It has been more than three years since Houghton Library cataloger David Whitesell discovered a book inscribed with a dedication to legendary Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío in the stacks of Widener Library.
Darío, whose given name was Félix Rubén García Sarmiento, lived and worked around the turn of the 20th century and is credited with establishing the Spanish-American modernist movement through his innovative literary style.
Determined to be part of Darío's private library, the book was a rare find in itself. But Whitesell's discovery of two previously unpublished poems, handwritten by Darío on the blank pages in back of this volume, made this a staggering find in the literary world. So staggering in fact, that a subsequent press release was picked up by the New York Times and particularly throughout the Spanish-speaking world, putting an intense focus on Harvard, Whitesell, and Darío's legacy.
"Everything since has been a little like a fairy tale," says Whitesell, who recently returned from a trip to Nicaragua where, at the invitation of the Fundacion Internacional Rubén Darío, he gave seven slide lectures in both English and Spanish, talking about his discovery and a subsequent Darío exhibition in Houghton Library.
After the initial discovery, Whitesell recalls, a lot of attention was generated by the press release, and in May of 2000 he went to Miami, Fla., where he gave his first of many slide lectures, entitled "Rubén Darío at Harvard: Books and Manuscripts from the Poet's Library," in front of the city's considerable Nicaraguan population.
Since the initial find, Whitesell has continued looking for more of Darío's books, and 43 of them have been found at Harvard. Many others are still presumed scattered across the globe, awaiting discovery, and no other manuscripts have been found so far. Nonetheless, it is an extraordinary combination, the linking of Harvard's prestige with that of Darío's, Whitesell says, "and I am proud that some of his books are here, well taken care of, and accessible."
The invitation to Nicaragua has been the high point of the developments for Whitesell, as much from a personal perspective as from the scholar's viewpoint. Darío is considered Nicaragua's foremost writer, and Whitesell, who remembers studying the poet's writings in high school, consistently got a very strong and exclusively positive reaction from the Nicaraguans at all of his seven lectures.
"Darío still has a real presence in Nicaragua," Whitesell explains, "he is not just an abstract figure." Every year in January, the month of Darío's birthday and the time Whitesell took his trip, many commemorative events are held in the poet's honor.
Whitesell gave his lecture in front of different audiences, ranging from students at high schools and local universities to the Nicaraguan Foreign Minister. In addition to his slide lecture, which covers his discovery and research and usually ends with a discussion period, Whitesell was featured on two talk shows, the prestigious "Primera Hora," the Nicaraguan equivalent to the "Today Show," and a second show at nighttime.
But Whitesell's journey is far from over, as everyone seems to want a first-hand account of the events. Next on his agenda are more lectures at the University of Virginia, Arizona State University, and the Grolier Club in New York, and somewhere in the future there may be a book, written by devoted Darío scholars, to which he may contribute.
His main focus though is on writing up his discovery for the historic record. "I feel like Darío has scattered little pieces of himself all over the world. It's a big puzzle, and I found a piece and now I'm just trying to put it in its proper place."