UB Historian's Book Named One of Year's Best by Major Publications, American Historical Association

Top kudos from Times Literary Supplement, Economist, Independent and AHA

Release Date: January 8, 2002 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- An award-winning book by University at Buffalo historian Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra examining the emerging identities that shaped the Western hemisphere has been cited as one of the best books of the year by three important international publications and has received two prestigious national awards from the American Historical Association (AHA).

The book, "How to Write the History of the New World" (Stanford University Press, 2001), refreshes our understanding of the colonial past and of the origins of the independence movements in the Western hemisphere.

Last month alone, it was named one of the year's best books by the TLS (Times Literary Supplement), the Independent (London, Dec. 12) and The Economist, which, in its Dec. 22 issue, called it "a masterpiece of scholarly ingenuity."

The book also was named the best book on Atlantic history and the best book on Spanish and Latin American history for 2001 by the AHA -- two prestigious national awards presented to Cañizares-Esguerra on Jan. 3 at a special ceremony in San Francisco.

The contents of the book are implied by its subtitle, "Histories, Epistemologies and Identities in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World." In it, Cañizares-Esguerra traces the cultural processes that led early-modern intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic to question primary sources that long had been considered authoritative: Mesoamerican codices, early colonial Spanish chronicles and travel accounts.

"My study argues that the skepticism that dominated the 'age of reason' took on different meanings in different places," says Cañizares-Esguerra, assistant professor in the Depatment of History in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

"In Northern Europe, it generated new forms of reading, assessing and validating documents, and new forms of writing history that drew on non-literary sources. In Spain, it prompted scholars to create new, more reliable narratives based on primary documentation that, in turn, led to the formation of one of the largest specialized repositories of primary sources in the world -- the Archive of the Indies.

"Finally, in Spanish America, skepticism was turned against its most ardent European promoters. Spanish-American scholars questioned the ability of foreign European observers to ever comprehend the past and nature of the New World," he explains.

Cañizares-Esguerra says the great intellectual, cultural movements of the modern world -- like the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and Romanticism -- often are presented as European inventions that passively and derivatively were consumed in other regions of the world. The book demonstrates, he says, "the pitfalls of such an approach" to historical studies of Latin America.

"In the Age of Enlightenment, when it comes to devising new ideas on how to write the history of the New World," he says, "there was as much intellectual creativity in the so-called peripheries (Spain, Mexico) as in the Northern-European core." This fact often astonishes American students, who have very little knowledge of the intellectual and cultural history of Latin America, and whose understanding of Central and South America has developed from a European perspective.

As a teacher, Cañizares-Esguerra says he tends to avoid the tragic narratives that dominate the field of Latin American history and instead emphasizes the rich, racial, social, cultural and intellectual history of the region.

"I value interdisciplinary approaches," he says, "and shy away from flattened and parochial narratives that present Latin America as a continent onto itself."

His second book, "Nation and Nature: Nature Narratives and Identities in Latin American History, 1500-1900," forthcoming from Stanford University Press, studies pictorial, literary and scientific narratives of nature and how they relate to distinct regional and national identities of Latin America.

An article by Cañizares-Esguerra in the February 1999 issue of American Historical Review, "New World, New Stars: Patriotic Astrology and the Construction of Indian and Creole Bodies in Colonial Spanish America, 1600-1650," further demonstrates his interdisciplinary approach. In November, the piece received the Best Article Prize for 1999-2001 from the History of Science Society's Forum for the History of the Human Sciences at the HSS annual convention.

Cañizares-Esguerra, currently on leave at Harvard University, attended medical school in Quito, Ecuador, and received a master's degree and doctorate in the history of science from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Before joining the UB history faculty, he was assistant professor of history at Illinois State University.

He has received many fellowships in his field, including those from the Social Science Research Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton and Harvard's Charles Warren Center for American History.

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