- Historic Sites
“By Chaos Out Of Dream”
An exploration into the exploration of America
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
Sure you’re romantic about American history … it is the most romantic of all histories. It began as myth and has developed through three centuries of fairy stories. Whatever the time is in America it is always, at every moment, the mad and wayward hour when the prince is finding the little foot that alone fits into the slipper of glass.… Ours is a story mad with the impossible, it is by chaos out of dream, it began as dream and has continued as dream down to the last headline you read in a newspaper.… The simplest truth you can ever write about our history will be charged and surcharged with romanticism, and if you are afraid of the word you had better start practicing seriously on your fiddle.
—Bernard DeVoto to Catherine Drinker Bowen
Three centuries of fairy stories, DeVoto says. But the fairy stories go back far deeper into time than three hundred years. As Atlantis, as Brazile or Antillia or Groenland or the Fortunate Isles, as the Earthly Paradise or the Garden of the World, as something for nothing, as escape from history or authority or oppression or the grind of poverty, as the promise of social justice, freedom, or the ideal society, America is Europe’s oldest dream. “The Atlantic,” says Howard Mumford Jones in O Strange New World, “hid in its misty vastness many wonderful islands, and these island images, compounded of wonder, terror, wealth, religious perfection, communism, utopianism, or political power, conditioned the European image of America. They floated on the maps of the Ocean Sea like quicksilver globules, now here, now there, now nowhere at all, some of them remaining on British Admiralty charts into the nineteenth century.”
America was not only a new world waiting to be discovered; it was a fable waiting to be agreed upon. Preconceptions, some medieval, some as old as Europe’s memory, were part of it before its discovery and clung to it afterward. Preconceptions are not readily soluble in observed fact, and they often give rise to insoluble consequences.
Thus Columbus, sailing westward to find the East, found something, and assumed that what he found was what he had gone in search of. So he called the inhabitants Indians, and in spite of all later revisionist suggestions such as Amerinds and Native Americans, they remain Indians to this day. Thus Vespucci, only ten years after Columbus’ first voyage, clearly demonstrated that America was not Asia; yet 133 years later, in 1635, when Champlain sent Jean Nicolet to explore among the Nipissings on the way to Georgian Bay and the great interior lakes, Nicolet took along in his birchbark canoe an embroidered mandarin robe, just in case, out there in the depths of unknown forests, by unknown rivers, he should encounter the Great Khan, and need ceremonial dress.
As historians have remarked, America was discovered by accident and explored to a considerable extent by people trying to find a way to somewhere else. Cathay died hard. When the reluctant truth was finally established that neither the northern nor the southern mainland was China, and that none of the islands north or south formed part of Cipango or the East Indies, restless men representing restless and expanding empires probed for ways through or around it, ways easier than the one Vasco da Gama found around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, or the way Balboa found across the Isthmus of Panama in 1513, or the stormy way around the bottom of South America that Magellan opened seven years later. There must, said logic and wishfulness in ignorance of any facts whatever, there must be some waterway, some Northwest Passage, that would take Europe conveniently into the South Sea and on to the jewels and spices of the East. In the absence of more than a few fixed points of knowledge, wish became fact, and fantasy turned cartographer.
It is a story staled by generalized repetition, but it is the greatest story in the history of civilized man—how the New World was found, explored, opened, inventoried, finally settled. And raped. Rapine was a good part of it, and still is.