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Fernadez de Oviedo's Chronicle of America: A New History for a New World.

Kathleen Ann Myers. Fernadez de Oviedo's Chronicle of America: A New History for a New World.

Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007. xx + 324 pp. index. append. illus. tbls. map. bibl. bibl. $50. ISBN: 978-0-292-71703-9.

Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo's General and Natural History of the Indies {1535, 1850s), the earliest full account of Spanish exploration and conquest in the New World, with reports on America's natural phenomena and its inhabitants, owns a central place in the canon of colonial Spanish American history and literature. A humanist raised in the Spanish court, who spent his later years in Hispaniola as the crown's royal chronicler, Oviedo consulted official papers about the conquest, interviewed many of the principal actors involved, and used novel methods to describe a new reality overseas within the framework of what Europeans knew up to that time about divine and human history, and the natural world. The History is the definitive text of the early sixteenth century for examining America's impact on Renaissance models of geography, politics, and philosophy. However, studies of the work consist mainly of specialized articles and book chapters, with the exception of a few foreign-language monographs. In a far-reaching and impeccably researched book, Kathleen Myers corrects this gap in scholarship and makes the History accessible to English-language audiences. Far more than an authoritative monograph, Myers's volume reproduces for the first time the complete set of Oviedo's nearly eighty field drawings that formed part of his original manuscripts and includes Nina Scott's first-ever English translation of six excerpts from the History, which offer readers samples of the wide range of historiographic material in Oviedo's work that Myers's analysis covers.

A literary specialist, Myers offers an integrated reading of Oviedo's work in ail its generic diversity, examining the chronicler's representational strategies for both "general" and "natural history," when other scholars have taken up only one aspect or the other. In doing so, she employs a "threefold approach of rhetorical conventions, biographical and political contexts, and compositional dates" (11). Myers's exhaustive research in various archives and repositories of Spain and the U.S. bring these contexts to the fore. Readers learn the highlights of Oviedo's fascinating, itinerant life between two worlds divided by the Atlantic, from his encounters as a young aristocrat with Columbus and Da Vinci to his participation as conquistador in the violent subjugation of native peoples in Tierra Firme, along with wider developments relating to political and philosophical innovations that informed the elaboration of the History. Oviedo's frustrated quest to see his work in print emerges as a main theme. Little more than the first of his three-part, fifty-book history was published at the time, largely due to the opposition of the Dominican friar Bartolome de Las Casas, who contested Oviedo's support of the encomienda system, and it was not until 1851-55 that Jose Amador de los Rios published an imperfect edition of the entire history. Myers locates all extant manuscripts, establishes the chronology of the work's four stages of composition, and examines the implications of Oviedo's writings and revisions in relation to his ever-changing political concerns and historiographic methods. Her painstaking reconstruction of this documentary trail is a remarkable achievement.

Following the opening chapter on Oviedo's life and writings, Myers presents six chapter-length case studies to demonstrate how the chronicler's narrative strategies changed over time according to personal circumstances, imperial policies, and advancements in knowledge. That Oviedo combined history writing with literary self-fashioning in an attempt to gain royal favors and establish his credibility as a historian will come as no surprise to those familiar with the pragmatic nature of chronicle writing. Other chapters, devoted to Oviedo's evolving interpretation of the conquest of Mexico and his thoughts on reports of Amazon women in the New World, underscore the complexity of the task to establish historical truth in the face of a heterogeneous American reality. Though previous studies, apart from Jesus Carrillo's Naturdleza e Imperio (2005), have largely ignored the History's trove of visual images, the illustrations of America's flora, fauna, and ethnographic items justly occupy the center of Myers's book. Through analysis of Oviedo's diverse verbal and visual representations of the pineapple, for example, Myers argues that Oviedo came to rely less on European conceptual models and more on empirical observation in an attempt to convey its appearance. Her close textual readings give life to the frustrations of a historian painfully aware of the insufficiency of words and images to represent the divine in American nature for a European audience without direct access to such novelties.

Myers's final chapter traces the evolution of Oviedo's depiction of native peoples according to the compositional stages of the History and reassesses the cliche, originating with Las Casas, that Oviedo represented the "darker side of the conquest" for his portrayal of indigenous moral degeneracy in the service of colonialist agendas. Not discounting the chronicler's moralizing tendency, Myers identifies "the maturing of Oviedo's ethnographic impulse" (126) in later drafts of the work, which she attributes to a representational shift in the writing of history in favor of empirical concerns, on the one hand, and to political and ethical concerns about the treatment of native peoples, on the other. She suggests that Oviedo grew to take seriously his role as official historian, faithful to the truth, and consistent with Las Casas, to see the History as a critique of the conquest and the corrupt administration of the Indies, from which he took pains to distance himself. With this masterful study, which stands prominently among recent first-rate publications on early New World historiography--Cristian Roa-de-la-Carrera, Histories of Infamy (2005), Rolena Adorno, The Polemics of Possession (2007), and Sabine MacCormack, On the Wings of Time (2007)--Myers succeeds in cementing the foundational place of Oviedo's History in the canon of colonial letters, side by side with the works of the Dominican activist, one of his greatest detractors, and greatest influences.


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Author:Charles, John
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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