For years, every Columbus Day someone has...


October 09, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

POOR CHRIS. For years, every Columbus Day someone has announced that there is new proof he didn't discover America, that somebody beat him to it.

Various scholars and pseudo-scholars in recent decades have said the honor goes to Leif Ericson the Norseman, to a Welshman named Madoc, to unknown Jews, to unknown Egyptians, to Japanese, to Portuguese, to Chinese, to Irishmen, to an Etruscan, to Russians or some other "Europeans," to West Africans.

Now, as the 499th anniversary of Columbus' big day Saturday begins a year-long celebration in his honor, everybody is saying he did discover America, and he is a dirty so-and-so for doing it! He ruined the paradise created by Native Americans!

Typical of this year's attitude to Columbus is this from John Yewell, who is editing one of many Columbus books due out soon:

"The United States honors only two people with holidays bearing their names: Martin Luther King Jr., who gave his life combating the legacy of slavery, and Christopher Columbus, who initiated it."

Actually, today legally honors Leif Ericson's birthday. Since 1964 presidents have proclaimed Oct. 9 Leif Ericson Day, usually praising Leif as the pathfinder for all later European explorers and getting in a few licks for the Nordic vote while they're at it. (George Bush: "Over the years immigrants from Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland have greatly enriched our country.")

Columbus Day was initiated in this country as a celebration of his "discovery" of America. That was in 1492. After the influx of millions of Italian immigrants, the holiday became a celebration of immigration in general and specifically of Italian immigrants. Italians still are Columbus' biggest boosters. This is true even though over the year's debunkers have argued that he was really Portuguese, Catalan, Jew, Andalusian, Greek and Swiss. (Swiss I definitely don't believe.)

But with all due respect to Italian-Americans who love Columbus too much and Native Americans and others who hate him too much, I have to say that Columbus is really so embedded in our history and culture that he is as American as a chopped down cherry tree.

"For years now," Joel Achenbach wrote in the Washington Post, "Columbus has remained an untarnished icon at the popular level, the level of Columbus Day parades, of children's books, of that George Gershwin song that goes, 'Everyone laughed when Columbus said the world was round.'"

(Actually the song goes, "They all laughed at Christopher Columbus/When he said the world was round.") (And it was Ira Gershwin. What George wrote was, "da da dum, da dum da dum da dum dum.")

But you get the point. Columbus is in our literature and our geography -- bays, rivers, mountains from sea to shining sea. There are 48 American cities and counties named for him, and don't expect any to be renamed as a consequence of the 500th re-discovery of him.

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