Pat Conroy, the author of “The Prince of Tides” and “The Great Santini,” was a military brat whose father, a Marine fighter pilot, moved the family almost every year; Conroy attended 10 different schools before he graduated from high school.
But while his outward life was in flux, he was busy archiving his inner narrative, saving almost everything he ever wrote.
A short story he wrote in grade school; a handwritten version of the commencement speech he gave at Beaufort High School; letters; photographs; every draft of every book he’s ever written: He kept it all.
“He never threw anything away,” said Thomas F. McNally, dean of libraries at the University of South Carolina.
On Friday morning, McNally announced the acquisition of that archive, a collection that includes 10,000 pages of handwritten manuscripts and 15,000 pages of typewritten transcripts. It will become part of the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, at the university’s Hollings Special Collections Library.
Conroy has made his home in his adopted state of South Carolina after a peripatetic life, and he was on hand for the announcement.
The author eschews word processors, and he writes his books in longhand, frequently using Mont Blanc pen and yellow legal pads. He then hires typists to transcribe them. Unlike most other proponents of the pen, he retains the handwritten first drafts. The script is small and slanting, but quite legible. “It’s clear; it’s readable,” McNally said.
Along with the various drafts of his 11 books, the collection includes financial records, correspondence, 23 diaries and 80 scrapbooks. It was acquired for an undisclosed sum, but the cost was probably north of a million dollars.
Col. Donald Conroy, the Great Santini himself, was the keeper of the scrapbooks, clipping out newspaper stories, gluing in photographs and even stealing his son’s private correspondence to add to what he called the “arcs.”
“This thing is so expansive, researchers will be digging through this for decades to come,” McNally said. “To me, it’s an incredibly deep research collection. It will bring students here to use it, faculty to teach with it. Dissertations will be written on it.”
McNally also praised the condition of the material. “There’s no single chew hole by a silverfish or anything like that.”
Part of the credit for that conservation is due to Conroy’s good friend Cliff Graubart. Back in 1997, Conroy was living on Fripp Island and became worried about hurricanes. He asked Graubart, creator of the Old New York Book Shop, to take over the collection for safekeeping.
Graubart drove to South Carolina in a cargo van and returned with 15 boxes of material. (Since then, the collection has grown to more than 100 boxes.)
For 17 years, Graubart kept the growing collection in his snug basement in Sandy Springs, which is where he also keeps the inventory for his online bookstore. A year ago, he began organizing the Conroy archive, separating manuscripts from correspondence and ordering the drafts chronologically.
Because the two have been friends for 40 years, Graubart saw many scenes of his own life in the letters and photographs — and even in certain scenes from the novels. “It brought back a lot of memories.”
The University of South Carolina’s special libraries are mostly focused on rare books, though the school has a growing archive of contemporary writers, including the papers of crime fiction writer James Ellroy.
Conroy’s papers will serve as the nucleus for a collection devoted to contemporary Southern writers, McNally said. As far as manuscripts are concerned, USC is behind the curve in comparison to other schools, including Emory University, which has spent millions on acquiring manuscripts from such writers as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney.
But, said McNally, it’s never too late to get in the game.
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