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Writing America: From Columbus to Wendell Berry

Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library
Jul 1, 2012 - Sep 15, 2012

"Here are to be seen the most beautiful pine trees and the most extensive fields and pastures, a great variety of birds, several sorts of honey, and many kinds of metal, with the exception of iron. In the island named Espaniola there are lofty and beautiful mountains, large cultivated tracts, woods, fertile fields, and everything adapted to the purposes of agriculture, the pasturage of cattle, and the erection of houses."


So wrote Columbus on his return voyage to Spain in 1493 in his first description of the New World. The lush beauty and sense of possibility contained in this description is tempered by its underlying assumption of having been a gift of Providence, exclusively given by God to the Spanish Crown for exploitation. In the same letter after these descriptions of the natural environment are discussions of "precious drugs, gold, and metals" also to be found on these islands. The identification of the Americas by the West began a series of appropriation and conquest that, as Wendell Berry reminds us forcefully and eloquently, have not abated today. In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture at the National Endowment for the Arts, Berry writes,


"Under the rule of industrial economics, the land, our country, has been pillaged for the enrichment, supposedly, of those humans who have claimed the right to own or exploit it without limit. Of the land-community much has been consumed, much has been wasted, almost nothing has flourished."


Berry's argument comes not from pessimism, but from a deep sense of protection: a true sense of  stewardship over the land we inhabit and use. He thinks that those who at present take from the land and those who work to preserve it form a dialectic plagued, on both sides, by a "failure of imagination" to come to any sort of mutual understanding.


Fortunately, there is a great diversity of perspectives to examine when we look historically at conceptions of the role of the land and landscape of the Americas by its inhabitants and visitors. This exhibition offers one selection from a vast 500+ year corpus of texts, from Columbus's letter of 1493 to Berry's 2012 lecture. In between, in these galleries, and transmitted through the medium of print culture, can be found the thoughts of explorers and soldiers, conquerors and indigenous voices, philosophers and poets, all describing what they have seen and encountered in the land and landscape of the Americas, with all its richness, diversity, and component parts.