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The Americas: A Hemispheric History

The Americas: A Hemispheric History

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by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

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In this groundbreaking work, leading historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto tells the story of our hemisphere as a whole, showing why it is impossible to understand North, Central, and South America in isolation without turning to the intertwining forces that shape the region. With imagination, thematic breadth, and his trademark wit, Fernández-Armesto covers


In this groundbreaking work, leading historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto tells the story of our hemisphere as a whole, showing why it is impossible to understand North, Central, and South America in isolation without turning to the intertwining forces that shape the region. With imagination, thematic breadth, and his trademark wit, Fernández-Armesto covers a range of cultural, political, and social subjects, taking us from the dawn of human migration to North America to the Colonial and Independence periods to the “American Century” and beyond. Fernández-Armesto does nothing less than revise the conventional wisdom about cross-cultural exchange, conflict, and interaction, making and supporting some brilliantly provocative conclusions about the Americas’ past and where we are headed.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“An imaginative, intelligent and sprightly volume that, in the space of some two hundred pages, races through the history of the Western hemisphere–from prehistoric times to the present.”
–The Washington Post Book World

“This wonderfully sharp and provocative book should become essential reading for anybody interested in the history of America.”
–The Times Literary Supplement (London)

“Fernández-Armesto can personalize broad historical trends without sinking into triviality. . . . History written at its best.” –Booklist

The Washington Post
Are today's hemispheric differences destined to last? Fernandez-Armesto's answer is predicated, as it should be, on various ifs. Any meaningful shift requires the southern part of the hemisphere to continue on the road toward stable democratic regimes, to institute plans for balanced economic growth and to exploit the still-untapped resources of its interior in sensible, sustainable fashion. He offers no road map for the achievement of these goals, but whereas earlier commentators have regarded the southern parts of the Americas as if they were hard-wired for failure, Fernandez-Armesto argues (rightly in my view) that they have the capacity, both human and material, to close the current hemispheric divide. — Richard L. Kagan
Publishers Weekly
For generations after European explorers discovered the New World, the Americas were seen as "one big place"; to speak about America was to speak about the whole hemisphere, says Fernandez-Armesto. It wasn't until the Revolutionary War that today's North, South and Central America became separate, unequal regions in the eyes of history and the world. Historian Fernandez-Armesto (Millenium: A History of the Last Thousand Years) makes a case here for a revival of the "unitary vision," arguing that only with a Pan-American perspective can we understand why the paths of the American states have diverged (with the Latin states struggling while the U.S. and Canada enjoy prosperity and political stability), and what there is to be done about it. In seven concise chapters, he moves from the first humans in the region to the present day, contending that the Americas changed "the world's image, evolutionary trajectory, revolutionary course, and the self-perception of humankind," as well as shifted the world's economic balance. He explodes stereotypes about the first and third worlds, proffering strong arguments that common colonial and revolutionary experiences made the Americas more similar than different for centuries. The writing is sprightly and erudite, not overly concerned with explaining established historical theories (Fernandez-Armesto assumes that readers' knowledge of the nuances of history has grown since reading school textbooks). It is not until the end of the work, when he takes on an anti-U.S. tone (the country's citizens are "cloyingly gregarious...boringly conformist"; rather than being champions of the individual they are cogs in the community wheel) that the work starts to lose its power. But the author's final urging of a mutually respectful, balanced hemisphere justifies the book's fast-paced journey through time in consideration of our shared history. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An ambitious but necessarily thin essay that "attempts to cover the entire hemisphere." Fernández-Armesto (History/Oxford; Near a Thousand Tables, 2002, etc.) allows that this effort "has not been tried before." Understandably so, given the wealth of documentary material and the diversity of the peoples in North and South America; a couple of hundred pages is barely enough to cover the political history of Newfoundland, much less two continents and their outliers, which historically have touched on the coasts of Africa and Asia. Faced with a deluge of data and subjects, the author wisely settles on a few choice themes, none fully fleshed, each worthy of longer studies. One is the cultural history of pre-Columbian America, which, he observes, reflects a fundamental ecological imbalance. Whereas South America and Mesoamerica were rich in species and civilizations, much of North America was more austere and less developed, a skewing that continued well into historic times. "The relative paucity of civilization in most of North America cannot be explained by isolation," Fernández-Armesto writes, going on to offer several explanations that involve, well, isolation, given the effects of topography and climate. Another fruitful theme is the parallel development of a sense of "Americanness" on both continents. At about the time colonial Virginians were beginning to think of themselves as something other than misplaced Englishmen, Creoles in Spanish-speaking countries were calling themselves Americans, affecting native dress, even maintaining that "American nature was superior to that of the Old World-according to some claims, even the sky was more benign and astral influences more favorable."Fruitful, too, are the tantalizing, sometimes offhand observations on American borrowings of Spanish adaptations to the New World, ranging from intermarriage with Indian people à la John Smith to the proud appropriation of the term "liberal," and the comparison of frontier-settlement patterns and ideologies in Canada, Brazil, and the US. Sometimes speculative but always solid: a provocative essay that points toward dozens of topics for future dissertations. Budding historians, get cracking.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Modern Library Chronicles Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt


