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Writers, explorers and cowboys, oh my


Southwestern archive ranges from de Vaca to 'Lonesome Dove'

Dallas Morning News (06/24/2006)
By Jim Veruno

SAN MARCOS, TEXAS — Robert Duvall lies dead in a box, wrapped head to booted toe in cloth like a mummy. His left leg, struck by an Indian arrow, has been amputated.

"Isn't he great?" Michelle Miller said with a laugh before stuffing plastic bubble wrap around the corpse's head and wiping her hands of dust.

OK, so Mr. Duvall's not really dead, and the corpse certainly isn't real.

The fake body in the cardboard coffin is Augustus "Gus" McRae, a character Mr. Duvall played in the Lonesome Dove television miniseries.

It's one of most unusual pieces in the growing and alternately impressive and eclectic archive at the Southwestern Writers Collection housed at Texas State University-San Marcos.

From Willie Nelson's childhood songbook to a rare 1555 edition of Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca's wandering journey through the Southwest, the archive presents a tidy look at the region's writers, explorers and real and fictitious cowboys.

"Students come here wanting to see the [Duvall] mummy," said Ms. Miller, the collection's marketing and media coordinator. "It's listed like that in a university publication somewhere. I thought about having it changed, but thought, 'Why ruin the legend?' "

The collection was founded in 1986 by writer and television and movie producer Bill Wittliff and his wife, Sally, with the purchase of about 40 boxes of papers from the estate of J. Frank Dobie, one of Texas' dominant literary figures.

"Dobie was the first guy who was a strong enough personality to say that Texas was as valid a place to write about or write from as Paris or Rome or anywhere on Earth," Mr. Wittliff said.

He piled the boxes in the back of his pickup on a rainy day and soon struck a deal with Texas State to house the works at the Albert B. Alkek library on its Hill Country campus.

"It's meant to be a shrine of sorts, a place for inspiration, and a place to have a proper stewardship over literary, artistic and photographic history," said Mr. Wittliff, who is also an accomplished photographer.

"I want our artists, our writers to be humanized and be presented in a way that people understand all these things are human made, to show it doesn't just pour from God. It's work," he said.

Known as a writer's collection, the archive is much broader than that, with music, film and photography.

Mr. Nelson's songbook Songs by Willie Nelson would be a treasure for any country music fan. The typed lyrics on yellowed sheets of paper indicate a lonely heart much wiser in love than his years would suggest.

"It's cold, the nights are long and I'm so lonely, the hours pass along like years it seems, I'll hear you say no more I love you only, and I think of faded love and wasted dreams," Mr. Nelson wrote in the song "Faded Love & Wasted Dreams."

De Vaca's La relacíon y comentarios is one of the collection's gems. Curator Connie Clare Todd calls it "a magic book."

De Vaca was part of a Spanish expedition that left Cuba in 1527 to find riches in the New World. The expedition ran into problems in Florida, then shipwrecked off the Texas coast on Galveston Island.

For the next eight years, de Vaca and three survivors lived among the Native Americans, sometimes in slavery, before returning to Spain.

"This is first contact stuff," Ms. Todd said of de Vaca's time exploring the Southwest from Galveston to El Paso. "They didn't know if [the Native Americans] were human beings. They certainly weren't Catholic."

The archive has digitized de Vaca's book to make its copy available for scholars on the Internet.

Mr. Duvall's double came with Mr. Wittliff's Lonesome Dove selection of set designs, props, photographs, wardrobe and drafts of the screenplay of Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

Mr. Wittliff was executive producer and wrote the screenplay for the four-part 1989 television miniseries.

Archivist Katharine Salzmann said the collection is unique because so much of the material comes from living donors such as actor and writer Sam Shepard, rather than pieces acquired from artists and writers who are long dead.

"When you're trying to fill in the history on James Joyce, you can't just call James Joyce," she said. "But when it's King of the Hill, you can call [show creator] Mike Judge."