Fall 1992, Volume 9.3
Neila C. Seshachari
As I write this column for the "Exploration and Discovery" issue marking the Columbus quincentennial, I cannot but be reminded that exactly five hundred years ago today, on 3 August 1492, a morning tide carried Christopher Columbus and his three caravels from Palos, Spain, westward toward his mythic landing in the Bahamas. Thus began Western Europe's material, spiritual, and intellectual adventure with the New Worldan adventure that invented nothing short of the American Dream at its best, and at its worst, stifled the New World's indigenous cultures in its hegemonic grip.
The tide has turned unfavorable for Columbus; the gods are angry. Especially in this year of the quincentennial, Columbus has futilely dodged fire and cannonballs from Native Americans, academicians, multiculturists, and sociologists of the high seas.
As historian Gary Wills eloquently sums up, "A funny thing happened on the way to the quincentennial observance of America's 'discovery.' Columbus got mugged. This time the Indians were waiting for him."
And not just the Indians either. In recent years, angry descendants of African slaves dislodged Columbus from his pedestal in Haiti and dumped him into the sea. South Dakotans scratched out Columbus Day from their national holiday register and renamed it Native American Day. Everybody is blaming Columbusfor spreading the vile habit of smoking in the Old World, for bringing syphilis into the New World, for exterminating entire communities of natives in places he landed. Columbus bashing is fashionable these days, and he has no defenses. Even in his own lifetime, Columbus rose and fell on the waves of adoration and censure. His own near-mutinous crew denounced him as "a mad man . . . a fool . . . a fanatic and . . . that foreigner." But he survived then, and will survive now, not as a god who brought boons to adoring peoples but as one whose mythic persona embodies the spirit of the New World.
Columbus himself is a fascinating personalityan uppity, swollen-headed entrepreneur, devout, servile, cunning, with immense potential for glory and disaster. But the mythic Columbus interests us more than the man who has been deified and vilified.
The "Exploration and Discovery" focus of this special issue is thus larger than geographic ventures that have historically debased exploration into exploitation. This is our first special focus issue; it is meet that we probe our protean topic of discovery in its many dimensions, factual as well as mythic.
We lead off this issue with Katharine Coles's searching interview with Mark Strand, that towering pied piper, poet laureate, and artist, at whose poetry readings one is not assured of even standing room. "In the Presence of America" reveals the poet's increasing sense of community with American poetry and America's past and present, a destination the poet has discovered via peregrinations through South American and Eastern European poetry.
The critical essays in this issue indicate some of the responses that the very idea of "Columbia" generates in reflective minds: Dean W. Collinwood's contemplations on Columbus and the discovery of self; Elizabeth S. Bell's reveries on Charles and Anne Lindbergh's adventures in the inner and outer landscapes of the earth; and John K. Hoppe's search for the subjective identity of third-world writers. Marvin Lunenfeld's research leads him into probing two speculative aspects of Columbus's lifehis presumed Jewish origins and the accidental nature of his discoveryto refute both.
Two of our poets, E. Leon Chidester and Robert M. Hogge, were inspired directly by the Columbiad, while G.S. Sharat Chandra takes us back to that ancient India that Columbus thought he had discovered. Stories by Kent Gardien and Stephanie Amedeo Marquez transport us to Brazil and Hawaii.
The book reviews this time reflect our expectations of the range of our special issue. Books on Columbus, on disease and depopulation, on Jewishness and exile, on Mormon experiences, and on the persecution of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, among others, supply a rich fare for anyone.
Today, the spirit of the Columbus quicentennial is everywhere around us. The 1992 Summer Olympics are in full swing at Barcelona, Spain. The theme of Expo '92, being held in Seville (Spain, again) where Columbus recruited most of his crew for the great voyage, is "The Age of Discoveries." So, whether you hate Columbus or admire him grudgingly, enjoy our voyages into the realms of discovery.