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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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Chapter Four: Seeing the Maya in the American Parlor


C H A P T E R F I V E Seeing the Maya in the American Parlor When we think about a popular book’s initial impact on a reader, we usually con- sider the author’s compelling prose style or the book’s subversive plot: Mark Twain’s first-person narration in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery polemic in Uncle Tom’s Cabin come to mind. With John Lloyd Stephens’ Mayan narratives, we must also consider the material book’s visual impact, its power in the American parlor as a series of aesthetic images. To imagine a first encounter with John Lloyd Stephens’ very popular travel narrative Incidents of Travel in Central America in 1841 conjures up a moment of exquisite pleasure. On the cover of the brown leather book there is imprinted in gold leaf a design resembling an Egyptian cartouche, an abstract, distorted face, surrounded by flames or feathers, positioned atop what appears to be a geometrical pyramid, flanked by two crossed ceremonial spears. The base of the figure is composed of a horizontal framing bar, inset with a complicated crosshatched design, and bisected by yet another, more abstractly designed face with exaggerated features. The contrast between the plain leather cover and the gold leaf is striking. The unusual image, so different in style from anything classically western in form and execution, rivets attention. It also prompts the nineteenth-century reader to speculation: What is this figure? What culture produced it? What aesthetic tradition did it come from? It doesn’t...

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