The elusive nature of the world’s most famous brand, not to say the curious road to its definition, will be illuminated next week as never before when the Library of Congress unveils an addition to its permanent collection nicknamed “America’s baptismal document.” The document in question, a four-and-a-half-foot-by-eight-foot map, will be receiving national-treasure treatment more appropriate to a Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster. After all, in its 200-year history, the library has never waited longer, nor paid more, to acquire any single object: 100 years and $10 million were spent obtaining this last surviving print of a map of the world made in 1507 by an obscure German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller — a map that happens to feature the first use of a certain seven letter word with an understandable appeal to our de facto national library: “America”. To house this treasure, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has built an encasement. At 2,000 pounds, its pressurized, argon-gas-filled environment is the largest case of its kind — big brother to the only other such cases NIST has made, those that protect the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
The Waldseemüller map, of course, is no charter of freedom, but as both it and the “America” it coined turn 500 this year, the map’s prominent inclusion in the story we tell about ourselves offers a glimpse at a kind of lexicographic liberty — how a word acquires meaning, often despite itself. For the story of the naming of America is one we think we know: Amerigo Vespucci, that famously self-promoting explorer, outfoxed not Columbus the discoverer but Columbus the marketer and managed to wheedle his name onto a whole hemisphere of continents he didn’t deserve. “Strange,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “that broad America must wear the name of a thief. Amerigo Vespucci, the pickle-dealer at Seville, who . . . managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus and baptize half the earth with his own dishonest name.” The only problem with this story — one in which America’s name harbors a prophetic seed of self-promotion that later flowers into a full-fledged huckster’s paradise — is its inaccuracy. The real story is more telling still, and begins with Waldseemüller.
Created collaboratively in 1507 in the French town of St. Dié by Waldseemüller and his humanist colleagues, their ambitious series of woodblock prints represented the most comprehensive collation to date of the Western world’s geographical knowledge, crediting Columbus and Vespucci by name for features discovered during their explorations of a few years earlier. A handbook published with the map offered Waldseemüller’s reasoning behind placing — in the southern quadrant of his map’s western hemisphere; on a lumpy banana of land meant to be the continent to our south — the name “America”:
[A] fourth [continent] of the world . . . has been discovered
by Amerigo Vespucci. Because . . .
Europe and Asia were named after women, I can
see no reason why anyone would have good reason
to object to calling this fourth part Amerige,
the land of Amerigo, or America, after the man of
great ability who discovered it.
The “good reason” to object to calling it “the land of Amerigo” would have been that among Vespucci’s “great abilities,” discovery wasn’t one. Waldseemüller seems to have been misled by a document known as the Soderini Letter, a narrative account said to have been by Vespucci but believed by modern scholars to have been forged by unscrupulous publishers. The letter reports that our shores are populated by giants, cannibals and sexually insatiable females — and implies that Vespucci reached this mundus novus pornographicus before that fellow Columbus. Though Felipe Fernández-Armesto, author of this year’s excellent “Amerigo”, makes very clear that Vespucci was not above self-promotion, he also argues persuasively that Vespucci had nothing to do with the Soderini Letter, nor therefore the elevation of his name to hemispheric heights. Waldseemüller seems to have later wised to his own credulity, removing “America” and replacing it with “Terra Incognita” on his subsequent maps. Still, he couldn’t erase the path his first map cut through the world: “America” had spread across maps and globes and minds, irreversibly.
Whereas Waldseemüller’s map seemed to have disappeared irretrievably. Despite what was said to be an initial printing of 1,000 copies, none were known to have survived into the 19th century, until an Austrian Jesuit priest named Josef Fischer, who taught high-school geography and history at a boarding school, finally found one. In a footnote to his forgotten opus, “Discoveries of the Norsemen in America,” Fischer recalls his scholarly sleuthing in a German castle: “I had spent two days in carefully examining the contents of Prince Waldburg-Wolfegg’s library. The following day I came across a Codex, elephant folio, dated 1515.” In it, Fischer found a rare engraving by Albrecht Dürer that was “carefully entered in the catalog of the unique Wolfegg collection of engravings.” What was not noted in any catalog were the folio’s further contents: several large maps that sat unnoticed for some 300 years — one of which featured an unlikely detail. “I turned over some more sheets,” Fischer explained, “and on Sheet 9, I found ‘America’ printed in large type.”
Fischer knew what that “America” meant, but what — beyond Emerson’s erroneous sense of America embodying a hidden fraudulence — does “America” mean? Vespucci’s given name is said to derive from the Old German Almaric, which literally means “work ruler” — a derivation that one nomenclatural historian called “a curiously appropriate title for the new world of labor and progress.” Curious indeed, given that those who first heard it would have thought retirement: Waldseemüller’s map claimed America was filled not merely with giants and loose natives but also with piles of gold. In any case, the word quickly took on the talismanic power that foreign names often do. “America” has stimulated generations of imaginations, filling them with hope for something better or hatred of something worse. The “America” of
And it is, in fact, a similar chance for redefinition that the Library of Congress is now providing visitors. Yes, the case, which dwarfs those of our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, is somewhat grandiose, perhaps suggesting a characteristically American presumption. And yet, if we can see past the 600-pound piece of glass and the argon gas within and stare at a space on the map barely an inch long occupied by seven significant letters, you cannot help seeing an “America” that, very briefly, has been shorn of all meaning. It is — and most usefully — once again a newly minted word, one that might still mean anything.