James Lockhart, the eminent historian of colonial Latin America, passed away on January 17, 2014. In recognition of Professor Lockhart's position in the community as one of the foremost scholars of colonial Latin America, one who blazed the way forward in the leading subfields of social history and ethnohistory, the editors asked four of Lockhart's former students to compose an obituary and invite all readers to comment on and add to this obituary through an online memorial.
Please add your personal reflections to the memorial at http://hahr-online.com/.
We were all taken by surprise and shock when we first heard that James Lockhart had passed away, despite the fact that we had known about his declining health as he approached his 81st birthday. The surprise emanated from the fact that Jim seemed to have so many lives that he could not possibly die — that somehow he would magically pop up somewhere. After all, he had transformed himself from a translator in the army to a comparative literature student to a historian enmeshed in the intricate details of the social history of Spanish speakers in Peru to an expert in the Nahuatl language. Why wouldn't he transform his identity yet again? Of course, for those who knew Jim, we also knew that he would scoff at such wishful thinking for his magical survival. All his transformations, he was fond of saying, were simple logical conclusions about what the next step should be in the quest for knowledge. He moved on to the study of Nahuatl, for example, because he knew that one needed to know the language of a people in order to study them. One of our colleagues likes to say that Jim embarrassed all of us when he came to this simple conclusion — of course, how could one ever have thought differently?
After a stint in the US Army Signal Corps, during which he translated many mundane documents from German to English, Jim began his academic career as a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. At the time, in the mid-1960s, he became extremely dissatisfied with the jargon of the discipline and eventually found his way to the History Department, where he studied under the tutelage of John Leddy Phelan. There, in order to figure out what really happened to ordinary people in history, Jim embarked on a social history project that resulted in a 1967 dissertation and his first groundbreaking book, Spanish Peru, 1532–1560: A Colonial Society (1968). That book shepherded in a series of social histories of colonial Latin America and marked the young Lockhart as an emerging leader of the field. The book took the notarial archives of Lima and studied them extremely closely, looking for the details of everyday life in the region. The chapters covered each of the different groups of people in the area, from encomenderos to merchants, from women to people of African descent. In his attention to many of these groups, as well as to notarial sources, Jim touched hitherto unexplored ground. He often would mention the great joy that he got from deciphering the notarial documents, written in such difficult script, and in finding unexpected details from those texts, details of life that would have been unavailable to him if it were not for the Spanish obsession with (and the sometimes quirky interests of) notaries. And in characteristic Lockhart style, he dedicated the book to the notaries!
His second book, The Men of Cajamarca: A Social and Biographical Study of the First Conquerors of Peru (1972), was perhaps less celebrated, at least initially, but was equally groundbreaking. It summarily dispensed with the older view of conquering armies of paid soldiers. A prosopography of a set of conquistadores, the book showed how much detail one could get from studying a small group of people for whom there was rich documentation, and it reintroduced an underutilized method to historians of Latin America. Teasingly, Jim would say that “one is a pattern,” and yet he rejoiced in compiling copious data that showed — for example — broad migration and career patterns of an array of social types, illuminating larger social structures and key aspects of Spanish colonialism in the process.
Despite the fact that five years after receiving his PhD he was a recognized leader in the field of colonial Latin American history who had led the way to a new emphasis on social history, on the quotidian existence of individuals, Jim remained dissatisfied with part of his work and inquisitive as to the next stage of intellectual endeavor. Although Spanish Peru had included a long chapter on “Indians,” Jim realized that one could not understand their lives in a nuanced way without reading documents that they had produced in their own language. And he could not find any significant cache of notarial documents in Andean languages. So, throughout the 1970s, he shifted his studies to Mesoamerica, where he knew that a collection of indigenous-language notarial documents existed, which granted the potential for tapping into the Nahua “vision and version of things.” He began to collaborate with a group of scholars (in particular, Arthur J. O. Anderson, Charles Dibble, and Frances Karttunen) in learning classic Nahuatl and figuring out its daily uses. At the same time as these scholars were turning their attention to the notarial texts, another group of Mexican intellectuals (primarily Miguel León-Portilla and Alfredo López Austin), following the lead of Ángel María Garibay, sought to translate colonial Nahuatl texts such as songs and poems, and Jim always maintained his enormous debt to this group of scholars and their students. Likewise, he held the native speaker / professor maestro Luis Reyes García and his seminar group in Tlaxcala in high esteem.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Lockhart and his colleagues, eventually joined by a large group of students who had come to UCLA to work on Nahuatl, promoted further language study and translation of mundane texts. They published such works as Nahuatl in the Middle Years: Language Contact Phenomena in Texts of the Colonial Period (1976), in which they demonstrated the growing impact of cultural contact as manifested in language change; Beyond the Codices: The Nahua View of Colonial Mexico (1976), a pathbreaking collection of translations and annotations of indigenous-language texts in which they proved the viability and efficacy of understanding the more mundane documents; and The Art of Nahuatl Speech: The Bancroft Dialogues (1987), in which they documented the polite speech of educated elders. Dissertations that Lockhart supervised closely were opening doors to jobs right and left and were providing building blocks for Jim's own substantial tomes. Lockhart's publication of Nahuas and Spaniards: Postconquest Central Mexican History and Philology (1991), a collection of essays based on the mundane documents (along with yet more translations), showed how the field had been formulated based on a specific methodology: the New Philology, a method and school of thought based on the use of everyday indigenous-language documents to assess social, cultural, political, intellectual, and economic change in indigenous societies. Tracking terminology in context and comparing regional and temporal variations of term usage across multiple documents allowed Jim to raise the profile of the profoundly significant sociopolitical entity, the altepetl, in Nahua America just as he had helped us rethink encomienda and hacienda in Spanish America.
