Liz Farrell

Farrell: Behind the scenes at Pat Conroy exhibit in Beaufort

Jessica Dowd Crouch, archivist at Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina's Ernest F. Hollings Library and curator of the "My Wound Is Geography: Pat Conroy and the Lowcountry" exhibit at Historic Beaufort Foundation's Verdier House, which opens Oct. 24, arranges material in a display case Monday.
Jessica Dowd Crouch, archivist at Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina's Ernest F. Hollings Library and curator of the "My Wound Is Geography: Pat Conroy and the Lowcountry" exhibit at Historic Beaufort Foundation's Verdier House, which opens Oct. 24, arranges material in a display case Monday. Staff photo

Around 1 p.m. Monday, a white van from Enterprise pulled up at the corner of Scott and Bay streets in Beaufort and parked.

After 2 1/2 hours traveling South Carolina's roads, where each bump created an echoing clamor in the back of the van, the driver and her passenger were afraid to inspect their cargo.

They thought they would find nothing but shards of glass and scattered papers.

Everything was intact, no thanks to the state Department of Transportation.

Though a question did remain for bystanders.

"I wonder if that's everything," said Maxine Lutz, executive director of Historic Beaufort Foundation, as we stood and watched from the courtyard outside HBF's offices. We both noticed that even though the van's sliding side door was open, nothing could be seen inside. "They said they needed four rooms for this."

I craned my neck to see better.

"Well," I said. "Huh ... four rooms ... I'm not so sure about that."

But Jessica Dowd Crouch, archivist for the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at University of South Carolina's Ernest F. Hollings Library, and library sciences graduate student Erin Patterson knew what they were doing.

They had driven to Beaufort from Columbia with a portion of author Pat Conroy's archives to set up the "My Wound Is Geography: Pat Conroy and the Lowcountry" exhibit on the top floor of Verdier House.

The exhibit, part of the "Pat Conroy Is 70" birthday weekend celebration at the end of the month, opens Saturday and runs through the end of March. It is a look at Conroy's relationship -- his love affair, some might say -- with Beaufort and its surrounding areas.

Crouch is the curator of "My Wound Is Geography" and, by my estimation, knows Conroy better than just about anyone else in town -- even those who might say, "Pat Conroy? Oh yes, of course. We're dear friends," which sometimes feels like everyone north of the Broad River.

Crouch has read all of Conroy's books, except "The Boo." She's gone through more than 90 boxes -- acid-free boxes -- of his papers, which the university acquired in 2014 and will continue to receive in perpetuity.

She's read the letters he wrote to his mother and the letters his mother wrote to him. She's gone through his father's papers, the family's scrapbooks and photos with the help of Conroy's brother Tim. She's read Conroy's manuscripts, his notes, his ideas, his short stories, his screenplays.

She's even read his journals.

And boy, were they filthy.

I'm just kidding.

Crouch never would have told me if they were. She takes her job seriously. Me? I'd be bringing home those journals each night to read while watching "Grey's Anatomy." I'd fix myself a themed snack of pimento cheese on crackers and flip through the entries, stopping only to say "Girrrrrrl" and take a smartphone picture that I would then text to all my friends with comments like "#yikes."

Crouch does not do this.

"Well, first, I'd be fired if I took home anything," she laughed.

But it has to be weird to read the private thoughts of a literary figure who's still alive, someone whom she can still look in the eye afterward, right?

"Um ... I guess if I thought about it like that, it could be creepy," she said. "When I'm reading (the journals), though, I'm not pointing things out to people or telling secrets. It's a real privilege to have this job, so I treat it as though I'm being told these things in confidence."

She said some authors request that their journals remain a restricted part of their papers until they die -- and until everyone they know dies.

Not Conroy.

"I would be so scared if my journals and my letters were made available for people," Crouch said. "But he said, 'The things I write are so deeply personal. People know these things already.' The way he writes in his books is the way he writes in his journals. He's baring his soul."

That Monday afternoon, on the second floor of Verdier House, I watched Crouch and Patterson set up the exhibit -- in between picturing myself falling over the hall bannister, which only came mid-thigh on me because people of the past were very short.

I soon found out the reason the back of the van looked empty.

Paper is flat.

Even great quantities of paper retain their flatness.

HBF volunteer Dennis Cannady hung the exhibit's narrative posters while Crouch and Patterson emptied the contents of highly organized manila folders into gold-rimmed display cases.

Display cases, it turns out, are also sometimes flat.

They started with a room that is dedicated to Conroy's time on Daufuskie Island, where he taught native islanders. This experience led to his first book, "The Water Is Wide."

A journal entry on Sept. 11, 1969, about a day when he tape-recorded his students so they could hear their own voices, read: "People who are not at ease with machines, who like the logical, functional operation of hidden levers and submerged screws, will not understand my loathing of anything mechanical."

Conroy, who is known for handwriting all his books on legal pads, proves that some things never change. In fact, this is one of the highlights of the exhibit: seeing his handwritten works.

In that journal entry, he also captured the joy he felt in the moment the children heard themselves. They said "God almighty" and "good gracious." I smiled at the scene.

In the room that focuses on his time in Beaufort, Patterson prepared the cases.

"You want to make sure you get the insides especially," Crouch told her as she wiped down the glass with alcohol and water.

They used small sponges under the photos, journal entries and manuscript pages to create depth. They compared their cases to photos they had taken during a dry run of the exhibit, which they have been planning for six months.

After setting everything up, they went room by room and pretended to be visitors.

"Ooooh. Ahhhh. Daufuskie. Oh. I see these photos were taken by Billy Keyserling, and Billy's here tonight. And I can read about 'Water Is Wide' here. And oh, there's his manuscript and journal entry."

One part of the exhibit will be a surprise for visitors, especially those interested in Civil War history.

Part of Conroy's archives included papers from his high school English teacher, Eugene Norris, with whom he was close.

"We found these in a grocery bag," Crouch said as she showed me the display case that held papers belonging to Reuben G. Holmes, who came to Beaufort from Massachusetts to help newly freed slaves.

It was an unusual find and offered a new look at what Beaufort was like at that time.

The exhibit is personal for Crouch, who has spent a great deal of her time at USC immersed in Conroy's work. This is her first traveling exhibit.

"The two things I'm most excited about," she said, "are the one room we dedicate to his time on Daufuskie. The room itself is so great. It almost looks like a one-room schoolhouse."

She especially loves the photos of Conroy teaching the children.

"And the single item that may be one of my favorite items to pull and show people," she continued, "the exhibit title is 'My Wound Is Geography.' This is from the first line of 'Prince of Tides.' 'My wound is geography. It's also my port of call.' We have the legal pad Conroy wrote this on.

"It's so poetic and beautiful. And people who live here can identify with that."

IF YOU GO

"My Wound Is Geography: Pat Conroy and the Lowcountry," an exhibit that celebrates best-selling novelist Pat Conroy's relationship to the Beaufort area, opens Oct. 24 at Historic Beaufort Foundation's Verdier House, 801 Bay St., Beaufort. Verdier House is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Tickets are $10. Details: www.historicbeaufort.org, 843-379-3331

At 1:50 p.m. Oct. 30, University of South Carolina archivist and exhibit curator Jessica Dowd Crouch will give an hour-long gallery talk at Verdier House that is free and open to the public. The talk is part of the weekend-long celebration of Conroy's 70th birthday.

Follow columnist and senior editor Liz Farrell at twitter.com/elizfarrell and facebook.com/elizfarrell.

Related content:

  Comments