American Studies

Thesis Abstracts

1995-96
Ben Harris
Ambivalence and Multivalence: Christopher Columbus in the Contested Historical Memory of 19th-Century America

This thesis examines the development of the myth of Christopher Columbus in nineteenth-century America. From a figure celebrated exclusively by a dominant Protestant cultural elite at the end of the eighteenth century, to a multivalent, contested metaphor for the cultural tumult of the American fin-de-siƩcle, America's Columbus underwent a complex process of revision in the nineteenth century. This process underscores the impact of immigration during the latter parts of the century in changing the American mythic landscape.

By examining literature, art, public monuments, and political movements of the nineteenth century which employed Columbian iconography, this study explores the precise concerns which nineteenth-century Americans brought to their portrayals of Columbus. One trope which almost all who invoked the Columbus Myth used, though in different ways, is the racialized scene of cultural contact in depictions of Columbus' first landing in the New World.

The first chapter is concerned with the myth as envisioned in the early part of the century, particularly by Washington Irving in his narrative biography of Columbus (1828). The second chapter examines the growing sense of cultural diversity and increasingly contested nature of the myth at mid-century in the poetry of Walt Whitman and public statuary, architecture, and art. The polarization of the Columbus Myth at the end of the century is addressed in chapter three, particularly in relation to the celebration of quadricentennial at the Chicago world's fair and throughout the nation.

This thesis argues that the myth of Columbus, in its flexibility has been open to marginalized minorities as a politically viable trope of resistance and therefore has occupied a unique place in American mythology. The factual ambiguity surrounding Columbus' life and voyages has contributed to making him a multivalent and reusable figure which has been available to different Americans as a trope of patriotism, membership, dissent, and struggle.