Professor Álvaro Santana-Acuña Explores the Creation and Power of a Literary Classic

On a rainy day in 2007, when Álvaro Santana-Acuña was studying for his doc­torate in sociology at Harvard University, he carried his umbrella through the streets of Cambridge and thought, “it rains here like it does in Macondo.”

Macondo is the fictional Colombian town at the center of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” But Santana-Acuña had never been to Latin America and hadn’t read the novel in years. Why did he make that connection?

He held onto that mystifying and meaningful moment for another year, when he began working on an article exploring “this idea that classics are classics because they have the power to enter our lives in the most unexpected ways, and to relate to our life experiences.” 

More than a decade later, Santana-Acuña—now an assistant professor of sociology at Whitman College—has turned a fleeting thought during a storm into sweep­ing and award-winning interdisciplinary scholarship.

In August 2020, Columbia University Press published his book, “Ascent to Glory: How 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' Was Written and Became a Global Classic."

From Scholar to Curator

Santana-Acuña’s academic fascination with García Márquez’s work led to his book—and simultaneously to another ambitious endeavor. Over the last couple of years, he’s worked with the University of Texas at Austin’s (UT Austin) Harry Ransom Center to curate an exhibit, “Gabriel García Márquez: The Making of a Global Writer."

In 2015, the Ransom Center acquired García Márquez’s personal archive of manuscripts, letters, photo albums and scrapbooks—even his typewriters and computers. Santana-Acuña received a fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to be one of the first researchers to work with this collection. 

Before Santana-Acuña arrived at UT Austin in 2017, his research focused on "the consecration of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude’”—the processes by which this novel gained global recognition. He was happy to have the opportunity to learn more about how García Márquez imagined and wrote it. 

He’d been relying on secondary sources, but they were prone to legends. The Ransom Center allowed him to peer into García Márquez’s writing techniques through the eyes of the author.

Santana-Acuña spent a month gathering informa­tion for his book in the archives, where he was able to debunk myths and offer new details about how García Márquez created his masterpiece. He also used this research to write articles for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time Magazine, El Pais and more. His work on the García Márquez Collection led to Ransom Center Director Steve Enniss offering Santana-Acuña the chance to curate the first major exhibition of the writer’s archives.

Santana-Acuña was honored and a bit overwhelmed. He considers himself an “avid consumer of exhibitions” and grew up familiar with gallery spaces thanks to his father, a painter, but he had no curatorial experience.

He dove into the challenge, encouraged by Whitman's spirit of transcending academia and reach­ing broad audiences outside the classroom. “I took the exhibition as an opportunity for teaching and doing research by other means,” Santana-Acuña says.

José Montelongo, a former librarian at UT Austin who is now the Latin American Books curator at the John Carter Brown Library, says Santana-Acuña’s work on the book and exhibition attest to his effort to demonstrate that a literary classic is not formed by a solitary genius, but instead by a “complex network of readers, editors, agents, collaborators and friends, plus a little bit of luck and a whole lot of talent.”

“Álvaro’s work is like the moment when the single dove made of origami paper is opened and displayed and it turns out to be an entire flock of birds, all of them mysteriously flying in one direction—literary fame, glory, and all the good and bad that comes with it,” Montelongo says. 

Building the exhibit was a joy for Santana-Acuña. He spent two weeks in mid-2019 selecting from a dozen Ransom Center collections, including manuscripts by authors who influenced García Márquez such as Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and William Faulkner.

García Márquez’s life shapes the exhibit, beginning with his childhood in Colombia and tracing his path to becoming an advocate for political independence in Latin America and a beloved author around the world.

“In the book I ask how ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ came into being, and how it became a global novel,” Santana-Acuña says. “The exhibit is trying to answer a similar question about the authorhow García Márquez became García Márquez, and how he rose to the status of a global literary icon.”

People at the Gabriel García Márquez exhibit.Exhibitgoers explore the life work of Gabriel García Márquez at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.

A Classic for the Times

The exhibition opened in February 2020, bringing in almost 7,000 visitors in the five weeks before COVID-19 forced the Ransom Center to close temporarily.

Though it disrupted the exhibit, the pandemic added another layer of relevance to Santana-Acuña’s book. He was finishing his final edits as the health crisis unfolded—quite a coincidence, considering the third chapter of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” involves Macondo locking down during a plague of insomnia.

This unexpected chapter in life has led people to read or re-read this novel during the pandemic, Santana-Acuña explains in his book and in the New York Times Op-Ed “The Pandemic of Solitude”—affirming his theories about what makes a classic work of art.

“Readers around the world believe that in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ we can understand something deep about human nature, something that would be lived collectively, that would be universal. In the novel we find characters or events that have a resonance, are meaningful to interpret our own lives. Classics have such power over us.”