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Rhetorical Conquests: Cortés, Gómara, and Renaissance Imperialism

Glen Carman

This study examines how Hernán Cortés, first as the author of his Cartas de relación (1519-1526), and then as the protagonist of Francisco López de Gómara's Historia de la conquista de México (1552), defends Spain's conquest of Mexico. It analyzes how these accounts represent his speech acts, including some of his key speeches; how they allow him to define the conquest in different ways to different audiences; and how they represent him as controlling the speech acts of others, most notably those of Moctezuma.

Carman argues that these texts, in their attempt to justify the wars of conquest, do not maintain that the Spanish Empire simply possesses a "truth" over which falsehoods cannot prevail. Instead they show an understanding of the "truth" similar to that of Aristotle, who acknowledges that falsehoods can and often do prevail. The “truth,” according to these accounts, requires an artful advocate, like Cortés, who can give it the form it needs for each new audience and set of circumstances. By allowing the reader to see through Cortés’s rhetorical manipulation of others, especially of others who are so alien to the reader, these histories reinforce the moral and intellectual hierarchies that are necessary for a society to believe that it has the right or even the obligation to impose its will on others.

“This book is … a timely contribution that provides definitions for key terms in the study of rhetoric and conquest in Colonial Latin America, by focusing on the case of the textual representations of Hernán Cortés and his conquest of México.” —Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel, University of Pennsylvania

“This book is a welcome addition to scholarship and a good application to the study of the figure of Cortés, created by himself and humanist historians of the sixteenth century, in particular Gómara, of the speech act analysis that John L. Austin theorizes in his How to Do Things with Words” —Carmen Y. Hsu, Renaissance Quarterly (2007): 563–64.

“Despite its focus on the character of Hernán Cortés, Rhetorical Conquests is a useful analysis of some of the rhetorical means employed by Francisco López de Gómara in the crafting of his most controversial, but deeply influential work. Carman's in this sense part of a recent trend that seeks to revaluate the work of one of the most important humanist historians of the early colonial period.”—Andrés I. Prieto, Hispania 90.4 (Dec. 2007): 703-04.

"La tesis de Carman sobre Cortés no es nueva, pero está expuesta de una forma minuciosa como no lo había sido antes.... su libro es una valiosa contribución a los estudios coloniales." —Roberto González Echevarría, Primera Revista Latinoamericana de Libros (June/July 2008): 26-27.

"In focusing specifically on the rhetorical machinations of Cortés, Carman presents a fascinating account of how the narrative control of speech acts served 'to define the conquest in different ways to different audiences' (3)." —Jonathan Carlyon, Colorado Review of Hispanic Studies 7 (Fall 2009): 277-79.

"Carman's study provides a thoroughly updated discussion of Cortés and Gómara as well as of Renaissance historiography. … he also ties [his argument] to apparently contradictory notions of truth that Cortés invokes throughout his letters. … Carman's analysis engages the reader in a way that contributes to new understandings of the texts." —Galen Brokaw, Calíope 14.1 (2008): 133-35.

"In deploying Gómara/Cortés as an uneasy tandem, Carmen sets up a novel and very productive approach to the procedures by which both Cortés and Gómara bring forth the 'truth' of their accounts. ... Carman's study is indeed illuminating and the conclusions that the book reaches are instructive as well as fully justified in arguing that analysis shows that neither author's truth constitute a 'justification' of the Spanish conquest."—Sara Castro-Klaren, MLN 124.2 (2009): 522-25.

For further reviews, see
Reference and Research Book News Nov. 2006.
Bulletin of Spanish Studies 85 (2008): 238-39, by Juan F. Maura.
Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 42.1 (2008): 180-83, by Raúl Marrero-Fente.
The Latin Americanist 52.2 (June 2008): 85-87. by Charles B. Moore.

Glen Carman, DePaul University in Chicago, teaches language and literature. His current research focuses on Bartolomé de las Casas, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, and the sixteenth-century debates over Spain's wars of conquest.

ISBN-13: 978-1-55753-403-3; ISBN-10: 1-55753-403-9
2006. Vol. 35. viii, 250 pp. Paper $43.95

Carman window

A display case in Stanley Coulter Hall
publicizing Carman's Rhetorical Conquests

Information last updatedAugust 17, 2018.

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