Undercover: Barry Fell’s ‘Saga America’ (06/26/80)

In America B.C., marine biologist Barry Fell made an interesting case for the idea that the New World was visited and colonized by various Old World peoples—most notably Celts—long before Columbus. In Saga America (Times Books, 425pp., $15) Fell provides convincing evidence that ancient America was so full of Jews, Romans, Libyans, Celts, Vikings and Egyptians that those benighted folk we now refer to as “Native Americans” never existed at all—or, if they did exist, were sensibly confined to a small reservation somewhere in eastern Manitoba until about 1491. Certainly, they had nothing of importance to do with the creation of pre-Columbian culture. You name it—pueblos, pyramids, writing—white people were here first.

One is not to worry that this is exactly how early post-Colum­bian explorers explained the presence of advanced civilizations in Mexico and Peru, since, clearly, colored savages were incapable of such achievements. Nor is one to be concerned that almost all of Fell’s supporting illustrations are newly drawn “renderings” of pottery fragments and engravings, or photos of highlighted replicas rather than of original artifacts. One is not to ask why his astonishing 1500-year-old map of the Hawaiian Islands, inscribed by Lib­yans on a rock face in Nevada, centers on Maui (named, Fell notes, for Maui, a Libyan voyager) and includes Kauai and Oahu, neither of which is visible from Maui, but omits Molokai and Lanai, both of which are. One is not to wonder why Fell’s artifacts are never provided with the sort of pedigree that would allow a reader to decide whether a suggestive coin was deposited in American soil by Abdul el Habid, Arab trader of 922 A.D., or by Abbott “Al” Habitt, crafty Arizona curio dealer of 1944. Fell is not a pedant.

One thing he seems not to have noticed: much of his account dovetails rather closely with the beliefs of the Mormons, whose faith is based on the proposition that Jews settled the New World in about 600 B.C., built a great civilization, were sanctified by Jesus when he showed up following his crucifixion, and were later wiped out in a series of wars with the barbaric La­manites, otherwise known as In­dians. These tantalizing bits of information were delivered to Joseph Smith by the Angel Moroni—I’ve always liked that name—who, while presumably not speaking directly to Fell, seems to have sent an emissary.


The Dream of the Golden Mountains: Remembering the 1930s, by Malcolm Cowley (Viking, 328 pp., illustrated, $14.95). Cowley is best known for Exile’s Return, an overrated literary memoir of the Twenties; this companion volume, which is mostly about radical politics in a literary context, is almost worthless. The personal stories Cowley tells remain merely personal; the political stories are at best very minor footnotes to standard histories, and at worst third-hand rehashings of events for which we have first-rate, first-­hand testimony. Least effective of all is the tone Cowley adopts to treat his “fellow-traveling” with Thirties Communists: he wants both distance from his naivete, and the immediacy of the crisis that led him to throw in his hand, and he gets neither.

Falling in Place, by Ann Beattie (Random House. 342 pp., $10.95). Apparently because Beattie writes cool, ironic fiction about white middle-class people in their twenties and thirties with the authority of one who has the facts of pop culture down cold, she has passed beyond criticism. She may even become quite popular: while her characters are passive and their dreams banal, they’re always innocent; while she writes as if gloom were her copilot, she’s managed to tack happy endings onto two entropic novels in a row. The only real problem with Beattie is that she has no passion, no rage, no involvement with the people she creates, and nothing to say

The Spike, by Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss (Crown, 374 pp., $12.95). An awesomely shameless piece-of-shit thriller about the penetration of the U.S. government and the American media by the KGB—de Borchgrave, a Newsweek foreign correspondent, made a name for himself as the chief apologist for the shah, and he pursues that role with great relish here. Along the way are lots of necessary roman-à-clef touches, and lots of “breasts”—most of which, in fact, seem to be attached to women, though you’d be excused for not noticing.


Dick Hebdige‘s Subculture, recently reviewed (RS 316) as a U.K. import, is in fact available domestically; the publisher is Methuen. Jean Rhys, the subject of columns in RS 318 and 319, was given two different birthdates, 1894 and 1890. The latter, according to her just-published autobiography, Smile Please (Harper & Row), is correct, but that information was not available when RS 318 went to press, nor was it when Thomas F Sta­ley’s excellent critical study, Jean Rhys, reviewed in those same two issues, was published. However, my claim, in RS 318, that “by 1945 [Jean Rhys] was twice a widow” was my error, not Staley’s. Rhys became a widow for the second time in 1964.

Rolling Stone, June 26, 1980

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