As an American living permanently in another country (and having taken dual citizenship here in Sweden), the United States of America looks increasingly strange and wondrous as the years go by. My neighbors talk of a Swedish envy of Americans: “We all want to be Americans, don’t we?” said my daughter’s playmate’s papa the other day. On closer questioning, it was clear he was referring to a certain image of Americans — enterprising, self-reliant, sociable — that some people here see as a contrast to Swedish group-think, caution, and social reserve. I doubt that my attempt to give him a more nuanced picture (New Englanders can make Swedes look gabby, not everyone starts companies, massive regional differences, great cultural diversity, etc. etc.) did much to dent his beloved American archetypes.
Of course, the features he was admiring are all part of the “wondrous” qualities of my country of birth. In my own life, I certainly took advantage of the “you can do anything if you believe in yourself” philosophy that America beams around the world. Like many Americans, I moved several times, reinventing my career and my private life in relation to new people, new geography, new dreams. And if there is one thing I miss most about the country (aside from family and close friends), it is the wondrous nature on which that culture of inventiveness has drawn, over the centuries, for both inspiration and resources. (Of course nature in Sweden has its own wondrous charms; I am quite happy here.)
But the strangeness of America is usually very well hidden behind the wonder, and the myths that underpin that wonder — such as the myth that America was settled by folks like the Pilgrims, dour, hard-working, willing to sacrifice, feasting with the Indians in thanksgiving for the bounty of the land — are so deep-rooted that I keep getting surprised by how much effort it takes to stop believing them myself. Example: just last year, at Thanksgiving, I told my kids the story of the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims, turkey, etc. But the word “Pilgrim,” it turns out, is a 19th century invention; the actual “Pilgrims” certainly did not call themselves that. There’s no telling what they ate, but turkey is not recorded; succotash (a stew of whatever-meat-you-have, plus corn) is more likely. Nor were these first New Enganders terribly representative of the Europeans who flung themselves upon the Eastern shore of this new (to them) continent, dying by the thousands, but so numerous and persistent that they finally built up into that wave of Manifest Destiny that carried settlement all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
For a wondrously enlightening and entertaining review of what actually happened between 1492, when Columbus got famously lost and stumbled into the islands we now call the Bahamas, and the early 1600s, when a steady stream of boats began dislodging English settlers into the plague-cleared areas north of Cape Cod, I highly recommend Tony Horwitz’s 2008 bestseller, “A Voyage Long and Strange.” Horwitz stopped by Plymouth Rock one day, and realized that even he — a history major, a Pulitzer Prize-winning history author — had no idea what the real story was. So he spent three years following the trail of conquistadors, captured Indians, lazy minor nobles, and the whole amazing cast of characters that makes up the true history of the early European settlement of America.
I was reading up on this history in preparation for a new book, about the future. It turns out that if you want to understand where dreams of the future come from — especially the American dream — you have to know a fair amount about the past. Which I don’t. So I’m devouring history books lately, as though they were the latest news. Which, for me, they are.
Of all the books I’ve devoured in the last year, “A Voyage Long and Strange” was far and away the closest thing to a page-turner. If you are American, or just interested in this country and its wondrous power to mesmerize, inspire, infuriate, and otherwise stimulate this world of ours, please read it. (Then, if you get more serious, read the notes for the excellent summaries of scholarly references and sources.) It will at least help you, as it helped me, understand something of the strange and wondrous compulsion that drove people to bet their lives — and the lives of countless indigenous peoples — on peopling a brand new continent.