Ark of the Liberties: America and the World

Ark of the Liberties: America and the World

by Ted Widmer

Narrated by William Hughes

Unabridged — 13 hours, 35 minutes

Ted Widmer
Ark of the Liberties: America and the World

Ark of the Liberties: America and the World

by Ted Widmer

Narrated by William Hughes

Unabridged — 13 hours, 35 minutes

Ted Widmer

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From its earliest beginnings, America has been seen as an icon of liberty with a mission to redeem the world. Often, the ideal fits. But sometimes even our most noble aspirations can be as damaging as they are uplifting. With wit, brilliance, and deep affection, the inimitable Ted Widmer traces America's wondrous history, from the Declaration of Independence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He also looks unblinkingly at our less glorious history, from slavery to the occupation of Iraq. This thoughtful, celebratory critique is written in the conviction that if Americans want the world to respect us more, then it will certainly help to know ourselves a little better.

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Product Details

BN ID: 2940169862379
Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Publication date: 06/24/2008
Edition description: Unabridged

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Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

— Shakespeare, The Tempest

When the first American naval vessel sailed into Constantinople in 1800, Ottoman officials had no vocabulary to describe the strange new people and where they came from, so they referred to the United States as an "island kingdom." That was not the worst way to describe the only democracy on earth, but it proved once again that a wide ocean separated Americans from the hierarchies of Europe. This immense intellectual distance was revealed every time a writer from the Old World labored to apply words to places that seemed to exist outside all known realms, including those of time and space.

"In the beginning, all the world was America," wrote John Locke, famously, in his Second Treatise on Government (1690). But those words, for all their airy resonance, were hardly complimentary. Instead, Locke was arguing that the Old World was once, near the dawn of history, as barbaric as the New. Even two centuries after Columbus, America conjured little more than a vast vacuity.

Of course, Europeans were fascinated by America, and in the early centuries of exploration, a tiny percentage actually came to live here, but the vast majority of the world's people were as removed from the new realm as they were from the moon. In fact, there was something extraterrestrial about the early accounts of this alternative world. America seemed to be a place of half-humans and sea monsters, hastily sketched into the corners and wide-open spaces of maps — more an idea than a location. With the passage of time, topographical detail has filled those spaces, but misperceptions remain. An immense gulf yawns between the way that citizens of the United States perceive the story of America, as the culmination of all prior events, and the way that most foreigners do, as a world that is still deeply new, and more than a little unsettling.

We still struggle with these ancient archetypes. Americans today, weighted down with doorstop biographies of the founders and entranced by war footage on the History Channel, have difficulty fathoming that we are merely one of 194 nations on the planet, and that each has a long history separate from our own. Other nations, no less proud, have trouble explaining the remarkable ascendancy of a people who, only a few centuries ago, were running around an untamed wilderness firing arrows and flintlocks at one another. Too many foreign observers look across the ocean and still expect to see monsters, or failing to see them, invent new ones.

Surely a splash of cold-water realism can help each side to see the other perspective more clearly. An honest look at the origins of the American errand can help to dispel both the notion that we are a divinely anointed people and the opposite premise, that our ascendancy was a nightmare, correlated with the decline of other civilizations — in particular that of Islam, banished from Spain in the same year that Columbus set out to the west. Osama bin Laden has mentioned that historical coincidence to his followers, as if it proves a cosmic enmity between Muslims and Americans. Nothing could be further from the truth, and a deeper reading of history can rebut the extreme claims of both the America-haters and the superpatriots for whom the creation of the United States was only a little less significant than the events of the book of Genesis.

Near the end of The Tempest, Shakespeare has Gonzalo report breathlessly on the virtue of the "people of the island" he has encountered, and wonder if they might even be the gentlest, kindest people on earth. Unable to bear it, Prospero responds sarcastically that it would be difficult to be worse than the people of the Old World. That refreshing skepticism helps on a journey into the exaggerated world of early travel literature. Aquariums often enlarge the stature of their occupants, and so it was with the tidal wave of writing that followed in the wake of Columbus.

No matter where you think American history begins, chances are that you are beginning too late. We often date our origins to the birth of the U.S. government in 1789, or the Constitution in 1787, or the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Some intrepid souls even wander back as far as the earliest arrival of settlers in New England (1620) and Virginia (1607). Yet it is clear that American history had been unfolding for some time before that. The extraordinary Spanish empire penetrated deeply into the Americas during the long century that elapsed between the landfall of Columbus in 1492 and the first English settlements. The English and their proxies had explored the eastern seaboard in the immediate aftermath of Columbus, legitimating their future claims to this valuable real estate with their first landing at Newfoundland in 1497. But the earliest foreign contemplation of America went back even further than that — to what T. S. Eliot called "a time older than the time of chronometers." It may disturb some readers of a book on American history to go back to the Renaissance, even to the Middle Ages and before. But what could be more American than to encroach on someone else's territory and start prospecting?

