America's national memory is filled with icons and symbols, avatars of deeply held, yet imperfectly understood, beliefs. The role of history in the iconography of the United States is pervasive, yet the facts behind the fiction are somehow lost in an amorphous haze of patriotism and perceived national identity. Christopher Columbus, as a hero and symbol of the first order in America, is an important figure in this pantheon of American myth. His status, not unlike most American icons, is representative not of his own accomplishments, but the self-perception of the society which raised him to his pedestal in the American gallery of heroism.
This gallery was not in place at the birth of the political nation. America, as a young republic, found itself immediately in the middle of an identity crisis. Having effected a violent separation from England and its cultural and political icons, America was left without history--or heroes. Michael Kammen, in his Mystic Chords of Memory explains that "repudiation of the past left Americans of the young republic without a firm foundation on which to base a shared sense of their social selves." (65) A new national story was needed, yet the Revolutionary leaders, obvious choices for mythical transformation, were loath to be raised to their pedestals. "Even though every nation needs a mythic explanation of its own creation, that process was paradoxically elaborated by the reluctance of Revolutionary statesmen to have their story told prematurely." (Kammen, 27) To be raised above others would be undemocratic, they believed. The human need to explain origins, to create self-identity through national identity, was thwarted by this reluctance. A vacuum was created, and was slowly filled with the image of Christopher Columbus.
"The association between Columbus and America took root in the imagination" in the eighteenth century. "People had even more reason to think of themselves in distinctive American terms." (Noble, 250) Americans, searching for a history and a hero, discovered Columbus. A rash of poetic histories and references to Columbus emerge in the years following the Revolution: Philip Freneau's The Pictures of Columbus, Joel Barlow's 1787 The Vision of Columbus, and Phillis Wheatley's 1775 innovation, the poetic device "Columbia" as a symbol of both Columbus and America. King's College of New York changed its name in 1792 to Columbia, and the new capitol in Washington was subtitled District of Columbia, in deference to those who would name the country after Columbus. Noble observes that,
It is not hard to understand the appeal of Columbus as a totem for the new republic and the former subjects of George III. Columbus had found the way of escape from Old World tyranny. He was the solitary individual who challenged the unknown sea, as triumphant Americans contemplated the dangers and promise of their own wilderness frontier...as a consequence of his vision and audacity, there was now a land free from kings, a vast continent for new beginnings. In Columbus the new nation without its own history and mythology found a hero from the distant past, one seemingly free of any taint from association with European colonial powers. The Columbus symbolism gave America an instant mythology and a unique place in history, and their adoption of Columbus magnified his own place in history. (252)
If the Revolutionary generation was inspired by Columbus, consider the reaction of the nineteenth century: Columbus was an embodiment of that century's faith in progress--seeking out new lands, a fearless explorer. However, nineteenth century America's discovery of Columbus was not as straightforward as that of the late eighteenth century. The United States, certainly by the 1830s, was in the throes of a love affair with the new. America was seen as the "country of the Future" (Emerson's "Young American", 1844), the new more important than the "ancient" of history. Formal education, for most of the nineteenth century, "gave short shrift to the past. American history remained very much a minor subject in the schools--rarely a part of the curriculum." (Kammen, 51) Americans had a "limited attention span for history, even the history of their own heroes." (Kammen, 49) What was important was that their heroes were bold, adventurous, and represented innovation: who better than Columbus to represent the bold new America? Americans still needed a heroic pantheon; the facts behind the faces were of little importance.
Again, as in the late eighteenth century, Columbus was a reflection of the society which created and re-created him. Kammen reminds us that "societies in fact reconstruct their pasts rather than faithfully record them" and do so "with the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind." (3) The culture of the early nineteenth century was one of growing fragmentation, and "obstacles to achieving a viable, coherent sense of national tradition were numerous: distinctive sections as well as value systems with conflicting self-images of one another and themselves" as well as diverse political factions and parties. (Kammen, 50) Columbus was a perfect icon for the confusing days of the early nineteenth century, cutting across social, political, and regional boundaries, providing a kind of superficial unity for the American national identity, a decontextualized and increasingly monodimensional hero, created in the image of the age.
