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Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies
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Whose Columbus? The Making of an Ethnic Hero

[T]he age created him and the age left him. There is no more conspicuous example in history of a man showing the path and losing it.

Justin Winsor, Christopher Columbus

In the second half of the 19th century we witness the first phase of revisionism regarding the mythical status of Christopher Columbus in the United States. For one thing, other more genuinely ‘American’ foundational narratives had by then developed, and were continuing to take shape (for example the myth of the Founding Fathers, the myth of the West, and the myth of the self-made man), which made Columbus’s ‘discovery’ as a story of American beginnings less singular and less important. At the same time, the Columbus myth as such was more closely scrutinized in light of ongoing discussions about changes and developments in American society and its demographic composition. The adoption of Columbus as a foundational figure in American national discourses of the late 18th and early 19th centuries had reflected little on a number of aspects that now surfaced: that he was an Italian sailing for the Spanish Crown, that he did not actually land in North America but in the Caribbean, and that he was Catholic. Why did Americans become aware of these facts regarding Columbus’s ‘discovery’ now, one hundred years after they had made him their national hero?

In the 19th century, the USA was receiving millions of immigrants from Europe - the so-called first wave of immigrants from Northern and Western Europe in the 1840s and 1850s, and the so-called second wave of immigrants mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe in the 1870s and the following decades: “From 1880 to 1924, some four million immigrants from southern Italy came to America, joining an earlier group of Italian immigrants, mainly from the northern peninsula” (Dennis, “Reinventing” 140). In response to the large numbers of newly arriving immigrants, the American-born population often reacted with anxiety and hostility. The last decades of the 19th century have often been characterized as a period of extreme xenophobia, racism, and nativism, a specifically American term to describe the phenomenon of “intense opposition to an internal minority on the grounds of its foreign (i.e. ‘un-American’) connections” (Higham, Strangers 4). Many social and political groups formed to protect what they considered to be a distinctively American way of life. John Higham discerned three major themes in American nativism: anti-Catholicism, antiradicalism, and racial nativism based on an Anglo-Saxon tradition and the assumption of Anglo-Saxon superiority in the United States (ibid. 5-11). Historian Matthew Jacobson has traced the heated debates around the racial composition of the USA in the 19th century, when ‘race’ was not merely used to distinguish ‘blacks’ from ‘whites’ but ‘Anglo-Saxons’ from ‘Celtic,’ ‘Slavic,’ ‘Teutonic,’ ‘Nordic,’ ‘Iberic,’ ‘Latin,’ and other supposedly ‘foreign’ elements and lineages (cf. Whiteness 7). In this logic, immigrants from different parts of Europe - particularly those from Catholic countries - were viewed with distrust and skepticism, a reaction that often caused massive discrimination and sometimes even physical violence. The heated debate around the dangers of ‘foreign infiltration’ culminated in the Immigration Act of 1924, which put a stop to mass immigration to the United States.

This nativist intellectual climate affected the attitude toward Christopher Columbus as a national hero. Lawyer and diplomat Aaron Goodrich, author of A History of the Character and Achievements of the So-Called Christopher Columbus (1874), and historian Justin Winsor, founding member of the American Historical Association and author of Christopher Columbus and How He Received and Imparted the Spirit of Discovery (1890), were among those who contested the ‘truthfulness’ and merit of the narrative of ‘discovery,’ which, they argued, derived mostly from Columbus’s own writings. According to Goodrich, Columbus in fact was “his own historian and eulogist” (History 128) and thus left out a great many aspects that would cast him in a less positive light. Goodrich radically revised the Columbus myth and pointed to previously neglected sources and archival records; one has to add that since American independence, many new sources had become available for the study of early transatlantic mobility and were then used by scholars to different ends (cf. Henige, In Search). Based on his research, Goodrich portrays Columbus as a “pirate” and a “slave trader” who already had “a history of piracy and crime” before entering Spain for dubious reasons in 1485, and journeyed out of the basest motives, intending merely to raid any place he might find (History 129); Columbus did neither deserve commemoration as an individual nor did he deserve credit for any kind of ‘discovery.’ Goodrich claims that the arrival of Leif Erikson in North America was the actual moment of ‘discovery’ of the Americas 600 years prior to Columbus’s arrival, and that it was the “heroic character of the Northmen” - rather than the “shabby grandeur” of a slave trader from Southern Europe (ibid. 336) - that lastingly shaped the American character. In that, Goodrich concludes, “the American might well feel relief and pride” (ibid. 87). Justin Winsor, the leading historian of his day, similarly denounces the Italians, who may produce capable individuals such as Christopher Columbus or Amerigo Vespucci every once in a while, but as a nation are incapable of holding their own:

You and I have not followed the maritime peoples of western Europe in planting and defending their flags on the American shores without observing the strange fortunes of the Italians, in that they have provided pioneers for those Atlantic nations without having once secured in the New World a foothold for themselves. (Christopher Columbus)

