Where does American history begin? Mixing geography with invention, the first explorers and mapmakers made the New World a very hard place to pin down.

Author:Widmer, Ted

Ralph Waldo Emerson may be the patron saint of THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR, but it would be difficult to argue that he felt much admiration for the intellectuals of his day, and particularly for those who read, wrote, and taught American history. At the end of his essay "History," he erupted with a riposte against the self-appointed know-it-alls who made the past even more lifeless than usual. "Broader and deeper we must write our annals," he insisted; "if we would trulier express our central and wide-related nature, instead of this old chronology of selfishness and pride to which we have too long lent our eyes." Putting aside the question of whether trulier is actually a word, it is still exciting to hear Emerson light into the specialists. The final sentence of his essay throws off more sparks than a bottle rocket: "The idiot, the Indian, the child, and unschooled farmer's boy, stand nearer to the light by which nature is to be read, than the dissector or the antiquary."

We cannot know what Emerson would think of the United States in 2008, but we can guess that he would still find much to question in the way we confront our past. The problem is not merely that we do not know the basic facts of American history well; that goes without saying. On April 28, 2008, during the heated contest for the Democratic nomination, Fox News did a feature on the Lincoln-Douglas debate, all well and good, except that their graphic included a photo montage of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Worse, the teaching of history tends to be narrowly defined, politically corrected, and bundled into quantifiable categories, in compliance with the standards demanded by No Child Left Behind, or those imposed in more subtle ways by Ph.D. committees, peer reviews, and the Byzantium of department politics.

One way to get "broader and deeper" with American history is very simple--move the starting line backward. Where does American history begin? The answer can be maddeningly elusive. The United States dates its origins to not one but two founding moments: the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 and the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. A half century ago and more, scholars and essayists often traced the earliest hints of the American character to the arrival of settlers in Jamestown and Plymouth--a view that is less prevalent now. Yet American history had been unfolding for some time before 1607. The Spanish Empire penetrated deeply into the Americas during the long century that elapsed between the landfall of Columbus in 1492 and the first English settlements. The recent discovery of an old footprint in Mexico suggests that hominoids may have been here as long as 40,000 years ago---far longer than previously assumed. The New World is not always so new--what may be the oldest living thing on earth is a bristlecone pine tree named Methuselah, nearly 5,000 years old, in California. In other words, American history goes back very far--to what T. S. Eliot called "a time / Older than the time of chronometers."

Certainly it accompanies most of what we would call European history. Long before Columbus planted the first flag in the New World--a simple banner, with the letters "F.Y." for Ferdinand and Isabella (Ysabella)--Europeans felt a strong intuition that a great land existed to the west. The literature of antiquity furnishes frenzied speculations on just what lay past the Pillars of Hercules guarding Gibraltar, none more famous than Plato's riveting account of the great civilization of Atlantis that had perished 9,000 years before; a land that abounded with "kings of amazing power," golden statues, even hot and cold running water. We believe with reasonable certainty that the Phoenicians sailed far into the Atlantic. Coins from ancient Carthage have been discovered as far west as the Azores. Roman-seeming amphorae have been discovered in the waters off Rio de Janeiro. Norsemen stayed for more than four centuries in Greenland--far longer than the United States has been a nation. We know now what we did not for most of our history, that Vikings inhabited North America a thousand years ago. And there were hundreds, thousands, of reports from the nebulous and interlocking worlds of mariner gossip, writerly embellishment, and outright fabrication of places that seemed so real that mapmakers listed them well into the modern age.


These lies and legends may seem unworthy of the attention of serious historians, for whom facts and dates are the essential matter. But they are compelling precisely because they seem so distant from the grand narrative we have been trained to repeat--that Anglo-Saxon settlements ultimately turned into a nation based on equality, freedom, and democracy. Perhaps the landfall of Columbus was not so much a beginning as an ending. For a westward longing seems to have been a perpetual condition from the start of recorded thought to the explosion of interest following a letter Columbus published in Barcelona in 1493 describing...

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