A Letter from America XVII: A Trip to the Yucatan, John Lloyd Stephens, and Travel Books (August/Sept.)

From the Antiquarian Book Review

Every collector and bookseller knows the question. You usher into your library or store the "friend" or "customer" who has expressed a desire to see your beloved books. You are, perhaps, already contemplating what treasure you will show them that will exemplify your taste, good fortune, or skill in uncovering the quietly marvelous. But that is not what they have come for. A hideous leer distorts their features as they turn to put you in your place. "Have you actually read all these books?" they ask, confident that this will smoke out your pretensions.

For years I experimented with answers to this generally ill-intentioned inquiry. "No, but a gentleman does not always have to experience things to know what they are like," was one. "Are you kidding?" and "What, this junk?" are not good retailing form. More recently I pull myself up to my full height, look the inquisitor in the eye, and reply "Yes," with simple dignity. They are never going to catch you out, after all. They’ve never read a cereal box, much less the books in question.

Nonetheless, in a effort to make this true, I have taken to reading some books I’ve been selling for years while touting the accepted wisdom that they are classics. The amazing thing is, most of them ARE classics. Most of my reading, given my stock in trade, has been in travel and exploration. So, on a recent trip to Yucatan to visit archeological sites, I took along John Lloyd Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (New York, 1843, but available in a wide range of modern reprints).

One of the great things about travel books is – you can travel with them. Many classic narratives have come back in print in the last several decades, allowing the reader to take along a portable and if need be disposable text on a trip. Londoners are blessed with the best in print travel book store in the world, Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street (in the space, the older children will fondly recall, occupied by Francis Edwards in its heyday). Here travel guides, travel narratives, and fiction set in specific locales are arranged geographically, allowing the browser to focus on their destination. (They have a well-selected general new stock as well. I never go to London without visiting Daunt).

There could be no better travelling companion than Stephens. At once humorous and informative, he describes not only the ancient sites which he and the artist Frederic Catherwood labored to uncover and describe, but also the day to day life of the towns he visited in 1841. To the extent that the sites were viewable by Stephens, buried as many of them were in thick jungle, one can use the book as a guide today, and Catherwood’s illustrations provide a visual contrast between what these first explorers saw and what the tourist encounters today. More striking, for me, are his descriptions of villages and local life. Here things are often little changed in Yucatan; the house he describes staying in the town of Izamal can easily be identified, and the plaza at Ticul, where he attended several fiestas (Stephens was always ready for a party- he rode all day to get to one of the dances at Ticul) is much as he describes it. Of course, this is not always the case; "the island of Kancune, a barren strip of land" is now ten solid miles of gringo hotels. Whatever the degree of change, Stephens’ often hilarious narrative provides a baseline for the modern traveler to measure against.

One of the great tragedies of post-Conquest Mexico was the fanatical campaign, carried out by a few zealots, to destroy the pre-Columbian writings of the Maya and Aztec civilizations. We know that the Maya had an extensive culture of written codices, attested to by numerous surviving pots showing scribes at work. These codices were typically made from materials such as mulberry bark paper, and folded accordion style. Only four pre-Columbian ones now survive; most evidently perished in the first few decades of the Conquest. The greatest single destruction recorded was in the town of Mani, the foremost Mayan city in Yucatan at the time of the Conquest, but now a sleepy village. It is dominated by the vast church, one of the first built by the Spanish, who followed here the policy they adopted throughout the country of erecting their holy places atop former Mayan shrines. In front of this church, in June of 1562, Fray Diego de Landa held a great auto-de-fe to punish and humiliate natives backsliding from Christianity, and to destroy their idols. Prominent as fodder for Landa’s fires were no less than twenty-seven codices. It is small satisfaction to know that Landa’s zealotry got him fired; he was recalled and tried, for he had specific orders to send such things on the Spain, not destroy them. But the damage was done. A decade later, Landa returned as bishop of Yucatan, proving that reactionaries are hard to get rid of.

Stephens went to Mani full of hope that Landa had missed something. All he found in the village archives was "one large volume which had an ancient and venerable appearance, being bound in parchment, tattered, and worm-eaten," but which contained a fascinating 1557 map, a drawing of which he includes in his book (he would have taken the original, but the locals were suspicious he was going to use the archives to try to seize title to their lands, and kept a close eye on him).

I had no such illusions (but you never know). My pilgrimage to Mani was purely to pay tribute to the lost codices. Just think what they represented, what was destroyed! I stood in the deserted plaza in front of the church, and thought of Stephens and his book, and thought of the books that were gone forever.

– William S. Reese