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Lander professor gives new life to Mayan literature

February 26, 2007
Behind the veil of Mexico's Cancun and Cozumel exists an area of the world rich with literary history. A key aspect of that past is the story of the survival and progressive flourishing of Mayan literature throughout the Yucatan peninsula. 

Rooted in oral and written myths and legends dating back some 4,000 years, Yucatecan Maya literature has slowly evolved to its present state as an essential expression of that culture. Nonetheless, its development and significant works have remained a mystery to the English-speaking world until now. 

With little over a year of retirement behind him, Dr. Robert Morris, Lander University Spanish professor emeritus, hasn't wasted any time shedding light on the Mayan literature of the Yucatan. The publication of his book, "Classic, Colonial and Contemporary: A Guide to Yucatecan Maya Literature," brings with it an extensive, yet introductory, overview of the history, texts and authors of this literary tradition. 

Published at the end of 2006, the book is currently available in bookstores in Merida, the capital of Yucatan, and the Lander bookstore.

Morris' book was edited by his wife, Dr. Julia Whitsitt, professor of English at Lander University. The couple currently splits their time between their homes in Greenwood and Chicxulub Puerto, Yucatan, Mexico.

From his second home in Chicxulub Puerto, Morris has had a good vantage point from which to research the content of his book, which provides an overview of several periods and aspects of Yucatecan Maya Literature. His singular purpose for writing the book was to create an English language guide to the literature in question. Until the publication of his book, there were no guides to this literature available in any language.  

"For tourists who have gone there and then wanted guidance on the literature," said Morris, "there was nothing to be found."  

Morris' book begins, as it should, with the pre-Hispanic and Colonial periods of Mayan literature. Texts such as the "Popol Vuh," often described as the Mayan Bible and cited in the book as the best source for understanding Mayan mythology, are highlighted as examples of this period in Mayan literature. 

Expanding into modern and contemporary Mayan literature, Morris writes about the intricate and ever-increasing momentum of a renaissance in the Mayan literature of the Yucatan. From a profile of Antonio Mediz Bolio, the accepted architect of this renaissance, to an overview of key writers in the areas of prose, poetry and theatre, Morris creates an impressive sample sure to satisfy the literary palette of interested readers. 

Morris' interest in Yucatecan Maya literature started when he and his wife first began visiting the Yucatan; it was solidified as he became interested in the works of Joaquín Bestard Vázquez with whom he eventually developed a friendship. A crucial step in the research of Morris' book was a sabbatical granted to him by Lander University. He said that this sabbatical allowed time to conduct his research in a way that was necessary for compiling his book. 

Morris stressed the importance of faculty being given the support to pursue their research. He also expressed his gratitude for Lander's continuing support of faculty after their retirement. 

A quick look at his Web site shows that Morris' scholarship in the area of Mayan literature is not at an end. Currently located on his site,, is a full translation of Joaquín Bestard Vázquez'  "Sol de la guacamaya de fuego," which Morris refers to as "Red Macaw." While the translation of the novel is complete and contains links to notes and a glossary, Morris intends to compile the project into an interactive CD. The finished project will contain links to photos and other documentation that will further explain the historical, mythological and thematic connections to Mayan literature found in Vázquez' novel. 

While the recent film "Apocalypto," directed by Mel Gibson, drew mainstream attention to the Mayan culture, many scholars have expressed concern over inaccuracies in the film's depiction of the Mayan people. For those seeking a more accurate portrayal of the Mayans, Morris' book provides a well-researched look at their culture and literature. Drawing greater attention to the Mayan culture, the book also serves to give a new voice to the many writers who are working to continue this literary tradition.