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Discovering Columbus

By John Noble Wilford



Compared with their predecessors, recent historians and cultural critics have been much less friendly to the idea of heroes and individual greatness, and Columbus has not escaped this revisionist treatment. In this 1991 essay, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author John Noble Wilford (b. 1933) chronicles the changing reputation of Columbus, arguing that Columbus’ standing is mainly a mirror of the changing prejudices and cultural attitudes of society. Yet he also appears to want to separate the man from his changing mythical reputation, to know Columbus as “he really was.” Is it possible to do so? Is Wilford’s effort free of the prevailing opinions and prejudices of his own time? Do you think “the real Columbus” was a great man, worthy of remembrance? Is Wilford correct in linking the reputation of Columbus with the reputation of America, and in making the greatness of America to this point in our history dependent on our future reputation? Is the goodness or greatness of any human individual or any nation to be settled by an appeal to reputation or popular opinion?

Few stories in history are more familiar than the one of Christopher Columbus sailing west for the Indies and finding instead the New World. Indelibly imprinted in our memory is the verse from childhood: "In fourteen hundred and ninety-two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue." The names of his ships, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, roll fluently from our lips. We know how Columbus, a seaman of humble and obscure origins, pursued a dream that became his obsession. How he found not the riches of Cathay but a sprinkling of small islands inhabited by gentle people. How he called these people Indians, thinking that surely the mainland of Asia lay just over the horizon.

Yet the history of Columbus is frustratingly incomplete.

Read John Noble Wilford’s article at the New York Times.
Return to The Meaning of Columbus Day.

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