Americas? America?

Americans bicker over the name of Americans. To the chorus in West Side Story, America is a foreign land, where some of them “like to be,” a sentiment apparently inaccessible to them in Puerto Rico. Canadians write to newspapers in the United States complaining that the citizens of one country have usurped the appellation of Americans. The Spanish intellectual Américo Castro was so called because he was born on a boat on the way to Argentina. In much of South America the people of the United States are called norteamericanos, whereas the northernmost Americans are actually Inuit and the United States reaches only the forty-eighth parallel. A character in Barcelona, Whit Stillman’s film about U.S. expatriates trying to cope with anti-Americanism, resents the Spanish term estadounidense because it makes him feel despised as “dense.” Many of the names by which Americans call one another—Anglos, Afros, indios, Latinos, Caucasians—tug at other continents. The privileged names now enjoyed by some minorities—Native Americans, indígenas, First Nations—imply an imperfect sense of belonging in everyone else. No usage suits everybody.

Yet America was once “the New World”—pure and simple. It was possible to imagine it as a single category, a single polity, the home of a huge, embracing identity. Pan-Americanism no longer exists, except as piety or rhetoric. Like “Europe,” America is a Humpty-Dumpty continent. It has to be painfully reconstructed after the ravages of nationalism, across the fissures and fractures between which rival identities have formed. This book is an attempt at mental reconstruction of the hemisphere; an effort to see it whole and to trace a common history that embraces all the Americas.

American Singularity

How many Americas are there? Once, at least in the eyes of beholders who looked at the hemisphere from outside, there was only one. America possessed unity and integ- rity of a sort, long before it was well delineated. The term entered our languages in the singular. Amerigo Vespucci (or, at least, a writer using his byline) reported the first lands known as “America” from the coasts of what are now Venezuela, Guiana, and Brazil. Martin Waldseemüller, the cosmographer who coined the name in Amerigo’s honor on a map and an accompanying treatise in 1507, rapidly regretted it; he realized that the honor of the discoveries he had attributed to Vespucci really belonged to Columbus. In his next map he suppressed the name, but it was too late. “America” extended, in contemporary imaginations, over the whole of an ill-defined hemisphere, which seemed to grow as successive expeditions explored further, unsuspected parts of it. The unity of the New World was apparent to most early explorers who reconnoitered it and early European cartographers who drew it. Some of them, at first, split it into two with a very narrow strait; others showed the New World as what we think of today as South America, while representing North America as a promontory of Asia. But the convention of showing the whole hemisphere as a single large landmass was well established in the second decade of the sixteenth century.

This is an odder, more intriguing fact than it may at first seem, since it was easier, in the years when the idea of America was first introduced to European minds, to deny the hemisphere altogether—dismissing the claim that it existed as fraud or delusion—or to classify it as part of Asia. European geographers in antiquity and the Middle Ages speculated about the existence of an unexplored landmass in the unfrequented recesses of the western ocean. But belief in it was a minority indulgence, derided by skeptics. The idea that something as big and discrete as a “new world” lurked unseen, waiting to be discovered, seemed implausible to the Old World. Even writers of the medieval equivalent of science fiction—romances of seaborne chivalry—generally preferred to speckle the Atlantic with islands as settings for their heroes’ adventures. So did the makers of speculative sea charts (though a series survives of fifteenth-century maps that also depict a western continent, named after the daughters of Hesperus from the legend of Hercules, who raided their garden for golden apples).

