Intrigued in the early 1940s by the radio dramatization of a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, young Matthew J. Bruccoli searched for and found The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald, a compilation of the writer's works.
"If ever a book changed a man's life, that book changed this man's life, which is what literature is all about," said Bruccoli, now the University's Emily Brown Jefferies Chair of English.
And if, as he insists, men are meant to fall in love with books the way they fall in love with women, then Bruccoli fell hard. Hopelessly smitten, he bought his first collector's item while in college. It was a first edition of The Great Gatsby.
"As an undergraduate at Yale, I remember buying different editions of The Great Gatsby and being ashamed, certainly not for buying them, but for not being able to explain why I had these different copies of Gatsby," he said. "I knew I was doing the right thing, but I couldn't explain why."
Guided by this unexplained passion, Bruccoli built a career as a preeminent Fitzgerald scholar. He also built a magnificent literary collection that found a new home at USC's Thomas Cooper Library in 1994.
"The three major special collections here at the Thomas Cooper Library are natural history, Scottish literature, and modern American literature, of which the Fitzgerald collection is the real foundation," said George D. Terry, vice provost and dean of libraries and information systems. "It will only expand in importance and become much more significant in the years to come."
The vastness of the Fitzgerald collection is astounding. Each of its more than 12,000 items offers a glimpse into the life of Fitzgerald, who is now recognized as one of the finest American writers of the 20th century.
The University has acquired the collection through a gift/purchase agreement with Bruccoli and his wife, Arlyn. "My wife is at least as addicted to literature as I am," said Bruccoli. "She enabled me to turn from book buyer to serious book collector."
Through this new partnership, USC and the Bruccolis have created a literary legacy that will live in perpetuity. Special events are being scheduled for 1996 to celebrate the collection's new home and to commemorate the centennial of the writer's birth. Items are being catalogued and arrangements are being made to house the collection in a special room in the Thomas Cooper Library. Students and researchers will have access to the collection on a per-item request within the library's rare book reading room.
The collection's revised manuscripts and typescripts will be of great interest to scholars studying Fitzgerald and the craft of writing in general. "These are crucial for examining a developing work in progress, and they offer insight into the literary genius of a great American writer," said Bruccoli, who teaches courses on Fitzgerald's work and is the author of numerous articles and books about him. "Fitzgerald was a hardworking writer who, despite his reputation as a playboy, regarded the process of writing as coming closer and closer to the ideal thing that existed in his mind,'' said Bruccoli. "He was not someone who dashed off a masterpiece while dancing the Charleston."
Beyond its great significance to the literary world, the true beauty of the collection may be its ability to recreate an era. Fitzgerald wrote principally in the 1920s, when America was between wars and some Americans did dance the Charleston. He named it the "Jazz Age," and his work forever captured the mood of the time.
Perhaps none of his works does that as successfully as The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald's signature story of the American dream gone awry. The one-of-a-kind galley proofs of the novel are a highlight of the collection.
Another highlight is one of only two existing copies of Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi, a play Fitzgerald wrote and then produced in 1915 while at Princeton University.
Among the collection's original manuscripts and papers are several revised pages from early short stories. "These show the wit, complexity, charm, inventiveness, and quality of imagination that are the hallmarks of Fitzgerald's short stories," said Bruccoli.
The collection also contains hundreds of rare books, many of them with inscriptions. Among these is a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls, inscribed to Fitzgerald by its author, American writer Ernest Hemingway. The two had an interesting relationship that is brought to life by several items in the collection. Another item is an inscribed copy of Fitzgerald's Taps at Reveille, which was presented to Bruccoli by Fitzgerald's only child, Scottie. She and Bruccoli maintained a close friendship for many years.
The collection also includes Fitzgerald's correspondence with other writers of the time, such as humorist Ring Gardner and novelist John O'Hara. Bruccoli is especially proud of letters to Maxwell Perkins, the famous editor who worked closely with Fitzgerald.
Other items include notes of encouragement from Fitzgerald to nowforgotten writers, and a pocket-sized notebook filled with Fitzgerald's comments about the novel he was writing at the time of his death. Other items, such as a briefcase and whiskey flask, provide a more personal glimpse of the man.
That such a complete collection can be amassed during a lifetime is remarkable. "It seems that my life has progressed from auction to auction," said Bruccoli, who appears to love the chase almost as much as he loves the items themselves.
Now appraised at $2 million, the collection was never intended solely as an investment. "You don't buy books as an investment," said Bruccoli. "You buy them because it gives you pleasure to read them, to touch them, to look at them, to see them on the shelves."
Interestingly, offering the cherished items to the University presented no dilemma for Bruccoli. "I have no second thoughts about the arrangements. I was being wooed by other universities in other states, and I was unhappy at the prospect of the books going elsewhere. USC has fully supported my work since I came here as a faculty member in 1969. The collection belongs here," he firmly stated. While it is true that the prized items are no longer in his home, says Bruccoli, it is not an ending. He bristles at the mere suggestion that this might be the end of a great and enduring passion.
"No," he said, "it just means I now have more shelf space to fill with more Fitzgerald books."
This page updated 22 July 1996.
Copyright 1996, the Board of Trustees of the University of South Carolina.