Monday, January 9, 2017
January 9, 2017: Spring 2017 Previews: American Lit I
[Next week, a new semester begins; so this week, I’ll preview five classes and other aspects of that semester, this time through the lens of teaching and working in the age of Trump. Leading up to a special weekend post on book talks and plans!]
On reading and applying Christopher Columbus in the age of Trump.
I’ve written about Columbus in a number of posts here, including a preview of this same course in last January’s Spring semester series. As I mentioned in that preview post, in American Literature I we read two famous Columbus letters for the same class discussion: the 1492 one written to Spanish court figure and Columbus financial backer Luis de Santangel, from the height of the first voyage’s success; and the 1502 one written to the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, from the depths of the fourth voyage’s failures. Two letters aren’t enough to give a full picture of the man and his identity and perspective, of course; such is the decision I made when I created an American Lit I syllabus that includes at least one and often two new authors for each day, giving us a wide breadth of coverage but no in-depth focus on any particular author or text. But these two letters nonetheless capture two significant moments and how Columbus responded to and framed each, and in so doing they offer two important lenses through which to understand our new president-elect.
The Santangel letter doesn’t include the word/phrase “bigly/big league” (not sure how it could, really, not in 1492 and doubly not in the original Spanish), but it might as well. Columbus’ writing and perspective in that moment of triumph are consistently exaggerated, including fake news (he reports on nightingales singing in the new world trees, when the birds are not to be found in the Americas), a hugely egotistical over-use of the pronoun “I” (when he’s mostly if not entirely describing actions taken by his men and crew), and a thoroughgoing dismissal of all those native peoples who are clearly outside of the imagined new world community he’s envisioning (“They explored for three days, and found countless small communities and people, without number, but nothing of importance”). But we don’t need to read past the first clause of the letter’s first sentence to see everything we need to know: “Sir, as I know you will be rejoiced at the glorious success that our Lord has given me in my voyage.” That’s only 100 characters, so it’d easily fit into an example of Trump’s favorite method for communicating his true perspective, a Tweet. I think we could append a “Bigly!” to the end of the clause and not lose any of the passage’s spirit.
Ten years later, we see in the Ferdinand and Isabella letter Columbus’ writing and perspective when he perceives himself the victim of numerous forces conspiring against him. There’s no doubt that a lot had gone wrong for Columbus in his latter new world voyages, from shipwreck to imprisonment, demotions to betrayals. Yet over the same decade, choices and actions of Columbus’—most notably the enslavement and destruction of countless native peoples—had left the Americas themselves in far worse shape than when he had encountered them. Yet although Columbus begins the letter by writing, “Of Española, Paria, and the other lands, I never think without weeping,” it soon becomes crystal clear that those tears are due to his own situation, not that of the lands. “I came to serve at the age of twenty-eight years,” he writes, “and now I have not a hair on my body that is not gray and my body is infirm, and whatever remained to me from those years of service has been spent and taken away from me and sold, and from my brothers, down to my very coat, without my being heard or seen, to my great dishonor.” A perspective this self-centered and simplistic is problematic when things go well, but it’s downright disastrous when they go badly—a lesson from Columbus’ two letters that we would do well to heed as we move into 2017.
Next preview tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Spring plans you’d highlight or share?