When I first taught my course The Production of History at Swarthmore, I wanted to show the Bugs Bunny cartoon “Hare We Go”, in which Bugs Bunny helps and then antagonizes Christopher Columbus on his first voyage. I was thinking about the cartoon today because it’s not going to be in the last of Warner Brothers’ Golden Collections of Looney Tunes material, which frustrates the hell out of me. I think I’ve mentioned the cartoon in every iteration of the course and never been able to show it. It’s a great example of how popular consciousness of historical events is often formed from a kind of ubiquitous cultural substrate.
The cartoon reproduces the old story of Columbus trying unsuccessfully to convince potential backers of his voyage that the world is round and Isabella hocking her jewels to finance his trip. (In this version, Bugs helps him prove the world is round by throwing a baseball around the world: it returns covered in port-of-call stickers.) Historians know very well that most educated people as well as most sailors in early modern Europe were perfectly well aware that the world was round. In fact, Columbus really was kind of deluded, just not about the shape of the world, but its size. He thought it was much smaller than it actually was, and many sailors and savants were correct in their rough estimate of the size of the world. Hence, they were right that you’d die sailing westward to Asia, since they didn’t think there was anything in between.
But when you ask why people have heard otherwise, you can’t really zero in on any single text or source that is responsible for creating an alternative folk knowledge about Columbus and medieval European knowledge. Even when you can find a source like “Hare We Go”, it’s often whimsical, humorous, intended for children, fabulistic, and infused with a sense of reference to common sense knowledge about past events. It’s not that the cartoon teaches you about Columbus. It’s more like it’s one cypher key to a vast but diffuse cultural code that surrounds us all. No one reproduces it deliberately, and no harm or malice is intended in its reproduction. This is fairly close in some sense to what it meant by a meme, only without the weighty invocations of genetic-style mechanisms that the dedicated proponents of memetics always try to throw into the mix.
It seems to me that there are a great many things that people hold in everyday knowledge which are very similar, and sometimes they hold several stories or facts which contradict one another. I think it’s very rare to come across a work of knowledge that can single-handedly take such a story or understanding out of circulation, or make everyone mindful of the misconception the next time they encounter it. I’ve just started reading Tom Vanderbilt’s excellent book Traffic, and that strikes me as a an example of this rare kind of work. I know that by the third chapter, I’ve already had to reconsider some of my own deeply held mythologies about driving, human behavior and morality.
I’m curious: what other books can you think of where an author managed to permanently tag a commonly held belief or repeated story as a fable or myth for most who subsequently encountered it?