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Virginia Spencer Carr, 1929-2012: A Biographer's Work.  Curated by L. Rebecca Johnson Melvin.


Virginia Spencer Carr, the noted literary biographer whose papers are held by the University of Delaware Library, died on April 10, 2012, at her home in Lynn, Massachusetts.

Born July 21, 1929, in West Palm Beach, Florida, Virginia Spencer’s future writing career may have been inspired by her mother, Wilma Bell Spencer, who was the society editor of the Palm Beach Daily News and author of a history of Palm Beach. Virginia Spencer received her bachelor’s degree from Florida State University where, among other activities, she was a flying trapeze artist in the school’s Flying High Circus. She received her master’s degree in English from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and returned to Florida State University, where she wrote her dissertation on Carson McCullers.

Book jacket portrait of Virginia Spencer Carr by Al Alexander for The Lonely Hunter, 1975.
Book jacket portrait of Virginia Spencer Carr by Al Alexander for The Lonely Hunter, 1975.

Carr began her teaching career at Armstrong State College in Savannah, followed by long-term appointments at Columbus College in Columbus, Georgia (the hometown of Carson McCullers), and Georgia State University in Atlanta. She retired from teaching in 2003.

Carr’s award-winning 1975 biography of Carson McCullers, the darkly Southern writer of novels and stories featuring memorably isolated characters, was meticulously researched and remains the standard biography of McCullers. Carr published two additional comprehensive biographies, Dos Passos: A Life (1984) and Paul Bowles: A Life (2004), and other critical works about McCullers, Katherine Anne Porter, and Eudora Welty.

Carr met and interviewed Tennessee Williams in the course of her research on Carson McCullers and spent years planning to write a biography of the famous playwright, but after his death, her interests were redirected to Paul Bowles, who was still living, and who agreed to authorize her biography of him. Virginia Spencer Carr grew close to her subject, visiting the expatriate author at his home in Tangiers many times, and hosting him on two separate visits to her own home in Atlanta.

The Virginia Spencer Carr papers at the University of Delaware Library span nearly 40 linear feet and document the extensive research and publishing projects for the Tennessee Williams (unfinished) and Paul Bowles biographies. The collection includes correspondence, interviews, clippings, photographs, subject files, manuscripts and proofs, as well as personal files related to Virginia Spencer Carr’s early years in Florida and a number of books from Carr’s personal library. Virginia Spencer Carr’s lengthy correspondence with Paul Bowles is also represented in the Paul Bowles paper at the University of Delaware Library, allowing researchers access to both sides of their many exchanges.

This small exhibition presents the biographer’s work—manuscripts, correspondence, research ephemera, publishing proofs, and publicity—from early writing, her unfinished Tennessee Williams project, and her three major biographies.

Checklist of the Exhibition

1. “The Florida Peninsula: Beautiful or Barren,” by Virginia Spencer, Grade 11, Palm Beach High School, 1946. Typed manuscript signed, with submission card and “Honorable Mention” award ribbon from West Palm Beach Garden Club Flower Show. From the Virginia Spencer Carr papers.

2. Virginia Spencer Carr with her acclaimed first book, The Lonely Hunter: a biography of Carson McCullers, 1975. Doubleday publicity photograph by Peggy May from the Virginia Spencer Carr papers.

3. Dos Passos: a life. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984. Advanced uncorrected proofs with publisher’s announcement letter, laid in, from the library of Virginia Spencer Carr.

4. “Dos Passos and the making of biography: a lecture by Virginia Spencer Carr, Lynchburg College’s Writer in Residence.” Publicity flyer, 1985, from the Virginia Spencer Carr papers.

5. Tennesssee Williams research ephemera from the Virginia Spencer Carr papers: Tennessee Williams interview by Clive Barnes in American Way, May 1975; with publicity card for Sweet Bird of Youth performance at Martin Beck Theatre, New York, featuring Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, and Sidney Blackmer, directed by Elia Kazan, 1959.

6. Notes: Returning to Atlanta from St. Louis and Tennessee Williams’s funeral, 1980 March 5. Autograph manuscript signed, by Virginia Spencer Carr: “Tennessee Williams was buried today in North St. Louis, beside Edwina, his mother. There is space for Rose … ” From the Virginia Spencer Carr papers.

7. Virginia Spencer Carr to Paul Bowles, 1991 June 14. Typed letter signed, 2 pages, written after receiving Bowles’s authorization for Carr’s biography of him: “There will be no malevolence, of course … I want to do right by you in every aspect of your life and work.” From the Paul Bowles papers supplement.

8. Paul Bowles: a life. New York: Scribner, 2004. Advanced uncorrected proofs with Carr’s manuscript corrections throughout, from the library of Virginia Spencer Carr.

9. Paul Bowles to Virginia Spencer Carr, 1995 February 14-23. Autograph letter signed, 8 pages with envelope, providing Bowles’s detailed biographical clarifications in response to Carr’s itemized questions, from the Virginia Spencer Carr papers.

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