As I descended to the basement of UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library for the first time, about to set up camp for an intense few days of archival work in the Ahmanson-Murphy Reading Room, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I think perhaps I’d imagined something clinically sterile, in keeping with the Young library’s general appearance – it’s a refined hunk of ‘60s brutalism, recently renovated in the universal vernacular of contemporary university architecture. As I reached the foot of the stairs, however, and peered through the glass doors marked ‘Special Collections’, I was pleasantly surprised to see something altogether warmer and more welcoming. All dark panelling and soft lighting, the exhibition space and reception area beyond those doors seemed a world removed from the rest of the library, and indeed the sun-bleached city outside. Display cabinets and bookcases lined the walls, there was a rug across the floor, and in the centre of the space a couple of Barcelona chairs stood around a glass coffee table. University libraries sometimes feel to me, with their noisy bustle and their phalanxes of harried, computer-bound students, a little like battery farms for the intellect. This, though, seemed much more civilized, somehow both reverential and relaxed in atmosphere, the kind of hushed, deep-cushioned, bubble of my most bookish dreams.
I was early, and as I stood there, full of anxiety and excitement, nervous energy and anticipation, waiting for 10am to arrive, I was struck that, for all the moments of crisis and doubt that descend during the course of a PhD, this is how I know that academia suits me. There’s a feeling some people get when they walk up Wembley Way, a feeling that some people get as they approach the processional doors of a cathedral. I get that feeling, apparently, when I’m waiting to enter a reading room containing the papers of John Fante (1909-1983), the Italian-American writer of novels, short stories, and screenplays.
On the stroke of ten I entered, and approached the reception desk to present my credentials – which amounted to nothing more than proof of identity. Given the financial clout and reputation of top American universities, and the prestige they attach to high-profile acquisitions, that UCLA holds a tremendous wealth of rare documents is unsurprising. What I found remarkable, however, is that anyone who can get to the library can make full, free use of that resource. Not only is there no requirement to be affiliated to UCLA, there isn’t a requirement to evidence any academic status, or even give an explanation of one’s need to access the collections. I’m aware that this is a widely-held, unexceptional special collections policy, in both the UK and the US, something a more seasoned academic might therefore perhaps take as a given. To me, however, on my first ever archival research trip, it seemed faintly magical that there should be such ease of access to these documents, documents that occupy in my mind a status approaching that of religious relics. Here I was, an uncredentialled member of the public, and I could see whatever I wanted to, for as long as I wanted to, for free. All I had to do was ask. “What’s the catch?”, I wanted to ask the helpful librarian as I impatiently stowed my possessions in a locker. She led me into the reading room, dimly lit and bracingly air conditioned, furnished with a long, boardroom-style table, and explained the procedures, which seemed straightforward. Then, a minor bombshell.
“And I see for this collection no photography of unpublished writings is permitted.”
My heart leapt into my mouth, then immediately sank to somewhere below my knees. So that was the catch. The Fante papers comprise 55 boxes. I thought I’d breeze through them with my camera, effectively using my time in the Special Collections to create a close-to-complete personal copy of the entire Fante archive, which I could consult at my leisure. This was not to be. It was clear that I would have to prioritise and target the available resources with greater care than previously expected – a difficult task when many of the boxes are only catalogued in fairly general categories. With a three-day lead time on orders from the offsite storage location and a five box-per-day limit, the risk of a container turning out to contain nothing of significance was one that carried a potentially major impact on the value of the trip as a whole.
In light of the photography restriction, my days in the archives would thus be characterised by rapid reading, fast and difficult decisions as to which documents could be discarded and which warranted closer investigation, copious note-taking, and lengthy transcription – in which it was imperative that I balanced speed with total accuracy. I had not, I confess, anticipated the level of physical and mental exhaustion induced by having to work in this manner, and would be at particular pains to warn fellow ‘beginner’ researchers about this aspect of an archive trip. Working each day for the full duration of the department’s opening hours, minus a half-hour lunch break, I emerged from the basement at 5pm each day utterly drained.
Prior to the trip I’d planned to utilise my evenings to explore the city, particularly downtown. My research examines spatiality in mid-century Los Angeles fiction, so a chance to wander the streets that figure so heavily in my work but which I’d thus far only experienced vicariously – to make real the geographies that are so significant for me but which had previously been only the stuff of fiction and theory – represented almost as academically valuable an opportunity as Fante’s papers. In mid-September the oppressive heat of the LA summer has subsided, but there remain a couple of hours of good daylight and t-shirt temperatures after library closing time, so it seemed a fine plan. As it transpired, however, the archive work proved so tiring that each evening I would find myself quite literally struggling to keep my eyes open and focused, my wrists aching from several thousand words of transcription and notes, my back sore from hunching over the papers for hours at a time. So I’d get back on the bus, try not to miss my stop, grab a burrito at the excellent Korean strip-mall taqueria on the corner of Palms and Overland, then fall into bed ready to start again the next day. I still managed some downtown flânerie, thankfully, but it was restricted to the weekend.
