Christopher Columbus & Washington Irving

The current historic interpretation and understanding of Christopher Columbus stands as complicated. To put it mildly.

Controversy aside, Christopher Columbus figured prominently in the formation of a uniquely American cultural identity. This seems to be forgotten today amid our debates over identity politics and historical grievances.

Proof: Washington Irving, the writer with whom I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time, penned a multi-volume biography of Columbus.

Columbus
(Courtesy of the New York Public Library)

Irving’s A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus was published in 1828. The biography was both a critical and a popular success.  Although Irving conducted deep original research and approached the project as a straight history, he could not avoid his trademark embellishments.

Irving wrote that Columbus’s voyage to the New Word dispelled the belief that the world was flat. This myth has been taught as gospel for generations. (I remember learning it myself in grade school.) In fact, ancient Greek thinkers theorized that the world was spherical, and the intellectual class subscribed to this concept when Columbus made his first voyage to the New World in 1492.

Nonetheless, Irving’s biography remained widely read and cited well into the twentieth century.

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