COLUMBIA, SC — “The Great Gatsby” returns to the big screen Friday with all its American flamboyance and contradictions.
But a University of South Carolina professor says there is as much intrigue and revelation inside author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s newly digitized ledger book and other literary artifacts in the USC Libraries’ $4 million Fitzgerald collection.
The pieces, including the famous bound ledger book, a hip flask given to Fitzgerald by his future wife Zelda, and long galley proofs of “The Great Gatsby,” are now on public display in the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library at USC, providing a window to the jazz age world that Fitzgerald and his 1920s contemporaries inhabited.
“That generation born in the 1890s really believed that the 20th century was their century,” said Park Bucker, an English professor and Fitzgerald scholar at USC-Sumter. He said the book, written almost 90 years ago in the midst of the roaring ’20s, endures because its themes of lost love, ambition and dashed dreams are woven into the American story of every generation.
“Aren’t people still concerned about loss of love? Aren’t people still concerned about aspiration?” said Bucker, who considers “Gatsby” among the greatest of American novels. The book is a staple of high school and college reading lists, although Bucker believes college-age students may extract the most from Fitzgerald’s themes.
South Carolina houses the largest Fitzgerald collection in the world thanks to Matthew Bruccoli, the pre-eminent Fitzgerald scholar of the modern age. Bruccoli, who wrote more than 50 books on Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and other American writers, taught at USC for 40 years and was passionate about book-collecting, donating more than 4,000 books and artifacts that form the Fitzgerald collection.
“He wanted students to use things, to touch things,” said Bucker, who came to USC in the mid-1990s to study under Bruccoli, who died in 2008.
“As a collector, he was phenomenal,” said Elizabeth Sudduth, who oversees rare books and special collections for the university libraries. “His motto was to always get the book.”
The pieces in the sprawling Matthew J. and Arlyn Bruccoli Collection also defy Fitzgerald’s popular image and reputation as a flamboyant partier and alcoholic. “He was an incredible craftsmen,” Bucker said. “This image of him as a drunken playboy is just not accurate.”
The ledger reveals Fitzgerald’s literary life from 1919 to 1938 through a detailed accounting of the money he earned through his 160 short stories, four published novels, his plays and movie rights. “The Great Gatsby” was not a literary success at its time of publication, earning fewer royalties than his advance, Bucker said. But it took off once the book and other classics were distributed to soldiers fighting in World War II.
The ledger also offers up a sweetly earnest and wry autobiography, with not a few misspellings, written by Fitzgerald in the third person. For a man who chronicled the contradictions of American success, he records that his first word was “up.” On the page entitled “One Year Old,” Fitzgerald notes that “He had a dutch haircut” and survived bronchitis.
At three, Fitzgerald wrote that “he celebrated the new century by swallowing a penny and catching the measles. He got rid of both of them. In March, “His parents sent him to school but he wept and wailed so they took him out again after one morning.”
At 20, he writes: “A pregnant year of endeavor. Outwardly a failure with moments of danger but the foundation of my literary life.” And two years later, at 22: “The most important year of life. Every emotion and my life work decided. Miserable and exstatic but a great success.”
USC library officials hope the hype from the latest Gatsby movie will encourage the public to make their way to the rear of the Thomas Cooper Library and enter the special collections library. Sudduth said the university, like Bruccoli, has always insisted that manuscripts should be accessible to the public. That means anyone who is interested in leafing through the ledger or reading the galleys may do so.
As Sudduth notes with a smile, “bring clean hands, a pure heart and a current photo ID.”