To the surprise of many, the family of legendary novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez sold his personal papers to the University of Texas. It's nothing political – but all about posterity, and money of course.
AUSTIN — When the University of Texas Harry Ransom Center announced last month that it had negotiated the rights to buy the personal archive of legendary Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, Latin America collectively wondered, "Texas? Seriously?"
The Nobel laureate affectionately known as "Gabo," who died April 17, had once been barred from entering the United States for decades because of his pro-communist activities, though President Bill Clinton lifted the ban, citing García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude as his favorite novel.
Gabo's personal papers fit into 2.6 cubic meters — 40 cardboard boxes worth of papers he'd kept in his Mexico City home. They arrived Dec. 16 at Austin's Harry Ransom Center, where it will take a year to catalogue them, and two before they can be displayed.
Negotiations to buy the archive began in December 2013, at the family's initiative, and concluded last July. Center director Stephen Enniss says the center bought the collection to make it accessible to the public. Founded in 1957, the Harry Ransom Center has gradually become a grand mausoleum of the humanities.
"It was established in order to create a truly unique collection," Enniss says. The center has acquired one of the five complete Gutenberg Bibles existing in the United States, first-edition Shakespeare manuscripts and James Joyce's archives, to name a few.
"It's the kind of level we were looking for," Enniss says.
The center has more than 40 million papers today. But when "a collection comes here, it prompts the question, "Why Texas?"" says Charles H. Hale, head of the university's Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS), which will help catalogue Gabo's archive.
The University of Texas is increasingly considered the place with the top Latin American experts in the United States, and the purchase reiterates its commitment to Latin America, Hale says. "Our challenge is to ensure Latin American institutions are involved in their study."
Acquisitions head Megan Barnard guided us through a wondrous visit to the archives. "Look, this is one of my favorites," she says, pointing to a page with a sonnet Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges dedicated to Texas. "He was eating with a local businessman who asked him to write it."
She later opens a little notebook with a draft of Samuel Beckett's novel Watt. It has little sketches on it, which may have helped him think. Next to it is a first draft of the first chapter of Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon. Its entire first paragraph is crossed out. These are the kinds of documents you can ask to see in this place. The central idea here is not enshrinement but instead to make these treasures available to the public, which is in line with the university's broader mission.
The creative process
The public can therefore see the creative processes of some of the world's most acclaimed writers. "That's the kind of material we want," Barnard says. "A researcher can open this and spend hours studying the author's creative process. Imagine how useful this is for students." The center hosts some 10,000 researchers a year in its reading room.
Sometimes negotiations for selling the personal effects of notable personalities begins years before that person's death. South African novelist J.M. Coetzee is an example, as is Norman Mailer, who began sending his letters here two years before he died. In 2009, the center spent $4.7 million for 1,300 boxes of mementos that actor Robert de Niro kept at home: scripts with notes, photos, the taxi license he obtained for the film Taxi Driver. The center also has documents used in Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's Watergate scandal investigations — scribbled notes and telephone numbers, for examples.
García Márquez's papers will certainly attract interest, especially from Latin America, where many consider him the most important writer of the 20th century. Enniss had visited the author's Mexican home last July, to get a sense of what the papers included. "We have an idea of what they contain," he said, though it will now be up to scholars to dig deeper.
José Montelongo, Texas University's Librarian for Mexican Studies, says the archive's information on the novelist's self-editing process will be a "treat" for Gabo researchers. Among the papers are a first draft of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the novel that catapulted the writer to fame in 1967, several versions of Chronicle of a Death ForetoldandLove in the Time of Cholera, and 10 versions of the unpublished We'll See Each Otherin August. The last copy contains corrections, which means he considered it premature to publish.
All of the material "shows the author's struggle with language, structures, characters, the atmosphere," Montelongo says.
The center acquired other personal effects too, such as García Márquez's passport, photos and three Apple computers with undetermined content.
The price it pays for such acquisitions is very rarely revealed (though, most recently, the Norman Mailer collection fetched $2 million), and this time was no exception. Keeping figures confidential helps future negotiations, Enniss says. The Associated Press has called for the amounts to be disclosed in keeping with Texas transparency laws, but the center says it will only do so if legally compelled. The writer's family says it accepted the "exclusive" offer because the center was a world reference that was committed to conserving documents.
Who wouldn't want to browse through Gabo's papers?