Archive for November, 2009

From the Reading Room: MS 128

Contributed to Early Modern at the Beinecke by Elena Pellus, a doctoral student in the Yale University Department of Spanish and Portugese. Elena works on colonial Latin American literature, and was a pre-prospectus graduate research fellow at the Beinecke Library in the summer of 2009.

From the Reading Room: This series of postings highlights the research of graduate students, research fellows, and other scholars working in the Beinecke’s early modern collections.

These are the first two pages of the only extant manuscript of the “History of the Invention of the Indies,” dated 1583, catalogued as “MS 128” in the Medieval and Renaissance collection of the Beinecke Library. Written by the Spaniard Hernán Pérez de Oliva (1494?-1531), it is one of the first interpretive accounts of the Columbian encounter with the New World, and it summarizes the moral questions that the Castilian discovery and conquests posed to Spain and Europe. The manuscript was written between 1525 and 1528, and presented by its author to the learned son of Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Columbus. The original of this work was forever lost, and only in 1943 was a later copy found in London and put up for sale at auction. This unique manuscript, which is a treasure in itself, was donated by Frank Altschul to the Beinecke Library in 1944.

The interest of the “History” lies in the fact that it was written during a crucial period, the years between the four voyages of Columbus and the explorations that would lead to the conquest of Peru. (The intervening years saw the colonial establishment of Hispaniola, the conquest of Cuba and, most significantly, the conquest of Mexico). Written in third person, it deals with the exploration and conquest of the Antilles under Christopher Columbus’ command during his first three voyages, from 1492 to 1496. The first narration tells the first voyage of the Admiral, the exploration of the islands and the settlement of the expedition members, and the communication with its native towns. From the fourth narration on, we learn about the indigenous and Spanish rebellions and other difficulties that the Columbus’ brothers face in their government, the dialogue interchange with the tayno caciques, and the description of their cultures siboney and tayno. At the end of narration eight, centered in the events in Hispaniola during the Admiral’s absence, the story ends. The ninth and last narration is a description of the religion and customs of the tayno culture.

It is possible that Pérez de Oliva had the intention of continuing the story with the fourth voyage of Columbus and the conquest of Mexico; the sudden ending and the title given to the copy suggest this idea: “History of the Invention of the Indies and of the Conquest of the New Spain that Master Pérez de Oliva, born in Cordoba, was writing.” Still partially unknown on the map of colonial Latin American Literature, Pérez de Oliva was a very learned man of the first half of 16th century. He studied in Paris and Rome (then centers of European culture), served two popes, and was close to the King Charles the Fifth. He held a professorship in Theology at the University of Salamanca, became the President of that university, and founded an institute of higher learning (colegio mayor). His works encompassed a broad range of subjects including history, philosophy, drama, mathematics, and poetry, and they are both an exploration in the Castilian language and a reflection of the consequences that the encounter of the New World had for Spain and for Europe in general. I consider the “History of the Invention of the Indies” the culmination of his works because in it Pérez de Oliva incorporates the three main aspects of his literary production: the exploration in the literary genres, the settlement of Castilian, and the account of the New World.

Really As It Was: Writing the Life of Samuel Johnson

“I hope that News was not true,” wrote Hester Thrale Piozzi in 1799, on having heard of the impending death of Anna Seward, “as Floretta found it in Dr. Johnson’s Tale—to outlive Lovers and Haters, and Friends and Foes; and find one’s self surrounded by those with whom one has no Ideas in common—no Care for Applause nor no Strife of Competition.”(1) Piozzi’s melancholy was to continue, over the next two decades, as she out-lived most of the members of a literary circle in mid-eighteenth century England which had included Piozzi herself, Hannah More, Anna Seward, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds, James Boswell, and Samuel Johnson.


This act of remembering, of canonizing a literary circle through memory and anecdote, forms the subject of one of the Beinecke Library’s current exhibitions, “Really As It Was: Writing the Life of Samuel Johnson.” Curated by Diane Ducharme and Kathryn James, the exhibition explores the many biographies of Samuel Johnson’s life which were produced by his friends and acquaintances for an avid public in the days, years, and decades following his death. A web exhibition offers a gallery of the gossip, scandal, bitterness, delight, and fascination with which these works were greeted, read, and answered by the ever-articulate, ever-opinionated members of the Johnson circle. For those whose curiosity is only piqued by the exhibition, scanned manuscripts from the Boswell papers can also be found online. The exhibition is on view at the Beinecke Library through mid-December, 2009.


For further Johnson festivities, follow the word-a-day dictionary blog through its last months and letters. This blog began on January 1, 2009, by offering daily examples from an annotated proof copy of the first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755). When the proof copy finished, as it does abruptly in the letter P, the blog switched in October to examples drawn from a copy of the first edition owned and annotated by Hester Thrale Piozzi. Join us in the last of S, as we follow Johnson through his reading, as he chooses examples from a particular reading of an English literary canon to support a particular idea of the English language and its meanings.


As the end of 2009 draws near and the tercentennial festivities come to a close, Johnson followers can take comfort in one last exhibition, travelling from Harvard’s Hyde collection to open at the Grolier Club in New York City on December 9. The Harvard exhibition, A Monument More Durable than Brass: The Donald & Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson, was curated by John Overholt and will be on view at the Grolier through February 6, 2010.

1 Hester Thrale Piozzi to Hester Maria Thrale, Brynbella, 19 March 1799. The Piozzi Letters: Correspondence of Hester Lynch Piozzi, 1784-1821 (formerly Mrs. Thrale), ed. Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993), 3, 75.