The Historical Present: Uses and Abuses of the Past

By Edwin M. Yoder | Go to book overview

The Crimes of Christopher Columbus

MANY PROFESSIONAL HISTORIANS no longer believe in what Lynn Hunt of the University of Pennsylvania has called "the master narrative" of the past--that is, history as an intelligible and thematic story, unfolding by the usual rules of progress or decline. And that especially is so when the history in question is suspected of contamination by the Western imperialist perspective. The imperialists of Christopher Columbus's time did not realize that they were being imperialistic, any more than their medieval precursors realized that they were practicing something called "feudalism." Both terms were coined by historians or economists long after the fact.

In any case, historical relativism now sits enthroned, and the nineteenth-century aspiration of Leopold von Ranke and other pioneers of archival history to capture the past "as it really was" seems hopelessly naive, even presumptuous. What we have is a wilderness of competing perspectives, none of which is sufficiently masterly to drive any "master narrative." That being so, it might have been foreseen by those who entertained high hopes for the 1992 quin-

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