"There it is!" we like to imagine Columbus exclaiming, with an exploratory glint in his eye, while pointing to America from the deck of the Santa Maria. Not to sound too critical, but a lot of what we're told about Christopher Columbus isn't quite true. According to Bill Bryson's eye-opening book Made in America, Columbus was dogged in his pursuits, but relatively clueless. Bryson claims that for anyone to achieve such a precipitous fall from grace "in less than a decade required an unusual measure of incompetence and arrogance. Columbus had both." At first ignored by history, Columbus eventually began to be venerated after the Brits were given the boot. Although he's described as tall, red-haired, and fair-skinned, no one knows exactly what Columbus looked like since there were no portraits made of him during his lifetime. Nevertheless, he was the Italian "It" Boy of the 15th and 16th centuries and, while purportedly looking for something else (a better route to Asian spices, for example), Columbus discovered America. Or stumbled upon it, rather, given the fact that it had already been discovered by the Vikings (not to mention indigenous peoples) and had even been drawn on a map. Columbus never seemed to know where he had been or where he was going (although he may have had his own agendas). He never set foot in North America at all. It's true that, like most other people of his time, Columbus did not think the world was flat, but he did badly underestimate its size. He also mistook Native Americans for Indians, and genocide for traveling abroad. It wasn't exactly what anyone had expected, but it's apparently the reason we're all here today. As for just what to make of it—with apologies to Bill Clinton—that depends on what the meaning of it is. Chritopher for Christopher is found seven times in OhioLINK and 72 times in WorldCat—which is much bigger than it looks.
(Engraving of bust of Christopher Columbus by John Sartain, 1808-1897, from the original portrait presented to William A. Bryan, Esq., of Virginia by H.M. the late Queen Sophia of Holland.)
Monday, October 12, 2009
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