Although Columbus may have been a somewhat exceptional figure, his enterprise lacked sustainability, and his ‘discovery’ was a “blunder” (ibid. 512) - shortcomings that are also attributed to the ‘nature’ of Italians. 19th-century

American stereotypes concerning Italian immigrants cast them as innately criminal, lazy, unfit for democracy, and, as one Secret Service report has it, “a menace to the country” (Jacobson, Whiteness 61). Although Winsor’s text is less explicit than Goodrich’s, it still breathes the common racist sentiments of the time; both Goodrich and Winsor use stereotypes in profiling Columbus individually and Italians as a ‘race’ collectively. From a New Historicist perspective, we see the 19th-century discourses on ‘race’ and Anglo-Saxon superiority reflected in the historiography and mythmaking of American ‘origins.’ What had made Christopher Columbus attractive in the founding phase of the US - that he was not British - now made him suspect.

Of course, these new voices in American historical scholarship did not completely debunk the Columbus myth - far from it; it continues to have a firm place in popular discourses of commemoration and other forms of public and popular culture. The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 (originally scheduled for 1892) in Chicago was a grandiose event, described as “a spectacle of surpassing significance” (Sale, Conquest of Paradise 350) that celebrated the historical figure in more abstract terms: the long water pool - the centerpiece of the “White City” exhibition grounds - symbolized the long voyage Columbus took to the ‘new world;’ the statue placed next to it, however, was not one of Columbus but of the republic. Rather than merely as a patriotic figure, Columbus is cast here as a symbol of progress and civilization par excellence. As such, it seems that his journey only makes sense in the context of the newly emergent US empire and its self-proclaimed exceptionalism. Yet, we can also observe that the meaning of Columbus as a foundational figure and national icon is becoming contested, even controversial. Dennis refers to the 1892 celebrations as a “confused Columbian discourse” (“Reinventing” 145). The celebration of Columbus as hero and of America as Columbia (cf. John Gast’s 1872 painting American Progress) was accompanied by some white American intellectuals’ disenchantment with Columbus on the one hand, and identification with Columbus on the part of newly arrived immigrants (particularly those who were stigmatized as foreigners in the United States) on the other. Since the late 19th century, the myth of Columbus and the ‘discovery’ of America thus no longer functions as an unequivocal universal national myth but is enlisted in new minority discourses by Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants to America who claim him as their foundational figure. He thus remains a figure of dissent, of heroism and of, at times, unrecognized achievement, albeit in a modified ideological configuration - he becomes an ethnic hero. This new turn in the troping of Columbus as hero is manifested in the cultural and memorial practices of the immigrants, in their poetry and literature, as well as their politics.

Illustration 4: Columbia Moves West

John Gast, American Progress (1872).

It comes as no surprise in this context that the 1892 commemoration of Columbus’s ‘discovery’ is clearly accentuated by Italian Americans, who celebrate Christopher Columbus as their ancestral figure. After all, he was a native of Genoa and sailed for the Genoese fleet before he went to Portugal, and later to Spain. On the occasion, the Italian Americans of New York City erected a 75- feet high marble statue by Gaetano Russo with an inscription that is supposed to remind all Americans of Columbus’s achievements:

TO

CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS

THE ITALIANS RESIDENT IN AMERICA,

SCOFFED AT BEFORE,

DURING THE VOYAGE, MENACED,

AFTER IT, CHAINED,

AS GENEROUS AS OPPRESSED,

TO THE WORLD, HE GAVE A WORLD.

JOY AND GLORY

NEVER UTTERED A MORE THRILLING CALL THAN THAT WHICH RESOUNDED FROM THE CONQUERED OCEAN IN SIGHT OF THE FIRST AMERICAN ISLAND LAND! LAND!

Illustration 5: Columbus Monument in New York (Historical Postcard)

Brooklyn Postcard Co. Inc., Columbus and Maine Monuments (1914).

This memorial is an indication of the trend to transform Cristobal Colon into Cristoforo Colombo, a specifically Italian hero embraced both by native Italians hungry for progenitors of their new nation (united in 1861) and by the growing numbers of Italian immigrants in the United States eager to claim an authentic “American” figure as their own. (Sale, Conquest of Paradise 351)

Today, in New York City alone there are eleven memorials to Christopher Columbus, ranging from the marble statue in Central Park to less extravagant pieces in Brooklyn and the Bronx, many of which are part of Italian American institutions and/or were commissioned by Italian American organizations. The enlistment of Columbus in Italian American cultural practices continues into the present: Columbus Day parades in major American cities are organized by Italian American communities; Italian American author Mario Puzo (of The Godfather fame) wrote a screenplay for Christopher Columbus - The Discovery (1992); and the HBO television drama series The Sopranos dedicated an episode titled “Christopher” to a controversial celebration of Columbus Day in New York (cf. Bondanella, Hollywood Italians 303-4).

