theory that there were once large, advanced cities and civilizations there.  From the earliest accounts of Spanish conquistadors and priests, there are stories of women warrior tribes (hence the name Amazon) and great cities that gave rise to the legends of El Dorado and Cibola.  Not only did Fawcett’s entire expedition disappear, but so did several rescue expeditions launched in the 1920s and 1930s.  And, almost a hundred years later, it turns out that his idea might not have been so crackpot after all.  In the past decade, archaeologists have discovered bits of evidence that suggest that cities may actually have existed hundreds of years ago.

Fast forward to the present day, and you have Scott Wallace’s The Unconquered:  In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes.  Wallace accompanies an expedition led by Sydney Possuelo as he searches for the “Arrow People”, endangered even though they’ve never been in contact with non-Indians.  Possuelo has devoted his life to protecting Brazil’s indigenous population and created the agency that deals with them.  Wallace ably chronicles the dangers of the journey, but he also describes for the reader the 21stcentury problems threatening the existence of these stone age people, from environmental changes, to criminal trespassers (including terrorists, drug dealers, and slavers), to arguments within the government about how to best serve the Indians. 

Jumping to the continent of Africa, Between Man and Beast by Monte Reel is about the Europeans who  “discovered” gorillas and introduced them to Europeans.  This discovery happened in the midst of the debate raging in Britain over Darwin’s theory of evolution.  The book has many layers; it’s not just the story of the jungle expedition.  It’s also the story of the cultural firestorm that Darwin’s theory ignited, intense personal and professional rivalry between scientists and explorers, and the racism, ethnocentrism, and imperialism of the late 19th century.

 Tim Butcher’s Blood River is set in modern day Africa as he attempts to follow the Congo River as Stanley did in his search for Livingstone.  He finds a country racked by poverty, corruption, and civil war.  In its own way, Butcher’s journey is just as thrilling as Stanley’s, and he paints a vivid, and often depressing, picture of Africa.  Americans generally know very little about affairs and events around the world, maybe least of all Africa.  Blood River is interesting and educational.

Coincidentally, as I was finishing up this blog, I became aware of a new book by photographer Jimmy Nelson called Before They Pass Away.  He spent the last several years traveling the world photographing many of its  last aboriginal societies.  The book costs $135, so I haven’t seen it yet, but there’s an extensive website for it :

If you like stories of intrepid, sometimes crazy, explorers, jungle dangers, and lost civilizations, I hope maybe I’ve given you some ideas here.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

History from Fiction

By Jeff Burns

Historical fiction is a great way to learn history.  Done right, a novel can be just as educational as any course or textbook, and a lot more interesting.   In a great historical novel, it is evident that the author has done a lot of research in order to get details just right.  When the historical details are just right, the reader is submerged in a different time and place.  I got hooked on a few masters of the historical novel in high school; coincidentally, in those days (the 70s and 80s), many of these titles were made into television miniseries.

The “granddaddy” of them all, of course, was Alex Haley’s Roots, a fiction/non-fiction amalgam based on his own personal genealogical research.  The impact of the book and miniseries was truly phenomenal.  Their success paved the way for both the publication of more historical epics and the making of television movies and miniseries.  It sparked new interest in genealogy, especially among black Americans who saw that family research could be done;  slavery made it more difficult, perhaps, but it could be done.  Roots also stimulated national discussion about race, race relations, and the legacy of slavery, even.  In my hometown in South Georgia, where schools had only been integrated a few years before the book came out (My first grade class was the first to start school integrated.)   My parents were as riveted to the television screen as I was.


Later, I read other novels that became miniseries.  Herman Wouk’s books, Winds of War and War and Remembrance, deftly intertwined the stories of several families and real historical characters with the events of World War II and the early Cold War.  James Clavell’s Shogun took me to feudal Japan, a place and time just about as far removed from South Georgia as could be.  James Michener was the king of sweeping historical novels that told the story of whole generations over the course of hundreds of years:  Centennial, Texas, Poland,  and Space.  (He apparently also had a thing for one-word titles.)
More recently, I discovered Ken Follett, author of Pillars of the Earth  and World Without End about feudal England.  I learned more about feudalism and medieval history from reading these books than from any other source.  Follett’s attention to detail is meticulous.  He’s now completing his CenturyTrilogy.  In this trilogy, he is telling the story of the 20th century, in a manner very reminiscent of Wouk.  He focuses on several families in the US, England, Germany and Russia and their involvement in major world events and with real historical figures.

One night on “The Late Show with Craig Ferguson”, Ferguson interviewed Philip Kerr, and I first heard about his series of novels featuring Bernie Gunther.  Gunther is a Berlin police detective in the 1930s who is an observer of, and unwilling participant in, the rise of Nazi Germany.  Fired from the force for not being Nazi enough he becomes a private detective and immediately finds himself involved in case after case that bring him into contact with historical Nazi figures and events.  So far, there are 9 books in the series, and they span about a 40 year period, taking Gunther from Berlin to the eastern Front to a POW camp in Siberia to Castro’s Cuba.  Gunther is an engaging character in the detective noir style of characters created by Dashell Hammett and Mickey Spillane.  Kerr paints a vivid picture of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.  I never really knew how grim post-war Germany was before reading these books.   Kerr also wrote Dark Matter, a murder mystery set in early 18thcentury London featuring Sir Isaac Newton in the role of detective a la Sherlock Holmes.  This book takes the reader into the workings of the Tower of London, Newgate Prison, the Royal Mint, and a seedy London Underworld of counterfeiters, political conspirators, opium addicts, to name a few.

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