“Perhaps the Most Interesting Book of Travel Ever Published”

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

As soon as I saw that one of the fans of travel writer John Lloyd Stephens was none other than Edgar Allan Poe, I was intrigued. Although I have the lengthy Library of America collection of Poe’s Essays and Reviews, I could not find any mention of Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán among the reviews, I did find this intriguing note on the Internet. It is from an 1841 issue of Graham’s Magazine:

We are not prepared to say that misunderstandings of this character will be found in the present “Incidents of Travel.” Of Central America and her antiquities Mr. Stephens may know, and no doubt does know, as much as the most learned antiquarian. Here all is darkness. We have not yet received from the Messieurs Harper a copy of the book, and can only speak of its merits from general report and from the cursory perusal which has been afforded us by the politeness of a friend. The work is certainly a magnificent one — perhaps the most interesting book of travel ever published. An idea has gone abroad that the narrative is confined to descriptions and drawings of Palenque; but this is very far from the case. Mr. S. explored no less than six ruined cities. The “incidents,” moreover, are numerous and highly amusing. The traveller visited these regions at a momentous time, during the civil war, in which Carrera and Morazan were participants. He encountered many dangers, and his hair-breadth escapes are particularly exciting.

I find it interesting that Poe committed himself so far without actually having a copy of the book in hand. Perhaps he saw the proofs or an advanced copy, as he hints above. I will continue to search to see whether Poe actually did write a more comprehensive review of the book.

 

The Federal Republic of Central America

One Real Coin of the Federal Republic of Central America

Between 1823 and 1840, what we know of the countries of Central America was a single country, with the following two exceptions:

  • British Honduras (now Belize) has never officially been recognized by Guatemala.
  • Panama did not exist as a separate country, but was a part of the Republic of Colombia.

In 1839, a young American by the name of John Lloyd Stephens was appointed by President Martin Van Buren to be a special ambassador to the unified Federal Republic of Central America. The only problem was that, by the time Stephens and his artist companion Frederick Catherwood landed in Central America, the Federal Republic was in the process of splitting apart.

John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852)

Stephens’s main interest was to visit the Mayan ruins scattered around Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico—but going as a plenipotentiary of the United States was a big plus, especially since the countries of Central America were coming apart like a cheap suit.

I have just finished re-reading Volume i of Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán. The only ruins Stephens and Catherwood were able to visit before presenting their credentials to the government were in Copán, Honduras.  Most of the rest of that volume concerns the efforts of the two to find the government, which Stephens does in El Salvador, quite by accident:

The next day I made a formal call upon Señor Vigil [Vice President of the Republic]. I was in a rather awkward position. When I left Guatimala [sic] in search of a government, I did not expect to meet it on the road. In that state I had heard but one side [that of Guatemalan rebel General Carrera]; I was just beginning to hear the other. If there was any government, I had treed it. Was it the real thing or was it not? In Guatimala they said it was not; here they said it was. It was a knotty question. I was in no great favor in Guatimala, and in endeavouring to play a safe game I ran the risk of being hustled by all parties. In Guatimala they had no right to ask for my credentials, and took offence because I did not present them; here, if I refused, they had the right to consider it an insult.

As I read Stephens, I was reminded of how great some of the 19th century U.S. historians were. Not only Stephens, but also William H. Prescott (History of the Conquest of Mexico), Francis Parkman (the volumes of France and England in North America), and John Lothrop Motley (The Rise of the Dutch Republic). They are unfortunately not read much today, but I am convinced they are, in their own field, among the lights of 19th century American literature.

 

Serendipity: The Name of God

Lithograph by Frederick Catherwood of the Mayan Ruins at Copán, Honduras

It is with the greatest pleasure that I am re-reading a book I first read in June 1975 in preparation for the first of my travels, to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. The book was Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán by John Lloyd Stephens. The book was published in 1841 in two volumes with illustrations by Frederick Catherwood, who accompanied Stephens on his journeys. At one point, Stephens and Catherwood visit a school in Zacapa in Guatemala, where they set about making a usable dictionary of Mayan Indian words. As Stephens recounts:

We were rather at a loss what to do with ourselves, but in the afternoon our host called in an Indian for the purpose of enabling us to make a vocabulary of Indian words. The first question I asked him was the name of God, to which he answered, Santissima Trinidad. Through our host I explained to him that I did not wish the Spanish, but the Indian name, and he answered as before, Santissima Trinidad or Dios. I shaped my question in a variety of ways, but could get no other answer. He was a tribe called Chinaute, and the inference was, either that they had never known any Great Spirit who governed and directed the universe, or that they had undergone such an entire change in matters of religion, that they had lost their own appellation for the Deity.

The two volumes are still in print from Dover Publications.