Yet, at the end of the 19th century not only Italian Americans took recourse to Columbus in their search for a ‘usable past.’ Emma Lazarus, the Jewish American poet famous for her sonnet “The New Colossus” (which is inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty), titles one of her poems “1492,” which is here quoted in full:

Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate,

Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword,

The children of the prophets of the Lord,

Prince, priest, and people, spurred by zealot hate.

Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state,

The West refused them, and the East abhorred.

No anchorage the known world could afford Close-locked was every port, barred every gate.

Then smiling, thou unveil’dst, O two-faced year,

A virgin world where doors of sunset part,

Saying, “Ho, all who weary, enter here!

There falls each ancient barrier that the art Of race or creed or rank devised, to rear Grim bulwarked hatred between heart and heart!”

Lazarus’s poem acknowledges two momentous historical events that occurred in 1492: the Jewish expulsion from Spain under King Ferdinand and Queen

Isabella, and their support for Columbus’s journey across the Atlantic. In 1888, Lazarus’s poem depicts the USA as a haven for refugees who are in need of a new home. The poet may have been aware of the rumors indicating that Columbus himself was partly Jewish. Although there is still little evidence to corroborate this long-standing speculation, we may yet reflect on the ‘timing’ of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and his journey, and agree with Morison and Vignaud that even if Columbus himself was not Jewish it is likely that Jews who hoped to find a new home somewhere in the West were among his crewmembers (cf. Morison, Admiral; Vignaud, Letter and “Christopher Columbus”). More recently, Steve Berry’s The Columbus Affair (2012) picks up on this possibility and makes it the center of a contemporary conspiracy-thriller plot.

Apart from Lazarus’s patriotic Columbus poem, Jewish American literature and popular culture - from Mary Antin’s autobiography The Promised Land (1912) to the Marx Brothers’ comedies - often took issue with the glorification of Columbus. “A curse on Columbus!” became a frequent pun “in ironic response to the nation’s official narrative” (Weber, “Accents” 136; cf. Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity 33; Goldsmith, “Curse”). In the novel Jews without Money (1930) by the socialist Jewish American writer, journalist, and activist Michael Gold one character exclaims in a somewhat typical fashion: “‘It is all useless. A curse on Columbus! A curse on America, the thief! It is a land where the lice make fortunes, and the good men starve!’” (79). Jewish American author Philip Roth declares “Goodbye Columbus” in his 1959 novella of the same title in commenting on the story of initiation of a young Jewish American man into the complex system of Jewish American class distinctions and on the subsequent failure of a love relationship.

Columbus became not only an ancestral figure for different ethnic groups but was also considered a patron by Catholics in Protestant America. Catholic (mostly Irish and Italian) immigrants to America strongly felt the anti-Catholic and anti-papal sentiments in American nativist attitudes, and reacted by forming their own institutions. In 1882, the Knights of Columbus are founded by an Irish American Catholic priest in New Haven, Connecticut; this organization was intended as a “fortress” against discrimination, dedicated itself to “Columbian- ism,” and tried to “demonstrate the compatibility of Roman catholicism and American democracy” (Kauffman, Faith 276). According to historian Christopher Kauffman, who was commissioned by the order to write numerous histories and documentations, the organization’s ideology is shaped by “a blend of popular fraternalism, American Catholic patriotism and traditional Catholicism” (Columbianism 29).

[The Knights of Columbus] viewed the discovery of America as a Catholic event, just as Anglo-Saxon Protestants viewed the landing at Plymouth Rock as a Puritan event. The Knights of Columbus were implicitly celebrating the landing of the Santa Maria, the Catholic counterpart to the Protestants’ Mayflower and a ship which had arrived 128 years earlier. (Kauffman, Faith 276)

The Catholic order quickly expands across the country: 6.000 knights participate in the 1892 Columbus parade (cf. Kauffman, Faith 91); by 1893, the order has 550.000 members in the Boston area and by 1905, it has spread to all American states as well as to Mexico and Canada. Kauffman’s Faith and Fraternalism is published on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Knights in 1982, and reprinted for the Quincentenary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas in 1992. The order today prides itself on more than 125 years of history, during which it has also seen internal debates, phases of historical revisionism, discussions of racism and gender discrimination, as well as criticism from the Catholic Church because of its name - amidst revisionists, suggestions have been made to rename the order the “Knights of Christ,” or any other less controversial, i.e. political name (cf. Dennis, “Reinventing” 157).

Overall, Columbus ceased to be a symbol of national unity and cohesion by the end of the 19th century as different groups staked their claim to ‘America’ by placing themselves in the tradition of Columbus and his ‘discovery,’ and this trend continued throughout the 20th century. Yet, around 1992, the second and most forceful phase of revisionism set in. As the 500th anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of the Americas approached, the question of what and who was to be celebrated seemed ever more pressing.

 
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