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2. Exploring

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Activities: Context Activities

Working Wonders: The Experience of "La Maravilla/The Marvelous" in New World Encounters

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Landing of

[7511] Anonymous, Landing of Columbus (c. 1860-80), courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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Bernal Díaz del Castillo begins his True History of the Conquest of New Spain with an avowal that he will accurately and authentically describe the conquistadors' experiences in the Aztec Empire: "That which I have myself seen . . . with the help of God I will describe, quite simply, as a fair eyewitness, without twisting events one way or another." As Díaz del Castillo's narrative progresses, however, his promise of full disclosure is troubled at times by his inability to explain or articulate his responses to the radically unfamiliar sights. As he records his approach to the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, for example, his powers of description are immobilized by an intense experience of wonder at encountering a spectacle that no European had ever before seen. As he puts it, "We were astounded. . . . Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream. . . . It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen, or dreamed of before." This experience of astonishment and an accompanying inability to find words to express the experience is characteristic of narratives that depict the first contact between Europeans and indigenous peoples in the New World. As scholar Stephen Greenblatt has claimed, "wonder" is "the central figure in the initial European response to the New World, the decisive emotional and intellectual experience in the presence of radical difference." Narratives that told of the wonder Europeans felt at encounters with the "marvelous" (a term the Spanish explorers frequently used to represent objects that were radically new or beyond description) could have aspects of horror, pleasure, desire, or fear, but the overwhelming impression was one of amazement and awe.

In narratives of New World exploration, the experience of wonder is triggered by unfamiliarity, and often by a sense of excess, or extreme beauty, or strangeness. The "marvelous" cannot be fit into existing categories of knowledge, leaving viewers almost paralyzed and unable to decide whether they should love, hate, repudiate, or embrace the sight at which they are marveling. When explorers protested that they could not find language to describe the marvelous sights of the New World, those protestations might reflect a sincere loss for words. Nonetheless, such claims could also serve as a useful rhetorical strategy. The discourse of wonder worked at times to represent extreme horror to readers and to dehumanize the natives. Bernal Díaz's gruesome description of the cannibalistic Aztec ritual he witnessed, for example, uses his horror to convey the barbarity of the native Mexicans. Moreover, expressions of wonder could serve as a means to aggrandize the explorers' own deeds and experiences. Columbus acted with calculation in promoting his own reputation and the importance of his expedition when he extravagantly claimed in his letters to Spain that the New World was "fertile to a limitless degree," that the islands he had seen were all "beyond comparison," and "most beautiful, of a thousand shapes . . . and filled with trees of a thousand kinds." His final comment, "Española es una maravilla" ("Hispaniola is a marvel"), testifies to the value of what he found and disarms skeptics who might try to detract from his accomplishments. Sometimes, the impulse to promote their discoveries in the New World led narrators to attempt to translate their experiences of wonder into terms of non-wonder--that is, to graft the familiar onto the unfamiliar in order to sell their audiences on the worth of what they found. When Columbus talks about the birds, animals, plants, and resources he found on the islands, he often compares them to their corresponding objects in Europe in order to make his experiences intelligible to his audience. When he writes of hearing nightingales singing on Hispaniola, for instance, he attempts to create a sense of comforting familiarity within the strangeness of the New World: in fact, nightingales are not native to the West Indies, and Columbus could not have heard any singing.

Some exploration narratives displace the experience of wonder onto the natives. Bernal Díaz's claims that the Indians viewed the in Spanish as "Teules," or gods, conveys the difficulty the natives had in reconciling the Europeans with any existing conceptions they had of the earthly or the human. Similarly, Samuel de Champlain recounts that a group of hostile North American Indians freed explorer Etienne Brulé because the unfamiliar necklace he wore (and a fortuitous thunderstorm) convinced them he had divine powers. John Smith used his knowledge of writing and navigational technologies to inspire wonder in the Indians he encountered in Virginia. While it is difficult to know precisely what Native Americans felt when they first encountered Europeans, since almost all of the accounts of such moments were written by Europeans, it seems likely that they did experience a feeling of wonder when faced with the radical unfamiliarity of European culture. This sense of astonishment may have been one of the few things the Europeans and the Indians could recognize as something they had in common at the moment of contact.

  1. Comprehension: What kinds of sights were considered "marvels" New World explorers?

  2. Context: Examine the de Bry engravings of Native Americans in Virginia featured in the archive. How do the engravings portray people who were, for European viewers, radically unfamiliar? Do the pictures convey a sense of wonder or do they allow viewers to fit the people depicted into knowable categories? How does the artist make the Indians look more familiar to Europeans? How does he represent their "otherness"?

  3. Context: Compare the descriptions of "la maravilla" (the marvelous) in Columbus and Bernal Díaz del Castillo's narratives. What are some of the rhetorical advantages of presenting America as marvelous? Whom are the writers trying to persuade and of what?

  4. Exploration: The vision of the Americas as a place of wonder and marvel had important religious implications in that it helped solidify the notion that America was a type of New Jerusalem, an idea that was of particular importance to the New England Puritans (Unit 3). What role do religious associations of the New World play in the writings of the conquistadors? How do these compare to the religious associations at work in Puritan writings?

  5. Exploration: What is the relationship between the experience of wonder and the experience of encountering the "sublime" (discussed in Unit 4)? To what extent has the view of the American landscape and peoples as "marvelous" been crucial to the construction of American identity over time?
[1366] Theodor de Bry, A Chief of Roanoke (1590),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-89909].
Full-length, front and back view of a Native American chief, with a river scene in the background.

[2518] Theodor de Bry, The Town of Pomeiock (1590),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-54018].
Like many of de Bry's engravings, The Town of Pomeiock is based on a watercolor by John White, who accompanied Sir Walter Raleigh on his expedition to found a colony at Roanoke. The engraving shows a native town enclosed by a circular pole fence with two entrances.

[2840] John Smith, Illustration from the Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles . . . (1632),
courtesy of the Robert Dechert Collection, Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.
This image shows a scene from Smith's captivity among the Native Americans of Virginia and his subsequent and legendary rescue by Pocahontas. This event was a central focus of his historical narrative. The full illustration of this panel is available in the American Passages Archive [2839].

[7399] Cortés(?), La Gran Ciudad de Temixtlan (1524),
courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago.
This map of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán is often attributed to Cortés. It is European in style, but the map-view contains information suggesting a native source.

[7420] Theodor de Bry, A Weroans, or Chieftain, of Virginia (1590),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-53338].
This engraving shows full-length, front and back portraits of a Native Virginian chief holding a bow and arrow. In the background is a hunting scene.

[7511] Anonymous, Landing of Columbus (c. 1860-80),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
This lithograph shows Columbus and members of his crew displaying objects to Native American men and women on shore who seem overcome with curiosity and wonder.

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