BY Oct. 12, the man credited with "discovering" the Americas will have been the subject of more debate, more documentaries, more speeches, and more controversy than perhaps any nonreligious figure in world history. When the quincentenary observances are over we may know a little more about Christopher Columbus. We will probably know a lot more about ourselves.
It's hardly news that history plays fast and loose with the reputations of great men. Or that the hopes and fears of any era - as much as the historical facts themselves - color the way one generation estimates the achievements of another.
But few reputations have been so completely the sport of circumstance as that of the sturdy Genoese mariner, who on the eve of his biggest anniversary party yet has passed from being hero to villain in the eyes of many Americans. Just why, historians say, reveals something significant about those who now judge him.
In this anniversary year, as in past ones, the central figure will not be the historical Columbus but the symbolic Columbus, the vehicle on which Americans continue to project their sense of themselves.
"If you look at the way Columbus is commemorated, it tells a good deal about the times," says Claudia Bushman, author of a new book "America Discovers Columbus.What it tells us is what we think about ourselves. Columbus is a wonderfully culture-reflecting symbol."
Until recent years, Columbus has been more lionized than reviled, reflecting the self-confidence and optimism of earlier generations of Americans.
In the first Columbian celebration in North America, in 1792, the intrepid navigator was hailed as a symbol of America's newly won independence from England, as the agent of what the nation's founding generation believed was America's destiny to prove the virtues of liberty to a corrupt world of monarchs.
A century later, the symbol of Columbus was usurped again, this time by a young nation eager to celebrate its fantastic material progress and seemingly unlimited potential. More recently, the heroic image of Columbus has been kept alive by various immigrant groups that have pointed to his Italian and Roman Catholic origins to buttress their own quest for legitimacy and to ease their assimilation into American society.
But once the object of exaggerated praise, the man whose encounter with America radically changed it has suddenly become the object of exaggerated criticism. Blacks accuse Columbus of being the advance guard of slavery. Native Americans say he despoiled an advanced native culture. Environmentalists have tarred Columbus as the agent of ecological destruction.
"In 1892, Columbus symbolized progress. In 1992, he symbolizes American failure," writes Dr. Bushman. "Where once he was considered too good for his time, he is now considered not nearly good enough."
This sudden burst of historical revisionism may have a good side, balancing the record against the overwrought paeans composed by generations determined, in Bushman's words, "to make a great man out of a person who accomplished a great deed."
But judging the deeds and misdeeds of the 15th century mariner by the ethical and social standards of the late 20th century does Columbus an injustice, most historians say, revealing far more about his critics than about Columbus himself.
"It's too much to ask Columbus to bear the burden of all Western civilization," says Wilcomb Washburn, director of American studies at the Smithsonian Institution. "We've reduced the debate over Columbus to an almost meaningless series of potshots taken by one ideological group after another."
"We make him a goat or a hero by extracting him from his own time and place," says Richard Kagan, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "This has little to do with the work of historians, who study in the context of the times."
On the eve of the quincentennial, Columbus still has his share of champions. But the celebration will be different this century because the self-image of those doing the celebrating is different.
Once confident about the future, Americans now are cautious, even pessimistic. Once bound by a consensus on basic values - for example, the superiority of the Western civilization Columbus brought to the New World - they are fragmented and quarrelsome. Once viewed through one cultural lens, Columbus's reputation is refracted through many, some of which leave highly unflattering images.
Columbus's cool reception in 1992 "tells us a great deal about the changing demographic character of the US," says conservative writer and historian Russell Kirk. "A larger number of people are not of European origin and they speak with greater political power. There are no longer any unifying principles."
Columbus's reputation also has suffered as a result of the way history itself is written in the late 20th century. Unlike the great romantic and narrative historians of the 19th and early 20th centuries, modern revisionists tend to ignore elites and institutions and look at the past from the bottom up, from the conflicting perspective of the ethnic, cultural, and special-interest groups most affected by the intrusion of Western values into native society.
"A kind of cultural relativism has become dominant in the historical profession," says Leo Ribuffo, a history professor at George Washington University. "There's a tendency to criticize white men when they come into conflict with nonwhite men or with women. It's a much more conscious process than before."
At the most basic level, Columbus's reputation has been the victim of an age that has grown cynical of heroes, doubtful of America's place in history, and far more skeptical of the faith of earlier generations of Americans who saw God's hand in Columbus's work.
Though the subject of dozens of biographies, including more than 20 published during the past year, the man in the middle of this swirling controversy remains a somewhat shadowy historical figure. Despite new evidence that his family was Genoese, his places of birth and burial are disputed by historians. Of 70 paintings and drawings of Columbus, none is known to be done from life. But the run-up to the quincentennial has produced exciting documentary and archaeological finds that have added significantly
to our knowledge of Columbus's voyages and early settlements.
One recent discovery, the Libro de Armadas (Book of the Armadas), gives historians their first description of the Nina, Columbus's favorite of the three ships that made the 1492 crossing. The 440-page document, unearthed five years ago in archives in Seville, Spain, describes in detail the ship's rigging, lading, crewing, and armaments.
"All these years we have only imagined what these ships looked like," says Michael Gannon, director of the University of Florida's Institute for Early Contact Period Studies. "This is one of the great documentary finds of the quincentenary period."
Meanwhile, on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), recent finds by archeologists excavating the first Columbian settlements of La Navidad and La Isabela have thrown new light on food, animals, urban plans, and manufacturing methods - imports from the Old World that first began to change the face of the New World.
Thanks to new translations of his "Book of Prophesies," written in 1501-1502, historians also know more about what motivated Columbus toward the Indies.
Certain that the millennium was imminent, Columbus was determined to spread Christianity to the "uncivilized" world, most historians believe. Convinced that he was a personal messenger of God, Columbus aggressively publicized his accomplishments, arousing enormous interest in the New World among his contemporaries.
"Columbus saw himself in transcendental terms," says Dr. Kagan. "He was conscious of his own place in history, and he made sure everyone else knew about it."
It is this very talent for self-promotion, historians say, that has made Columbus, and not earlier putative "discovers" of the New World, the focus of both the adulation and contempt that has derived from being the "first."