Reflections of a Biographer

Contributed by Prof. Jack Roper, Richardson Professor of American History at Virginia’s Emory & Henry College, who has become immersed in SCPC’s magnificent collection of the papers of Bryan Dorn.  Dr. Roper is the author of seven books including a biography of Benjamin Mays scheduled to be published shortly by the USC Press. 

There are several features that make the Hollings Special Collections Library unique for a researcher.

The modern political collections, built by Herb Hartsook in the SCPC, are concentrated in South Carolina politicians, as intriguing and colorful a group as ever inspired Ambrose Bierce or Mark Twain—or own John Hammond Moore  and Jack Bass.  The papers of Congressman William Jennings Bryan Dorn are particularly rich, not only for their full and detailed sweep across the eras of transformative change for the state’s Democratic Party but for the  flawless ear that the great speechifier developed in his own formal and less formal communication.

In an otherwise unexceptionable note on February 24, 1961, about the snow  to Greenwood’s Sarah J. Bailey (who preferred in that day to be styled Mrs Joel Bailey), the Congressman says of novelist Allen Drury and his own wife the onetime journalist Millie Johnson Dorn:  “Very confidentially, he and Millie wrote a book together one time.”   That itself is interesting, and the book, The Senate Journal, is readily available anywhere.  More interesting, however, is the fact that a first edition of Anna Hastings—in which Millie Johnson and other female journalists of the period 1944-1949 are portrayed in seriocomic depth of detail—is available in the same Smith Reading Room and can be brought to the researcher by the staff of the Irvin Rare Book Collections.  Dr. Patrick Scott  has been as diligent in collecting and arranging these wonderful first editions as Hartsook has been in collecting and arranging the correspondence, diaries, daybooks, and personal journals.

Jack Roper

Dr. Jack Roper enjoying the research opportunities available in the Smith Reading Room at the Hollings Special Collections Library

I also found a long wartime  note by the Congressman to his mother, Pearl Griffith Dorn, in which he describes visiting the family of novelist [Richard David]Vivian Llewellyn-Lloyd in London right after reading a serviceman’s edition of the novel How Green Was My Valley.  The rare armed forces edition of the novel is also ready to hand from the Irvin Rare Book Collection.  That Dorn thereafter styles his mother Nana and his father Dada not only reflects Llewellyn-Lloyd’s usages, but the actual lives of the elder Dorn couple show them to be the same kind of community Nana and Dada as the novelist portrays.  Life and art resonate, and especially in the Hollings Library.

There is another connected resource: Speeches by Dorn are digitally available on a small computer screen in the same room or on a wide screen with amplified sound in a nearby sound room—and in those places the SCPC digital recordings show Dorn talking, pumping his big arms and using phrases drawn from Allen Drury, Robert Burns, George Eliot, and Llewellyn-Lloyd, phrases one can read in the correspondence or in the original editions of the books.

The last and most important resource is human:  Not only Scott and Hartsook, but the entire staff are people who know the literature of history and the history of literature, are willing to talk about the resources, and are themselves fully fleshed and breathing collections of history and literature for the researcher.

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