- Inter-American NotesObituary James Lockhart (1933–2014)
James Lockhart was arguably the most influential historian of Colonial Latin America of his generation. He died in California on January 17, surrounded by family members, at the age of 80. He is already, and will continue to be, enormously missed by his colleagues and many former students.
Jim was born in Huntington, West Virginia, where his parents were high school teachers. Latin was his favorite subject in school, and early on he showed a rare aptitude for language learning, one that would profoundly affect his career and those who would come to work with him. Even before he had finished his BA at West Virginia State, he joined the Army Signal Corps, who sent him to learn German, and then to Germany itself. It was his first immersion in another culture, as he recalled it, and he loved it—“even going German to a point.”
As a translator for the Army, handling such documents as letters crossing the Iron Curtain, his work broadly anticipated some of his later volumes of translated documents, all of them seminal examples of their genre—Letters and People of the Spanish Indies (1976), Beyond the Codices (1976), The Art of Nahuatl Speech (1987), We People Here (1993), and others. Back in the States, Jim completed his BA with an English major and German minor, contemplated whether to stay in German studies or take up his pen as a novelist, and ended up enrolling in the graduate program in comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. At the time he was newly married to Mary Ann, a Wisconsin native; she survives him. He “became dissatisfied almost immediately,” finding the jargon of the discipline to be “gobbledygook,” as he famously put it later. What Jim wanted was a way to study “the truth about what actually happens, surface event by surface event … to try to make sense of what happens, to see patterns in it.” He found that way through history, and eventually the study of early Peru, with John Phelan as his doctoral mentor.
Because one of Jim’s many eventual contributions to the field was his “three-stage theory” of culture contact, I cannot resist giving his career as a historian a three-stage summary. The first stage was his work on Peru, resulting in a dissertation and degree from Wisconsin in 1967, followed by two groundbreaking works of social history— [End Page 731] Spanish Peru, 1532−1560 (1968) and The Men of Cajamarca (1972). Here was history rooted deeply in mundane, notarial documents—Jim developed paleographic skills in the 1960s that remain unparalleled. He was concerned far less with institutions and numbers than with people, and his work was informed by a particular “textual sensitivity” (as he called it), a close attention to individuals and the terminology they used.
That impulse inspired the transition to stage two of his career: he wanted to study indigenous people in the ways that he had studied Spanish and Afro-Peruvians, concluding that he therefore needed “sources created by the people themselves, in their own language, revealing their outlook, their rhetoric, their genres of expression, the intimacies of their lives, above all their categories.” In these phrases (written later) were the seeds of the New Philology. Founded by Jim and his collaborators in the 1970s, then developed by him, his students, and other ethnohistorians over the next few decades, New Philology would emerge as the last half-century’s most significant and influential turn or school of study within the field of Colonial Latin American History. Because the sources that Jim needed were found among the Nahuas of central Mexico, he became a Mexicanist—and then one of the leading scholars in the world of the Nahuatl language and colonial Mexican history. The culmination of this stage of his career was the outstanding monograph The Nahuas after the Conquest (1992). It was a magnum opus in every sense, hefty and fine-grained, yet held aloft by an overarching understanding of cultural persistence and adaptation that forever changed how we see the indigenous experience in Spanish America.
During the long second stage of his career, Jim...