Christopher Columbus Essay

Christopher Columbus Essay

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America's national memory is filled with icons and symbols, avatars of deeply held, yet imperfectly understood, beliefs. The role of history in the iconography of the United States is pervasive, yet the facts behind the fiction are somehow lost in an amorphous haze of patriotism and perceived national identity. Christopher Columbus, as a hero and symbol of the first order in America, is an important figure in this pantheon of American myth. His status, not unlike most American icons, is representative not of his own accomplishments, but the self-perception of the society which raised him to his pedestal in the American gallery of heroism.
This gallery was not in place at the birth of the political nation. America, as a young republic, found itself immediately in the middle of an identity crisis. Having effected a violent separation from England and its cultural and political icons, America was left without history--or heroes. Michael Kammen, in his Mystic Chords of Memory explains that "repudiation of the past left Americans of the young republic without a firm foundation on which to base a shared sense of their social selves." (65) A new national story was needed, yet the Revolutionary leaders, obvious choices for mythical transformation, were loath to be raised to their pedestals. "Even though every nation needs a mythic explanation of its own creation, that process was paradoxically elaborated by the reluctance of Revolutionary statesmen to have their story told prematurely." (Kammen, 27) To be raised above others would be undemocratic, they believed. The human need to explain origins, to create self-identity through national identity, was thwarted by this reluctance. A vacuum was created, and was slowly filled with the image...


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Christopher Columbus was literally in the right place (Spain) at the right time (the dawning Age of Discovery) to set his place in history. America was the right place at the right time to appropriate, simplify, and mould Columbus to reflect the image of an independent and growing America. Columbus is found throughout American popular culture, national commemorations and memory, and prominently in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Randolph Roger's massive bronze Columbus Doors express this vision of Columbus, the ultimate visual expression of America's self-identity as embodied in the explorer. He "emerged from the shadows, reincarnated not so much as a man and historical figure as he was a myth and symbol. He came to epitomize the explorer and discoverer, the man of vision and audacity, the hero who overcame opposition and adversity to change history." (Noble, 249)

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