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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008 01:39 am

The Marshall Papers

UIS home to unique collection of writers’ colony documents

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Untitled Document
Thomas J. Wood, curator of the Handy Writers’ Colony Collection at UIS
PHOTO BY C.D. STELZER

When Thomas J. Wood began working at then-Sangamon State University, in late 1986, the files of Lowney Handy, James Jones’ mentor, were still in disarray. “Apparently when they emptied her files they just dumped them into boxes,” says Wood, curator of the Handy Writers’ Colony Collection at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “It took several years to piece them back together. I mean, it was just in chaos.”
The university acquired the collection in 1983 and 1984 as a result of a television documentary produced by faculty members J. Michael Lennon and Jeffrey Van Davis. Their film, James Jones: From Reveille to Taps, aired on PBS in 1984. During their research, Lennon and Van Davis visited Robinson, Ill., the hometown of Handy and Jones, where they met Margaret Turner, who gained possession of the papers after her sister-in-law’s death in 1964. Turner subsequently donated the materials to the university. The collection is one of three in the nation related to Jones, the acclaimed author of From Here to Eternity and other novels. The other major holdings are archived at Yale University and the University of Texas at Austin. The UIS collection is unique, however, because of its concentration of documents pertaining to the Handy Writers’ Colony, established by Handy in 1950 in Marshall, Ill. With the assistance of student Meredith Keating, Wood worked for three years to bring order to the mess. Later, he published an article in the Illinois Historical Journal that chronicled the history of the writers’ colony. Before he started organizing the collection, Wood knew very few details about Jones, but the author was nevertheless a household name to him. “I’d heard of James Jones from childhood because I grew up in Mount Carmel, which is just about 40 or 50 miles south of Robinson,” Wood says. “My father was a big reader of novels. He used to go there on business sometimes. He’d bring me back Heath [candy] bars, and say, ‘Robinson — that’s where Heath bars and James Jones come from.’ ”
More than 2,000 letters written by Lowney Handy; her husband, Harry Handy; Jones; colony members; and others make up the core of the Handy Collection. The love letters between Handy and Jones are most revealing. “They were so candid about their lives,” Wood says. “You look at their letters, you know that they were telling all.”
Since being organized, researchers have been mining nuggets from the Handy Collection for years. The latest literary prospector, filmmaker Dawn Sinclair Shapiro, used information from the collection for her forthcoming documentary Inside the Handy Writers’ Colony, which is slated to run later this year on PBS. George Hendrick, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign became familiar with the collection years earlier, while compiling his 1989 book To Reach Eternity: The Letters of James Jones.
According to Hendrick, the Handy Writers’ Colony was unparalleled, and so was its founder.
“Most writers’ colonies were along the East Coast,” he says. “They provided no training and were only open to those writers who were already established or had glowing recommendations. Lowney was looking for people who were just out of the Army, or in two cases, just out of prison, who had a lot of experience, but most of them had no training in the arts. That’s quite different from the usual writers’ colony. “There’s nobody like her, as far as I know.”
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