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In these texts, Edmundo O’Gorman analyzes the historiography of America, and, in the process, argues that the idea of America has been an invention of history. In “Part 1,” he traces the considerable efforts by historians to uphold Columbus as the “discoverer” of America even while facts have long and indisputably proven that he was not. O’Gorman interrogates this historical claim at great length, examining how in texts by chroniclers and historians since the sixteenth century the claim that Columbus “discovered” America won out over accounts crediting an anonymous pilot for this “discovery,” and testifying to the fact that Columbus thought he landed in Asia and was never disabused of this assumption. O’Gorman examines how the argument that Columbus “discovered” the West Indies evolved from the sixteenth century in such texts as Bartolomé de las Casas’ History of the Indes (1527–60), and others. He demonstrates how this assumption was called into question when, in the nineteenth century, the historian Martín Fernández de Navarrete reprinted primary documents about the voyages that clearly revealed that Columbus only ever intended to reach Asia and that he always believed that he had done so. O’Gorman continues his analysis by showing how subsequent historians accepted the “logical absurdity” of Morison’s 1942 claim that, even though he believed he had reached Asia, Columbus managed to “discover” America entirely by accident. The only way to make this claim, O’Gorman explains, is to assign agency, or what O’Gorman calls “intention,” to the inanimate object of America instead of Columbus. In “Part 4,” O’Gorman describes how America was given meaning when it was accepted, during the sixteenth century, as the fourth component of the Orbus Terrarum, which had, up until its “discovery,” consisted of Europe, Asia, and Africa. He identifies a central paradox in this understanding of America in that it was seen as both similar and different from the other parts of the Orbus. As such, it was considered physically the same, but spiritually and historically different, and thus needed to be incorporated into the Christian framework of belief and into the history of Europe.
Edmundo O’Gorman (1906-95) was a Mexican writer, philosopher, and historian. The brother of architect and artist Juan O’Gorman (1905-82), Edmundo taught at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and worked at the National Archive of Mexico during the 1940s–1970s. These texts, “Part 1: History and Critique of the Idea of the Discovery of America,” and “Part 4: The Structure of America’s Being and the Meaning of American History,” first appeared in English in his book The Invention of America in 1961 (Bloomington, IN, edition). (They had been published in Spanish in 1958 under the title La invención de América: El universalismo de Occidente by FCE). In both of these texts O’Gorman argues that America is an invention that has been constructed by historians. In “Part 1,” in the course of analyzing the historiography of America, O’Gorman states that the most important issue for understanding how the history of America has been conceived is how, “ . . . America appeared as such on the historical scene.” His analysis demonstrates not only his understanding of history as a series of texts and debates, but his interest in how it is shaped by the philosophical concerns, such as religious Providence and scientific progress, that motivated European chroniclers and historians to fashion a narrative that, despite strong evidence to the contrary, put forth Columbus as “the discoverer” of America. O’Gorman shows how the Columbus narrative survived despite changing ideas about history itself, such as Alexander Von Humbolt (1769-1859)’s belief in historical destiny and the early-twentieth-century positivist rejection of this idea of history as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Both in style and content, his text is marked by his vocation as a philosopher. O’Gorman, in his analysis, ultimately refutes the ontology of America, arguing that America, like all “beings” as he puts it, has been assigned meaning at successive moments in its history. Spiritually and historically, as he says in “Part 4,” its meaning has been shaped by how it has been incorporated into Europe’s world view since the sixteenth century.