If you want the latest on the role of modernity and modernization in the transformation of a Latin American country, then you should dip into Willie Hiatt’s exploration of how “technological modernity” occurred, or, more to the point, didn’t occur, in twentieth-century Peru. The Rarified Air of the Modern: Airplanes and Technological Modernity in the Andes is part of the newer genre of Peruvian studies, which in the past focused on such traditional themes as dictators, race, oligarchs, culture, literature, and many of Peru’s national strengths and weaknesses and challenges. This study, of how aviation enthusiasts in Peru sought to modernize their country with the flying machine, devotes a lot of space not only to the theories and practice of modernization, but also in some instances to race relations, transportation, imagination, political and economic peripheries, binaries, and, really at the core of this study, the making of Peru’s national character by riding, or flying I should say, the vehicle of the airplane. The book contains the language of the new cultural historians, which sometimes is very accurate, sometimes simply entertaining. I especially liked “technoeuphoria” (6). Hiatt’s language sometimes moves him into what Peruvians anticipated from aviation. “Technology’s emancipatory promise unfurled across Andean skies, conjuring geographical integration, economic development, military might, and local, regional, and national empowerment” (2). Wow. That’s a mouthful, but even overwritten in the enthusiastic, superheated prose of the author’s generation, I think it captures some of the naïve and unrealistic promises of modern aviation, especially in its earliest stages. Those stages lasted from aviation’s inception on the sands of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, through the 1930s, when modern aviation came into being under the double incentive of wars on the horizon and the immense promise of forging new sources of wealth and prosperity in the private sectors. That aviation was romantic, adventurous, dangerous, and promised near instant fame and/or notoriety made it a much more interesting vehicle of the modernization process than, let’s say, making automobiles, although Henry Ford enthusiasts may quibble a bit. I have a few quibbles myself. I would not have entitled chapter 2 “Peruvian Air Farce, 1919–1930.” That’s kind of pretentious and demonstrates some of what Peruvians might style soberbia (overblown pride) on the part of a gringo author. I am not into false dignification, but if we are into identifying very closely with everyone in Peru who was not an oligarch (which is to say most Peruvians, including a high percentage of the indigenous of the sierra), then let’s make our discourse, analysis, and critique civil, regardless of what social, racial, ethnic, or political class we are describing. A snarky chapter title has no place in a book conceived and executed as a rigorous academic treatise. Another quibble is with Hiatt’s dismissal of the railroads—an icon of modernization from the earlier generation of Peruvian rulers in the second half of the nineteenth century—as failures. The railroads were perceived by the rulers of Peru as the quintessential modernizing agents, piercing the Andes from the coast to bring out the ores of Peru—like copper, silver, and gold—that were fetching such high prices in the rapidly modernizing sectors of the European and North American economies. The author identifies the same type of thinking with respect to aviation, and he just needed to make the connection better. The range of sources and specialties consulted by the author is impressive. It reminded me a bit of the work of one of the earlier generation of North Americans studying Peru, Fredrick B. Pike. Pike wrote a biography of Haya de la Torre, The Politics of the Miraculous in Peru: Haya de la Torre and the Spiritualist Tradition (1986), that bowled over many of us, with such a wide-ranging sweep of not only history, but also philosophy, sociology, psychology, and the spiritual and the Christian dimensions of his story reflecting a remarkable breadth of scholarship and understanding of the human condition. Hiatt’s book does the same with aviation, which eventually delivered far less to the national identity and development than did Haya de la Torre and his Apristas. But there is something of that sweep of sources and specialties in Hiatt’s book, which makes it a very good read. There is a choppiness to it that is perhaps just the nature of the animal when writing of a huge subject—the modernization of a nation—over effectively a century of time. I must say I enjoyed his subtitles in chapters 4 and 5, such as “Airplanes over the Garden of Eden” and “Landscape as In-Flight Entertainment.” His description of the National Geographic Society–sponsored expedition to do an aerial survey of Peru is both immensely interesting and immensely informative. Robert Shippee and George R. Johnston produced a photographic cornucopia of Peru in 1931 for which all students of modern Peru are grateful. In the end, this book succeeds in describing the articulation between the desires of the Peruvian elites and oligarchs to lead Peru into a new national state, where the old boundaries of race, traditions—indeed, the stuff of history—are bundled away in a trunk and stored in the attic while the new—railroads, airways, computers—usher in the new nation, the new unified nationality. But, as we all seem to have rediscovered in the past few years in our own political imbroglios and arguments, you can’t tuck away in the attic history you don’t like. I liked the way the author pointed out how those leading Peru—politically, philosophically, literarily, militarily, and in other forms—recognized the challenges of Peruvian realities and looked to aviation as a form of redemption, a starting anew. In a way, the flush of excitement with the railroad, with aviation, and with connections with the world far beyond your village in the Callejón de Huaylas or any other remote part of Andean Peru was transformative, and the author catches the mood, the excitement, and the promise very well with his “technoeuphoria.” I wasn’t a “flying cholo,” like Alejandro Velasco Astete, the subject of chapter 3, but I can well remember sitting in my bunk bed on a big Panagra DC-6 on the tarmac at old Limatambo International Airport sometime in the late 1940s. I was bug-eyed as I watched the big radial engines fire up in the dark of the night, spitting out flames and roaring to life, as we prepared to head north to the land of my father, the U.S.A. I later transformed that fascination with airplanes into a pilot’s license and flew for twenty years. My point I guess is that flying was not just an engine of modernization for Peruvians wishing to remake, or make anew, their nation; for the men (and a few women back then) who flew those magnificent flying machines, and then perfected and improved them into the jet age, flying was more than a job. It was a calling of sorts, and in some narrative sections Hiatt, either composing or citing others, soars with that spirit. Good book. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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