February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
One of the oddest things about the whole American story is the fact that a nation completely dedicated to the future has always had a deep sentimental attachment to the past. More than any other people—except perhaps the desert-wandering Children of Israel—the Americans have moved forward with a sense of mission and a belief in a great destiny; but at the same time there has always been the feeling that somewhere to the rear there was a golden dawn, magically preserved on a long-lost horizon, its light coloring the land that lies ahead even though the dawn itself was experienced long ago.
The two things go properly together, for America has always been the land of dreams come true, from the moment when Columbus saw the light of an improbable but authentic landfall glimmering across the loneliness of a dark and hostile sea. Life in such a land can be perilous, to be sure, because dream-shapes change as they become real so that what is finally grasped is never quite like the thing which was originally dreamed; but the experience, net, is all to the good because it does create an ingrained belief in life’s infinite possibilities. A heritage which makes it forever impossible for a people to lapse into acceptance of the confining groove of things-as-they-are is not a bad possession.
The business really began within thirty years of Columbus’ arrival in the West Indies. Strange rumors came in of a fantastic empire on the mainland, a place of towering temples, reeking altars, and inexhaustible wealth; and within decades tough Hernando Cortes had gone into Mexico with a little company of soldiers to seize all of this for the Crown, the Church, and his own private profit.
The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, translated with an introduction and notes by A. P. Maudslay; introduction to the American edition by Irving A. Leonard. Farrar, Straus and Cudahy. 478 pp. $6.50.
For once reality lived up to the legend. The conquistadors found more than they had heard about. They entered a bizarre kingdom set off with spectacular cities, with gleaming temples set on top of lofty pyramids, a savage land where hideous priests sacrificed whole platoons of captives to nightmarish gods, and where cunning artisans made fabulous ornaments out of gold and silver and precious stones—a place wholly unlike anything anyone had ever imagined before, with wealth enough to enrich the meanest soldier and with the chance of an unpleasant death lurking behind a gleaming façade of jewels and flowers and bright featherwork cloaks. After they had conquered and despoiled and destroyed this kingdom, one of Cortes’s mercenaries, a two-fisted fighting man known as Bernal Díaz del Castillo, sat down in his old age to write his memoirs. Díaz had been a good soldier, but otherwise he had not done too well; he was old, nearly blind, largely disabled, not blessed with much wealth; yet the tremendous event in which he had shared wholly fascinated him, and he wrote a book which has been a primary source for every student of the Conquest of Mexico since then and which is also one of the most moving adventure stories ever written in America.
It is available now to the general reader in two editions: a reprint of the A. P. Maudslay translation, with an introduction by Professor Irving A. Leonard, presented under the title, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico , and a new translation by Albert Idell titled The Bernal Díaz Chronicles . The Maudslay translation is rendered in highly dignified language and is aimed, more or less, at the scholar; the Idell version is in contemporary vernacular and seems to have been designed for the general reader. Take your choice; either one is good, and either will give you a great story.
For Díaz had something to talk about. Díaz was a professional soldier, tough enough, extremely disillusioned—he had come to see that in this rape of a fabulous empire it was somehow the big shots who came out with a pocketful of gold, while the common soldier had his scars and his memories for his pains—but he is forever interrupting himself with the remark that the marvels he tells about were, after all, real, and that his hitch in the army transported him from ordinary life into something that existed only in romance.
The Bernal Díaz Chronicles , translated and edited by Albert Idell. Doubleday & Co. 414 pp. $5.
This, he keeps saying, I saw myself: this is the way it actually was, these fantastic tales of blood and gold and people who lived by a different book were all true. … “I say again that I stood looking at it and thought that never in the world would there be discovered other lands such as these, for in that time there was no Peru, nor any thought of it. … Gazing on such wonderful sights, we did not know what to say, or whether what appeared before us was real, for on one side, on the land, there were great cities, and in the lake ever so many more, and the lake itself was crowded with canoes, and in the Causeway were many bridges at intervals, and in front of us stood the great City of Mexico, and we—we did not even number four hundred soldiers. … We were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments they tell of in the legend of Amadis, on account of the great towers and cues [temples] and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream.”
This was the golden dawn, and Díaz marched through the exact middle of it, with its terrible light glinting from the blade of his sword; this was the thing that romancers had dreamed of, sharpened and made deadly, great beauty and unspeakable cruelty going hand in hand, wealth beyond dreams lying ready to be taken; and every man who reached out to take it ran the risk that he would be thrown down on a stone altar with the throbbing heart torn out of his breast by a bloodstained hand—and an old man, tired and helpless and stricken with poverty, could look back on it and put it down on paper so that people who came later could understand that all of the myths were true. At the very beginning of the American story, before anyone had imagined places like Pittsburgh or Madison Avenue or the Harvard Yard or the Corn Belt, here was the sign that the wildest of dreams could fall short of reality. The dawn came up like thunder, and the memory of it was enough to stir an old soldier and turn him into a poet.
And this was the genuine sounding of the theme song—the snatch of impossible music that would run under and over everything men would ever do in this new world, the strange blend of disillusioned realism and the confirmation of all the gaudy notions of unsophisticated youth. At the very start, men found that America could go beyond their expectations. It would be full of cruelty and injustice and rapacity, but it would also embody the final laying on of hands on the unattainable, and it would offer cloud-capped towers which, when taken, would provide nothing more than a new place from which to go on to greater heights. Here, at last, the imagination of men was set forever free. The natural corollary, of course, is the warning: Beware what dreams you dream because you are living in a land where they are apt to come true.