Erik’s Sons Were First

This is the forty-third in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLIII: American Historical Documents

As a member of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Michael Angelo Musmanno set a record for most dissenting opinions filed by a justice. In fact, it only took him a few years to write more dissenting opinions than all of the other justices on the court had collectively written in the previous 50 years.

Musmanno was, in a word, quarrelsome. He was extremely vocal about his opinions of Nazis, Communists, jazz music, and Henry Miller. But what really fired him up was Vikings. He hated Vikings. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “nothing aroused his volatile Italian temper so much as any claim that Christopher Columbus did not discover America.”

To refute arguments that Icelanders, rather than Columbus, reached North America first, Musmanno wrote a book called Columbus Was First. Of course, we now know that he was wrong. Vikings certainly reached North America around 500 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In 1960, ruins of a Norse settlement were discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, confirming Mussmano’s secret fear.

But why was Musmanno so certain about something beyond his ken? At least partially, it was racial pride. Musmanno was deeply invested in Italian-American advancement. If it turned out that the Italian hero Columbus was a half-millennium late to the party, that would be bad for the cause. But Musmanno probably fought so hard on the side of error mostly because he was a quarrelsome jerk who wanted to impose his own opinion on everyone and everything.

As it turns out, the Vikings who beat Columbus to the punch were, themselves, racist and belligerent. According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, the first encounter between the Vikings and Native Americans (whom the Vikings called “Skrellings”) did not go well. The Norsemen killed eight of the first nine natives they encountered. Ultimately the norse settlement of North America failed because of violent conflicts with the natives and because of the Vikings’ inability to live peacefully even among themselves. Maybe Musmanno would have found kindred spirits in the ancient Viking settlers, had he only given them a chance.

Beer of the week: Zhygulivske Lager – This beer from Ukraine’s Obolon Brewery is named for the beer of the Soviet Union. On the label appears to be a Viking longship (for some reason.) Zhygulivske is an amber-colored lager. The aroma is faint, but pleasant and malty. The flavor follows the smell. I can’t pronounce it, but I sure can drink it.

Reading of the week: Saga of the Greenlanders – The Harvard Classics appears to incorrectly identify this text as part of the Saga of Eric the Red. Although both sagas tell of the discovery of Vinland, they are distinct texts with some key differences.

Question for the week: Does the Viking “discovery” of North America really diminish thr achievements of Columbus?

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