One of Pat Conroy’s fondest memories is of the day he visited Harvard Library, and held in his hands the original manuscript of one of his favorite novels: Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel.
He was so excited he called his longtime friend, English teacher Gene Norris, who first introduced him to the novel, and even read parts of it over the phone.
Decades later, he’s thrilled with the prospect of some future student having the same experience with The Prince of Tides, Beach Music, The Lords of Discipline or any of Conroy’s other best-selling novels.
On Friday, Conroy and the University of South Carolina formally announced that USC had acquired the Conroy’s vast collection of personal papers and manuscripts.
The Pat Conroy Archive includes the handwritten manuscripts of 11 novels, as well as drafts and typescripts, 23 personal journals, correspondence with people ranging from Barbara Streisand — who directed the film of The Prince of Tides, based on Conroy’s Oscar-nominated script — to Jimmy Buffett. There are also more than 20 boxes of fan mail.
Also included in the archive are 80 scrapbooks, or “Arcs,” which chronicle his life and career through correspondence with his father, Donald, the legendarily brutal Marine Corps pilot who inspired Conroy’s novel The Great Santini.
The archive was acquired as a gift from the Richard and Novelle Smith family in memory of longtime library supporter Dorothy Brown Smith.
Tom McNally, dean of USC’s library system, would not disclose the cost — except that it wasn’t cheap, and that competition was fierce.
Writers’ archives usually start at $1 million, he said, and then go up and down depending on what’s in the collection and the writer’s prestige.
The acquisition became a major university goal.
“It was everything,” McNally says. Losing the archive of South Carolina’s most famous author “would have been a disaster.”
“Pat Conroy is our writer, and when I said his papers belong in South Carolina, they do,” he says. “And there’s only one library capable of handling this, and that’s why I had to get these papers.”
The archive, he says, is a “research treasure trove.”
“You have multiple points you can go to. You can be researching the manuscripts and you can go to his diary and see what he was saying about how he was depressed and the words weren’t coming right.”
Future researchers will find letters and notebooks detailing Conroy’s life as a plebe at The Citadel (recalled in The Lords of Discipline), his teaching career at Daufuskie Island (the basis of The Water is Wide) and his tutelage at USC under James Dickey.
Of course, as Conroy pointed out at a press conference, there is also a lot of material in the archive he hopes stays hidden.
There are early novels that embarrass him, and revelations from letters and diaries that could make him look, he said, “like a monster.”
“I’m terrified that something in there from my misspent youth is going to come up,” he said. “I don’t know what’s in there. I collected everything.”
He recalls the overblown love letters he wrote to an old flame while researching his memoir My Losing Season — so humiliating he wanted to buy them just so he could set the letters ablaze.
“I pray I will be dead some time next year to prevent these things from coming out while I’m still alive,” he said.
Less scandalously, the archive attests to the fact that a writer’s old habits die hard. Conroy has never learned to type.
“See this?” he said, holding up the draft of a published manuscript, written on a yellow legal pad. “I wrote yesterday, and it still looks like that.”
Writing in longhand dates back to the days with his father, who was hell-bent on seeing that his son follow in his own military boot-steps. The old man blew a gasket when he learned his son had signed up for a typing class. Didn’t he know that was for corporals and girls, not fighter pilots who would be raining fire on our nation’s enemies?
Things didn’t change when he finally made it to The Citadel. You could major in bazooka and flamethrower, Conroy said, but there was no typing class to be found.
Still, he has managed to keep his papers together with the exception of his first novel, The Boo, which he calls “the worst book ever written by an American.”
“Most of that got away from me. We don’t quite know what happened to that manuscript.”
Otherwise, he said, he’s been a pack rat, despite his habit of marrying women who throw everything away.
“When you’re a writer,” he said, “you don’t know if anyone is going to want anything at all when you start out.”
Select pieces from the Conroy Archive are currently on display in Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library at USC’s Thomas Cooper Library. The entire collection should be processed and available to the public in about 18 months, according to Rare Books Director Elizabeth Sudduth.
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