North American Exploration - Vol. 3

By John Logan Allen | Go to book overview

23 / A "Capacity for Wonder": The Meanings of Exploration

WILLIAM H. GOETZMANN

And if by chance you make a landfall on the shores of another sea in a far country inhabited by savages and barbarians, remember you this: the greatest danger and the surest hope lies not with fires and arrows but in the quicksilver hearts of men. ( Advice to Navigators [ 1744 ])

Symmes Chadwick Oliver, The Shores of Another Sea

The exploration of North America is at once a stirring story and the exemplification of a process as old as human experience. The story carries with it the basic elements of the Euro-American creation myth that has reverberated down through our history. The twentieth-century American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was no historian, echoed something of its enduring impact in his best novel, The Great Gatsby ( 1925). Gatsby's friend Nick Carraway, standing near the tip of Long Island in the 1920s, reminds us of the poetry of unintentional discovery: "And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes--a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees . . . had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."1

The chapters in these volumes describe that world event, with its many facets, in modern historical detail incorporating the latest research. In many cases, the point of view has changed, but the currents of mythology run as strong as ever. The "capacity for wonder" is still part of the story.

This chapter is an overview of that story, indeed of the many stories, and of the innate meanings and implications of the process of exploration. In addition, I argue here that in historical times, exploration took place in

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