It's 1992, the 500th anniversary year of the...


January 01, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

TAKE ONE. It's 1992, the 500th anniversary year of the discovery of America by the brave and brilliant Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Christopher Columbus.


Take two. It's 1992, the 500th anniversary year of the European encounter with the New World.


Take three. It's 1992, the 500th anniversary year of the vicious, savage European assault on the generous, noble, peaceful peoples of the Western Hemisphere, leading, as it did, to all the evils that now exist.

Okay, that's a wrap.

Actually, it's a rap, and a bad rap at that, but that is not what I want to write about on this first day of the Columbus quincentennial. I come to bury Columbus, not to praise him.

I have to bury him because even though this is just the first day of his quincentennial, his body is beginning to stink. It's been on display too long. The public celebration and condemnation of 1492 was a year old before 1992 even got here.

As Simon Schama put in the New Republic, "Excuse me for noticing, but haven't we been commemorating Columbus' quincentennial in the wrong year? I know that dates and math aren't America's strong suit right now, but it doesn't take advanced calculus to figure that 1492 plus 500 equals 1992."

Good point, but excuse me for noticing, but I received my copy of the magazine before Christmas.

I thought the commemoration of 1984 was ludicrously premature, but it couldn't compare to the pre-1992 early birding. Journalism started doing some heavy re-reviewing of George Orwell's famous novel in January 1983. Harper's and the New Republic led the way. By the time 1984 actually arrived, there had been scores of 1983 reviews and essays regarding "1984" in the mainstream press.

But Columbus! There were 12 articles about him and about the 1992 quincentennial in major magazines in October, November and December of 1990. In all of 1991, hundreds. To give you an idea of the tone of the articles, here are some of the 1990 titles: "Columbus, My Enemy" (Natural History), "The Columbus Quincentennial: Should Christians Celebrate It?" (America), "Good Guy or Dirty Word?" (Time).

Schama's article is a lengthy review of 14 books and an art exhibit about Columbus and 1492 (all of which came out in 1991, of course). It is titled, "They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus," and he points out that they literally did. He quotes, for example, a letter Columbus wrote in 1501, "all who found out about my project denounced it with laughter and ridiculed me."

I'm not sure what specifically about the project was ridiculed. It was not that he thought the world was round. Everybody thought that in 1492. It may have been that, as Schama puts it, "in his reckoning America and Japan were the same place." To which Schama adds, "No one in 1992 is likely to suffer from the same confusion."

No, but just wait.

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