Most cosmographers reviewing projects for ocean crossings in the fifteenth century dismissed the possibility that exploration would uncover a new continent. They thought they knew all the world there was. Even Columbus, who found a route to America, was disinclined to believe that such a place existed. Though his geographical notions were mercurial, and he was inclined to change his mind according to the fancies and prejudices of his audience, he generally favored the view that the world was too small to accommodate an unknown hemisphere; the “new world” he claimed to have discovered was, in his own estimation, really just a new part of the old one—the easternmost extremities of Eurasia, the “Indies” that the ancients had labored to reach.

Nevertheless, in the century or so preceding Columbus’s voyages, the idea that something like America might really exist did gain some ground. Partly this was because of the movement we loosely call the Renaissance—the progressive rediscovery in western Europe of texts from classical antiquity. Mainstream geographical tradition in antiquity knew roughly how big the world was. In the third century b.c. the librarian Eratosthenes had measured it with tolerable accuracy. He proposed a value of about twenty-five thousand miles at the equator, in modern terms, using a mixture of trigonometry, which was infallible, and measurement, which was open to quibble. But there was clearly room for “another world”—“the Antipodes,” as it was called by geographers who believed in it.

A number of fifteenth-century “humanists”—pursuers, that is, of the anthropocentric curriculum recommended by classical scholarship—drew attention to ancient speculations about the Antipodes. In 1423 one of the most suggestive ancient geographical texts arrived in Latin Christendom: Strabo’s defense, written in Greek in the first century b.c. of a picture of the world traditional since the time of Homer. Strabo placed the supposed unknown continent roughly where Columbus or one of the other Atlantic navigators of the time might have hoped to find it. “It may be,” he wrote, “that in this same temperate zone there are actually two inhabited worlds, or even more, and in particular in the proximity of the parallel through Athens that is drawn across the Atlantic.” In the context of Strabo’s thought as a whole it seems that this observation was intended ironically; but irony is notoriously difficult to detect in texts from an unfamiliar time or culture, and some of Columbus’s contemporaries took the passage literally. As soon as Columbus returned from his first Atlantic crossing, humanist geographers began to speculate that he had reached the Antipodes. The more people learned about it, the more the identification solidified. The parts of the American mainland and islands—despite their vastness and their multitudinous diversity—fused into one.

Yet, from another point of view, it was a mistake to think of America as one. People who lived there before Columbus arrived had no such notion—they knew it too well. The unity of the hemisphere was imposed by imaginations that could barely suspect how enormous it was, or by minds anxious to shrink it to manageable proportions, so that it could be easily skirted by merchants bound for Oriental spiceries. Old World minds seemed to resist the truth about American size and complexity. It took a long time for the reality of America to sink in. In the mid-1520s, Verrazano thought he could see the Pacific from the Atlantic off the Carolina coast. Most sixteenth-century maps squeezed North America into narrow proportions. English colonists in Virginia in the early seventeenth century thought they would be able to reach the “South Sea” by overland march. The early navigators of the Mississippi expected the great river to flow into a sea that washed China.

As knowledge of the scale and variety of the Americas gradually grew and began to shadow reality, minds did not adjust by abandoning unified conceptions; America remained one big place. Creole patriots in the American regions of the Spanish monarchy called themselves “Americans” long before the term became current in what is now the United States. In symbolic seventeenth- and eighteenth-century depictions of the continents, there is always only one America. The eighteenth-century “dispute of the New World”—a long-running debate among intellectuals about how to classify America and its products—was conducted largely in terms of hemisphere-wide generalizations. European commentators criticized America as a whole; when Georges-Louis Buffon (1707–1788) and Cornelius De Pauw (1734–1799) derided America as a degenerate and degenerating place, which produced only stunted species, inferior people—effete men, insensitive women—and regressive civilizations, they attributed these unsettling qualities to the entire hemisphere. For De Pauw in his Recherches philoso- phiques sur les Américains, Patagonian giants were as implau- sible as philosophical Hurons, or albinos in Darién, or Amazons along the Amazon; they were all delusions of the kind that made the hemisphere seem wonderful, when really, he claimed, it was woeful. He generalized about the climate: it was cold and wet, damp and putrid everywhere. This was only slightly more unhelpful than the equal and opposite generalizations advocated by apologists for America, such as Antoine-Joseph Pernéty (1716–1801), who insisted that the climate was everywhere benign.

Meet the Author

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, the Prince of Asturias Professor of History at Tufts University, is the author of several books, including Millennium, Columbus, and Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food.

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