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  • Classification, Memory, and Subjectivity in Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo's Sumario de la natural historia (1526)
  • Andrés I. Prieto

In 1523, the veedor del oro Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo returned to Spain to report to the Crown regarding the situation in Panama in the wake of the infamous Pedrárias Dávila. Oviedo, who had failed twice in the previous years to obtain an interview with Charles V, received this time a surprising yet gratifying command: the Emperor wanted him to write a report on the peoples and nature of the Indies. Oviedo was certain that this was a task befitting him. After more than twelve years investigating the nature of the New World, he had already begun to write a complete natural and general history of America. But the Emperor's request took him by surprise: he had traveled to Spain leaving behind all his notes in Santo Domingo. Despite this setback, Oviedo tried to fulfill the Emperor's wishes, and hastily arranged for publication whatever he could remember on these matters, a fact he admitted in the resulting Sumario de la natural historia (1526): "aquí no traje ni hay de esta escritura más de lo que en la memoria está y puedo de ella aquí recoger" (56).

Modern commentators have taken this claim at face value, relegating it to a mere biographical curiosity with little bearing on their readings of the text (Francisco Esteve Barba 79; Alberto Salas 59; Antonello Gerbi 214–15; Stephanie Merrim 170). In part, this situation is derived from the fact that the Sumario has attracted very little critical interest, [End Page 329] in particular when compared with the number of studies devoted to Oviedo's later Historia general y natural de las Indias (1535). Although the relationship between the two texts is complex, the Sumario is not merely a rough draft doomed to be eclipsed by the Historia. As the first introduction to American nature available in print, the Sumario was an influential work that brought several new species to the attention of European naturalists (José López Piñero 20). More interestingly, the Sumario, as I will show in this essay, is a text that problematizes some basic European notions about the perception and the ordering of nature. The Sumario, in fact, can be read as a reflection on the problems that arise when the observational and taxonomical conventions used to describe Old World species are imposed upon a new, and hitherto unknown, biological reality. This problematization led to a crisis of representation, in which both the traditional descriptive techniques and the textual organization of materials according to basic taxonomic groupings were found inadequate to the new species observed in America. It is precisely this crisis of representation that has given the Sumario the apparent lack of method and organization decried by modern critics (Esteve Barba, 79–80; Salas, 156), and has lead others to consider it as a miscellany (Merrim, 170–71). As I will suggest in the last section of this article, Oviedo's rejection of the methods and the results of European descriptive and taxonomic methods did not lead to an abandonment of any attempt at a systematic ordering of his subject matter. Rather, Oviedo's solution was to order his materials around his own subjectivity through a recourse to memory, analogy and the free association of ideas as the avowed compositional principles of his text.

In recent years, some studies devoted solely to the Sumario have examined more fully the concept of memory invoked by Oviedo and the role it played in the composition of the Sumario. For example, Sánchez Jiménez has discussed the possible mnemonic techniques used by Oviedo to retrieve the information consigned to the notebooks he left back in Santo Domingo. More recently, Jeremy Paden has analyzed how the problem of memory in the Sumario exceeds the mere compositional to include hermeneutical and ideological questions as well (207). Paden links Oviedo's use of the concept of memory to the classical tradition, in particular Pliny's Naturalis Historia in order to make explicit what he calls a hermeneutical crisis, signed by the tensions produced by the novelty of America...


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