The idea of a glorious earthly paradise far from the known world had existed in the European imagination long before 1492. That idea of a distant paradise on earth shaped the way Europeans came to think of America after Columbus and his successors reported their discoveries. For example, the following mythic lands may have served as inspirations for the alluring idea of America as a place of joy, ease, riches, and regeneration:
a. the Garden of the Hesperides of Greek myth
b. the Elysian Fields described by the poet Homer
c. the Islands of the Blessed, described by Hesiod, Horace, and Pindar
d. Atlantis, described by Plato in the Timaeus and the Critias
e. the Garden of Eden
f. the Fortunate Isles, described in the Voyage of St. Brendan (ninth century)
g. the enchanted gardens of Renaissance literature
Columbus’s discovery of America has been described as “perhaps the most important event recorded in secular history.” On the other hand, it has been pointed out that had Columbus not discovered America, it would soon have been discovered by some other explorer. Edmundo O’Gorman, in The Invention of America (1961), asserted that America was not discovered but was invented by Europeans in the 16th and following centuries.
The contrary idea of America as a place of degenerated plants, animals, and humans was also held by Europeans long before it was set forth by the French naturalist Buffon (1707–1788) in the early volumes of his Natural History (1749–1804). Thomas Jefferson made effective reply in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), but remnants of the idea continued to persist in the European popular mind.
Modern readers are often surprised to learn of Columbus’s never-ending insistence, even in the face of contrary evidence, that he had reached the coast of Asia, not a new continent. That mistaken certainty was in large part caused by his faith in faulty calculations showing the earth’s circumference to be about 18,000 rather