1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History
European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism
The Spanish Frontier in North America
The Middle Ground: Indians, empires, and republics in the Great Lakes region, 1650–1815
The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries
Now that we have bid a last lingering adiós to Columbus and his quincentennial,1 we can look back on a noisy, and sometimes productive, encounter. “Encounter,” indeed, has been the quintessential quincentennial word, displacing the once respectable but now suspect “discovery,” and firmly placing the emphasis, not (as in 1892) on the superiority of Western science, technology, and civilization, but on the global confrontation between European and non-European. In a round-up of work generated by the quincentennial, and included in Beyond 1492, a lively volume of lectures and essays itself generated by the same event, James Axtell lists conferences, books, and exhibitions bearing such titles as Early European Encounters with the Americas, American Encounters, Cannibal Encounters, Rethinking the Encounter, and Maps and the Columbian Encounter. Of the making of encounters there is, it seems, no end.
“Encounter,” writes Axtell breezily,
has much to recommend it. Encounters are mutual, reciprocal two-way rather than one-way streets. Encounters are generally capacious: there are encounters of people but also of ideas, institutions, habits, values, plants, animals and microorganisms. Encounters are temporarily and spatially fluid: they can occur at any time in any place, before or after 1492, around the globe. And, while natives, critics and activists may not approve, encounters are morally neutral; the term does not prejudge the nature of the contact or its outcome. In sum, encounter is a spacious description that jettisons normative baggage to make room for disinterestness [sic] and parity. It is a salutary word for our conflicted postmodern commemoration of a conflicted protomodern event.
Over the years, Axtell himself has done valuable work in analyzing the encounter between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of North America.2 The essays printed in Beyond 1492 are very much pièces d’occasion, and, following hard on a previous and weightier volume of essays, After Columbus,3 give some impression of scraping the bottom of the barrel. But for those who want a readable and informed introduction to some of the concerns of contemporary Encounter historians, this is a good place to begin. Behind the sometimes folksy writing is to be found a shrewd and level-headed scholar, one, moreover, who is unusual in his ability to convey to his readers a sense of the deep enjoyment that he derives from a subject sometimes viewed these days as a cause for unrelieved gloom. If there is an underlying message in his volume of essays, it is the importance of historical imagination. Citing, in his opening essay, “History and Imagination,” George Steiner’s characterization of history as “exact imagining,” Axtell properly insists on the need, when studying the meeting of past cultures, to “imagine the imaginations of all the participants, not just an easy or select few.”
It is precisely this lack of historical imagination—the inability to enter sympathetically into the thought processes and instinctive responses of those participants to whom one is not sympathetically drawn—that has vitiated so much of what has recently been said and written about the Columbian…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
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.