Hispanic American Historical Review 83.4 (2003) 748-749
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Lizardi and the Birth of the Novel in Spanish America . By Nancy Vogeley. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001. Illustrations. Map. Notes. Bibliography. Index. xiii, 342 pp. Cloth, $59.95.
Nancy Vogeley is concerned to link the era of independence with the "decolonizing discourse" that helped bring about a shift in mentality during the emergence of the Spanish American republics (p. 9). Vogeley seeks to locate opposition to the hegemonic categories, values, and assumptions of colonialism that "encroache[d] on all thought in the colony" (p. 9) through "ritual displays of authority and obedience and . . . the use of prescribed language for communication with distant officialdom" (p. 41). She makes her case with material from Mexico's early-nineteenth-century print culture—mainly newspapers—and concentrates on the writings of José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, the most accomplished of colonialism's critics. Although print runs of newspapers and Lizardi's serial novels they contained were small, copies were surely passed around and sometimes read aloud to groups, which multiplied their impact. Vogeley contends that they created "a discourse space for colonials in which readers actively learned to correct and counter official language" (p. 36).
Lizardi's first novel, El periquillo sarniento, must be seen as a self-consciously American novel because it juxtaposed different styles of language in order to affirm the vigor and effectiveness of Mexican speech. It acted as a "primer" for Mexicans "to think about their colonized language" (pp. 78-79). Lizardi's positive representations of the behaviors and values of colonials "help[ed] Mexicans to consider decolonization" (p. 86). The novelist went out of his way to include the crude language of common speech because this was "the linguistic equivalent of ridding colonial life of foreign enslavement" (p. 183).
Lizardi's novels provided a picture of the possibilities outside of the colonial framework and explored issues that readers could read as a critique of a colonial [End Page 748] world debased by fraudulent paternalism, a repressive and ignorant church, and an exploitative state. He asked readers to think about authority: where does it lie and where does society find its moorings for setting out rules of civility and morality? Not, he said, in a corrupt church allied to a corrupt colonial regime. In this he resonates with issues raised in the writings of Enlightenment writers and creole patriots, the latter analyzed so perceptively by D. A. Brading in The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, 1492-1867 (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991).
Vogeley's concentration on works published in such miniscule editions, however, seems a thin base from which to generalize a mentality shift of the scope she claims. How, we might wonder, was this decolonizing discourse able to reach the huge numbers of people speaking Maya, Nahuatl, and other native languages? How did local societies (described with attention to issues of language and mentality by scholars such as James Lockhart, Matthew Restall, and Nancy Farriss) appropriate decolonizing discourse? True, such people lived within a colonial framework and found ways to resist through acts of personal and communal self-affirmation. But can their speech acts of resistance be traced to Lizardi and the newspapers Vogeley analyzes? How are we to weigh the argot of the dispossessed "criminal" classes or the mutterings of decent but downtrodden poor people who remained attached to much that was associated with colonialism (paternalism, naive religiosity, royalist loyalty, and social deference to hierarchies based on birth, race, and ethnicity)? One thinks here of Eric Van Young's prizewinning The Other Rebellion: Popular Violence, Ideology, and the Mexican Struggle for Independence, 1810-1821 (Stanford Univ. Press, 2001). "It is difficult to detect among popular groups any particularly new political lexicon," Van Young notes, only a shift in the context involving heightened "polarization between proregime and antiregime elements, and its quickened emergence into the public sphere" (p. 349).
Vogeley may have overreached in claiming so much influence for Lizardi and his cohorts. Yet she...