Body of Work

The Southwestern Writers Collection, at Texas State University, in San Marcos, is home to a treasure trove of manuscripts, letters, and personal items from the state’s greatest writers, singers, and photographers. And one stripper.

IT’S REALLY NOT SO STRANGE that the star of the Southwestern Writers Collection is the simulacrum of a one-legged body taken from the set of a television show. First, the fictional character who inhabits that body is perhaps the best known in Texas literature: retired Texas Ranger Augustus “Gus” McCrae, from the Larry McMurtry novel Lonesome Dove, as played by Robert Duvall in the 1989 miniseries of the same name. McCrae was the wry, brave, loyal rogue of a cowboy who dies a sad, heroic death rather than submit to a lesser life, one in which he wouldn’t be able to, say, kick pigs. Duvall made McCrae seem like a real person, and real people come all the way to the seventh floor of the Albert B. Alkek Library, on the campus of Texas State University, in San Marcos, just to see his fake body.

The second reason why it’s not strange that this writers collection has stuff from TV is that it’s not your average aggregation of dusty old manuscripts and arcane knowledge. For example, across from other various Lonesome Dove props grouped in glass display cases (such as the large hat worn by retired Texas Ranger Woodrow Call, or Tommy Lee Jones) stands a handmade camera that was used in the town square of Nuevo Laredo for seventy years, recording generations of locals and tourists. A few feet away is an exhibit showing pieces of a 280-foot mural of a cattle drive painted in 1951 that will soon be rehabbed and put on the walls of the library. Just down the hall sit an Austin City Limits archive; a dozen boxes of songs, posters, and running shoes donated by Willie Nelson; and a collection of some 13,000 images, many from Mexican photographers. And then there are the production archives from King of the Hill, including presumably life-size cutouts of Hank and Bobby Hill.

Oh, there are plenty of dusty old manuscripts from Southwestern writers at the Southwestern Writers Collection, which is celebrating its twenty-year anniversary. You can sit down at the large pine table in the main room, in front of the oak desk of J. Frank Dobie, the Moses of Texas writers, and ask to see the original manuscript for The Gay Place, by Billy Lee Brammer, in which he crosses out “begins to fade” after “the mild ferment of bottomland” and replaces it with “dissolves.” Or some of the tens of thousands of letters written by and to noted epistomaniac Larry L. King. Or photos John Graves took on the 1957 canoe trip he later memorialized in Goodbye to a River. Or the notes and papers of journalists, novelists, and troublemakers such as Edwin “Bud” Shrake, Gary Cartwright, William Broyles Jr., Jan Reid, Dick J. Reavis, Joe Nick Patoski, Stephen Harrigan, and Sarah Bird. (All of those writers have contributed to this magazine, whose archives are also held at Texas State.)

The main explanation why the writers collection is as much about photography, film, TV, and music as it is about writing is that its founder, Bill Wittliff, is too. Wittliff, with his wife, Sally, founded Encino Press in 1964, publishing Texas writers, including his mentor Dobie and fellow upstart McMurtry. By the seventies Wittliff had developed into a noted photographer, after spending months taking a gorgeous series of photos of vaqueros working on a northern Mexican ranch. In the eighties he became a successful screenwriter, writing movies such as Raggedy Man and Barbarosa and befriending Willie Nelson. In 1986, one year after buying Dobie’s desk and some of his other artifacts at an estate sale, the Wittliffs founded the writers collection. Their choice of the term “Southwestern” was a conscious one: They didn’t want to limit the archive to Texas, especially given how much Wittliff, like Dobie before him, was enamored of all things Mexican. The Wittliffs knew they would need a permanent home for the collection and found one at Southwest Texas State University (as Texas State was called then). The school was opening a new library in 1990 and promised to give the SWWC, which would exist under the umbrella of the university’s Special Collections, a part of the top floor, as well as to let Wittliff consult with the architect.

The collection occupies its own space on the seventh floor, and walking through the ascetic, fluorescent-lit library and then encountering the brown longleaf pine double doors and windows is like finding the entrance to Narnia at the back of the closet. With Saltillo tile and handmade sconces, the museum feels like a clean adobe gallery in Laredo or Taos. “We wanted to create a friendly, human space,” says Special Collections curator Connie Todd. Members of her staff will talk to you all day long about, for instance, Dobie’s love-hate relationship with the University of Texas or the strengths of various female Mexican photographers (in 1996 Bill and Sally founded the Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern and Mexican Photography) or the inspiration for a certain Texas short story. “We’re a personal place,” says Todd, “where people can come and talk to us about who these people were.”

Admission is free and open to the public, and sometimes students, many of whom aren’t even aware of the collection’s existence, wander in through the double doors from the stacks and stare at Gus’s Colt Dragoon pistol or Dobie’s only surviving white linen suit (he was buried in the other) or a photograph taken at a Mexican street fiesta. And if they know exactly what they’re looking for, they find themselves sitting down and holding in their own hands a piece of paper containing a favorite paragraph in which a favorite writer worked the words over and over until he found the perfect one.

Gus’s Body from “Lonesome Dove”

Robert Duvall has had roles in some of the finest American movies, but his favorite was Augustus “Gus” McCrae in Lonesome Dove. The voluble Gus has become one of our more enduring characters, especially as teamed with the reticent

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