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

By George D. Moffett Iii, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 22, 1992 | Go to article overview

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


George D. Moffett Iii, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.