Making a Myth

Peter talks with literature scholar Rolena Adorno, on a time before “everyone” knew the story of Christopher Columbus, and the role of Washington Irving’s massive biography, published in 1828, in creating the heroic Columbus myth.

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ED: Well, if you’re just joining us, this is BackStory and we’re talking about the ways Americans have told and retold the story of Christopher Columbus in the years since 1492.

BRIAN: If it was Columbus’s ambiguous origins that made him available for the taking, it was more than 300 years before somebody in America actually seized on that opportunity. That somebody was Washington Irving, better known today as the author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” But in the 1820s, Irving’s Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, the first English language biography of the explorer, was a best seller. And it formed the basis for the Columbus that a lot of people would recognize today.

PETER: I sat down with Rolena Adorno, a professor of Spanish at Yale University. She told me that it was a visit to Spain that led Irving to chronicle Columbus’s story.

ROLENA ADORNO: When he was there, it was suggested to him that he produce a translation of the great body of documents associated with Christopher Columbus that were just being published at the time. In Spanish, of course. And he took a look at this massive corpus and realized that a translation would be more than a lifelong task for him. So he turned instead to, in fact, write a narrative of the life of Columbus.

PETER: Rolena, what about this portrait that Irving gives us of Columbus would you say was new?

ROLENA ADORNO: What Irving made perfectly clear was to create Columbus as a self-made man. And that’s an expression we get from a speech on the floor of the US Senate sometime during this same period. That is to say the individual who against all odds, with a visionary hope of his own, and full confidence that he can realize that vision, forges ahead, leaving anything and everybody who doesn’t want to go with him behind. It’s the frontier spirit.

PETER: Right. Irving’s Columbus then gives us a window into American cultural history of the period, or how Americans were beginning to think about themselves as they constructed their back story.

ROLENA ADORNO: Exactly. Exactly. It’s a Columbus who is somebody in a foreign land. It is someone who is going to create his own destiny, and that of an entire new world. And of course, in the United States this was so resonant in that period.

Remember, we’re in the period between the War of 1812. We are not yet into the era that will become the onset of the US Civil War. So it is a great time of expanding westward. And Columbus is a, shall I say, prototype of that adventure. So I think that’s always the resonance for this Columbus, this pioneering, entrepreneurial Columbus.

PETER: Rolena, we are terrible skeptics and cynics these days. It’s hard for us to read Washington Irving and believe that he believed what he was saying. Was he not aware of what seems like such blatant, romantic, over the top distortion?

ROLENA ADORNO: I think he was aware of that distortion. And the way I think that he was aware of it is by whitewashing Columbus himself. And putting the guilt for greed, exploitation of all sorts on the back of King Ferdinand and those seditious expeditionaries that were with him and those who followed.

These are Washington Irving’s words. He says that Columbus was, “continually outraged in his dignity, and braved in the exercise of his command, foiled in his plans by the seditions of turbulent and ruthless men.”

PETER: Whoa.

ROLENA ADORNO: And I must add, why is he doing this? He’s doing this of course, because even in Irving’s day, the fatal flaw was what led to the enslavement of a continent of peoples. So the way Irving casts this is that no, it was Columbus who had the heroic vision. And it was the others, not Columbus, who are responsible for all of the indignities that he suffered, not to mention the exploitation that the native peoples of the Americas suffered.

PETER: I’m wondering if the heroic Columbus doesn’t have an afterlife? We’ve beaten him down in the academy, but that sense of boy’s own adventure, enterprise, all that stuff. And it survived in school textbooks, didn’t it, well into the 20th century?

ROLENA ADORNO: It certainly did. Yes, as a kind of model of conduct. And so that image lived on and on.

And you may well imagine that when it was excerpted or when popular versions or textbook versions were made, they highlighted exactly the characteristics that we’ve been talking about. The sole individual, visionary in outlook, practical in approach, ready to conquer new worlds, ready to extend new frontiers, ready to do well for himself while claiming to do good for others.

PETER: Rolena Adorno is the Sterling Professor of Spanish and chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale University.