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Beloved writer’s archives are back where they belong

Donald Murray and his wife Minnie Mae. She was the subject of many of his columns for the Boston Globe.

By James Sullivan Globe Correspondent 

DURHAM, N.H. — When Hannah Starobin was a child, her family planned a summer trip across the country. Her father, the writer Donald Murray, worked as he drove. He dictated while his wife, Minnie Mae, typed notes, on a typewriter perched on the Ford van’s center console.

Murray was the lion of the renowned writing program at the University of New Hampshire, known to Boston Globe readers for his long-running, much-loved Over 60 column (eventually retitled Now and Then), his last one published shortly before his death in 2006 at age 82. When he wasn’t writing or teaching, he was thinking about his craft, always. “Writing, for me, has always been a necessary, secret act of selfishness — and survival,’’ he once wrote.

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“He loved nothing more than a stationery supply, a chart, a plan,” recalls Starobin, a psychotherapist in Westchester County, New York. Her father, a journalist and author of more than a dozen books, kept squares of paper in his shirt pocket for notes, she says: “He was constantly writing in his head.”

Murray, who was born in Boston and grew up in Quincy, was a meticulous archivist of his own work, keeping an ever-present “daybook” of his ideas, rough drafts, revisions, poems, short stories, and much more. For nearly 20 years, those daybooks and other yields from Murray’s desk sat in more than 100 archival storage boxes at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., awaiting future generations of writing students. Now, in a move that some admirers felt long overdue, Murray’s papers recently made their way back home to the UNH campus in Durham.

“It’s nice to have them back,” says Starobin.

Murray was a big man, and he had the corner office in the English department, says Rebecca Rule, the Yankee humorist and writer who studied with, and later taught alongside, Murray.

“You noticed him in the halls and on campus,” she says. “He had a word for everyone . . . We all thought we were his favorite writer.”

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While still an undergrad, Rule bumped into Murray in the mailroom one day and told him she was agonizing over whether to pursue a career as a teacher or a writer.

“And he said, ‘You are a writer, be a writer.’ I believed him and took his advice. And how many people did he say that to?” she said.

For Bill Ross, head of special collections at UNH’s Dimond Library, Murray’s methodical accumulation of his life’s work is a wonder.

“It’s kind of the fundamental principle for an archivist, to try to reflect the mind of the creator,” he says. “I know his spirit is over there.”

“There” is the storage space on the outskirts of campus, out past the football stadium and the transportation garage. On the second floor of a warehouse lined with metal shelving, rows of brown, acid-free boxes hold scores of Murray’s daybooks, his scrapbooks of clippings from as far back as his work for the Boston Herald Traveler in the 1950s (where, at age 30, he won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing), and chronologically ordered folders of his voluminous correspondence. In the next row, nearly 600 cubic feet of archives are devoted to a similar collection, still growing, from fellow New Hampshirite and onetime US poet laureate Donald Hall.

Murray’s daybooks are filled with his tiny, fussy cursive script and typed selections that he carefully trimmed and pasted onto the pages. Murray used a particular style of collegiate composition book; a huge number of them, oddly, are marked with the logo of the University of Vermont. (Daughter Hannah figures her frugal father must have come across a cut-rate stash of them.) The books also include occasional sketches and verse, whatever the muse might bring.

“There was that moment when/ my chute opened and I rose/ above the C-47,” reads a draft of one poem. “Or/ the jump when my chute/ didn’t open.”

Murray was always willing to take the leap, says Roy Peter Clark, founder of the Poynter Institute’s writing program and a longtime friend and mentee. Murray, Clark says, had “an almost magical ability to inspire people to write. I have made the argument many times that Don Murray was the most influential writing teacher in American history,” in part because he had students in both the academic and the professional world.

“For me, he was the trailblazer,” says Clark. “He was the messiah, and I was the disciple.”

For years Murray had deposited his boxes of material with the special collections department at UNH, but in the late 1990s he decided to donate the whole archive to Poynter.

“He was a proud man, and he thought his papers were worth something,” says Clark, who encouraged the transfer.

Over time, however, Clark came to realize that students of the so-called writing process movement, of which Murray was a founding theorist, were being underserved by Poynter’s curation of the papers.

“I have to say it was a mistake,” he says. “We treated them very well, but in the end, we weren’t the kind of place that could easily make them available to researchers and scholars.”

One such scholar is Mike Michaud, a 1996 UNH graduate and later Ph.D. student who is now an English professor at Rhode Island College. While researching UNH’s role in developing a nationally recognized writing program, he was frustrated by the inaccessibility of Murray’s papers at Poynter. At one point a librarian was sending him photocopies.

“You don’t do archival research by having someone look for you,” says Michaud, who has already visited the UNH campus more than once since the Murray archive returned a few months ago. He’s been fascinated by the human touch of the things Murray saved, far beyond the academic theory.

“Here is a card from some old lady in Hingham, including a recipe for gingerbread she thought he might like to have,” Michaud says with a laugh. “He kept all that stuff.”

The UNH English Department funded the cost of FedExing Murray’s archives from Florida to New Hampshire, which totaled about $3,000. Ross says he is making the collection a priority for his department and hopes to put together an exhibition that would honor the writer.

Like Murray’s daughter, Ross is happy to have the papers back in Durham.

“Frankly, I didn’t want them to leave in the first place,” he says.


E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.