Tony Horwitz, author, historian, humorist, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, will speak this week at the Smithsonian in support of his latest book, A Voyage Long and Strange, which was just released in paperback. In anticipation of his visit, Washington City Paper called Horwitz and picked his brain about the future of longform journalism, history, and first contact.
You get to do the longform narrative journalist’s dream, in that you write journalistic books. On the opposite end of the spectrum are people writing, or trying to write that same kind of journalism for periodicals like alternative weeklies and magazines, and for the Web. What do you think the future holds for the kind of work you and others do?
My first books were longform journalism; I wrote them while still holding a day job as a newspaper reporter and they really grew out of my reporting. The last two books have been kind of different and more focused on the history. While I still think of myself as a reporter and always carry a reporter’s notebook, I feel I’ve drifted away from journalism.
So I don’t really know that I would lump my fate together with that of magazine or newspaper writers, though I’m frankly not very optimistic for any of us. The culture at the moment seems so infatuated with 140-character dispatches and our reading time has so many demands—whether it’s email or blogs or Facebook, you name it—that I wonder whether people will continue to have the attention span required to read a long magazine piece or a book. I hope so! I’m sure there will always be people who want longer nonfiction, but whether there will be enough of a market to sustain a large number of writers, I just don’t know. We don’t really see layoffs among book writers; we just don’t hear about what happens. They’re not being signed up for their next book, but I think much of what’s going in newspapers and magazines is happening in a quieter fashion with book writers.
More whimper than bang for book writers?
Or simply a lot less money being paid for books. I’ve had the luxury of writing my last two books as a full-time author, and not doing it around teaching or other writing, which is the reality for most people. I think it’s very hard to do your best work when you have multiple balls in the air.
Going back to A Voyage Long and Strange being less journalistic than your previous stuff. Your older books go from one community study or character study to another—did you know you wanted to do something with your later books?
No, I don’t think it’s been conscious. I think it’s just been a gradual…an evolution, with one factor simply being age. I’m 50 now, and I have two young sons and a live-in mother-in-law. I don’t have quite the energy and freedom that I once did to disappear for weeks or even months at a time. I think the essence of journalism, or at least the kind of journalism that I used to do, is having the ability to chase a story wherever it leads and sticking with it as long as you need to. There was a time when I could do that, and it’s harder now. I think that’s one reason, also the history seems like more of a challenge to me now. Travel in journalism is a great challenge, but I’m intrigued with steering my writing more toward history and seeing what I can do with that.
The premise of A Voyage makes it seem as if you’re stepping on the toes of social studies teachers and textbook writers everywhere. Did you try to address parts of early American history that have received less attention?
For whatever reason—I’d have to get on a couch to find out why—I love debunking myths. I enjoy being irreverent. Particularly with this book, there were so many sacred cows that on close inspection don’t deserve their status; or, it turns out the history we think we know is wrong. I did take particular delight in picking apart those stories or introducing other stories that aren’t well known. As I went through the book, I would notice those oppurtunities, whether it was at the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine or Plymouth Rock or any other nunber of places where I found that the accepted story doesn’t hold up.
A Voyage is not alarming in the way that A People’s History of the United States makes the reader want to curl up in a ball and hide under his bed. That seems to add to the pleasure of reading when you’re not worried that every turn of the page will reveal how some cushy historical event was actually a premeditated slaughter of native peoples.
There’s certainly some grim history in this book—there’s disease, dispossession, and even outright slaughter. I struggled with how to balance that with my tendency toward seeing the absurd and the humorous. And I didn’t want my own travels to undercut the history or trivialize it—I don’t know if I got the balance right. But I agree with you that if a story is unrelentingly grim, as a reader, you just shut down at some point. I felt part of the challenge was to keep the reader engaged with what is not always a pleasant historic story.
“Revisionist” history is almost always used as a pejorative—where do you see yourself in the debate over the narrative of American settlement? Do you even see yourself as a participant?
Absolutely, you can’t read the works of historians and not see the battle lines. I would say first that I’ve never understood the term “revisionist history” because all history is revision. If there’s no revision, why are you bothering? But I know what you mean, it’s come to mean “PC history” or something.
I think particularly with this subject you see a great deal of partisanship. There was an old school that extolled these explorers, whether Columbus or in some cases the Conquistadors, as knightly bearers of Christianity and civilization, and then starting roughly in the late 60s/early 70s, and pretty much ever since, the pendulum has started to swing in the opposite extreme—all these early explorers are monsters. They didn’t discover America, they destroyed it.
I didn’t want to put myself in that debate. Obviously I have my own opinions but I prefer to let readers come to their own conclusions most of the time, and in that sense I really still am a journalist: Show, don’t tell, and don’t shove ideas down people’s throats. But I think there’s a middle ground, certainly a lot of these explorers were brutal, not just by our standards but by theirs—a lot of them were put on trial, particularly the Spanish, for atrocities. But that’s not the whole story. All explorers were not like that. And in dwelling on them I think we miss other aspects of the story, one being the wonder of first contact, which wasn’t always bloody. A lot of it was, as I described in the book, very human and even comic. You have cultures that have never encountered each other trying to communicate and make sense of their situation, tasting each other’s food and doing crude show and tell. It’s a great story and one that we’ve lost because we tend to begin the story with Plymouth, where in fact the Indians had long since made contact with Europeans, and actually greeted the Pilgrims in English. The pilgrims sort of missed out on that experience and so do we.
A few months ago someone snapped a picture—I hope this wasn’t a hoax—of some indigenous people thrusting their spears at a helicopter. There was some buzz around it, mostly jokes, but I remember wondering if that was an extraterrestrial experience for that tribe.
I remember that. I don’t think it was a hoax but it was certainly overblown. It turned out that these people had seen planes before and had some minimal contact with the outside world. But it was as close as we could get in the present day to that sort of experience. We simply can’t have that experience today, and yet, in the 1500s, it was occurring all over this continent. I think it’s part of the reason we love science fiction, it recreates that collision of alien cultures. And I just can’t read enough of those accounts. In terms of the historical research, that was certainly my favorite part.
So what’s next?
I’ll be back in your neighborhood. I’m writing a book about John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. This time just history, no antics. No me and no present day.
Yeah, a new challenge.
That’s a dark story.
Yeah, it’s back to the Civil War era, so at least I won’t have to start from scratch the way I did with A Voyage Long and Strange, which was very unfamiliar ground for me.