Academic journal article CLIO

The Naming of America as the Meaning of America: Vespucci, Publicity, Festivity, Modernity

Academic journal article CLIO

The Naming of America as the Meaning of America: Vespucci, Publicity, Festivity, Modernity

Article excerpt

"How fitting that America is named after a banker," quipped the anarchist clown Dario Fo in a 1987 New York performance. (Litigation on his behalf prevailed over the McCarran-Walter Act allowing Fo to enter the country.) The almost-500-year-old controversy over Amerigo Vespucci's character and achievements, and over the appropriateness of the vast honor bestowed upon his name, has reflected a range of interests and values, as well as conceptions of an "American" character--whether conceived as the character of the hemisphere or of the single country that has appropriated the name for itself

A peculiar Vespucci problem is embedded in the very assertion "Columbus discovered America," and in the past historians have differed sharply about which explorer more "deserves" to have two continents named after him. Questions have been raised about many of the claims in the immensely popular travel accounts bearing Vespucci's name: who really wrote them; when and how many times did Vespucci really travel to the New World; exactly where did he go; was he really a skillful navigator; did he realize the significance of what he had seen. These questions have proven impossible to answer with certainty but have sown armed historians just the same. The editor of Columbus's journals (published 1502), the Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas, wanted to establish a religious state independent of the Spanish crown in what he and Columbus called the "Indies"; las Casas may well have seen Vespucci, who became Pilot-Major of Spain, and his influential writings as obstacles.(1) He angrily denounced Vespucci as a deliberate liar, setting an extreme tone that later writers sometimes followed. Columbus scholars from before Washington Irving (1828) to the moderate Samuel Eliot Morison (1973) have found Vespucci to be a "faker." Ralph Waldo Emerson underlined his assertion that individualism is better than patriotism by roundly dismissing his country's namesake as the "false pickle-dealer" who supplanted Columbus (pickles because Vespucci supplied ships before going to sea himself). During the Second World War, Frederick Pohl wrote an earnest defense of Vespucci, patriotically proving that U.S. citizens need not be "ashamed of the origin of the name of our land." At the same time the German-Jewish refugee Stefan Zweig found meaning even in what he determined to be the Vespuccian "comedy of errors" by which the name "America" became current: "Anyone expecting justice from history asks of it more than it is willing to give. And perhaps the name of so undistinguished a person . . . one of the anonymous crowd of the brave, is more fitting for a democratic country than that of a king or conquistador."(2)

Today's sharpened awareness of the colonial depredations that immediately followed discovery(3) makes the exercise of finding the "deserving" explorer seem perhaps irredeemably colonialist: conquering peoples do tend to attach their names to what they subdue by force. Vespucci's first voyage was paid for by trading as slaves the very New World natives who bear his name by virtue of his alleged discoveries. Vespucci himself apparently spread exaggerated stories of natives, cannibalism and savagery that made it easier for others to justify their extermination and enslavement. Two continents and their inhabitants are named. We are stuck with that name, and some may find comfort in reflecting that at least we are not named after that egomaniac Columbus.

But whether in the classroom or scholarly book, accounts of Vespucci and the naming of America continue to be invested with a variety of significances by an almost inevitable process demanding that names have meaning and seeing contemporary issues and values embedded in historical events. An analogous process was in full view in 1992: the debates over whether and how the Columbian Quincentenary should be observed. The celebrations polarized attitudes about the meaning of Western expansion, the present global hegemony of the West and of Western institutions, and many of the more intimate ethnic, community, and even family values that inevitably come into play when the fundamental legitimacy of the social order is at once tendentiously affirmed and called into question. …

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