The American Columbus: Geography, Chronology and the Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Literature Open Access

Heil, Jenny (2012)

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The American Columbus:
Geography, Chronology and the Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Literature

"The American Columbus" argues for the centrality of Christopher Columbus in the spatial and temporal imagination of the United States--and demonstrates how that configuration of "America" continues to matter to this day. 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. Such a hemispheric imagining of the U.S. underwrote national policy in the form of the Monroe Doctrine (1823), declaring the Old and New Worlds to be separate spheres of influence, which set the stage for the commercial success of Washington Irving's A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828). 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. However, plotting American beginnings from the Caribbean potentially put the nation at risk. I claim 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. Free African-American J. Dennis Harris (1860) took advantage of this relationship by interweaving its discovery history with that of the Haitian Revolution in the hope of founding an Anglo-African empire on the continent.

This dissertation contends that imaginative narratives about Columbus had--and continue to have--real implications for political belonging in the western hemisphere. The goals of this project are twofold. First, I aim to show 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. More importantly, my analysis of this engagement demonstrates the paradoxical dependence of U.S. nationalism on transnational flows of culture.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Introducing Columbus 1

Imperial Pedagogy: Susanna Rowson's Columbus for Young Ladies 33

Conquering Biography: Washington Irving's Frontier Columbus 72

Boundary Questions: The Oregon Debate, Cooper's Columbus and the Decline of the Historical Romance 107

Discovering the Haitian Revolution: Anglo-African Empire in the Tropics 151


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