Man of the Year

Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration 1991–January, 12, 1992

an exhibition at the National Gallery, Washington, DC, October 12,

Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration

catalog of the exhibition, edited by Jay A. Levensen
Yale University Press/National Gallery of Art, 671 pp., $59.95

The Worlds of Christopher Columbus

by William D. Phillips Jr. and Carla Rahn Phillips
Cambridge University Press

Renaissance Characters

edited by Eugenio Garin, translated by Lydia G. Cochrane
University of Chicago Press, 294 pp., $32.50

In Search of Columbus: The Sources for the First Voyage

by David Henige
University of Arizona Press, 359 pp., $24.95

The 'Libro de las profecias' of Christopher Columbus

by Delno C. West and August Kling
University of Florida Press, 274 pp., $49.95


by Felipe Fernández-Armesto
Oxford University Press, 218 pp., $22.95

Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians

by Jeffrey Burton Russell
Praeger, 117 pp., $12.95


by Jacques Attali
Fayard, 367 pp., 120Fr.

Out of Italy: 1450–1650

by Fernand Braudel, translated by Sián Reynolds
Flammarion/distributed by Abbeville Press, 245 pp., $50.00

Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World

by Stephen Greenblatt
University of Chicago Press, 202 pp., $24.95

Columbus: The Great Adventure: His Life, His Times, and His Voyages

by Paolo Emilio Taviani, translated by Luciano F. Farina and Marc A. Beckwith
Orion Books, 273 pp., $20.00

My desk has long been groaning under piles of Columbus books, many more than can be dealt with here. One refrain in them is also a lament. William and Carla Phillips, in The Worlds of Christopher Columbus, after studying 250 United States history textbooks, argue that “the United States seems to have lost, rather than gained, knowledge of Columbus since 1892.” Jeffrey Burton Russell says, in Inventing the Flat Earth, that people cling to myths about Columbus rather than face “the conceptual shock of realizing that our closest held convictions are precarious.” David Henige says that some are unwilling to question the prefabricated hero because “a serene but unexamined belief in the actuality of the recorded past is necessary to an acceptable present.” There is a positive need not to know about Columbus—including a need not to know how little there is to know.

On this latter point, David Henige’s In Search of Columbus is a virtuoso performance, showing how hard if not impossible it is to extract the original of Columbus’s log from the later paraphrase, with partial transcriptions, made by Bartolomé de las Casas. Las Casas was using a lost (and therefore unassessable) copy made from Columbus’s original; he began working on it about forty years after Columbus wrote the log; he never finished the book for print (it was found, in a private library, 224 years after his death). His extracts may have been made for use in the History of the Indies which he worked on for over three decades. The many later additions, corrections, and deletions in the text seem to reflect use of that sort, as las Casas found new material or changed his mind about what he had copied or how he had paraphrased it; he apparently drew on other sources to “correct” Columbus; and his own preoccupations (especially with the mistreatment of Americans) affected what he chose to transcribe, or the way he paraphrased the four fifths of the log not offered as transcription. Henige says it is a misnomer to call the resulting work Columbus’s diary or log or record book. It is a work of las Casas, called by its author The Book of the First Navigation, not the Diaries or Log, as some “translations” put it. Trying to find the original text of Columbus in the work of las Casas can be as hard, at times, as reconstructing the historical Jesus from a single copy of a single gospel.

That comparison is not amiss if we remember that such exiguous materials have been used, in the past, as if Columbus “was raised in Nazareth rather than Genoa” (as Henige puts it). When Columbus claimed to see a light before his crewman spotted land on the first voyage, this was made a mystical revelation of “the new world.” More recently, las Casas has been read with fundamentalist literal-mindedness to make particular points—by Samuel Eliot Morison, for instance, to establish Columbus’s navigating skills, or by Robert Fuson to establish the site…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.