More than Meets the Eye: The Chiriaco Collection, RG 117

Contributed by Anna L. Humphries.

The Wiregrass Archives is home to many mysteries. The Americo C. Chiriaco collection is one, but using rhetorical analysis and literary history to consider the collection offers a new angle for determining a possible explanation.

Amerigo C. Chiriaco compiled a curious collection of lists that now live at The Wiregrass Archives. Chiriaco was born in 1930 and worked for the International Trade Commission. He travelled extensively for work and kept notebook journals of his travels. He eventually retired to Slocomb, AL where he lived until his death in 2003 which led to the procurement of his collection by the Wiregrass Archives in 2004.

chiriaco_cover_closeup
Chiriaco notebook cover close-up. Box 1, file 31.

Chiriaco’s journals are interesting because of their seemingly bizarre contents. One might expect to find travel memorabilia and journal entries on personal experiences. Instead, he filled his spiral bound notebooks with meticulous hand-written rows and columns of plants, animals, restaurants, historical sites, sites of interests, and indigenous people along the routes he travelled.  Chiriaco organized the notebooks by region or country, and constructed his lists in alphabetical order. Along with the notebooks on locations of interest, there are reference notes on correlations with highway maps and tourist guides, some of which were also donated with the collection, others of which have been lost.

What was Chiriaco’s motive for compiling all of this information? These are not To Do lists or historical records. There is no obvious purpose for them, yet he spent years creating them. Although these lists seem to be an unsolvable mystery, the answer may lie in the history of literature.

chiriaco_pg1_closeup
Close-up of first page of Chiriaco notebook. Box 1, file 31.

Strange lists have been found dating back to the third century B.C. and form an ancient genre of literature called “paradoxography.” It has been found in Aristotle’s History of Animals, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, The Geography of Strabo, Herodotus’s Histories, and catalogues composed by Hesiod. Scholars consider paradoxography in ancient writing to be a preface to science as we know it. The lists of unbelievable animals and people found in new lands and of strange and inexpiable occurrences were modeled after an Aristotelian style of the study of biology. James S. Romm offers explains the purpose of list-making in his The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought. Romm writes:

The rhetorical strategy behind such catalogues can be analyzed at a number of levels. First the matter-of-fact tone of the catalogue helps balance the exoticism of the wonders themselves: The insistence on spare linguistic structures such as the simple assertion of existence, “there is,” creates a veneer of clinical, dispassionate inquiry. Furthermore, the frequent citation of sources which typifies this kind of writing also helps bolster authority- or at least it relieves the author himself, and thereby his audience, of responsibility for assessing the truth…The cataloguer of wonders typically crowds his data into linguistic aggregates rather than distinct units: prolix, hyperextended sentences, or rapid-fire series of clauses. The proliferation of data dislocates its readers and overwhelms their ability to separate true from false, in effect forcing them to “swallow” whole that which would seem incredible if presented piece meal (92-93).

While Chiriaco’s reasoning for compiling his journals is unknown, he shares much with ancient paradoxographers. His writing is related to his travels. He creates a sense of authority by listing detailed esoteric information from economic production to fungi taxonomy. His journals were mostly composed before the internet was widely accessible. Was he striving to create all-inclusive encyclopedias of the world, or was he an aspiring travel book author?  His collection requires more examination, and paradoxography might offer one key to unlocking its mystery.

Discover the Chiriaco Collection online finding aid at

http://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives/inventories/117.html

The author, Anna L. Humphries, is a Troy University Dothan Campus graduate who is hard at work on her Master’s degree in English at University of Tennessee — Chattanooga.

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