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Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)

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Questions for Discussion and Writing

We encounter Christopher Columbus through the effects of time, of translation, of cultural difference between our own historical moment and his. In thinking about the letters included in NAAL as part of the American literary heritage, we also need to consider the Columbus myth: its golden age in the early nineteenth century, its continuing presence, and the vigorous reaction against it. In the early years of the American republic, as the new nation sought out founder-heroes, writers such as Joel Barlow and Washington Irving represented Columbus as an Aeneas for the New World, or even as its Moses. Irving closes his Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828) this way:

What visions of glory would have broken upon his mind could he have known that he had indeed discovered a new continent, equal to the whole of the Old World in magnitude, and separated by two vast oceans from all the earth hitherto known by civilized man! And how would his magnanimous spirit have been consoled, amid the afflictions of age and the cares of penury, the neglect of a fickle public and the injustice of an ungrateful king, could he have anticipated the splendid empires which were to spread over the beautiful world he had discovered; and the nations, and tongues, and languages which were to fill its lands with his renown, and revere and bless his name to the latest posterity.

A generation earlier, Barlow's The Vision of Columbus (1787) -- an epic-style poem rarely read today -- imagined the explorer as blessed, at the end of his life, with a Mount Pisgah-like vision of an American promised-land future. Throughout the Western Hemisphere, cities, universities, rivers, and a country were named for him -- and in pious and prophetic robes, he is memorialized with countless statues and courthouse frescoes.

1. Describe the experience of reading the translated words of the actual Christopher Columbus. These are the words of a native-born Italian, writing in Spanish five hundred years ago, amid civilities and belief systems very different from our own. Can we imagine a temperament for this writer? If we describe the self in terms of conflicts, can we observe any in these letters? If we recall that Ferdinand and Isabella, to whom one of these letters is addressed (1503), were the monarchs who drove the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 and who expelled the Jewish population in that same year, how might the religious and patriotic fervor of that time affect what Columbus says to them and to Santangel (1493), and how he says it?

2. Since John Smith, a hundred years later, became a legendary hero like Columbus, compare the tone and content of Smith's Farewell to Virginia to the self-justifications contained in Columbus's letter to Ferdinand and Isabella. What differences do you sense between these writers? What contrasts do you see between the two historical situations?