Monday, October 11, 2010

O, Columbus

Upper left-hand corner from Diego Gutiérrez, cartographer,
and Hieronymus Cock, engraver, Americae sive qvartae orbis
partis nova et exactissima descriptio / avtore Diego Gvtiero
Philippi Regis Hisp. etc. Cosmographo ; Hiero. Cock excvde 1562;
Hieronymus Cock excude cum gratia et priuilegio 1562. Antwerp,
1562. 1 map; 83 x 86 cm., on sheet 100 x 102 cm.
Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

There can be few historical figures that capture the American imagination quite as much as Christopher Columbus. The United States has, this past Monday, finished celebrating his discovery of America with a national holiday. Every second Tuesday in October, Americans attend parades and celebrations; many government workers have the day off. It is intriguing that an explorer of limited money and questionable navigation skills (although, to be fair, he was in uncharted waters), who never set foot in the United States, gets a national holiday for discovering it.

Of course, the folklore starts early – grade school, to be exact. Every grade school student knows the importance of the year 1492. Every student knows about those infamous three boats. Some might even remember Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand (although the fact that they were Spanish patrons does tend to get lost in the historical sauce). Not many remember Amerigo Vespucci. None get to read Columbus’ journals or letters. That would be un-American.

College is the first opportunity many students have of gaining a little depth and perspective on Columbus. In history courses?  Hopefully. However, it might very well come from a place one least expects – in the English composition or rhetoric classroom. Rhetoric and composition textbooks regularly use excerpts of Columbus’ ship logs (or, more accurately, the scrivener Frey Bartolomé de la Casas’ version of events) as a prime example of the “informal” voice, as well as a deft rhetorical tool. Of the latter there can be no denial; the former, well, one is not so sure.

Good fiction, I argue, is one of the best places to get a sense of any person, and Columbus is no exception. One of the most provocative pieces is the Salman Rushdie short story “Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain Consummate Their Relationship (Santa Fé, AD 1492).” Contained in East, West, it is a mystical, yet harshly modern tour de force, in which the “search for money and patronage … is not so different from the quest for love.” No grade-school history book I’ve ever read put forth that hypothesis. 

En garde, Señor Quixote.

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