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.

She unwinds three distinct threads. First, she exhibits Columbus’s reading and map-reading. She scours the margins of his surviving books more thoroughly than most of her predecessors. The explorer’s annotations of Plutarch, for instance, are treated with care and sensitivity instead of the contempt with which these instructive scribblings are usually dismissed. Here is the evidence for Columbus’s views on homosexuality, portents, fatherhood and self-indulgence. As well as the surviving books from Columbus’s private library, Flint goes to other works he might have read for insights into his mental world: on his use of Mandeville’s Travels and the Chronicle of the well-travelled Franciscan, John of Marignolli, she is tenacious and persuasive. She speculates convincingly about the explorer’s knowledge of the St Brendan legend and unconvincingly about the effects of the Sinbad tradition. Frustratingly, though, she leaves the job unfinished. Columbus’s possible readings in chivalric literature are the most glaring omission. Not all the Classical sources are followed up. The Scriptures, which were at least as important in Columbus’s formation as any secular text, are unsystematically treated in a late chapter.

Her second task is to set two of Columbus’s impressions of his discoveries against the background of his reading: his insistence that he reached Asia made perfect sense to the reader of Marco Polo, Mandeville and Marignolli; his belief that he had approached the site of the earthly paradise was ‘rational’ – to use Flint’s word – not only for all the commonly-alleged reasons but also against the background of St Brendan’s experience of that estimable piece of real estate. These chapters display some deft textual work and are full of new insights. The reader has to keep reminding himself that this bookish Columbus was formed slowly and that the practical mariner, the deck-wise tarpaulin, the restless experimenter, the semi-literate social climber and the would-be chivalric hero all preceded him, working for a project of Atlantic discovery before Columbus the learned cosmographer came on the scene.

Flint’s last task is to redress what she sees as an imbalance in recent Columbus scholarship: she restores the hard-nosed, tough-minded Columbus to his due place alongside the millenarian visionary, the would-be Franciscan. Or rather, she tries to fuse what she sees as reconcilable tendencies within a single mind, making intelligible a Columbus who was both prophet and profiteer. The lesson is salutary: Columbus’s religion may have started as an affectation before it became an intense conviction. He was, after all, a professional salesman and natural rhetorician, who had an infallible trick of telling potential backers what they wanted to hear. He had thoroughly rumbled the crusading values of the Spanish court. But Flint is careful not to let the Baby Jesus out with the bath water: in brilliant pages, she links some puzzling contradictions in Columbus’s behaviour and language to the homiletic literature of his day; we see him, fleetingly but vividly, grappling with the ethos of a standard Dominican confessional guide.

Despite the secular cut of his jib, Flint’s is a ‘medieval’ Columbus, barely affected by any of the distinctively ‘modern’ trends still sometimes ascribed to the Renaissance. The title of New Worlds, Ancient Texts suggests that Anthony Grafton has no room in his canvas for the Middle Ages – or, at least, that the New York Public Library is too poorly supplied to do justice to medieval contributions to the forging of a conceit of America. It is disappointing, for instance, that though a version of Amadis of Gaul is illustrated, no mention is made of it in the text; yet this was just such a fiction of chivalry as inspired the early navigators and informed the self-perception of conquistadores.

The book is beautifully presented and delightful to read. Anthony Grafton’s prose has a rare combination of qualities, smooth-flowing and hard-hitting. Some of the images are memorable: facts dance around Sebastian Münster, for instance, ‘like succubi around Faust’; he piles up new information ‘like fresh coal beside clinkers’. The concentrated power, the broad erudition, the impeccable aim which characterise Grafton’s vignettes are enviable. Münster, Francis Bacon, Georgius Hornius, Isaac de la Peyrère are conjured up as if by the spells of an unusually effective Renaissance magus.

As a survey of its subject, however, the book has obvious weaknesses. The contents of the exhibition form a tight rein: Anthony Pagden, covering similar ground in Chapter Three of his book, shows the benefit of freedom in selecting texts and examples. A wide readership is targeted with uncertain aim: the reader is expected to know Alvise Da Mosto but not Ulrich von Hutten. Sometimes Grafton is obliged to crush an ill-fitting text into his argument: at the end of the book, for instance, when he wants the reader to feel that the geographical discoveries have at last wrought their slow revolution in epistemology, he holds up Blaeu’s Atlas as the mirror of a rethought world.

Yet the argument is a good one: the reality of the discoveries had no power to subvert existing traditions, but supplied a new rhetorical vocabulary, a new range of commonplaces, which in turn supplemented and increasingly replaced the authority of ancient texts. By the late 17th century, new theories about human society were exemplified chiefly with reference to America. Grafton sees America’s contribution to Early Modern intellectual history in its just proportions; but he charts it in only two dimensions. We are shown the decline of received wisdom, the rise of experience; but this was a three-cornered fight in which inductive reasoning wrestled with the rest. Hobbes, for instance, serves Grafton ill: he called in vague and generalised examples of savagery, but he prided himself on working out his theories in brilliance unencumbered by knowledge, however derived.

