Arts + Culture

UCLA Library acquires John Fante's literary papers

The UCLA Library has acquired the literary papers of the Los Angeles novelist, short-story writer and screenwriter John Fante (1909–83). The collection contains his manuscripts for books, short stories and screenplays; personal letters; business records, including book contracts; and memorabilia.
"We are delighted to announce this noteworthy acquisition in conjunction with the centennial of Fante's birth on April 8,” said UCLA University Librarian Gary E. Strong. "The Fante collection, together with the UCLA Library's holdings of papers and books by other authors associated with California and Los Angeles, including Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, Horace McCoy and Fante's close friend Carey McWilliams, offers a rich resource for research on his fiction, our city and the American immigrant experience."
The literary materials in the collection encompass all the manuscripts that are known to exist for Fante's novels, short stories and screenplays, many of them featuring Fante's annotations, as well as proofs for his books and copies of the magazines in which his stories appeared. Among the items of memorabilia are Fante's typewriter and pencil, his Screen Writers Guild (later Writers Guild) membership certificates, numerous photographs and a lock of his hair.
The correspondence includes 29 letters to McWilliams and 32 letters to H.L. Mencken, Fante's literary idol and the first editor to recognize his talent. There are 17 letters to and from William Saroyan, one letter from John Steinbeck and five letters from Charles Bukowski, whose own work referenced Fante's. Particularly important are more than 240 letters from Fante to his parents, wife and children written between 1932 and 1959, which offer the closest thing to an autobiography.
"This is an important event," said Stephen Cooper, author of "Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante." "Access to these papers will result in new scholarship about an important American writer whose works were almost forgotten. Thanks to the vision of the Fante family and the stewardship of UCLA librarians, future histories will now acknowledge Fante's contributions to 20th-century literature and his continuing influence."
Fante's heirs chose the UCLA Library to house his papers because he was a California writer with special ties to Los Angeles, the Library also has collections of his friends and fellow writers, and the papers will be publicly accessible to students, scholars and other writers. Victoria Steele, former head of the Research Library Department of Special Collections, initially expressed interest to the Fante family following the publication of Cooper's biography in 2000, and she completed her efforts to acquire the papers shortly before her departure from UCLA in mid-March.
Fante was born into a poor Italian immigrant family in Colorado; his father, a bricklayer by trade, was also an inveterate gambler who deserted the family for another woman in the late 1920s. Fante hitchhiked to Los Angeles in the early 1930s and sought whatever employment he could find, working on the docks and in canning factories to support his mother and siblings while struggling to become a writer.
Fante sold his first short story, "Altar Boy," in 1932 to American Mercury magazine, edited by Mencken. Their correspondence, which continued into the 1950s, reveals the impact Mencken had on Fante's career; in addition to publishing Fante's stories, Mencken encouraged his writing, recommended a publisher for his first novel and suggested that he try screenwriting.
In 1937 Fante married Joyce Smart, a Stanford-educated poet and editor, and in 1938, "Wait Until Spring, Bandini," his debut novel and the first in his series about the semi-autobiographical character Arturo Bandini, was published. "Ask the Dust," the second published novel in the series and perhaps Fante's best-known work, appeared the following year. The series continued with "Dreams From Bunker Hill" (1982) and concluded with "The Road to Los Angeles," published posthumously in 1985.
Though Fante's early fiction earned critical acclaim, it did not sell well, so he turned to screenwriting. His work as a contract writer included "East of the River" (1940), a crime drama starring John Garfield; "Jeanne Eagels" (1957), in which Kim Novak played this real-life 1920s Broadway star; "Walk on the Wild Side" (1962), with Laurence Harvey and Jane Fonda in one of her early roles; and "My Six Loves" (1963), a comedy featuring Debbie Reynolds. He also wrote the screenplay for his 1952 best-selling novel "Full of Life"; the 1956 film starred Judy Holliday and Richard Conte as characters based loosely on Fante and his wife.
In his later years, though Fante's health declined due to complications from diabetes, his work was rediscovered by a new generation of critics, readers, publishers, scholars and filmmakers. His novels and many of his short stories were reissued beginning in 1979 by Black Sparrow Press, in part due to prompting by Bukowski.
In fact, Bukowski wrote the preface for the 1979 reissue of "Ask the Dust," in which he said, "There is much more to the story of John Fante. It is a story of terrible luck and a terrible fate and of a rare and natural courage. Some day it will be told but I feel that he doesn't want me to tell it here. But let me say that the way of his words and the way of his way are the same: strong and good and warm."
Fante's wife continued to work with Black Sparrow after Fante's death to publish many previously unpublished works. In addition, "A Sad Flower in the Sand," a 2001 documentary about Fante, aired on PBS in 2006.
Francis Ford Coppola served as an executive producer of the 1989 film "Wait Until Spring, Bandini," featuring Joe Mantegna and Faye Dunaway, and Curtis Hanson wrote a screenplay based on Fante's 1977 novel "The Brotherhood of the Grape." Robert Towne, who discovered "Ask the Dust" while researching "Chinatown," wrote a screenplay based on the novel and directed the 2006 film version, which starred Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek and Donald Sutherland.
The UCLA Library, ranked among the top 10 research libraries in the U.S., is a campuswide network of libraries serving programs of study and research in many fields. Its collections encompass more than 8 million volumes, as well as archives, audiovisual materials, corporate reports, government publications, microforms, technical reports and other scholarly resources. More than 50,000 serial titles are received regularly. The UCLA Library also provides access to a vast array of digital resources, including reference works, electronic journals and other full-text titles and images.
The Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections administers the UCLA Library's rare and unique materials in the humanities, social sciences and visual arts. Its collections encompass rare books and pamphlets from the 15th century through the 20th century; extensive manuscript holdings; drawings, including original architectural drawings; early maps and atlases; photographs, prints and paintings; audiotape and videotape recordings; oral history transcripts; postcards; and posters.
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