Friday, April 13

Did Irving Fall Flat?

Image courtesy of US
By Grant Davies

On some day in January, 1828, a famous author named Washington Irving published a four volume biography of Christopher Columbus. It quickly became a best seller because of the success of his previous books, not the least of which were "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and the short story "Rip Van Winkle." It was possibly the best, and probably the only, biography of Columbus at the time. So it's understandable that people took the "facts" in it to be true.

Unfortunately, a few of the more salient "facts" in the book were nonsense. It's a little like the situation with many newspapers and bestselling books today. Novels become fact and reporting often is fiction. Readers swallow much more nonsense today with a lot less heartburn afterward, so like I said, it's understandable.

So what was the biggest mistake in the book? It had to be the chapter that described a heated meeting that  Columbus had with a group of scholars during which he tried to convince them that the earth was round instead of flat, as they believed. And that therefore he could sail west to arrive shortly in the east where he planned to trade with the Indians who didn't wear feathers.

The truth is that although the meeting took place and the discussion was real, the topic was wrong. They actually debated about the size of the earth, not the shape. Chris probably figured that if he could convince them of the smaller version that he lobbied for, he could gain some much needed credibility and it would be easier to get a bunch of start-up cash from Ferdinand and Isabella for the trip.

You see, a guy named Aristotle had convinced the world some two thousand years before that the earth was round by  pointing out that if it was flat it wouldn't make a curved shadow on the moon during an eclipse. So virtually every educated person had long ago taken for granted that the world was round.

Irving's mistake notwithstanding, the folks who buy text books for schools loved the book and bought it in large numbers for many years. That's how all those little mushy minds got firmed up with the wrong information and everyone bought into the story for a really long time.

Given the recurring theme of sleep in "Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle," you have to wonder if Irv himself was asleep when he wrote that part. In the end, even though the earth is round, Irving's "facts" fell flat.

Oh, and if you are wondering whether the history on this site is as good as Irving's was, you can sleep easy. Everything on this site is correct.. maybe.

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