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Inquiring Minds: An Interview with Marie Arana

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(The following is a guest post by Jason Steinhauer, program specialist in the Library’s John W. Kluge Center.)

Photo by Clay Blackmore.

Author Marie Arana is a writer-at-large for the Washington Post and former editor-in-chief of Book World, as well member of the Library of Congress Scholars Council. Her latest book, a biography of Simon Bolívar, was extensively researched and written at the Library of Congress.

Q.  Tell us about your new book, “Bolívar: An American Liberator,” and how you came to be interested him.

I have always been fascinated by Simón Bolívar. Two of my ancestors fought on opposite sides of the Battle of Ayacucho, which was the defining struggle—the Yorktown, the Waterloo, if you will—of the Latin American wars for independence. But quite apart from that personal connection, I was looking for a way to capture who Americans of Latin origin are, how we think, where we’ve been. The story that could deliver that history best, I became convinced, was the life of Bolívar. He was the quintessential Latin American hero, the founder, the visionary, and yet he died impoverished and despised. Along the way he liberated a vast, unruly territory that became six independent republics. His life touches on so much of South America and is representative of so many aspects—good and bad—of our character that I decided it was the perfect vehicle to explain South America to English-speaking readers.

Q.  Where is scholarship on Bolivar currently and how does your book support or depart from it?

The scholarship depends on where you’re from. In Venezuela, Bolívar is idolized, and a biographer needs to pick her way through the hagiography. In Peru, he is despised and she’ll have to work her way in the opposite direction. Ecuador and Bolivia feel at once saved and injured by Bolívar: he had rough things to say about Ecuadorians, and he thought Bolivians were so disorderly that they needed a president for life. Colombia, on the other hand, has a very divided opinion: Colombia made heroes of his rivals, yet managed to exalt him, too. My greatest challenge—and, perhaps, accomplishment—is to have parsed through the partisanship carefully, relied on Bolívar’s words more than anything else, studied the world around him and made it past the tendentiousness.

Q.  You spent a lot of time at the Library of Congress researching and writing this book. What items did you find in the Library’s collections that were most illuminating?

I spent almost a year at the Kluge Center. The great discovery for me was that everything I needed—documents that would have had to be hunted down separately and with some difficulty in South America—were in the Library’s remarkably rich and deep collection. Of course, I’m from South America, so I was well acquainted with Bolívar’s stomping grounds and had done early research in South America’s libraries, but I quickly found that much of what exists scattered in various places was sitting tidily in the stacks of the Library of Congress. Staring long enough at Caracas court documents from the late 1700s (Bolívar had a criminal record from the tender age of 12) to a street grid of his neighborhood, to a graphic of every kilometer Bolívar had ever traveled, I felt I was seeing and understanding aspects of his life that I hadn’t read anywhere else.

Q.  You’ve spoken widely on the book since its release in April, on CSPAN and at book signings. What’s been the general reaction? Has any of the reaction been surprising in any way?

I’ve been fortunate in that the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve also been pleased that there has been so much praise for the book’s liveliness and accuracy, the two aspects I cared about most in the writing. I wanted to bring the man alive, but I also wanted to say some important things about how history has shaped South America and made us different from Americans of the North. What surprised me, I think, was that one or two critics took me to task for making as much as I did of the Inquisition and Spain’s harsh colonial system. Some recent scholarship has questioned the “Black Legend” of Spain’s colonial rule. But to deny the Inquisition, the evidence of Spain’s violent conquest and spoliation of Latin America, not to mention the crippling Laws of the Indies . . . well, that struck me as intellectually unsound. But, as I say, Bolívar’s story can be polarizing. What amazed me is that, 200 years after the fact, the gloves are still on for some Spanish intellectuals.

Q.  You’re very involved with the Library of Congress and the Kluge Center, from serving on the Scholars Council to helping with the National Book Festival and International Summit for the Book. What caused you to get involved with the Library, and how do you see the Library’s contributions to scholarship and promotion of “the book?”

The Library is one of the great wonders of the world. I don’t say that lightly. As a book professional all of my life—an editor at two New York publishing houses; editor-in-chief of a major, national literary review; and, finally, author of my own books—I have stood in awe of the institution. More than that, I am in awe of the wisdom of the American founders, librarians and public servants who built the Library with such a broad, generous sense of what knowledge should mean to a democracy. The Library of Congress may have started as an establishment meant to serve the United States of America, but it quickly became a library to serve the world. I was honored to be invited by the Kluge Center to do my research under its auspices, and I have always seen it as a sacred mission to take my love of reading and books to a wider world. So, you see, it was only natural that I would want to become involved in the vital work that goes on at this Library. I’m very glad to be a small part of it.

“Bolívar: An American Liberator” is published by Simon & Schuster and is currently available in bookstores. Marie Arana discusses the book on Thursday, June 6, at 4 p.m. at the Library of Congress John W. Kluge Center, co-sponsored by the Library’s Hispanic Division.


  1. Three constructive comments on “BOLIVAR”:

    1) Numbers cited by Marie Arana as to sizes of armies and of dead/wounded in battles/skirmishes are not credible. Do not correspond to the actual populations of the Spanish Colonies and their main towns at that time.
    Arana often refers to enormous armies and thousands of dead/wounded. Not real.
    True dimensions are different. An example: at the Battle of Boyaca,
    Royalists dead were only 100 and 150 wounded. Bolivar’s forces lost just 13 men and 53 wounded.

    2) Specially in last five chapters, reader does not know what year is being referred to as pages and chapters go by without noting it:
    1826 ? 1827 ? 1828 ? 1829 ? 1830 ?
    3) On page 168, book states Santa Marta is where Magdalena River meets the sea. Not so. That would be Barranquilla, 100 kilometers to the west of Santa Marta.

    Otherwise, liked the book. Thank you.

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