Recent Dissertations: Jennifer Heil (English) rediscovers Christopher Columbus

Sailing the Ocean Blue

Jan. 31, 2013 - “In fourteen-hundred-ninety-two / Columbus sailed the ocean blue / And found this land, land of the Free, beloved by you, beloved by me.” Nearly every American schoolchild learns a version of this jingle celebrating Christopher Columbus and his exploratory exploits. The verses that follow have changed a lot since that rhyme was first composed in 1919 by a teenage poet from Indiana named Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.  Stoner’s original poem celebrates a series of other characters from American history (John Smith, Paul Revere, Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough-Riders) and tells a story of unstoppable territorial expansion and technological progress. But today’s children don’t learn those verses anymore, and what they learn about Columbus himself reflects a more ambivalent understanding of his achievement. Indeed, while America still celebrates Columbus Day every October, what Columbus means to most Americans has changed considerably in the past hundred years. 

As Emory English PhD Jennifer Heil knows better than anyone, the myth and meaning of Columbus have been contested for as long as there has been an America – and the implications of his legacy extend far beyond our borders.  Jennifer’s pathbreaking research, incubated at Emory and supported by her faculty advisors, has helped shed new light on how Columbus became an iconic figure in American culture while opening that legacy up to critical engagement from other linguistic and national perspectives.

Configuring an Icon

Jennifer’s dissertation, “The American Columbus: Geography, Chronology and the Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Literature” tackles the processes by which the historical Cristoforo Colombo came to occupy a position of near-mythical significance in American education, literary culture, and, crucially, political ideology. Jennifer writes: “Although Columbus might not appear connected to the Anglo-American history of the United States, he was wildly popular during the U.S.'s early national and antebellum periods. This popularity stemmed from geography textbooks of the kind written by Susanna Rowson (1805), who viewed the U.S. as inheriting a continental history that she (and others) saw as initiated by Columbus in the New World.” Jennifer’s dissertation links the Columbus story as it appears in educational works like Rowson’s to the emerging national consciousness of the first half of the nineteenth century, arguing that this “hemispheric imagining of the U.S. underwrote national policy in the form of the Monroe Doctrine (1823), [which declared] the Old and New Worlds to be separate spheres of influence.”

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By the end of the Nineteenth Century, Christopher Columbus had assumed the position of a cultural icon, memorialized in an epic mode. (From Lossing, Benson J. Our Country. New York: Johnson and Bailey, 1895.)

The significance of Columbus for Americans in terms of their self-understanding as citizens of a new nation extended to the popular literary scene of the era. Jennifer’s dissertation pinpoints a particular moment for this: the publication of poet Washington Irving’s four-volume A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1828. For Jennifer, the historical importance of Irving’s text is nearly “impossible to overestimate in terms of its impact on US culture.” As Jennifer writes, “With this publication, the first English-language biography of Columbus, Irving secured the navigator's reputation as an Anglo-American hero and ingrained in readers a national history that began in the Caribbean in 1492.” 

As Jennifer argues, the legacy of Irving’s text is a paradoxical one. While Irving’s work firmly established many of the tropes Americans associate with Columbus – most notably that the explorer sought to disprove a supposedly widespread belief that the Earth was flat – its historical accuracy is highly dubious. Indeed, although wildly popular during the nineteenth century, Irving’s biography is today largely forgotten, eclipsed in collective memory by his later ‘Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ which draws upon the historical events of the American Revolution. Even more forgotten is that Irving’s iconic works in the English language had their genesis in an encounter with texts in another. In fact, Irving didn’t initially set out to write an English biography of Columbus or compose an ode to the new American nation – the idea actually came to him while working as a translator of Spanish texts in Madrid.

Across Seas, Across Languages

The crux of Jennifer’s provocative research hinges on precisely this point: for all the pages of English poetry and prose dedicated to Columbus, and for all his centrality to the U.S.’ spatial and temporal self-understanding, the American Columbus myth is just as much a multi-lingual and international phenomenon. 

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For generations of American schoolchildren, Columbus' discovery was framed as what put America on the map, not just literally - as a geographic location - but figuratively as a site of national destiny. (From Hall, Jennie. Our Ancestors in Europe: An Introduction to American History. Boston: Silver, Burdett, and Company, 1916.)

Jennifer argues that a sustained engagement with Spanish texts was central to the development of Anglo-American literary history from early republicanism through Manifest Destiny and beyond. Moreover, linking the origins of the continental United States to events in the waters of the Caribbean produced paradoxical consequences. Jennifer explains: “The increased attention which Columbus histories brought to Hispaniola, re-named Haiti as a result of its successful slave revolution, made expansion ominous to an Anglo- American empire still sustained by a slave economy.” Jennifer highlights this development by reading the work of free African-American J. Dennis Harris (1860), who sought to interweave Hispaniola’s discovery history with that of the Haitian Revolution to argue for the founding of an Anglo-African empire on the continent. For Jennifer, this complicated state of affairs reflects the paradoxical dependence of U.S. nationalism on transnational flows of culture, and impacts how the legacy of Columbus is deployed in the narratives of American history and self-understanding through the present day.

From Emory to Beyond

Jennifer’s inspiration for her dissertation came to her as its own kind of discovery, not on the high seas, but while presenting a paper at a conference on history and fiction. Jennifer elaborates: “My talk was about Washington Irving's biography of Columbus – and I was taken aback by the number of Americanist scholars who did not know how significant Spanish history and culture was to Irving's career and to many early nationals. That ignorance (which had been my own!) spoke volumes to me about our assumptions around what constitutes US culture.” Inspired to reframe her project by focusing a section on Irving, Jennifer says that the rest of the chapters quickly fell into place.  “I remember dashing off an email about this new direction to my adviser, Ben Reiss, who responded supportively that it sounded like a real breakthrough, and that's certainly how it felt – it was exciting!”

Today, Jennifer is an Associate Professor in English at Texas A&M in Corpus Christi and is currently working on adapting her dissertation into a full-length book.  It’s hard to tell what rhymes future generations of American schoolkids might be reciting decades down the line.  If Jennifer has any say in the matter, half the words might be in languages other than English, and our understanding of Columbus’ complicated legacy will be the better for it.

Written by Patrick Blanchfield, PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature and a graduate assistant in the Laney Graduate School. 

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Learn More

Graduate program in English

Faculty page for Dr. Benjamin Reiss

Jennifer’s Award Listing at the Society of Early Americanists 

Heil, Jenny. “Imperial Pedagogy: Susanna Rowson’s Columbus for Young Ladies.” Early American Literature 47.3 (2012): 623–648. Web. 17 Jan. 2013.

Lasky, Julie. “A Living Room Suspended Over Columbus  Circle.” The New York Times 19 Sept. 2012. 

The Department of English at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi

It Caught the Dean's Eye...

Dean Lisa Tedesco reviews every dissertation submitted to the Laney Graduate School. Usually, that means reviewing signature sheets and title pages, the abstract, a bit of the introduction, and perhaps something else. But some dissertations seize her attention, and she ends up reading a good deal more than that. This is the second in a series profiling some of those dissertations.