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Ruins, Revolution, and Manifest Destiny

John Lloyd Stephens Creates the Maya


William E. Lenz

As American literary and cultural scholars reconsider the foundations of U.S. relations with other nations, Ruins, Revolution, and Manifest Destiny: John Lloyd Stephens Creates the Maya locates in Stephens’s immensely popular nineteenth-century travel narratives (1841, 1843) the sources of American perceptions of Central America and contributes directly to current redefinitions of American nationalism, Manifest Destiny, and hemispheric imperialism. The study challenges modern readers to examine critically the cultural stereotypes that the nineteenth century embraced and that often formed the basis for national policy. By reading Stephens closely, by locating him within a larger cultural dialogue about such crucial issues as national identity, race relations, Manifest Destiny, and historical representation, we can better understand past and present national attitudes toward peoples and nations south of the U.S. territorial border. Anticipating many of the issues that would give rise to the war with Mexico and then to the U.S. Civil War, Stephens sees the racial landscape of Central America in stark categories. Writing travel narratives about Central America and reading narratives written by an American traveling in Central America are acts of cultural imperialism that result in both writer and reader implicitly possessing Central America, absorbing its Mayan history and contemporary diversity into an American national mythology. Central America becomes, through Stephens’s acts of exploring and inscribing, an imaginative extension of the United States and the Maya, the original New World Americans. Ruins, Revolution, and Manifest Destiny encourages twenty-first-century readers to untangle these often conflicting acts of exploration, inscription, and imagination.


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Unlike John Lloyd Stephens, I did not return from Central America, lock myself away for several months, and emerge with a completed book manuscript. My own research and writing process was messier, depended on many more hands, and took years. I wish to thank Chatham University for granting me a sabbatical in 2006 to focus on Stephens and the nineteenth-century popular imagination. I owe a special debt to the late Dorothy A. Pontious, Class of 1935, who established the Charles and Ida Pontious Distinguished Professorship in 2006, which has provided the research funds to allow me to retrace Stephens’ journeys to sites in Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico and the Yucatan. Rachel Rohrbaugh, Archivist at Chatham University, has supported my work in countless ways, from facilitating access to pristine first editions of Stephens and Catherwood in Chatham’s Snowdon Collection to making exquisite digitized images from these texts for Ruins, Revolution, and Manifest Destiny. I am also grateful to Chatham University for permission to use these images housed in the Snowdon Mesoamerican Collection, Special Collections, Jennie King Mellon Library, Chatham University, Pittsburgh, Pa. I also want to thank the editors of the following publications for permission to reprint in revised form material from their pages: an early version of part of Chapter I first appeared in an essay in Travel Culture: Essays on What Makes Us Go, edited by Carolyn Traynor Williams (Copyright © 1998 Carol Traynor Williams. Reproduced with permission of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc. Westport, Ct.) and a section of Chapter...

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