A new world

The saga of the 16th-century map that gave America its name and paved the way for a modern view of the cosmos

By Michael Washburn
Globe Correspondent / November 1, 2009

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By any century’s standard, the mash-up of logic and folly that characterizes human history is strange. Origins are plural, their effects lasting, and our inability to remember this can congeal into a worldview, one requiring a revolution so that we may disenthrall ourselves from the errors of our intellectual inertia.

Such are the lessons of Toby Lester’s beguiling “The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America Its Name.’’ The map in question is the once lost Waldseemüller map, the first document to christen the land masses of the Western Hemisphere “America.’’ Of greater importance, though, the map was the first to depict these new lands as surrounded by water, revealing America as a newly discovered continent, not an extension of the exotic east so avidly sought by Columbus and his contemporaries, thus rendering our longstanding conception of the world void. By using the map as a lens through which to view a nexus of myth, imagination, technology, stupidity, and imperial ambition, Lester has penned a provocative, disarming testament to human ambition and ingenuity.

From the conversion of Rome around the 4th century until relatively recently, Western maps asserted a peculiarly Christian topography, one of both space and time. (Early maps illustrated the inevitable advance of Christianity across the world; maps were clocks for the end times.) From zonal and medieval T-O maps to more advanced “mappaemundi,” cartographers ceaselessly refined their image of the geocentric cosmos. Intuitive and “observable’’ to the naked eye, the idea that the universe revolved around the Earth proved tenacious.

As the limits of the known world expanded and cartographers drafted road maps for religious, mercantile, and imperial - in a word, European - expansion, the realm just outside the limits of the known became a canvas of fear and wishful thinking. As Lester writes, “Two distinct but overlapping kinds of geography guided [the Age of Discovery]. . . . One was a literal, empirically based conception of the world, as laid out [in] . . . marine charts and Ptolemaic-style maps. The other was a figurative, spiritually based conception, as laid out in the Bible,’’ populated by legend and myth. Inspired by the tales of John Mandeville, Marco Polo, and less powerful raconteurs, map makers conjured lands with riches surpassing worldly comprehension and savage cannibals. These tales, as well as the Christian worldview, persisted into the Age of Discovery when they were wedded to innovations in the observable features of the world.

Thankfully, cartographers like Matthias Ringmann and Martin Waldseemüller entered the map-making business, after which maps slowly stopped incorporating the promises of paradise. They also inadvertently plucked the Earth from the heart of the universe and set it in orbit around the sun.

Ringmann and Waldseemüller were German humanists who, like many of their 16th-century peers, applied the recently rediscovered mathematical and cosmological insights of Ptolemy to map their rapidly enlarging world. As Lester vividly shows, the 1507 Waldseemüller remained faithful to its lineage, promoting standard geographical assumptions about the familiar world. The newly discovered lands were, however, a different story. Won over by contemporary arguments that Amerigo Vespucci, not Columbus, was the first European to encounter new continental land, Ringmann and Waldseemüller named the continent America. They also, for reasons unknown, mapped America as an independent land mass, an assertion that had no known empirical support. It would be years before Magellan’s voyage would confirm South America’s distinction from Asia.

An odd, productively recursive book, “The Fourth Part of the World’’ presents more of an intellectual detective story than a doctrinaire history. The generalist nature of his approach allows Lester to effectively dramatize the simultaneity of history - how may different actors all struggle toward the same goal without knowledge of their peers’ efforts. In our standardized age, it’s pleasantly jarring to realize that until recently the contours of the world adhered most strongly to an individual’s personal exploration. This assemblage of thumbnail history has limitations, of course, and “The Fourth Part of the World’’ sacrifices exactitude in order to spin a good yarn. For the most part, this enthusiasm for narrative more than compensates for the periodic lack of comprehensiveness, but Lester’s leveling approach does have one outstanding drawback.

“The story, like the map,’’ Lester writes, “is Eurocentric.’’ With this statement, Lester removes critical engagement with imperial conquest from his Euro-American narrative. At best, Lester deals with the fact of the devastation of the new lands with a sly subtlety - “And so came the irrevocable moment of first contact” - but he more often entirely avoids the Age of Discovery’s rapacious nature. This is the subtext of the book, but portions like this would’ve benefited from deeper discussion, particularly his claim that the true gift of the humanist movement was to help Christians understand and view God’s plan. Here Lester implicitly connects humanism with imperialism. Given his tremendous powers of synthesis, it would be enlightening to read his further thoughts on this.

Lester punctuates “The Fourth Part of the World’’ with Nicolaus Copernicus. Lester argues that the Waldseemüller-map played a key role in the great astronomer’s paradigm-shifting insight, and this supplies the book’s “ah ha” moment. Copernicus, after all, provided one of the “ah ha” moments in human history. Since Lester has constructed a deft mystery and a celebration of discovery, you will find spoilers here. Suffice it to say that Copernicus gazed upon the map laid before him and buried in the contradictions of its history he saw a way forward, the future held present in the past.

Michael Washburn is the assistant director of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

THE FOURTH PART OF THE WORLD: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America Its Name
By Toby Lester
Free Press, 462 pp., $30

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