New Worlds, Ancient Texts is unashamedly a pièce d’ occasion. It is also unmistakably a work of its own time. Underlying Grafton’s judicious and scholarly treatment of a topic in the past is the menace of the present. As the ancients tumble to the moderns in the battle of the books, the much-debated ‘canon’ of the modern curriculum dissolves before our eyes. As savages address words to the wise the ‘new Barbarism’ grows in confidence. The Politically Incorrect professor, barracked by his long-haired students, is in a line of descent from the Sieur de Lahontan, outwitted by a Huron. As cultural relativism spreads, common values recede. If all history is contemporary history, the history of the intellectual impact of America is more contemporary than most.

Anthony Pagden is himself a potentially destructive thinker, dissecting received traditions with perfectly honed critical acumen. He is brutally sceptical about supposedly objective facts, surgically fastidious about impurities in the texts on which he operates. He is in command of fashionable academic discourse, but suspicious of its political exploitability. He beholds the Politically Correct with nicely-balanced abhorrence and fear. The title of the Italian translation of his book, for instance, means ‘America Discovered’ and he betrays unease in a long, defensive footnote in which he justifies the use of ‘he’ as a pronoun of common gender.

To a sensitive reader, these inhibitions add spice to an exciting book, just as the contemporary subtext enhances the interest of Grafton’s. Pagden’s main characters are well-known: Columbus, Oviedo, Las Casas, Lahontan, Diderot, Humboldt and Herder; but they look different in the contexts and the company in which Pagden puts them. He ignores some obvious lines of investigation: though his subtitle is ‘From Renaissance to Romanticism’, America’s effects on the making of romanticism – of the idealised inhabitants on the cult of sensibility, of the landscape on the romantic imagination – are overlooked. New and intriguing enquiries, on the other hand, abound. The comparisons with which Pagden links Columbus and Humboldt, for instance, sharpen our understanding of both. He does a similar trick with Diderot and Herder, lassoing them both in the same loop. Las Casas and Oviedo are usually treated antithetically, but here their projects are seen as ‘conceptually similar’.

Although this is a rigorously analytical work, as far removed from histoire événementielle as anything by Zeldin or Chaudhuri, and although he proceeds through discrete essays, each only lightly tacked onto the next, Pagden has a passionate and tragic story to tell: the story of a failed search for ‘commensurability’ between human societies – a level, that is, of interpretation and classification at which ‘all the peoples of mankind’, in Las Casas’s words, can be seen to be ‘one’. At first, of course, this meant scrolling through the files of the Old World for a template which American indigenous societies could be made to fit; it proved equally hard, as time went on, to fit the diversity of the Old World to models of social development inferred from American examples.

If tragic and passionate stories were alone enough to make a book, Richard Gott’s Land without Evil would be equally good. As he shunts up and down improbable South American railway lines, Gott recalls and retells the journeys of some of the travellers – mainly 17th and 18th-century Jesuits – who preceded him. It is a good idea, but the results are repetitive, the descriptions anodyne, the self-reference humourless, the research patchy and the didacticism tedious. Gott’s attempt, however, does make the reader hunger for ingredients which none of the other books has enough of: the smack of real experience, the sense of genius of place. Grafton, Pagden and Flint are all scholars working in the great tradition of humanist historiography. Their field centre is the library, their materials are texts. Their books are bookish. Flint’s Columbus, for instance, is a disembodied mind, swollen with reading; but the real Columbus was also a tortured soul and a body swollen with agues. Not only formed by what he read, he was also changed by what he suffered. On a transforming voyage, a journey into the fearsome unknown, he was shaken by contact, in heightened perceptions and aroused emotions, with environments previously unexperienced or unrecorded. From Grafton – for all his skill as a pen-portraitist – the reader could never guess how Las Casas was warped by his practical failures as a colonist and evangelist, or redirected by his life as a lobbyist at the Spanish Court. Only Pagden, when he deals with writers who had real experience of the New World, manages the sort of lively portrait sketches in which flesh, bones, clothes and landscapes are all suggested. He puts Humboldt on the slopes of Cotopaxi or under his ‘dazzling sky’; he takes us for ‘a walk in the woods’ with Lahontan. His travellers are changed – ‘decomposed’ – by travel. His Diderot, who is engagingly drawn, is ‘decomposed’ by the contemplation of the travels of others. He reminds us that Diderot anticipated an exaggeration, repeated by many modern historians, when he supposed that ‘America never suggested, to any European, wonders of its own’ – it merely attracted such ancient wonders as Amazons, Fountains of Youths and ageless Hyperboreans. But Pagden also quotes an observation of Diderot’s which historians of Americana – when inclined to discount the effects of a novel environment – should heed: ‘when the truth of nature is forgotten, the mind fills with actions, positions and figures which are false, affected, ridiculous and cold.’ The America which helped to change the world did not all come out of books, nor did it just reflect back European prejudices: real earth, real plants, real experience and real people had real – if in some respects long-deferred – influence.

The debate about the intellectual impact of America has its counterpart in social history. Asking, ‘How far was the ancient canon eroded by experience of the New World?’ is like asking: ‘How far were social forms wrenched into new patterns by the force of the frontier?’ Both questions evoke history’s favourite comic cross-talk act: gradualism against rupturism; both retrieve that old chestnut – ‘When do modern times begin?’ – from blackening in neglected embers. It will be a comfort to the surprised reader of these new books to find that there is still so much meat in the chestnut, so much life in the grate, and that the cross-talk can still generate useful dialogue.