I’ve thus far focused on how this research trip felt, its practicalities and the challenges it posed as an exercise, rather than on the outcomes of the research itself, for two reasons. Firstly, at the time of writing I’m still processing the large volumes of material I was able to accrue while in Los Angeles, so I am hesitant to present firm conclusions about what I found. Second, I felt that some more general observations on the research experience might be of broader interest and use to colleagues at a similarly early stage of their academic careers. That said, there are some archival highlights that I wish to share in brief. First are those moments at which one is most aware of touching a piece of history. In the Fante papers, these often occurred when reading his correspondence, much of which is invaluable in articulating Fante’s place as a node in a nexus of a tight-knit community of American men of letters. This is glimpsed principally in correspondences spanning decades that bespeak tender, uproarious, lifelong friendships with Carey McWilliams, Bill Saroyan and Ross Wills, as well as in less intimate but no less fascinating exchanges with Louis Adamic, H.L. Mencken, and Pascal Covici.
Some of these letters have been published, but nothing contextualises them physically, temporally, or socially, like reading the originals sequentially and collectively. They can only be understood as records of a life when set alongside the more mundane and dispiriting correspondences of a writing career that dominate the letters: dozens of rejections, notices of unpaid dues from the Writer’s Guild, angry disagreements with publishers and agents. A fond postcard from Kim Novak, meanwhile, (a legacy of Fante’s long and conflicted Hollywood period) sits a few leaves away from John Steinbeck’s terse explanation of his refusal to support Fante’s application for a Guggenheim fellowship. Brushes with acclaim and stardom are thus ever in dialogue with records of long sloughs of frustration and failure: the letters recount a life of stark contrasts and tumultuous fortunes, one in which embittered disappointment perhaps became a dominant note in later decades but from which sparks of mischief and vitality never vanished. Indeed, this sense shines through in Fante’s very last letter, dictated to his wife Joyce in 1981 (by this time Fante was blind and legless as a result of diabetes). It was ostensibly written to his ancient aunt Dorothy, from whom he had recently received a letter after decades out of contact. In truth, however, it reads (not least because Fante, in an extended play on the fact that Dorothy lived in a town called ‘Paradise’, impishly addresses her as if she is dead and in heaven), more as its author’s own last testament, a reckoning-up of his life. It contains a brief, proud, account of his writing career, his children, and his home, then concludes with a moving and frank declaration of love for his wife of forty years – the amanuensis revealed to herself as the letter’s real subject and addressee in the very act and moment of writing its words. There is perhaps, at the very last, even amid debilitating illness and mortal decay, a sense of contentment.
There are minor treasures in the unpublished fiction, too. Three differing synopses for the unwritten second half of the novella 1933 Was a Bad Year; a comic short story Fante was unable to sell anywhere but which had me stifling laughter in the reading room; the rejected initial chapters of Fante’s failed attempt at a novel about Filipino labourers (along with the excoriating comments thereon from the publisher’s readers); a terrible but instructive poem about a drive through the California countryside. Most of this is essentially high-grade ephemera; there is no great lost masterpiece in the papers, alas. For a Fante obsessive, however, there is much with which I feel I can begin to build a more complete picture of the man and his writing life.
For example, Fante published only one novel between 1939 and 1977, and vanishingly little short fiction beyond the early ‘50s. Thus, the collection’s rafts of film treatments (many never sold or produced) from Fante’s time in Hollywood, which are in effect short stories, are invaluable in ascertaining which themes and topics preoccupied him persistently throughout his career, crossing the span of the ‘lost decades’ between an early burst of literary production and a late revival. Just as useful in improving our understanding of Fante, however, are the themes that don’t appear in the extant published work, but which do crop up in the unpublished material. For example, it has always seemed strange to me that Fante, who spends so much of his fiction playing with and navigating the implications of the range of stereotypes and myths attached to Italian-Americans, never really invokes the mafia in his fiction. It transpires, however, that at least on a couple of occasions he did, but only in stories that never saw the light of day.
In short, my visit to LA felt revelatory on multiple personal and professional levels, and throughout my time in the archives I was palpably aware of what a near-miraculous privilege it is to be able to spend one’s days buried in these incredible documents, trying to eke out new revelations and connections. Regrettably, however, the resources that facilitate the enjoyment of such a privilege are in short supply in these straitened times, and I am therefore deeply grateful for my BAAS travel award, without which this visit would not have been possible. I am confident that the insights gleaned on my award-funded trip will be of invaluable benefit to my scholarship, which in turn I hope will represent a significant development in the field of Fante studies. I will be returning to Los Angeles next year to revisit the papers, but some early conclusions drawn from discoveries made on this visit will feature in a paper to be given at the BAAS postgraduate conference at the University of Essex, November 2017.
Michael Docherty is a PhD candidate at the Centre for American Studies at the University of Kent.