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Christopher Columbus

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America's national memory is filled with icons and symbols, avatars of deeply held, yet imperfectly understood, beliefs. The role of history in the iconography of the United States is pervasive, yet the facts behind the fiction are somehow lost in an amorphous haze of patriotism and perceived national identity. Christopher Columbus, as a hero and symbol of the first order in America, is an important figure in this pantheon of American myth. His status, not unlike most American icons, is representative not of his own accomplishments, but the self-perception of the society which raised him to his pedestal in the American gallery of heroism.

This gallery was not in place at the birth of the political nation. America, as a young republic, found itself immediately in the middle of an identity crisis. Having effected a violent separation from England and its cultural and political icons, America was left without history--or heroes. Michael Kammen, in his Mystic Chords of Memory explains that "repudiation of the past left Americans of the young republic without a firm foundation on which to base a shared sense of their social selves." (65) A new national story was needed, yet the Revolutionary leaders, obvious choices for mythical transformation, were loath to be raised to their pedestals. "Even though every nation needs a mythic explanation of its own creation, that process was paradoxically elaborated by the reluctance of Revolutionary statesmen to have their story told prematurely." (Kammen, 27) To be raised above others would be undemocratic, they believed. The human need to explain origins, to create self-identity through national identity, was thwarted by this reluctance. A vacuum was created, and was slowly filled with the image of Christopher Columbus.

"The association between Columbus and America took root in the imagination" in the eighteenth century. "People had even more reason to think of themselves in distinctive American terms." (Noble, 250) Americans, searching for a history and a hero, discovered Columbus. A rash of poetic histories and references to Columbus emerge in the years following the Revolution: Philip Freneau's The Pictures of Columbus, Joel Barlow's 1787 The Vision of Columbus, and Phillis Wheatley's 1775 innovation, the poetic device "Columbia" as a symbol of both Columbus and America. King's College of New York changed its name in 1792 to Columbia, and the new capitol in Washington was subtitled District of Columbia, in deference to those who would name the country after Columbus. Noble observes that,

It is not hard to understand the appeal of Columbus as a totem for the new republic and the former subjects of George III. Columbus had found the way of escape from Old World tyranny. He was the solitary individual who challenged the unknown sea, as triumphant Americans contemplated the dangers and promise of their own wilderness frontier...as a consequence of his vision and audacity, there was now a land free from kings, a vast continent for new beginnings. In Columbus the new nation without its own history and mythology found a hero from the distant past, one seemingly free of any taint from association with European colonial powers. The Columbus symbolism gave America an instant mythology and a unique place in history, and their adoption of Columbus magnified his own place in history. (252)

If the Revolutionary generation was inspired by Columbus, consider the reaction of the nineteenth century: Columbus was an embodiment of that century's faith in progress--seeking out new lands, a fearless explorer. However, nineteenth century America's discovery of Columbus was not as straightforward as that of the late eighteenth century. The United States, certainly by the 1830s, was in the throes of a love affair with the new. America was seen as the "country of the Future" (Emerson's "Young American", 1844), the new more important than the "ancient" of history. Formal education, for most of the nineteenth century, "gave short shrift to the past. American history remained very much a minor subject in the schools--rarely a part of the curriculum." (Kammen, 51) Americans had a "limited attention span for history, even the history of their own heroes." (Kammen, 49) What was important was that their heroes were bold, adventurous, and represented innovation: who better than Columbus to represent the bold new America? Americans still needed a heroic pantheon; the facts behind the faces were of little importance.

Again, as in the late eighteenth century, Columbus was a reflection of the society which created and re-created him. Kammen reminds us that "societies in fact reconstruct their pasts rather than faithfully record them" and do so "with the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind." (3)

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