North American Exploration - Vol. 1

By John Logan Allen | Go to book overview
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Introduction to Volume 1

A little more than a century ago, the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus was celebrated by an American public in a mood to embrace heroes who glorified the American past. The watershed of the Civil War, followed by the patriotic passion of the Republic's centennial celebration and by a period of brilliant economic growth and expansion, had stimulated the process of inventing traditions, of creating a shared view of the past as most would like it to have been rather than as it was.1 Critical to the process of inventing tradition is the development of iconographic figures, cast larger than life and playing key roles in the American past. Christopher Columbus was such an iconographic figure, and a major exhibit at the Chicago World Columbian Exposition was fashioned around the theme of the Columbian voyages, a theme that served as the raison d'être for the Exposition itself. In the streets fronting the crowded immigrant tenements of New York City's East Side, the small-but-growing Italian population danced and marched and sang in honor of their celebrated countrymen Columbus and John Cabot and Giovanni da Verrazzano. And scholars from America's finest and most prestigious universities, secure in their study of heroes and unafraid to enthuse over adventure and romance, wrote new works about Columbus and those who followed him and edited collections of exploratory accounts the primary purposes of which were to portray discovery and discoverers as symbols of progress and, thereby, to both invent and glorify the American past.

What a difference a century makes! The occasion of the five hundredth anniversary of the landing of Columbus on an obscure island off the American mainland was greeted not by a world's fair but by a storm of controversy, and although the 1992 Columbus Day parades in cities like Boston and New York were celebrated by a large Italian-American community with more than their usual fervor, there were more rallies designed to denounce the discovery than to celebrate it. From the base of a quarter century of disillusionment, Americans in 1992 were disposed to invent new traditions, ones in which Columbus and his contemporaries were not heroes but villains and in which the events of discovery and the processes of exploration were symbols not of past glories but of past shame. Scholars, however, are perhaps more consistent than the general public, if

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