Latin American Colonial Literature, Mexico City, Baroque, Latin America
Since its posthumous publication almost thirty years ago, Angel Rama’s La ciudad letrada continues to cast a large shadow over literary scholars. With remarkable economy—best appreciated in the title—, La ciudad letrada condensed the themes and preoccupations that ran through Rama’s previous books while setting the research agenda of Latinoamericanists for years to come.
Stephanie Merrim’s The Spectacular City, winner of the 2011 Katherine Singer Kovacs prize, takes the reader through a tour (the author’s metaphor of choice) of the Baroque city as represented, questioned and imagined by creole writers. And it does so by following the trajectories of three categories, namely cities, festivals, and wonder, which cross paths in poems, chronicles, historical accounts and diaries of the creole archive. With few exceptions, the authors and works from which Merrim conjures up her “interdisciplinary construct called the Spectacular City” are well known, and also expected; they include Bernardo de Balbuena, Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, Baltazar Dorantes de Carranza, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, and Gregorio Andrés de Guijo, among others. There are also rather idiosyncratic forays into the historiographical works of the Franciscan chroniclers Juan de Torquemada and Agustín de Vetancurt.
Given the book’s focus and its own totalizing aspirations, it is difficult to overlook the absence of indigenous and mestizo writers and not to dispute Merrim’s grounds for justifying such exclusions. Merrim writes: “On a lesser note, the improbability that subjected Indians or mixed-race writers would desire to pay homage to viceregal cities or festivals further separates their works from the Spectacular City” (5). That Professor Merrim herself refers to Guaman Poma’s chapter on colonial cities in his Nueva coronica would be sufficient to at least qualify the improbability she takes for granted. As it happens, Nahua writers did pay homage to the city they chose to live in. The Nahua historian Domingo de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin certainly did. Furthermore, he also celebrated the public festivals of Mexico City and while doing so paid tribute to fellow literate Nahuas who held public office.
Rather than engaging critically with Rama’s thesis on the creole intelligentsia as advanced in La ciudad letrada, Professor Merrim has limited herself to rewrite it by accumulating myriad of details and shaping it into “stories.” There is something misguided about this particular exercise of corroboration, especially in light of recent (and not so recent) scholarship that has taught us that literacy made it possible for indigenous peoples to forge intellectual traditions that coexisted with “colonial Hispanic literary culture” (from the pioneering work of [End Page 243] Rolena Adorno to more recent contributions by John Charles and Kathryn Burns for the Andes, as well as David Tavárez for Mexico).
On account of the responses it elicited from other writers and its programmatic bent, Bernardo de Balbuena’s works, and in particular his poem Grandeza mexicana occupy a prominent place in the book’s narrative. Professor Merrim finds in Balbuena’s poem the following defining features: “spectacularity, excess, elitist language, overburdened erudition, sense of overall design, rampant hyper-bole” (114). This description may be aptly applied to The Spectacular City itself. But whereas Balbuena’s poetics proved to be forward-looking, The Spectacular City deliberately aspires to closure, as evidenced by the author’s interest in exhausting all possible connections among the texts under examination. This sense of closure is reinforced by Merrim’s hyperactive writing, which manages to accommodate as in a suma terms and concepts of very different theoretical provenance with the addition of a few neologisms of her own. Too close to its sources, The Spectacular City both succumbs to and celebrates the unwieldy power of the Baroque texts it sets out to elucidate. And here lies the shortcomings it shares with other recent monographs on the literature of the period.
Like the streets of the colonial capitals to which it pays homage, The Spectacular City is...