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  • The Invention of America Again: On the Impossibility of an Archive
  • Rodrigo Lazo (bio)

Not long into his influential The Invention of America: An Inquiry into the Historical Nature of the New World and the Meaning of Its History (1958; 1961 in English), Edmundo O’Gorman presents a scenario that clarifies his argument against the popular assumption that Columbus discovered America. “[L]et us suppose that the caretaker of an archive comes across an ancient papyrus in a cellar,” O’Gorman writes. “The next day he brings it to the attention of a professor of classical literature, who after careful study realizes that it is a hitherto unknown text by Aristotle. Who is the discoverer of this document, the caretaker who found it or the professor who identified it?” (15). O’Gorman argues that the person who identifies the document and not just stumbles upon it should be credited with the discovery. Working in the 1940s and 1950s, O’Gorman seeks to undo the myth of the valiant sailor who bravely embarks on a transatlantic crossing to discover a new continent. O’Gorman reminds us that Columbus set out to find a route to Asia and ended by believing he had accomplished that. Because Columbus never realized where he had landed, he did not discover what came to be America. O’Gorman’s choice of an archival research process to illustrate the point develops an analogy between a fifteenth-century explorer looking for a continent and a professor looking for a text. O’Gorman is interested in the relationship between the caretaker, whom today we might call an “archivist,” and the professor. He goes on, “No one could maintain that the caretaker deserved scientific credit for the finding of an Aristotelian text unless it could be established that the caretaker had been aware of what it was he had found in the cellar” (15). While at first it may appear that O’Gorman was arguing that some other European could explicate the [End Page 751] “nature of its contents,” he goes on to negate the possibility of America’s discovery altogether (15). When it comes to what became known as America, O’Gorman goes on, no one from Europe in the early sixteenth century was capable of comprehending the findings. As such, America was invented by European thinkers intent on conceiving the continent in relation to their notion of the existing world.

O’Gorman’s archival scenario should provoke some questions for the latest academic efforts to conceive of America in a hemispheric direction. Recent invocations of a hemispheric American studies as an explanatory new spatial formation for the restless field of US literary and cultural studies repeat an ongoing effort to discover America—or the Americas. On the one hand, an Americas paradigm is in line with changing approaches to humanistic inquiry. As Ralph Bauer has noted, “the recent hemispheric turn in American studies manifests the larger move toward trans- or postnational perspectives across the humanities, commencing during the 1980s with the postcolonial critiques of the modern nation-state as an ideological or ‘imagined’ construct of Western capitalist culture based on imperial or neocolonial forms of economic exploitation” (236). But speaking historically, this turn is nothing new. The Americas have provided an opportunity for discovery for centuries, and the recent enthusiasm among historians and literary critics can be traced back decades into the twentieth century. Herbert Bolton, for one, proclaimed in his 1932 address to the American Historical Association, “In my own country the study of thirteen English colonies and the US in isolation has obscured many of the larger factors in their development, and helped to raise up a nation of chauvinists” (68). He argued for a comparative Americas approach that recognized that the “increasing importance of inter-American relations makes imperative a better understanding by each of the history and the culture of all” (69). This spirit, if not Bolton himself, inspired the Americas work of Doris Sommer, José David Saldívar, Vera Kutzinski, and others in the early1990s.1 These efforts clarify that the latest so-called turn is actually a return. Once called “inter-American studies” or “literatures of the Americas,” academic attempts to cross...


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