First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old
Columbus: His Enterprise
One by-product of the bicentennial of 1776 seems to have been a revival of interest in 1492 and the perennially fascinating question of relations between Europe and America. In February 1975 the University of California at Los Angeles organized a conference “devoted to the initial impact of the New World on the Old,…on the repercussions which modified the lives and thought of Europeans in the centuries to come.” It must have been quite an occasion, leading to two large volumes adding up to over 900 pages; and even they do not include all the papers delivered at the conference.
The contents of First Images of America are consequently wide-ranging in subject matter and in quality. Some papers contain mere snippets of information or bibliographical surveys; others make a serious contribution to knowledge. Some lead up to helpful (or less helpful) fresh generalizations; others catalogue the conclusions of others. Crucial to the discussion was the recent argument by Professor J.H. Elliott that the contribution of the New to the Old World in the century after Columbus’s voyage has been exaggerated, and was in reality pretty slight. Professor Elliott defends his view in First Images, and it is supported by some contributors; others criticize it. It is one of those delicious historical arguments in which final and decisive proof on either side is impossible. No one can document precisely the slight shifts in thinking which may have arisen from consciousness of the existence of America; and the shifts, if any, occurred in so many branches of human thought and experience that to add them up in a meaningful sum is impossible. New emphases may occur in old categories. No qualitative technique has so far been devised for measuring human imagination: all that we have is the imagination of the historian—or, in the case of historians with whom we disagree, the prejudices and preconceptions of the historian.
Easiest to demonstrate is that certain sixteenth-century literary works took cognizance of and in some cases were stimulated by the discovery of America. This is the subject of some of the most interesting articles contained in First Images. Professor Arthur Slavin, for instance, takes issue with Professor Elliott, arguing that the discovery of the New World had an “immediate and revolutionary impact” on political thought as well as on practical politics. More’s Utopia took its starting point from Vespucci’s letters describing the New World and in particular the practice of communism there. Professor Aldo Scaglione places Montaigne’s essay Des Cannibales in the same historical setting, and Professor Slavin and others relate Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Shakespeare’s The Tempest to reports of the New World, of which verbal accounts must have been as widespread as the printed word, though they are no longer available to historians and therefore are more difficult to assess. American influences can similarly be found in the writings of Giordano Bruno and Tommaso Campanella; they continue down to John Locke.
That the physical existence of the New World led to changes in…
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