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

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