This early history still abides with us, just as a child's features are traceable in the adult he or she becomes. The United States is an older nation now, as experienced as any in the problems of modernity, and in many ways more so, but still, we are connected to those earlier times and geographical circumstances. We inhabit the New World, a designation that persists from the world-doubling discoveries of the late fifteenth century. But the New World is not so new; the oldest living thing on earth is a bristlecone pine tree named Methuselah, nearly five thousand years old, in California. Of course, human beings had been living in the New World a long time before it was unveiled and christened. The recent discovery of an old footprint in Mexico suggests that hominids may have been here as long as forty thousand years — far longer than previously assumed.

Long before Columbus left his own footprint in the sands of Watling Island, Europeans felt a strong intuition that a great land existed to the west. Near the beginning of Moby-Dick, Melville uses the word loomings to conjure presentiments of the great epic about to begin. That same sense of America's loomings was pervasive long before 1492, and without looking terribly far, one can find throughout European literature a sense that another world was waiting to be discovered. The literature of antiquity furnishes frenzied speculations on what exactly lay past the Pillars of Hercules guarding Gibraltar, none more famous than Plato's riveting account of the great civilization of Atlantis that had perished nine thousand years before: a land that abounded with "kings of amazing power," golden statues, even hot and cold running water.

But Atlantis hardly constitutes the beginning and end of the European daydream. The westward longing seems to have been a perpetual condition from the origin of recorded thought to the explosion of interest that followed the letter Columbus had published at Barcelona in 1493 (quickly republished in many other cities), describing the voyage he had just taken to the ends of the earth. Nearly every European tradition has a story that describes the inclination to sail toward the sunset and what lay beyond it. There were true sightings of land — we know now what we did not for most of our history, that Norsemen were in North America a thousand years ago. And there were hundreds — thousands — of reports from the nebulous and interlocking worlds of mariner gossip, writerly embellishment, and outright fabrication of places that seemed so real that mapmakers routinely listed them, well into the modern age.

The Sunken Land of Buss, for example (an imaginary island between Greenland and Iceland), was soberly reported by Martin Frobisher and Richard Hakluyt at the beginning of English colonization, and lingered on some maps and accounts into the twentieth century. The maps that were used to settle the boundaries between the United States and Canada during the negotiations ending the American Revolution described two islands in Lake Superior that were completely fictitious. A smart lawyer might have challenged the treaty simply on that basis. California was depicted as an island until the late eighteenth century, and in some ways has never stopped being one. It may become an island again if a sufficiently large earthquake pries it loose from North America. Similarly, the fabled Northwest Passage, long dreamed of as a shortcut between Europe and Asia, may actually become a viable shipping lane if global warming can melt enough ice. Sometimes the old mapmakers weren't as ill-informed as we think; it just is taking us a while to catch up to them. When Gertrude Stein complained to Pablo Picasso that she did not look like his portrait of her, he replied, "You will."

Today it takes a mere six hours to fly across the Atlantic, but we should never forget what a daunting barrier the "Sea of Darkness" once presented to the intrepid. Yet even at its darkest, the Atlantic stirred as many imaginations as it terrified. Was there ever a time that explorers did not quest to the west? We believe with reasonable certainty that the Phoenicians sailed far into the Atlantic. Coins from ancient Carthage have been found as far west as the Azores. Roman amphorae have been discovered in the waters off Rio de Janeiro. Norsemen stayed for more than four centuries in Greenland — far longer than the United States has been a nation. The Irish, according to the Book of Lismore (compiled in the fifteenth century, but containing far older information), knew of a Land of Promise, fifteen days' sail to the west. The Book of Lismore tells the story of a sixth-century monk, Saint Brendan, who prayed to the Lord for "a land secret, hidden, secure, delightful, separated from men"— and was then granted an angelic vision of an island in the Atlantic that answered his needs. From the end of the thirteenth century until the time of the first English settlements, "St. Brendan's Island" appeared on maps, beckoning sailors (it may have been Madeira). Bretons and Basques fished far to the west, and one Breton legend described les Iles Fantastiques — the Fantastic Islands — a near cousin to television's Fantasy Island, and like it, a place where dreams were believed to come true.

