October 12, 1992, marks the five-hundredth anniversary of the most crucial of all encounters between Europe and the Americas. In the contemporary global mood, however, the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus's landing in the New World - new, anyway, to the European intruders; old and familiar to its inhabitants - seems an occasion less for celebration than for mediation. Indeed, in some quarters the call is for penitence and remorse.
Christopher Columbus has always been as much a myth as a man, a myth incorporating a succession of triumphs and guilts over what is now five long centuries. The myth has found particular lodgment in the mightiest of the nations to arise in the Western Hemisphere - a nation that may not speak Columbus' language (any of them) but has diligently revered his memory.
Though both the continent and the country bear another's name, Columbus has been surpassed in nomenclatural popularity in the United States only by the great George Washington - and Washington is itself located in the District of Columbia. I make this observation as a native of Columbus, Ohio, the largest of many municipalities called after the great explorer. The preeminent university in the city in which I now live is Columbia - not to mention such other North American institutions as the Columbia Broadcasting System, the Columbia Encyclopedia, Columbia Pictures, and a variety of enterprises from banks to space shuttles.
The biography that fixed the nineteenth-century image of Columbus was published in 1828 and written by Washington Irving, Manhattan's first international man of letters, a lover of Spain, the aficionado of Granada and the Alhambra, and in later life the U.S. minister ...
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...n this interdependent planet. The clash of cultures may yield in the end - not, certainly, to a single global culture (heaven forbid) but to a world in which many differentiated national cultures live side by side in reciprocal enrichment. This, too, is part of the legacy of Columbus.
A century and a quarter ago Walt Whitman brooded on the fate of Columbus at the end of his life, "a batter'd wreck's old man...stiff with many toils, sicken'd and nigh to death...full of woe." The poet perceived what the scholars of his day missed: that Columbus was driven by devotion to the Almighty.
With the quincentennial, the dream of newer, better worlds still mocks and perplexes us. But those shadowy vast shapes are there too, giving hope that a happier future lies perhaps more than ever within humanity's grasp. With luck, that may be the work of the next five centuries.
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