Columbus: Upon His Face Move Signs of the Times on the Quincentenary of European Expansion Westward to the New World, Revisionist Views Have Proliferated. the Emerging Views, as in Centennials Past, Reflect the Cultural, Social, and Economic Mood of the Society Forming Them

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BY Oct. 12, the man credited with "discovering" the Americas will have been the subject of more debate, more documentaries, more speeches, and more controversy than perhaps any nonreligious figure in world history. When the quincentenary observances are over we may know a little more about Christopher Columbus. We will probably know a lot more about ourselves.

It's hardly news that history plays fast and loose with the reputations of great men. Or that the hopes and fears of any era - as much as the historical facts themselves - color the way one generation estimates the achievements of another.

But few reputations have been so completely the sport of circumstance as that of the sturdy Genoese mariner, who on the eve of his biggest anniversary party yet has passed from being hero to villain in the eyes of many Americans. Just why, historians say, reveals something significant about those who now judge him.

In this anniversary year, as in past ones, the central figure will not be the historical Columbus but the symbolic Columbus, the vehicle on which Americans continue to project their sense of themselves.

"If you look at the way Columbus is commemorated, it tells a good deal about the times," says Claudia Bushman, author of a new book "America Discovers Columbus.What it tells us is what we think about ourselves. Columbus is a wonderfully culture-reflecting symbol."

Until recent years, Columbus has been more lionized than reviled, reflecting the self-confidence and optimism of earlier generations of Americans.

In the first Columbian celebration in North America, in 1792, the intrepid navigator was hailed as a symbol of America's newly won independence from England, as the agent of what the nation's founding generation believed was America's destiny to prove the virtues of liberty to a corrupt world of monarchs.

A century later, the symbol of Columbus was usurped again, this time by a young nation eager to celebrate its fantastic material progress and seemingly unlimited potential. More recently, the heroic image of Columbus has been kept alive by various immigrant groups that have pointed to his Italian and Roman Catholic origins to buttress their own quest for legitimacy and to ease their assimilation into American society.

But once the object of exaggerated praise, the man whose encounter with America radically changed it has suddenly become the object of exaggerated criticism. Blacks accuse Columbus of being the advance guard of slavery. Native Americans say he despoiled an advanced native culture. Environmentalists have tarred Columbus as the agent of ecological destruction.

"In 1892, Columbus symbolized progress. In 1992, he symbolizes American failure," writes Dr. Bushman. "Where once he was considered too good for his time, he is now considered not nearly good enough."

This sudden burst of historical revisionism may have a good side, balancing the record against the overwrought paeans composed by generations determined, in Bushman's words, "to make a great man out of a person who accomplished a great deed."

But judging the deeds and misdeeds of the 15th century mariner by the ethical and social standards of the late 20th century does Columbus an injustice, most historians say, revealing far more about his critics than about Columbus himself.

"It's too much to ask Columbus to bear the burden of all Western civilization," says Wilcomb Washburn, director of American studies at the Smithsonian Institution. "We've reduced the debate over Columbus to an almost meaningless series of potshots taken by one ideological group after another."

"We make him a goat or a hero by extracting him from his own time and place," says Richard Kagan, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "This has little to do with the work of historians, who study in the context of the times. …


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