With the recent premiere of a new film version of “The Great Gatsby,” based on the iconic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, there is bound to be renewed popular interest in the decade known as the Roaring Twenties. Just recently, in fact, the Aiken Standard ran a story about Gatsby-related programming at the Willcox.
The general public may not be aware, however, that the single most important collection of works by and about Fitzgerald is housed in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Thanks to the late Matthew Bruccoli, Fitzgerald scholar and collector, the USC Libraries boast 3,000 author-related items, making it the “most comprehensive Fitzgerald resource anywhere.”
Of this fact, some in the media have already taken note. Back in March, a photographer from The New York Times journeyed to Columbia to photograph 22 different Gatsby book covers, including the first edition, for which a single copy can now command up to a half-million dollars. That first book cover, conceived by Francis Coradal-Cugat, a Hollywood designer and brother to the Cuban bandleader Xavier Cugat, features giant eyes and lips floating in a dark blue sky, an obvious reference to the billboard near which the main characters pass on their way to and from the great city, a billboard advertising the optometry of T.J. Eckleburg but symbolizing a lack of sight – or more properly insight – on the part of so many Americans living during the Jazz Age, recklessly seeking wealth at the expense of moral and spiritual values.
Because Coradal-Cugat chose to make the face feminine, it is also a reference to Daisy Buchanan – or the imaginary Daisy that Gatsby creates in his head. For Jay Gatsby, she serves as the classic femme fatale.
Other covers, all reproduced from the USC collection and featured in an April 14 issue of The New York Times, make reference to some of the customary accoutrements one associates with the high life: expensive automobiles, champagne glasses and swimming pools. These items also figure prominently in the novel. Gatsby’s showy yellow roadster and his rival Tom Buchanan’s blue coupe, both emblematic of the materialist assertion that a man is defined by what he possesses, play key roles in the plot. The champagne glass represents the lavish parties that Gatsby throws in order to lure Daisy once more into his sphere of influence. The swimming pool is the setting for Gatsby’s death.
In addition to the many editions of Fitzgerald’s work included in the collection, Bruccoli amassed a number of the author’s personal items, including his walking stick, briefcase and a silver flask that his wife Zelda gave him one year before their marriage. Among the most valuable is the author’s private ledger. From 1919 to 1938, Fitzgerald kept meticulous handwritten notes on five topics: “record of published fiction,” “money earned by writing since leaving army,” “published miscellanea for which I was paid,” “Zelda’s earnings,” and “outline chart of my life.” I’ve seen the ledger, which resembles typical volumes used by generations of accountants, up close on a private tour of the climate-controlled vault in the bowels of the Hollings Library on the USC Columbia campus. However, thanks to the work of the library staff, a digital version is now available online to all readers.
It is clear from his financial records that Fitzgerald earned a lot of money in his early career, particularly from the sale of short stories to the popular magazines of the day. In fact, in 1925, the year of its publication, “The Great Gatsby” earned him slightly less than what The Saturday Evening Post paid for a single story –both around $2,000, still a substantial amount at the time.
Perhaps more interesting than the fact that the author kept a careful record of his income are the notes that he made as part of the “outline chart of [his] life.” For 1919, for example, the year that Fitzgerald’s first novel “The Side of Paradise” was accepted for publication and the year that he married Zelda, Fitzgerald declared, “The most important year of my life. Every emotion and my life work decided. Miserable and ecstatic but a great success.”
How poignant a foreshadowing of his later life and career! For a time, the successful author and his vivacious wife seemed to be the perfect couple, the embodiment of the manic good times we now call the Jazz Age, but after the Crash of 1929 and the advent of the Great Depression, Zelda’s bipolar disorder worsened and Scott’s alcoholism spiraled out of control, and they both faced tragic ends. He died in 1940 in Hollywood of an apparent heart attack; she died when the mental hospital in which she was a resident burned down in 1948.
Until June 30, highlights from the Bruccoli Collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald will be on view at the Hollings Library at USC in Columbia. For more information, visit the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections on the web at www.library.sc.edu.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USCA. His new book “Hidden History of Aiken County,” published by The History Press: Charleston, SC and London, UK, is now available online and at local retail outlets.