- Dos Americanos, Dos Pensamientos: Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora y Cotton Mather
Is there something quintessentially "American" about the Western Hemisphere? Or, as the Mexican historian Edmundo O'Gorman once phrased the question, "Do the Americas have a common history?" With NAFTA, transborder migration, and transnational cultural activities forcing us to consider formerly separate states and peoples in new combinations, juxtapositions, and relations, queries like O'Gorman's become more pressing and more relevant.
Such questions also inspire new questions about the American past and its relation to the present. If the early modern era gave rise to the social and [End Page 363] cultural formations we now think of as modern, perhaps the forces of modernization that seem increasingly to bind Central and South America to the United States and Canada, the World Bank, and the IMF and other European institutions also have their roots in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European world economy.
Immanuel Wallerstein and Fernand Braudel sought such connections in large structural models of metropolitan centers and imperial peripheries. As we move toward conceptualizing the early culture of the Americas across "contact zones" and within an "Atlantic world," however, we perhaps risk losing sight of human lives and the intimate, real social relations that fomented the cultural productions of individuals, working alone or collectively, within these larger systems.
Alicia Meyer's Dos Pensamientos, Dos Americanos attempts to address these concerns through a careful comparative history of the works and worlds of the Mexican intellectual Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645–1700) and the New England cleric Cotton Mather (1663–1728). Meyer employs a comparative history of the Americas to open new areas of inquiry while exploring the reasons and implications for the cultural similarities and differences such a history brings to light. Holding two cultures in view at once exposes both the singularity of the particular and the variations of the general. Neither the structure nor the individual prevails. American exceptionalism is critiqued, European supremacy diminished. Meyer's method allows us to locate moments in the past when the differences between the Americas seem less important than shared values, expectations, and strategies.
Meyer's study is dense and deliberate, divided into three parts that methodically accumulate intellectual, biographical, and sociological details in order to create a perspective on the Americas that is at once panoramic and quotidian. Because of its attention to detail, Dos Americanos gets off to a slow start. Meyer covers all her bases and qualifies her generalizations, acknowledging that her method is in danger of piling up facts only to reach an "equilibrium" (10)—a kind of comparative, empirical stasis that comes from establishing a huge body of parallel circumstances without gaining any interpretive or explanatory purchase. But as Dos Americanos unfolds, the plot thickens and its connections deepen into a nuanced comparative cultural history that allows one to think in new ways about the larger American past. [End Page 364]
Part 1 deals with the historical and cultural inheritance of both Mather and Sigüenza, arguing that the two men's individual lives and intellectual leanings were the result of forces that shaped the whole of Europe in the seventeenth century. One of Dos Americanos's most important insights lies in its reconceptualization of the seventeenth-century European intellectual inheritance as a constellation of ideas encapsulating both the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Meyer collates both religious and social movements into a huge foundational structure called "Reforma-Contrarreforma" (10). In doing so, she extends to the Americas José Antonio Maravall's characterization of the period 1605–50 as the "Baroque Century" in which "all the societies of western Europe exhibited connected aspects." Although "Reforma-Contrarreforma" is unwieldy and perhaps over general in some of its applications, it serves to parse the superficial from the structurally significant phenomena that influenced colonial intellectual development and cultural formation. Broadly conceived as a "reform" tradition that encompassed both Protestants and Catholics in the seventeenth century, "Reforma-Contrarreforma...