Thursday, February 3, 2011

GOLDEN OLDIES: The Mysterious History of Columbus by John Noble Wilford

This is a different sort of golden oldie for me- it’s nonfiction. History (actually it’s biography) with a touch of historiography.

Don’t get me wrong—I like history. (I read it more often than I review it.) But to this day, my recollection of how I learned history in school was that each year we would start with the European explorers so that we would be studying pilgrims around Thanksgiving. Then we would march through American history until time ran out at the end of the school year. We’d get through about the gold rush or maybe the Great Depression. I have no recollection of studying the World Wars (although surely we must have?) and anything after that must have been too recent to even be in our text books. (I’m not that old, but maybe our textbooks were.) At any rate, my husband, who is a US historian, is appalled by my lack of knowledge of recent US history. But at least I thought I knew those explorers and pilgrims pretty well.

Turns out—not as well as I thought.

I learned "old school" Columbus—the hero who discovered America. Now, I am aware he did not actually discover anything new. It was already inhabited. I am aware he was not even technically the first European to have set eyes/feet over here. I had heard rumors that he might not have received all the accolades he deserved back in the day. (Something about prison or dying in debt?) And I knew that he unleashed the evil forces of conquest upon the native populations. But other than that, I’ve been living with my grade school knowledge of: 1492- Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue.

In 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage was recognized. A slew of books came out revisiting Columbus scholarship. And that landmark pretty well passed by with no interest from yours truly. Columbus was not a guy who interested me in the slightest. Still, feeling remiss, here as we near the 520th anniversary, I thought maybe I should learn something about Christopher Columbus the man.

The Mysterious History of Columbus: An Exploration of the Man, the Myth, the Legacy by John Noble Wilford was published in 1991 by Knopf. It is a very readable account of Columbus’s life. Not being either an academic historian or someone who reads much biography, I’ll offer up my two cents worth: this book does a superb job of treading the line between popular history and one of those fact-laden but dry academic tomes.

The book uses primary sources, secondary sources, as well as recent archeological investigations to reconstruct Columbus’s path to America. The author investigates the original idea for the voyage, the pursuit of funding, the mystery surrounding the location of the first landfall, and what all went wrong for Columbus afterward. Wilford also investigates the mystery of the man himself. Who was Columbus really?

This story of Columbus debunks the mythology that has surrounded him. Much of this has been debunked before, but Wilford succinctly explains how the myths started and why they are not true. He is also delightfully frank about how much is completely unknown. Columbus is shrouded in mystery. I picked up this book because I thought I should be more informed about this explorer. I finished it more interested in the man than I ever imagined I would be.

And now you know who really fascinates me? His mistress. Beatriz Enríquez de Arana.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Susan,

    I'm now following your blog
    I really enjoyed your review of this book, it's made me want to read it. I think explorers are really fascinating.

    Hope to see you next Weds for the new theme :)

    Sam (Tiny Library)