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Seventeen years after his death and nearly 35 years after his brief tenure at Harvard, writer Jorge Luis Borges is returning to campus.
“Borges: The Time Machine,” a new exhibit in Houghton Library, examines the life of the controversial and award-winning poet and author, with manuscripts and personal belongings collected by the library over the last three decades.
A second exhibit, “Jorge Borges at Houghton Library,” includes a selection of materials related to Borges’s tenure as Norton Professor of Poetry in the late 1960s. The exhibits display only a fraction of the writer’s work and personal correspondences that Houghton has amassed over the last three decades.
Although never a Nobel Laureate—which some say is a result of Borges’ politics—the writer shared the first Prix Formentor with Irish poet Samuel Beckett in 1961. The award, given to writers judged to have made a lasting contribution to world literature, led to a shower of invitations that ultimately brought Borges to the United States and Harvard, where he delivered the Norton Lectures (recently published in a collection, This Craft of Verse).
According to Thomas Professor of English and American Literature Emeritus Daniel Aaron, “one didn’t hear of him at all” in the years before Borges’ American tour.
In fact, it was a Harvard alum, John H. Updike ’54, who helped popularize Borges in the United States. In an admiring 1965 New Yorker article, a draft of which is on display at Houghton, Updike argued that Borges could furnish “a clue to the way out of the dead-end narcissism and downright trashiness of present American fiction.”
Borges capitalized on the advance press during his visit to the United States, where the normally reticent author became an accomplished speaker and literary icon.
The Houghton collection includes Borges-themed comic books and records, and even a t-shirt featuring a caricature of the elderly writer.
For his part, Borges appreciated how welcoming America was to him.
“I found America the friendliest, most forgiving, and most generous nation I had ever visited,” Borges once said. “We South Americans tend to think in terms of convenience, whereas people in the United States approach things ethically. This, amateur Protestant that I am, I admired above all.”
Though he wrote much of his poetry in Spanish, Borges knew English fluently.
The “Time Machine” exhibit also reflects Borges’ modesty.
A signed copy of Borges’ 1925 publication, Inquisiciones, features an inscription by the author that reads, “I am ashamed of this book—Jorge Luis Borges.”
Borges’ humble persona extended beyond the pages of his own books.
Professor Emeritus Aaron recalls seeing Borges lecture at Smith College, where Aaron taught at the time. Borges was “a very small man, very un-flamboyant,” he said, remembering also “the way he spoke in gestures” and how he possessed “a certain kind of dryness and wit.”
Borges did carry a certain pride later in life, however, embracing the style of work produced after 1929 and renouncing the political stances such as Bolshevism that he had nurtured before 1929 while a young writer in Europe.
Always political, he was condemned at home for his opposition to Juan Domingo Perón’s regime while at the same time receiving praise from the international community. But Borges always said he just wanted “to be modern and to be Argentine.”
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