John Lloyd Stephens Creates the Maya
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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