Statue of Columbus in the Library of Congress, Main Reading Room
In June I wrote an entry about my friend and former college roommate, Mike McCann, who has been teaching for many years at Lakeview Academy in Gainesville, Georgia. Mike acted as a terrific sounding board for me when I was writing A Little History of the United States. He is now using the book with his high school students and zipped me an email about what he had done as the term opened, focusing on Columbus’s first native contacts in the Americas. As I am hoping to write a bit more periodically on the subject of education and history, this "first encounter" seemed like a good place to begin. I’m hoping Mike will send me more dispatches as the school year progresses.
I had commented in an earlier email how I’d been struck by Columbus’s boundless confidence in his ability to master the essentials of the Taino language after only a few days’ exploration. He reports that as he traveled from one new settlement to the next, the natives he had taken with him would run “from house to house, and to the towns around, crying out, “Come! come! and see the men from heaven!” Ah yes—perhaps an all too human temptation for Columbus to suppose that he and his fellow Europeans were seen as no less than gods by these people. It turned out that Mike was using the same primary sources to help students explore some of the less obvious crosscurrents in Columbus’s account of his first encounters with the Taino people. Mike’s report:
As George Bush might have said, between Columbus and the Taino there was a bit of misunderestimation going on regarding cultural superiority. (Or perhaps I should say misoverestimation?) For students new to such primary sources, it’s easy to glide along without noticing at first some of the contradictions and underlying crosscurrents. I had a good deal of fun writing about the same problem, except instead of Columbus's recollections, I used Captain John Smith’s account of meeting the Powhatan Indians, in a book I did with Mark Lytle, After the Fact: the Art of Historical Detection. There, we discuss the long-contested question of whether readers can trust Smith’s version of his adventures. To quote from After the Fact:
And then we go on in After the Fact to speculate about what’s really going on when Pocahontas “saves” the life of Captain Smith. Smith tells it pretty much as a kind of adventure romance: hero saved by young damsel. (And this is not the first time he’s told such a tale. He narrates a similar adventure about his earlier travels in eastern Europe.) But Powhatan may have had his own reasons for threatening Smith’s life. Indeed, he may not have been intending to kill Smith at all, but merely subjecting him to a test of courage and making it clear that Smith and these strange new people from across the ocean were Powhatan’s vassals, not his superiors. When two differing cultures first meet, the chance for misunderestimation always remains high.
Earlier this summer I stopped at one of my regular haunts while up in the Adirondacks, The Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid, NY, and said hello to the folks who run the shop, Sarah and Marc. They have a good selection of titles—a particularly nice variety in my own areas of interest, history and the outdoors.
It hasn't gotten any easier these days to run an independent bookstore, a truth vouchsafed by the very fact that you're reading these lines now on the Web—in the comfort of your home or even on the go, using a tablet or smart phone. How easy just to click through to a book and order without batting an eye!
But it's worth thinking about how one comes across the best books. Sure, ordering off the Web is easy and quick, especially when you have a particular title already in mind. But the most interesting finds don't come when you proceed straight as an arrow. When I'm looking up a volume in the library for research, I always browse up and down the shelf, to see what else is there that I knew nothing about. Sometimes a really astute study is tucked six or seven books down, something that covers a subject far better than the book I was seeking. Other times an archaic tome surfaces, the dust still clinging to it but fascinating and useful for its own reasons. Sometimes the find is an utterly nutty artifact which relates to nothing in particular I'm doing, but leaves me grinning ear to ear. (I still have xeroxes I made in the 1970s, of a manual from the early twentieth century on stage hypnotism, as well as a handbook on trapping in the Canadian North, which laid out little-known tricks to hunting beaver in the dead of winter or "pulling" fox hearts. (Both books are good topics, come to think of it, for future posts...)
So stop by The Bookstore Plus if you're in Lake Placid and browse. Then take your newfound purchase a few doors down to Big Mountain Deli and dive into your read while sampling one of their 46 multigrain and multifarious sandwiches, each named after one of the Adirondacks' 46 mountains over 4000 feet. I recommend #17 Saddleback: smoked salmon and bacon, lettuce, tomato seasoned with cracked pepper mayo. Truly tasty whether you're cruising across the Atlantic on the Lusitania, being thrown out of a Milwaukee tenement, or beginning a 500-year journey across America.
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors