Ralegh’s account of his voyage to Guiana in 1595 and his search for the golden city of Manoa has been seen as a literary masterpiece, but useless as ethnography. For many scholars, the book has exemplified the extension of the fabulous world of ancient and medieval myth to America, which Ralegh treated as a blank canvas. His literary and scholarly pretensions and his unquenchable thirst for gold prevented him from seeing what was before his eyes, and so his Discoverie has been seen as a source for understanding literary and economic aspirations in early modern Europe, but as telling us little about America and its people. This is the picture challenged by Neil Whitehead’s new edition of the Discoverie, the result of a decade’s work in archives in Seville, Paris, The Hague, London, and Oxford, as well as intensive study of the ethnographic and literary record. In two long introductory chapters, he seeks to situate Ralegh in his own time and as a source for understanding in ours.

Ralegh, seen as the quintessential Elizabethan Renaissance man, has attracted novelists, historians, literary scholars, and anthropologists—European, American, and Latin American—and each has found in his work a reflection of his or her own concerns. Chapter 1, “The Discoverie as Enchanted Text,” examines the range of treatments that Ralegh and his work has received and the theoretical considerations on which these treatments draw. Whitehead is particularly critical of some “new historicist” literary scholars who have failed both to understand ethnographic literature and, more surprisingly, to place Ralegh’s work in the context of the broader textual production of his period. They have followed earlier interpreters such as Vincent T. Harlow in seeing Ralegh’s book as a fabulous story, entirely self-reflexive and worthless as a source of information about anything except Elizabethan theatricality and Renaissance appropriation of medieval literary traditions.

In his second introductory chapter, “The Discoverie as Ethnological Text,” White- head argues that the book represents Ralegh’s distillation of information gathered from native sources, from earlier Spanish experience in the region, and from the literature of discovery generally. Whitehead, as anthropologist, reminds his readers that such texts, because they necessarily involve collaboration between writer and subject, are always more than simply the appropriation of a colonial other. He demonstrates in painstaking detail that Ralegh was a close observer and listener, and that the names, terms, and political relationships he presents are meaningful. Even the gold mine on which Ralegh staked his entire career, and which most writers have simply dismissed as fantasy, did exist. Ralegh wrote of a Guiana at a time of rapid change. His expedition’s failure to find any of the leaders and sites he needed to avert disaster on his return to Guiana in 1617 has been taken as proof that his earlier visit was steeped in romantic self-deception. But Whitehead points out that events in the intervening decades, knowledge of which is readily available from other sources, had displaced the arrangements Ralegh had observed and made his resumption of links impossible. Whitehead challenges readers to understand the role of indigenous lore, often transmitted through Spanish sources, in stories of El Dorado, Amazonas, acephali, and the Inca invasion of Guiana, and to see that the Discoverie is an important source for understanding life in the region before its transformation after 1600.

Whitehead’s argument is challenging, both in content and in presentation. He makes few concessions to readers who may be less steeped in the literature than he is, but the introduction is definitely worth the effort required. Readers unfamiliar with the Discoverie should turn to it first and then take on Whitehead’s introduction. He has done scholars a very great service by preserving not only the spelling, but also the pagination of the original. This edition, based on the first of three editions in 1596, is essential reading for anyone interested in early modern ethnography, literature, and colonialism.