What I’m Reading (2/8-2/21)

This week and next, I have some great books on tap for my courses, and a few other bits. This week’s tally:

  • Cortes, Hernán. (Trans. and Intro. by Anthony Pagden. Intro. essay by J.H. Elliot.) Letters from Mexico. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

This is a modern English translation of Hernán Cortes’s five cartas de relación, sent to  Charles V in a bid to secure the legality of his conquest activities in Mexico. It is a spectacular source for understanding the originary mythologies of the Spanish conquest, and gives fascinating insight into the bureaucratic, jurisdictional, and legal maneuverings that lay at the heart of that endeavor. Cortes certainly presents a heroic image of himself, and disappears virtually the entire retinue of native allies that enabled successful military conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. Still, the cartas show the extent to which negotiation could overcome insubordination in the Spanish system, a dynamic or logic that ultimately formed the most basic element of late-medieval and early-modern Spanish imperialism. A couple of my students wrote excellent reading responses on their blogs (My favorite here, and the others in the feed here at our course site.)

Prescott, I’m in the midst of reading now. I structured this seminar on the Conquest by having us read first Restall’s 7 Myths, and then essentially the cycle of writings on the Conquest from the 16th century to the present. So, in the first three weeks of after 7 Myths, we’re reading/we’ve read Bernal Díaz de Castillo, Cortes’s cartas de relacion, and now Prescott’s magisterial narrative, as essentially a capstone on the early forms. The stories in each are heroic and narrative. I’ve not read Prescott before, so I’m anxious to get into it. One of my students (a medievalist) already posted his reaction, and found the book almost irresistible in its magesty, sweep, and lyricism.

I used Reagan and Rossinow (below) this week in an honors seminar on Historical Methods to discuss notions of the object of research. I find the Reagan book to be simply fantastic. She uses legal records, and particularly coroner inquest hearings, to analyze popular attitudes towards abortion during the period of its illegality. Abortion was not explicitly against the law in the US until the 1860s- a moment when an offensive against the practice broke out around the western world, and also at the Vatican. Reagan demonstrates that for the succeeding 100 years of criminalization, abortion was still a very regular part of reproductive strategy for women both single and married.

  • Rossinow, Doug. The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Rossinow aims to provide a decentered, or provincial history of new leftism by drawing attention away from its traditional intellectual centers in the Northeast, and to the rise of new leftism at UT-Austin through the writings of Christian existentialists, and activities of young christians looking for authenticity of experience.

  • Walker, Charles. Shaky Colonialism: The 1746 Earthquake-Tsunami in Lima, Peru, and its Long Aftermath. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

I’m finally finished reading this book by Charles Walker, for which I’m beyond overdue on a journal review. I have much to say about it, and will post on it once I’ve finished the book review. It’s for a world history journal, so what I have to say about its usefulness there is hampered by that audience, and I have more I’d like to say concerning its strengths and weaknesses for colonial Latin Americanists.

And, amidst all of this I’m also still working through a few of the books I mentioned in my last post on the subject. Too much to read, and too little time to do it!

Speaking of that last post, updates on two of the books I mentioned in it. Georg Igger’s short book Historiography in the 20th Century is not one I will use again. I had hoped, based on the table of contents and structure of his overview of historiography, that it would work well as an introduction to the concept of shifting schools, cultures, and practices in professional History. It did not, in large part because the prose (though obviously simplified) is unbearably boring and often reduced to lists of names and works. It takes much to much for granted to be useful in even an advanced undergrad course, and simply does too little to be useful for graduate students.

I also finished Born to Run, which I loathed at the beginning when the author engaged in the worst type of pop enthnography and indigenous exoticization. It got better, though, in the second half when he turned to the evolutionary implications of humans as born to run– and born to run barefoot. The final chapters on an ad hoc ultramarathon in the depths of the copper canyon lands were triumphant, and will make you want to take off your shoes and run for days. At least want to.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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Chad Black

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