Flinging the Book: Archibald MacLeish, the Airwaves, and the Anniversary of Atahuallpa’s Death

Well, I thought I’d better carry on with my Spanish lessons, having discovered, upon leafing through the travel guides, that I am not merely linguistically challenged but culturally ignorant as well.

 According to one guidebook (admittedly, a someone dated volume), the citizens of Madrid—the madrileños—have a “lingering suspicion of foreigners” and are reluctant to speak English. Granted, it’s been a while since conquistadors rather than tourists filled Spain’s coffers, but the Spaniards have been known to be somewhat insensitive when it comes to other cultures. There sure is dirt under the old welcome mat.

On this day in 1533, for instance, Francisco Pizarro put an end to the Incan empire by doing away with emperor Atahuallpa. The Incas were not a chirographic people and did not appreciate having the book flung at them—especially not the good book. Intrigued by the thought that the demise of the Inca meant not only the loss of their aureate treasures but of their aural tradition, I flung my travel guides aside and tuned in again to one of the more ambitious if lesser known American radio series of the 1940s, Archibald MacLeish’s American Story.

MacLeish (above, right, in my impression of an image taken from Irving Settel’s Pictorial History of Radio), Pulitzer Prize winner for his poem Conquistador (1933), was one of the first American writers to take radio seriously and to encourage others to emerge from their ivory towers by broadcasting their choice words to the masses. After all, he remarked in the foreword to The Fall of the City, his first and most significant contribution to the aural arts, “what poet ever lived who was really satisfied with writing the thin little books to lie on the front parlor tables?”

As a Librarian of Congress, MacLeish enjoyed ready access to many an obscure document—and radio offered an opportunity of sharing this wealth of unheard words. Rather than dramatizing scenes from history books, MacLeish wanted to let ancient texts speak for themselves:

To place historical personages in historical situations and then imagine the words they must have spoken to each other is to imitate the historical dramas of the stage at the expense of radio’s unique function and unique opportunity. Because radio is limited mechanically to sound, and particularly to the sound of speech, radio is capable of a concentration upon the speech itself, the text itself, which can give words a life and a significance they rarely achieve outside the printed page—and which they achieve there only for the most gifted and fortunate readers.

In “The Many Dead,” one of the scripts for the American Story series, MacLeish drew on the writings of Pizarro’s secretary Francisco de Xeres to recount the death of emperor Atahuallpa. In order to convey this sobering story without turning it into sensational melodrama, the poet-historian chose to deliver the “pertinent excerpts” of Xeres’s official account in the somber and matter-of-fact voice of a clerk, a newscaster of his time:

The Governor [Pizarro] asked the Father Friar Vicente if he wished to go and speak to Atahuallpa with an interpreter. He replied that he did wish it, and he advanced with a cross in one hand and the Bible in the other [. . .] and [. . .] thus addressed him: “I am a Priest of God, and I teach Christians the things of God, and in like matter I come to teach you. What I teach is that which God says to us in this Book [. . .].”

Atahuallpa asked for the book that he might look at it, and the priest gave it to him closed. Atahuallpa did not know how to open it, and the Priest was extending his arm to do so, when Atahuallpa, in great anger, gave him a blow on the arm, not wishing that it should be opened [. . .]. Then he opened it himself, and, without any astonishment at the letters and paper, as had been shown by other Indians, he threw it away form him five or six paces . . . .

Then the Governor put on a jacket of cotton, took his sword and dagger, and, with the Spaniards who were with him, entered amongst the Indians most valiantly.
Then the Governor put on a jacket of cotton, took his sword and dagger, and, with the Spaniards who were with him, entered amongst the Indians most valiantly.

According to Xeres’s account, Pizarro and his men “fearlessly seized” Atahuallpa and the infantry of the Spaniards “made so good an assault” on the fleeing natives that “in a short time most of them were put to the sword.” Pizarro was said to have protected the emperor from the Spaniards—to give him the benefit of a proper execution—and was slightly wounded as a result. “It was a very wonderful thing,” the clerk concludes, “to see so great a lord taken prisoner in so short a time [. . .].”

The men with the books have generally proved victorious over the vocal but readily muted thinkers who spread their words without the benefit of the printing press. Atahuallpa, bereft of his voice after rejecting the book, chose death by strangulation. Even MacLeish, as Librarian of Congress, largely failed in his attempt to return written records to the air and revive the breath that gave them life. Who, after all, still listens to his American Story today?

Now, I hear that the madrileños are a noisy, boisterous people; perhaps the powerful, silencing, and not-so-good book instilled them with confidence. . . .

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