The Kindle Meets Columbus Day

Portrait of Christopher Columbus

Today is a holiday in the United States — Columbus Day. But fortunately, there’s lots of ways to celebrate with your Kindle!

I was fascinated to learn exactly what happened when Columbus approached Queen Isabella’s court. I’ve been taught for years that the scholars insisted the world was flat, while brave Columbus argued that no, the planet was round. It turns out that’s a horrific myth, and “there never was a period of ‘flat earth darkness’ among scholars…” according to Stephen Jay Gould (in a book cited by Wikipedia). And I’d discovered another startling truth while browsing Wikipedia with my Kindle. That Columbus story has a surprising connection to a
very famous American author from the 1800s.

He wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as well as Rip Van Winkle, and Washington Irving was one of the first American authors to gain literary recognition in Europe. He also perpetrated one of the great literary hoaxes, placing fake newspaper ads seeking Irving’s fictitious Dutch historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, and threatening to publish his left-behind manuscript to cover unpaid bills! Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, was even interested in him romantically, according to Wikipedia. But after an early spark of youthful success, the critics began panning Irving’s books, and by the age of 41, Irving was facing financial difficulties.

Yet his past literary success earned him an appointment in 1826 as an American diplomatic attache in Spain — and it was there that he gained access to historical manuscripts about Columbus that had only recently been made available to the public. Irving used them to write The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, a work of historical fiction which became wildly popular in both the United States and Europe. By the end of the century, the book would be published in over 175 editions.

Yes, it’s available as a free ebook for the Kindle, though for some reason only Volume 2 is available. (“…a new scene of trouble and anxiety opened upon him, destined to impede the prosecution of his enterprises, and to affect all his future fortunes.”) But the important thing to remember is it was written as an imaginative work of historical fiction. “Irving based them on extensive research in the Spanish archives,” notes Wikipedia, but Columbus “also added imaginative elements, aimed at sharpening the story.”

Another 19th-century American also assembled his own exhaustive biography about the life of Columbus. Edward Everett Hale is most famous for the patriotic short story, The Man Without a Country. But he also created a scholarly work called The Life of Columbus From His Own Letters and Journals and Other Documents of His Time. You can download it for free from Amazon’s Kindle store, and savor the historic moment when Columbus first makes contact with the New World. “It was on Friday, the twelfth of October, that they saw this island… When they were ashore they saw very green trees and much water, and fruits of different kinds.”

There’s also a historical book called Christopher Columbus and the New World of His Discovery that was published in 1906. It’s scattered as free ebooks throughout Amazon’s Kindle store, though it’s Volume 2 where Columbus first makes landfall. (“…it was a different matter on Friday morning, October 12, 1492, when, all having been made snug on board the Santa Maria, the Admiral of the Ocean Seas put on his armour and his scarlet cloak over it and prepared to go ashore.”)

This text was prepared by Project Gutenberg, and this particular paragraph comes with a disillusioning footnote. Columbus may have recorded the date of his landfall as October 12, but “This date is reckoned in the old style. The true astronomical date would be October 21st, which is the modern anniversary of the discovery.” Columbus may be one of those historical figures who’s become so familiar, that we actually don’t know him at all!

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Free ebooks about Columbus:

Washington Irving’s The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus,

The Life of Columbus From His Own Letters and Journals and Other Documents of His Time.

Christopher Columbus and the New World of His Discovery

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