USC’s new Pat Conroy collection includes handwritten manuscripts, letters, journals

cclick@thestate.comMay 16, 2014 

  • Highlights from the collection

    • 10,000 pages of handwritten manuscripts, poems, letters, journals and essays

    • Letters from publishers and literary fans

    • Letter to his parents from Daufuskie Island, where he wrote: “Nothing could have prepared me for this. Most of the kids are functionally illiterate. They cannot read, write, speak or communicate.”

    • Family photographs

    • His baby book

    • 23 personal diaries, from 1960-2011

— Author Pat Conroy was a month shy of his 18th birthday when he wrote to his parents from his Citadel dormitory: “Oh! is this delightful, the nightingale voices of a hundred warbling loudmouths awaken you in the morning and tuck you in at Taps.”

In the Sept. 10, 1963, letter, Conroy went on to describe the loathsome names the Citadel upperclassmen called the freshman plebes – “knob, screw, wad, slob, waste, wasteland, wad-waste (I love that)” – and noted that his roommate was great: “From Massachusetts, majoring in English, hates the Citadel. We have a lot in common, especially the latter.”

That letter, along with hundreds of other pieces of correspondence, legal pads filled with handwritten drafts of his novels and nonfiction work, journals and essays from one of the nation’s best-selling authors, will now be part of the Pat Conroy Archive at the University of South Carolina.

The collection, which will be housed in the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library, also includes 80 scrapbooks put together by Conroy’s father, Donald Conroy, the abusive Marine fighter pilot Conroy depicts in one of his most famous novels, “The Great Santini.”

Conroy, 68, on Friday joined USC president Harris Pastides and dean of University Libraries Thomas McNally to unveil the collection and thank the Richard and Novelle Smith family for making a financial gift to purchase the archive.

The Smith family gift was made in honor of Richard Smith’s late mother, Dorothy Brown Smith, who was a longtime supporter of the university libraries.

“My papers belonged here,” Conroy told the gathering, which included his novelist wife Cassandra King and four of his brothers and sisters. “I wanted them here. I’m happy they are here.”

The university has assigned a full-time archivist to organize the papers, which will stand alongside the collections of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Heller and other literary greats already in USC’s possession. McNally said Conroy’s is the university’s most extensive literary collection.

The author, who lives on Fripp Island, laid claim to the South Carolina landscape and its people when he came to Beaufort as a 15-year-old boy with his military family. From his first self-published novel, “The Boo,” to “The Lords of Discipline,” “The Prince of Tides,” “My Losing Season” and “My Writing Life,” Conroy revealed a lyrical and sometimes terrifying world to his readers, including the thinly veiled dysfunction of his own family.

Always, he said, there was the “tidal pull” back to South Carolina.

The author, expansive and charming as he addressed the media, noted that he was “utterly terrified” that amid the nearly 90 boxes of memorabilia and manuscripts something embarrassing might emerge.

“I’m just terrified that there is something in there from my misspent youth that is going to come up,” he said. “I don’t know what’s in there. I collected everything.”

Tucked somewhere are, perhaps, copies of 58 letters that he wrote to a woman he dated once at the Citadel, and her lone postcard reply. “The letters, when I was doing ‘My Losing Season,’ I said I need to go back and see what kind of kid I was and I read my letters, and they are so humiliating,” he said, laughing.

But undoubtedly, the trove will be a magnet for researchers from around the world who will travel to USC to find out what made Conroy the Southern writer he became.

All his manuscripts are written by hand on yellow legal pads, a habit he has maintained throughout his life because his father forbade him to learn to type. “Corporals type, girls type,” his father told him.

Now, researchers and fans will be able to plumb a collection that contains such treasures as his baby book, in which his mother, Peggy, recorded his first birthday parties, his childhood illnesses and descriptions of the family’s first pets, but failed to fill out a page of “Special Aptitudes.”

Conroy worked with his friend, Atlanta bookseller Norman Graubart, to preserve the collection. A lifelong pack rat, he saved nearly everything, although the manuscript and notes from “The Boo” have disappeared, perhaps thrown out by a former wife.

The collection will likely grow, as Conroy has promised to donate all future papers to the university as well. He is working now on a young adult novel with one of his daughters, as well as writing a novel about Charleston – a place, he says, that never lacks for stories.

His fans are legendary and will likely come out Saturday at the S.C. Book Festival in downtown Columbia, where Conroy will appear on several panels.

He drew a big crowd in late February for an evening talk at the “One Book, One Columbia” event and stayed until 1 a.m. autographing titles for readers who waited hours to shake his hand and share their own Southern tales.

He said Friday that he loves it when his readers lean over the table to tell him stories of their own.

Reach Click at (803) 771-8386.

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