Thomas F. Staley: He Helped Create a Home For the Literary Archives of Major Writers

From a New York Times obit by Richard Sandomir headlined “Thomas F. Staley, Dogged Pursuer of Literary Archives, Dies at 86”:

Thomas F. Staley, who as the director of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin elevated its standing as a go-to home for the literary archives of major writers like Norman Mailer, David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo, died at his home in Austin….

Dr. Staley, a scholar of James Joyce, arrived at the university in 1988. Over the next 25 years, he brought a literary sensibility and a competitive zeal to acquiring collections — and keeping them from going to universities like Harvard and Yale.

Stephen Enniss, who succeeded him as the Ransom Center’s director, said Dr. Staley had been adept at persuading university administrators, donors and the public at large to preserve literature that he saw as of lasting value.

“Tom’s enthusiasms became everyone’s enthusiasms,” Dr. Enniss said.

When an author asked for three reasons his papers should go to the Ransom Center, Dr. Staley told The New York Times in 2000, he responded by saying, “Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and James Joyce” — whose papers are all in Austin.

To fund his purchases, Dr. Staley used endowment income, private donations and university allocations.

In a profile in The New Yorker in 2009, he was quoted as saying his pursuit of collections was “chess, not checkers.” He kept his eye on aging writers. He once put a woman he thought was dating Cormac McCarthy on Ransom’s advisory board, according to the profile, “in the hope — vain as it turned out — that it would prompt the reclusive author to sell his papers.”

Mr. McCarthy, the author of “No Country for Old Men” among other acclaimed novels, sold his archive to Texas State University in San Marcos in 2007.

In 2005, to purchase the Mailer archive (which contains items like book drafts, report cards, screenplays, scrapbooks and car repair bills), Dr. Staley helped raise half of the $2.5 million cost. Two years earlier, the center had paid $5 million for the Watergate papers of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post, a trove that included their reporters’ notebooks, galley proofs of their Watergate books, research files and financial records.

Glenn Horowitz, a rare-book dealer who brokered many archival sales to Ransom, including the Mailer, DeLillo and Woodward-Bernstein transactions, said that the Ransom Center — founded in 1957 by Harry Huntt Ransom, an English instructor who later became the university’s chancellor — had long been a prestigious repository of cultural archives when Dr. Staley was hired from the University of Tulsa.

“But it had gone through a fallow period under the previous director, and Tom stuck the hose into the gas tank and filled it up to the brim,” Mr. Horowitz said. was a showman and an academic who knew how to involve well-off Texans in his acquisitions.”

One of them was a World War II veteran who had married into a wealthy oil family but had never heard of Mailer when Dr. Staley approached him. After Dr. Staley “put the squeeze on him,” Mr. Horowitz said, the old soldier wrote a check for $250,000, then matched it when he met Mailer at a dinner honoring him in Austin.

Thomas Fabian Staley was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in Tulsa, Okla….He earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Regis College in Denver in 1957 and also pitched for the college’s baseball team. A year later, he received a master’s in literature from the University of Tulsa, and in 1962 he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh with a dissertation about F. Scott Fitzgerald.

By then he had begun his teaching career — first at Rollins College, in Winter Park, Fla., for one year, and then at the University of Tulsa, where he taught literature for 25 years. In 1963 he founded the James Joyce Quarterly, which he edited for a quarter-century; he also taught courses in Joyce and the novelist and playwright Italo Svevo at the University of Trieste in Italy as a Fulbright scholar in the 1966-67 academic year and wrote or edited books about Joyce and the British novelists Jean Rhys and Dorothy Richardson.

In the 1980s, Dr. Staley became the dean of the college of arts and sciences at Tulsa and later the university’s provost; while there, he acquired literary collections for the university’s McFarlin Library, including those of Rhys, who wrote “Wide Sargasso Sea”; the critic Edmund Wilson; and Richard Ellmann, a Joyce biographer.

Not long after being hired to run the Ransom Center, Dr. Staley learned that the archives of Stuart Gilbert, Joyce’s translator and friend, were available. The papers, which cost the Ransom Center $265,000, came with an unexpected find: Joyce’s handwritten edits of the first chapter of “Finnegans Wake.” Dr. Staley estimated that those pages alone were worth $750,000.

In the 25 years that followed, he acquired the papers of dozens of literary luminaries, including Doris Lessing, Jorge Luis Borges, J.M. Coetzee, Penelope Lively and Isaac Bashevis Singer, as well as the archives of Robert De Niro and the Life magazine photojournalist David Douglas Duncan. Dr. Staley also continued to teach English.

When Dr. Staley visited the playwright Tom Stoppard at his home in England, he found his papers scattered in his study and in another building on his property. As Dr. Staley recalled, Mr. Stoppard told him, “What you want is mostly stuff I would throw away: notes on this and that.” But there were also drafts of his plays, notes on revisions and drawings of stage sets.

On another trip, to Arthur Miller’s house in Connecticut, Dr. Staley learned that in a box Miller thought had been filled with roofing nails, he had discovered valuable notebooks and a short story — the very type of items that help fill an archive. Although parts of Miller’s archive had been at the Ransom Center for decades, a formal deal to acquire the collection, for $2.7 million, was not made until 2017.

Dr. Staley’s aggressive and successful pursuit of so many literary stars’ papers suggested to him that he had guided the Ransom Center to victories in a state that loves to think big.

“People take a special pride here in winners,” he said. “They like success.”

Richard Sandomir is an obituaries writer. He previously wrote about sports media and sports business. He is also the author of several books, including “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.”

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