America first

Felipe Fernández-Armesto

  • European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism by Anthony Pagden
    Yale, 212 pp, £18.95, January 1993, ISBN 0 300 05285 5
  • New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery by Anthony Grafton, April Shelford and Nancy Siraisi
    Harvard, 282 pp, £23.95, October 1992, ISBN 0 674 61875 0
  • The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus by Valerie Flint
    Princeton, 233 pp, £16.00, August 1992, ISBN 0 691 05681 1
  • Land without Evil: Utopian Journeys across the South American Watershed by Richard Gott
    Verso, 299 pp, £18.95, January 1993, ISBN 0 86091 398 8

‘See America first’: the old tourist-office advertising slogan made it sound easy. The most famous moment in the history of exploration, however, is also one of the most baffling. In the early darkness of 12 October 1492, a lookout, straining from the rigging of the Pinta, set up the cry of ‘Land!’ Yet his identity remains uncertain, clouded by widely differing versions of his name; and the priority of his sight of the New World was disputed by a fellow traveller called Columbus, who claimed the reward for himself.

Columbus’s insistence that he saw America first has been variously interpreted: by some as naked, mean greed; by others as honourable self-deception, born of the arrogance of lust for fame. The incident becomes easier to understand when one realises that Columbus’s transatlantic voyage, though unprecedented in history, had a precedent in literature. In a Spanish version of the Romance of Alexander, the hero makes his discovery of Asia by sea, and the poet is emphatic in pointing out that ‘Alexander, of all the sailors, was first to see the land.’ Columbus – who modelled himself so exactly on the standard heroes of tales of seaborne chivalry that his life could almost be said to be a plagiarised contrivance – was, I think, directly influenced by this text. When he later compared his achievement to Alexander’s, he was thinking at least as much of the medieval Alexander, the fictional hero of romantic tradition, as of the ancient King of Macedon. At the moment of his discovery, the impact of America was absorbed in layers of his own reading and made to fit his capacious image of himself. Like the artist who showed Cortés riding into Mexico on an elephant, he accommodated his vision of the New World to the framework of an old one.

The mutually moulding influence of perception and tradition is a common theme of three of the most interesting new books on the intellectual effects of America. Together, they suggest that America is like Hamlet: someone is always seeing it for the first time, but rarely with fresh perceptions. Anthony Pagden’s European Encounters with the New World recounts episodes in a long history in which ‘the newness of America was recognised, confronted and explained’. Anthony Grafton’s New Worlds, Ancient Texts is a long gloss on the New York Public Library’s 1492-generated exhibition, concentrating on the slow adaptation of book-learning to the novelties disclosed by experience. In Valerie Flint’s The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus, the earliest of Pagden’s examples is minutely examined, not primarily to show the impact of the New World on Columbus, but rather to set the essential framework – to call up the cluttered screen onto which his image of America had to fit.

This is a commendable project and Flint does more than enough to show that existing studies have not exhausted its possibilities. We are now familiar with a post-structuralist Columbus, hazily reflected from the glaze in beholders’ eyes. Searching for the ‘real’ one is like chasing quarry in a hall of mirrors. In this delusive environment, Flint is an admirable Ariadne, who guides us close to the source of the reflections.

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