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. 

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