Sunday, August 30, 2009

Amerigo The Man Who Gave His Name To America by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

This was something from the days when I was reading the New York Time Book Review every week, that I just got around to fairly recently.

There's definitely a trend towards writing contemporary-style biographies of figures from the past, ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Jesus. They feature modern scholarly research, which is good, but also an annoying tendency to try and place the ancient world in modern terms, a trend that might help sell a few more copies but frequently jars on my nerves when I'm looking for facts rather than analogs.

As a result, I almost gave this book right back to the library when the first words from the author's computer (I started to say "pen" but no one hand-writes things anymore) were describing how Vespucci "was a pimp in his youth and a magus in his maturity." It's a very provocative opening to a book that is startlingly conservative once it gets past the introduction, trying hard to stick to the limited facts of the subject's life while also providing enough material to fill a roughly 200 page book.

As far the research goes, there is nothing at all wrong with Fernandez-Armesto's work. He has taken great pains to exhaust all possible stores of knowledge on Vespucci and does not shy away from saying when the record is incomplete. His biographic detail of the books supposedly written by Amerigo during his lifetime is simply amazing and make this worth the read to anyone interested in the subject of early European literature.

But where the book falls down a bit, at least for me, is in the biography of Vespucci himself. He's a shadowy figure at best, who appears to have gotten really lucky and managed to find a way to sail to the New World, then come back and write some things convincingly enough that a publisher turned him into a scandal-free Christopher Columbus. Soon, people are naming continents after him and the rest is history. Except that, as Fernandez-Armesto notes by the end of the book, history has mostly forgotten Amerigo, and it's now too late to try and put the pieces together comprehensively.

As a result, this book ends up failing as a true biography because there simply is not enough material to go around. Fernandez-Armesto does the best he can with what he has, but the bold claims of Vespucci being both pimp and magus ring false in the text itself, where the cautious scholar takes over from promotional author and the book tries to sluce out the details of Vespucci's life, such as can be found. I am actually greatful for the lack of speculation and do not wish to fault him for it. But because the facts are slim, we end up with a lot of suggestions to think of Amerigo as a modern-styled man looking to climb the business ladder, a philosophy I don't think held as much sway in the 15th Century. I'd have rather let the facts, such as they are, speak for themselves and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions.

The real reason to read this book, and I'm pretty sure this is not the the author's main intention, is to show just how messed up the literary industry has always been. As book publishing grew in popularity, the desire to fictionalize the accounts of explorers grew. Fernandez-Armesto skewers travel writers in general (take THAT. bill Bryson!) for embellishing on the truth, but he is particularly hard on the early publishers for adding accounts of cannibalism, demon-like women, monsters, and all sorts of other fabrications to help the books move copies.

The chapters about Vespucchi's books and their probably inaccuracies fairly sing in comparison to those about the sketchy facts of the subject's life. Fernandez-Armesto is completely in his element dispelling the myths found in the travel writings of Vespucchi, including at least one fictional voyage, which is probably cribbed entirely out of poor Columbus's works.

If there's a problem with "Amerigo," it's that by the end, I came out convinced that Vespucchi himself is a charlitan fraud who happened to be a part of the merchant group that backed Columbus and used his knowledge of the voyages to forge accounts of his own derring-do. I do not see any compelling evidence that Vespucchi ever left Europe. While I do agree that he wrote at least some of the material in his books, I just don't see anything distinctive enough to be original. What I do see is a lot of plot summary, just like when I took a class with a Professor whose idea of a "test" was to see if you could re-write a 200 page book in 10 pages.

It is unlikely that we'll ever know the truth about Amerigo Vespucci. Fernandez-Armesto tries extremely hard to help us, but there's just not enough to go on. As a result, I'm left a bit cold about the subject at hand, especially since there appears to be so much deception (both publically and perhaps personally as well) in Vespucci's life. Unlike "Galileo's Daughter", which had similar factual scarcity but two believable protagonists, "Amerigo" features a man who never truly succeeded and ended up President of the United having his name applied to a land that really didn't belong to those who claimed it. And if that isn't proof that America was actually named accurately, I don't know what is.