It cannot be gainsaid that the Great Discoveries of a half-millennium ago in manifold ways altered forever the European landscape. The palpable upshot of that profound, ongoing process, which Alfred Crosby so aptly dubbed the “Columbian exchange,” was the introduction of New World flora and fauna into the Old, and vice versa. Of course, its consequences could be examined with scientific precision, and scholars have studied them ever since. Though the degree of their impact understandably is open to question, few if any would deny that they brought about monumental and enduring changes.
Nevertheless, in assessing how the Discoveries affected the European mind-scape, the same confident consensus of opinion is notable for its virtual absence. Judgments rendered thus far continue to be the focal point of lively, spirited, learned dispute. To what extent did news of newly discovered lands and peoples excite the interest of Europeans generally? How did they receive, understand, and incorporate it into their collective outlook? And could one say with any certainty that the New World egged on fundamental, enduring changes to how the peoples of Europe perceived their surroundings? These questions and related ones underpin that dispute, which Antonello Gerbi fittingly named the “dispute of the New World.”
This volume of essays appraises the dispute’s current state. It is the product of a gathering of renowned specialists hosted by the John Carter Brown Library, and has been edited with exquisite care as well as splendid insight by the University of Connecticut’s Karen Ordahl Kupperman. She has done an admirable job of organizing these diverse and far-ranging essays into a coherent format that makes reading them a genuine pleasure. What might have become a cacophony of disparate facts and seemingly unconnected assertions has been transformed into a symphony of wisdom and enlightenment, thanks to her talent for synthesis.
Appropriately, Kupperman sets the stage with an informative introduction whose theme is “The Changing Definition of America.” Here she lays down the book’s structure and offers pithy introductions to the various contributors and their studies. These last have been wisely arranged into four main sections.
In the first, Peter Burke and David Armitage assess America’s impact on European historical writing. How Europeans interpreted America with the intellectual tools available to them is the second section’s focus. Sabine MacCormack examines the ways in which Europeans grappled with making sense of American religions; Roland Greene sheds light on how the Discoveries affected literary styles in Europe; and David Quint imaginatively shows that there is more to Montaigne’s “noble savage” than has hitherto met the eye.
In the third section, the New World’s effect on Europe’s aspirations is the subject of analysis. Luca Codignola looks into the vast endeavor of evangelization. John Headly, on the other hand, uses the thought of Tommaso Campanella to demonstrate how America reshaped the European outlook. Kupperman’s contribution to this section makes plain the difficulty of implanting a replica of European society in America.
The quantity and quality of what came back to Europe are examined in the fourth section. Henry Lowood, Christian F. Feest, and Richard Simmons set themselves to the task of appraisal. Expectably, their findings are as diverse as the material they treat.
In a finale that befits a work of this magnitude, no less distinguished an authority than Sir John Elliot, who left his own indelible imprint on the “Dispute of the New World” more than two decades ago, offers a reflective summation of its present condition. With customary insight and balance, he concludes that Europe indeed reshaped America and went on to reshape the world; but in doing so, it inevitably altered its self-image as well.
All told, this is a work worthy of reading by both a scholarly and a general audience. Certainly students at the high school and undergraduate levels ought to savor at least portions of its contents, for it stands out as an exemplar of sound scholarship and elegant prose.