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Treasures of the Writers Collection

Cropped image from abeza de Vaca’s La relación y comentarios

Celebrating 20 Years

Treasures of the Southwestern Writers Collection showcases more than a hundred artifacts from its literature, film, and music archives, and is the second of two twentieth-anniversary tributes. This fall show complements the spring exhibition, J. Frank Dobie: Mr. Texas, which celebrated the Collection’s inaugural archive.

Treasures of the Southwestern Writers Collection runs from September 1 through December 15, 2006, on the seventh floor of the Alkek Library at Texas State University-San Marcos. The exhibit reception and program on November 9 will feature as special guests Sarah Bird, Elizabeth Crook, and Stephen Harrigan (see below). Admission is free to both the exhibit and event.

Founded at Texas State in 1986 by Austin screenwriter, book publisher, and photographer Bill Wittliff and his wife Sally, the Southwestern Writers Collection (SWWC) is a distinguished repository focused on preserving, exhibiting, and providing access to the papers and artifacts of the region’s authors, songwriters, and screenwriters. This latest exhibition speaks to the breadth and depth of the holdings, whose roots reach deeply through historical, academic, journalistic, and literary ground into that of contemporary popular culture.


Some of the more high-profile items on display include a rarely exhibited 1555 edition of Cabeza de Vaca’s La relación y comentarios (the first written work on what is now Texas and the Southwest), the hand-made songbook created by Willie Nelson as an 11-year-old boy, a fiddle played by King of Western Swing Bob Wills, John Graves’s canoe paddle from the Brazos River trip he famously chronicled in Goodbye to a River, the Emmy Award won by Larry L. King for his documentary on the Texas Legislature, The Best Little Statehouse in Texas, and a copy of the Lonesome Dove screenplay signed by every cast member with a speaking role.

Yet Treasures is more than a “greatest hits” exhibit. “It also highlights an essential point in the Collection’s mission by offering insights into the creative process, capturing those catalytic moments when the writer makes a breakthrough,” says SWWC Assistant Curator Steve Davis, who curated the exhibit. “Sometimes this happens as a result of good editorial advice, such as the letters that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sent to Elizabeth Crook, or the wonderful feedback that Tom Hanks gave to Bill Broyles on an early draft of the Cast Away screenplay. And then there are the times when the artist makes the breakthrough on his or her own. In this exhibit you’ll see things like the changes Bill Wittliff made to his first draft of The Perfect Storm, which shows how writers gain power through their ability to rewrite, rather than to simply write.”

Curator Connie Todd adds, “Archives like ours are uniquely able to apprehend these critical, and often ephemeral, moments, because we collect not only the finished product of the creative process—that is, the published book, the recorded story, the produced film—but also all the documentation and iconography that led to the product’s creation. We can often see the artist’s hastily jotted down or recorded ideas as they become before our very eyes a completed work of art. It’s like literary DNA.”

Treasures of the Southwestern Writers Collection also presents unique items that provide insight into major figures in Southwestern letters. The Larry McMurtry screen treatment that became his novel, Lonesome Dove, shows the cross-genre beginnings of this Pulitzer Prize-winning classic.

The Collection’s founding archive, that of J. Frank Dobie, is represented by a diary he kept while attending Columbia University in 1913-1914. Dobie later believed he had destroyed this diary, but it was found among the Dobie materials purchased by Bill and Sally Wittliff in 1985.

The notebooks of Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Sam Shepard include hundreds of pages of notes that represent nascent ideas, some of which then become rough drafts of his works. Shepard’s archives are particularly important in this way, showing the full range of the artist’s creative arc, his process from conception to publication.

Other pieces that speak to the literary archives include a bust of Katherine Anne Porter created by noted sculptor Glenna Goodacre and Porter’s own annotated recipe for Mole Poblana, an IBM Selectric typewriter Rick Bass hurled against a fireplace when it quit working in mid-sentence, one of several hundred manuscript pagges from Billy Lee Brammer’s never completed second novel, Frustian Days, and letters from such legendary literary figures as H.L. Mencken and Hunter S. Thompson illustrating relationships with Southwest writers. (These two were corresponding with short-story author Winifred Sanford and Rolling Stone journalist Grover Lewis, respectively.)

The worldwide influence of regional literature is evidenced in the display of foreign-language editions of books by Southwestern authors—in Japanese, French, Russian, Italian, and many others.

Showcased from the music are rare concert posters, a guitar signed by Willie Nelson, backstage passes for Austin City Limits, memorabilia from the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame, interview transcripts from Joe Nick Patoski’s acclaimed biographies of Selena and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Jerry Jeff Walker’s boots and handwritten lyrics for his song “Charlie Dunn.”

The film and television archives are represented with scripts, artifacts, production forms, photos, and more from director Robert Benton (Places in the Heart, Nobody’s Fool), screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. (Apollo 13, Cast Away), and actor/writer/director Tommy Lee Jones (The Good Old Boys). Also on exhibit are materials from Severo Perez’s film adaptation of Tomás Rivera’s …and the earth did not swallow him. Rounding out the display are prized objects from some of Bill Wittliff’s films, including Lonesome Dove, A Perfect Storm, Raggedy Man, and Red-Headed Stranger.

The exhibit also brings together artifacts from recent archival acquisitions. “One of the largest pieces is a dry-erase whiteboard showing the 40-week timeline for a typical episode of the TV series King of the Hill,” says Davis. “This introduces a new generation to the richness of Southwestern culture and our archival holdings, and it also gives some sense of the complexity and teamwork involved in creating a series.”

Todd adds, “By exhibiting archives from popular culture, we make our audience aware that some—I emphasize some—of what they see on television and in motion pictures contains deeply insightful commentaries on the Southwest, which, at their best, transcend the regional and ascend to the universal.”

Treasures of the Southwestern Writers Collection, was curated and created by Steve Davis, SWWC Assistant Curator. Mr. Davis can be reached at or (512) 245-9180.


THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 9, the Southwestern Writers Collection will host a reception, panel discussion, and book signing, in celebration of the 20th anniversary exhibition Treasures of the Southwestern Writers Collection. This free evening event will begin with the reception at 6:30 pm, with the panel at 7:30, followed by a book signing. Sarah Bird, Elizabeth Crook, and Stephen Harrigan—three leading Texas novelists with archives in the SWWC—will be discussing their work and signing their latest books: The Flamenco Academy (Bird), The Night Journal (Crook), and Challenger Park (Harrigan). Books will be for sale at the event, courtesy of the Texas State University Bookstore. PLEASE RSVP to, or call (512) 245-2313. The SWWC is located on the seventh floor of the Alkek Library at Texas State University-San Marcos.