How did Columbus achieve this status? Again, through his valorization by writers. Washington Irving was part of a "small yet vocal group of antebellum Americans" who "felt deeply troubled by the irrelevance of memory to their contemporaries" and in 1819 expressed a desire to "'lose myself among the shadowy grandeurs of the past.'" (Kammen, 60) He did just that with the newly discovered Navarrette manuscripts (a work on Columbus' life by one of his contemporaries) which were published in 1825, utilizing the documents to create a romantic hero for the nineteenth century. His version of Columbus' life, published in 1829, was incredibly popular, "read avidly in the United States and contributed to the idealized image of the discoverer that dominated literature for more than a century and has not been entirely expunged. His soaring fancy produced a romance, more than a judicious biography." (Noble, 39)
It was not simply Irving, or the early Revolutionary Columbus boosters, who created an idealized version of the explorer's life. His contemporaries could not agree on the facts of Columbus' life, either. Scholars still debate issues which may seem to the public somehow already set in stone--what he looked like, whether or not he originated the idea of sailing west to reach the east, even what island he first landed on. The confusion began with the first "official" biography of "the Admiral" by his son Don Hernando, which was strangely vague in a number of key areas--including those mentioned above. Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, Martin Fernandez de Navarrette, Peter Martyr d'Anghiera, and Bartolome de la Casas all presented differing views of the man who was to become an important American hero. Humphrey Gilbert, a citizen of the first British colony in the New World (St. John's, Newfoundland, 1583) said of Columbus, "Christopher Columbus of famous memory was not only derided and generally mocked, even here in England, but afterward became a laughing-stock of the Spaniards themselves." (qtd. in Noble, 248) and yet in 1614, Lope de Vega portrayed Columbus in a more familiar light. In his play El Nuevo Mundo descubierto por Cristobal Colon, Columbus is a "dreamer up against the stolid forces of entrenched tradition, a man of singular purpose who triumphed, the embodiment of that spirit driving forces to explore and discover." (Noble, 249) The conflicting details, the vague rendition of biography, and the prejudices of early writers made it easy for early Americans to take Columbus and mold him to their purposes.
"Irving's Columbus was a figure of heroic stature, eminently useful to Americans who were attempting the first democratic experiment in modern times. Irving presented him to young America as a culture hero divinely inspired and divinely sent..." (Shurr, 237) The vision of Columbus as underdog, triumphing over circumstances and his "betters" was particularly resonant for the new republic, as was his image as the great explorer, a "symbol of the adventuring human spirit and an avatar of the Western faith" (Noble, 48-9) His reputation seemed to have been secured by the mid-nineteenth century, when the sculptor of the Capitol's Columbus Doors, Randolph Rogers, stated, "Perhaps there is but one man [i.e., George Washington] whose name is more intimately connected with the history of this country or who better deserves a lasting monument to his memory than Christopher Columbus." (Quincentenary, 10) Basing his work on the romantic stories of Irving, Rogers portrayed an heroic underdog, bold and ingenious explorer, a figure perfect for the age--and for inclusion in America's pantheon of heroes in the temple of legitimacy, the Rotunda. "Daniel Boorstin observes that people 'once felt themselves made by their heroes' and cites James Russell Lowell: 'The idol is the measure of the worshipper.' Accordingly, writers and orators of the nineteenth century ascribed to Columbus all the human virtues that were most prized in that time of geographic and industrial expansion, heady optimism, and an unquestioning belief in progress as the dynamic of history." (Noble, 253)
By 1893, the year (one late) of America's celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus' landing (in the West Indies), Columbus had become, in the minds of Americans, the first real "founding father," with any problems or controversies (specifically his treatment of the native peoples he encountered) swept aside. "Most people living in America four centuries after the voyages of discovery had created a Columbus they wanted to believe in and were quite satisfied with their invention." (Noble, 258) Amy Leslie, a correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, covered the World's Columbian Exposition, in name a celebration of Columbus' "discovery" of America. She remarked that she was surprised to see a statue of George Washington there, "who, until Columbus was so vehemently discovered by America, held something of a place in the hearts of his countrymen." (Buck, 93) The United States, as a country, had fully embraced the ideals that their Columbus represented: he was "the symbol of American success...Clearly, the exposition was more than a commemoration of the past, it was also the exclamation of a future that the self-confident Americans were eager to share and enjoy." (Noble, 256)
By the Quincentenary of 1992, Columbus had been virtually stripped of all positive symbolic meaning. The pendulum has swung, and now he "is the post-colonial and demythologized Columbus. He has been stripped of the symbolic cloak of optimism and exposed as a human being whose flaws were many and of reverberating consequence." (Noble, 260) In our multicultural, and often cynical, society, we have created Columbus in our image. As Noble notes, "Each generation looks back on the past and, drawing on its own experiences, presumes to find patterns that illuminate both the past and the present." (xii)
Christopher Columbus was literally in the right place (Spain) at the right time (the dawning Age of Discovery) to set his place in history. America was the right place at the right time to appropriate, simplify, and mould Columbus to reflect the image of an independent and growing America. Columbus is found throughout American popular culture, national commemorations and memory, and prominently in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Randolph Roger's massive bronze Columbus Doors express this vision of Columbus, the ultimate visual expression of America's self-identity as embodied in the explorer. He "emerged from the shadows, reincarnated not so much as a man and historical figure as he was a myth and symbol. He came to epitomize the explorer and discoverer, the man of vision and audacity, the hero who overcame opposition and adversity to change history." (Noble, 249)