All this work culminated in Lockhart's 1992 publication of the magisterial The Nahuas after the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries. The book most poignantly maintains that one can understand the changes in indigenous societies during the colonial period by looking at language. Through such an analysis, Lockhart proposes a three-stage theory of change for the Nahuas. The first stage, beginning with contact with the Spanish and ending in about 1550, evinces little change in language (certain words are borrowed, primarily relating to the religious and political spheres) as well as in Nahua social structure. The second stage begins in about 1550 and ends in about 1650. During this stage, we see significant changes in language as more words are borrowed from Spanish and incorporated more closely into Nahuatl. We also see much more transformation in the Nahua social structure as more elements important to Spanish society are incorporated into the Nahua world. The third stage, from 1650 on, shows even more bilingualism and shifts in Nahuatl grammar. At this point, we also witness more significant changes in Nahua social structure as the altepetl begins to fracture and more individualized labor arrangements are made between Nahuas and Spaniards. This intervention — although partly predicted by Charles Gibson in the 1950s and 1960s — was the first that allowed historians to engage in a detailed analysis of the social changes wrought upon Nahua society by the Spanish presence. And it opened up a myriad of topics for research that many of us are still exploring.
Soon after publishing this work, Jim retired from active teaching and committee work, moving up into a quite remote mountain cabin north of Los Angeles where he could focus on research and writing, interspersed with taking Sierra Club hikes, making fine wooden cabinets, and playing his beloved Renaissance music. He continued through these years to actively mentor graduate students and recent PhDs interested in Nahuatl, and he expanded his linguistic endeavors by learning Quechua, improving his Yucatec Maya, and beginning an inquiry into Zapotec. Throughout this time, many of us would call upon him, and he would say that we should come up to the cabin and spend a day with him, hiking through the mountains and discussing the intricacies of Nahuatl philology. Those days will be sorely missed.
We will also miss his regular e-mails inquiring about the progress of another translation and pushing us gently but firmly on. For Jim kept up regular e-mail communication with scholars across the United States, in Mexico, and in Europe (e.g., Poland), supporting our ongoing translation and analysis work from afar. He continued to publish, too, collaborating with Rodrigo Martínez Baracs, for example, on a Spanish version of Nahuatl as Written, which will appear before long in Mexico. He also ventured into the world of digital publications with the online, coedited anthology Sources and Methods for the Study of Postconquest Mesoamerican Ethnohistory (published by the Wired Humanities Projects at the University of Oregon in 2007 and expanded in 2010). Shortly before his passing, he was also supplying material in support of a new direction, what we might call the Digital New Philology, led by Stephanie Wood, whereby texts and their translations can be accessed and compared through federated searches. The nascent, online Early Nahuatl Library is an example of this, as is the online Nahuatl Dictionary, which connects vocabularies and attestations from early Nahuatl with modern Eastern Huastecan Nahuatl.
Native speakers from the Huasteca and from the Tlaxcala-Puebla region have shown a deep appreciation for Jim's contribution to the study of their heritage materials. The Facebook site Nahuatlahtolli, where members communicate in Nahuatl, was abuzz in early 2014 with high praise for “tohueytemachtiquetzin” (our great teacher). It is gratifying when one's research about other cultures is received with such enthusiasm; sadly, Jim did not get to see this outpouring. Peruvians, similarly, went immediately to press upon his death to express their long-held appreciation for his books published back in 1968 and 1972, as well as Letters and People of the Spanish Indies: Sixteenth Century (1976, with Enrique Otte), and various Spanish translations of his more recent work. One Peruvian graduate student posted a lament about the loss of Jim; the post's many shares included one that called him an “icon of American History” — meaning American in the broader, more inclusive sense, of course. And indeed he was just that: a beloved icon of the history of the Americas.