Even the Moors were tied to incipient ideas about America. When they invaded Spain at the beginning of the eighth century, it was rumored that seven bishops fled with their followers across the Atlantic to found "the Island of the Seven Cities," another fabled place that found itself on otherwise reliable maps in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. One of these possible places was called "Antillia," and the Antilles in the Caribbean derive their name from it. The Moors also had their own traditions. The great Arab geographer Edrisi described a mariner, Magrurin, who sailed across "the Sea of Darkness and Mystery" sometime before the middle of the twelfth century and discovered a number of islands. Would it not change a few worldviews to find proof that America was discovered by a Muslim?

But my point is not to prove the unprovable. It is merely to suggest that notions of America — and of America's freedom from Europe — were present in history long before America was discovered, and that in many ways we still live in a terraqueous world in which myths about the New World compete with hard-won facts. Legends are important, as I will argue throughout this book. They shape dreams and ideologies ranging from the dream of one young man to defend freedom by enlisting in the service, to the decision of another to migrate here to benefit his family, to another's choice to fly an airplane into a skyscraper.

In 1492, Columbus indisputably encountered terra firma, ending the long era of groundless speculation about the New World. Words cannot convey the magnitude of this achievement, which finally rooted longings about the West in something tangible. But his discovery unsettled the known universe nearly as much as it expanded it. Before Columbus, Europeans retained a healthy sense that there were limits to knowledge. Certain things — the face of God, the distance of the sun, the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean — were simply beyond the ken of mortals. And so the discovery of America was more than a simple advance in geographical awareness. It signaled a quantum leap forward in man's understanding of where he stood in the cosmos. As such, it was a colossal step toward achieving a certain kind of liberty well before specific notions of liberty were ever debated in the New World. On that day, the earth doubled in size, and men realized that there was a place for them to test their limitations — if, indeed, there were any limitations at all. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously ended The Great Gatsby with the thought that "the fresh, green breast of the new world" presented man, for the last time in history, with "something commensurate with his capacity for wonder."

The capacity to wonder — and to wander — proved robust following the first glimpses, and the tendency to exaggerate America only intensified after 1492. Europe was seized by a passionate interest in the discoveries and by a desire to read as much about them as possible. But the new reality-based accounts were often as fabulistic as the old.

Columbus himself borrowed ideas from writers whose fantasies had stimulated his imagination — such as the Cardinal d'Ailly, who felt that an Earthly Paradise might be located near the islands of the western Atlantic. He also wondered, in his early confusion, if he might have stumbled on the Terrestrial Paradise — a mythical place in the eastern regions of Asia. At other times, he thought he might be near the mines of Solomon. Of course, he also thought he was sailing toward China and the Indies.

For quite some time America was described as a series of islands, reflecting the way it was revealed to island-hopping explorers and the fact that their knowledge of the continents was so patchy that they might as well have been islands. The first communications from Columbus back to the king and queen of Spain indicated that he had discovered "very many islands." The path across the Atlantic had been marked by the slow discovery of archipelagoes farther and farther away from Europe — the Canaries, Madeira, Cape Verde, and the Azores. It made perfect sense to think of the newest discoveries as the latest link in the chain. Of course, Columbus was not wrong; it just turned out that some of the islands were extremely large.

But some of the islands were extremely small, and if there was something a little insular about this land coming into focus, one reason may be that so much of it barely existed at all. Many geographical features were enlarged through overeager imaginations, but even real ones could be hard to describe. The Sargasso Sea, with its floating seaweed, seemed a place between land and water. Various rocks and sandbars appeared one moment and disappeared the next. Far off the shore of Newfoundland, for example, are the Virgin Rocks, first reported in the early sixteenth century, and legendary both for the wealth they offered (to fishermen) and the danger (the rocks are very close to the surface). Rudyard Kipling described them as mesmerizing in Captains Courageous. His little crew, sailing the Atlantic, comes across a veritable city of boats, nearly a hundred of them, all clustered around a seemingly random point in the ocean, their crews speaking in what seems like all tongues ("every dialect from Labrador to Long Island, with Portuguese, Neapolitan, Lingua Franca, French, and Gaelic, with songs and shoutings and new oaths"). Just below them rises the "cap of the Virgin": and the fishermen look down, spellbound, "on the very weed of that lonely rock, which rises to within twenty feet of the surface. The cod were there in legions, marching solemnly over the leathery kelp." That mid-Atlantic scene, both crowded and lonely, suitably conjures the way the earliest explorers came across the New World and one another simultaneously. The man who named America never came here at all, but would have appreciated that scene — Martin Waldseemüller was a German mapmaker working for a French patron in a tiny village in Lorraine, drawing on the most recent information from Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian sources.


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Copyright © 2008 Ted Widmer.
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