The Autobiography of a Traitor and a Half-Savage: An Annotated Bibliography

fisk_mississippi_meandersIf you haven’t already seen my undignified squealing on social media: I have a story up at It’ll also be available as part of Some of the Best of, the free ebook. It’s an anticolonial fantasy about American empire-building and indigenous knowledge and landscapes that fight back.

It also has a whole fictional bibliography of nineteenth-century travel narratives, partially based on genuine imperial travel narratives. Since so many people have been clamoring for more information on this (read: since I spent a long time researching it), I thought I’d publish an annotated bibliography to accompany the story. Here’s the full list of everything I cited and why:

Bernard del Castillo, The True History of the Conquest of the Old West, trans. Maurice Keating (London: John Murray and Sons, 1800)

This one was based on The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, Bernal Diaz del Catillo’s narrative of traveling with Cortes in the New World. It was specifically written to exonerate Spanish soldiers from the attacks of reformers like Las Casas (who wrote A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies); it’s travel-narrative-as-imperial-celebration, as an effort to control the narrative of history. And it’s surprisingly readable in translation, including the killer line: “We went there to serve God, and also to get rich.”

Joshua Slocum, Sailing Alone Down the Mississippi (Boston: J. J. Little, 1903).

Stolen from Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World, a real-life account of the first (white, documented) person to circumnavigate the globe single-handedly. He apparently made good money off the book, and then disappeared in 1909 on his way to sail down the Amazon. I liked the idea that, even in the real world, exercising the imperial gaze has its perils.

Sir Marcus Polo, The Book of the Marvels of the West; Being an Honest Account of the New World and Its Inhabitants, 6th ed. (London: Thomas Cook Ltd., 1754).

Marco Polo’s Book of the Marvels of the East, of course! I love it for its inconsistencies and exaggerations, and the feeling that it made the “Orient” perhaps even more fantastical and unknown than it was before (Google the illustrations). There’s also all this adorably intense debate among historians about whether or not he actually made it all the way to China, based on his failure to mention things like chopsticks or footbinding). His work is also explicitly connected to European mapmaking.

John L. O’Sullivan, “Annexation,” United States Magazine and Democratic Review 17, (July-August 1845):, 5–11.

100% real, yo.

Captain Lewis, History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark: Into the West and Thence to the Pacific Ocean (Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1838).

Also real. Except I delayed it by a few years (it was really published in 1814), on the assumption that the recalcitrance and insubordination of the landscape would’ve slowed the bastards down.

Also…I read like 900 fictionalized, young-adult-ish accounts of Sacagawea’s life when I was a kid, and it’s totally possible that those stories were my subliminal blueprints for this whole thing. But, looking at those stories from a slightly-better-educated perspective, they’re all trash. They were colonial myths of a helpful, willing young woman eager to serve the American empire, which made no mention of child marriage or servitude or the ferocious flexibility necessary to survive in the shifting borderlands of empire.

Oona isn’t Sacagewea. She isn’t Lemhi Shoshone, she isn’t any real Native experience at all. She’s…a myth, perhaps trying to decolonize other myths.

Edmund Cosgrove, Order and Progress: Essays on the Symbolic Representation and Civilization of Western Lands (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1909).

This one is sort of real! An influential (to me?) 1988 theory of history and landscape and how we mush the two together. The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design and Use of Past Environments.

Jackson Turner, “The Frontier in Eastern History” (paper presented to the Eastern Historical Association), Louisville, Kentucky, 1893.

Turner’s famous Frontier Thesis! 100% real.  Except it was presented in Chicago, not Louisville. That’s a Kentuckian’s conceit.

David Livingstone, “Essay on the Shocking Properties of Victoria Sea, Being an Honest Record of my Time There,” (paper presented to the Royal Geographical Society, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1854).

Is there a more iconic imperialist than Livingstone (well, maybe Stanley)? I love the idea that his mission for Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization was met by a fractious, resistant landscape.

Joe Conrad, The Heart of Darkness (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1884)

The quote is from the real Heart of Darkness, “resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land,” except it describes the Congo, not the Mississippi. I’m always conflicted on Heart of Darkness—is it a meditation on the moral sickness of colonialism, or a dark fantasy of uncivilized Africa?

Charlie Darwin, The Voyage of the Spaniel (London: Thomas Cook and Sons Ltd., 1839).

Ha, I kill myself.


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