Residential Space A creative outlet during residency, turned ongoing virtual soap box

Farewell, Dr. Bruccoli  1

Posted on June 6th, 2008. About Books, News and Politics, Ramblings.

During my junior year in college during the fall of 2000, I enrolled in a class at the University of South Carolina called “Fitzgerald and Hemingway.” The course was taught by Matthew Bruccoli, widely recognized as the leading F. Scott Fitzgerald scholar and the creator of the largest collection of Fitzgerald memorabilia known. In short, it was an unforgettable experience.

Dr. Bruccoli passed away this week, as I learned from this article, sent to me by a friend in Charleston. I stared at the computer screen, stunned. Then the tears came. The world feels a little emptier with him gone.

His class that semester consisted of about 20 students (of whom about 15 showed up for each session – I never missed it), meeting with Dr. Bruccoli in the rare book room at the Thomas Cooper Library. We started each session by passing around a piece from the collection. The first time, it was a first edition of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises with the following inscription on the title page: “To Scott, with great esteem and affection. Ernest” Wow – Fitzgerald’s copy of Hemingway’s book, inscribed by Hemingway to Fitzgerald. Truly unique. The following session, we examined an old slide projector with glass slides featuring images of war. Dr. Bruccoli explained that Fitzgerald owned these, as did many in the 1910’s, and used this to emphasize Fitzgerald’s remorse over never having the chance to fight in World War I. One day it would be Fitzgerald’s whisky flask. The next it may be his notebook he carried around Hollywood in the 1930’s as he jotted down ideas for his final (unfinished) novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western. It was such an awesome way to begin discussing Fitzgerald’s writing.

We had guest lecturers too. I’ll never forget famed writer and critic George Plimpton’s visit to our class. We sat at the large conference table, Plimpton and Dr. Bruccoli with us, and laughed at their stories of their various encounters with Hemingway, his family, and friends. That night, we were Dr. Bruccoli’s guests at a performance of a dialogue Plimpton had written after compiling letters between the two men. I was one of three students from our class that attended (and I brought my mother, a bibliophile). Where was everyone? Did they not realize the experience they could have? As Plimpton closed our class, I handed him my photocopy of his script that had been distributed at the start of class and asked if he would mind autographing it. When he died in 2003, the script, which had sat on my bookshelf, was moved to a special box for preservation.

When I started medical school, I would go through flurries of short story writing, and once was even brave enough to send one to Dr. Bruccoli for an opinion. He sent feedback several days later, which to my relief was positive. I have the envelope with the manuscript and Dr. Bruccoli’s letter in storage, but the word I remember from the letter is “publishable.” He went on to explain that he almost became a doctor, but didn’t want to be surrounded by people who were ignorant. Instead, he continued, he went on to become an English professor, and was surrounded by people who were even more ignorant. I submitted it to a literary magazine, and it was rejected. He also enclosed one of his books with a witty inscription. After graduating from medical school, I went back to USC to visit Dr. Bruccoli before I moved to Seattle. He encouraged me to continue collecting rare books, and to enjoy medicine but to remember my passion for literature and writing.

He was gruff, and he was remarkable. I don’t know if I will ever meet another person like him. He is still very much alive in my mind, slamming his hand on the table and growling, “Hemingway was a MEAN son-of-a-bitch!” I can see the curious look on his face as we opened boxes of Hemingway galleys and manuscripts recently purchased by USC. I remember only being able to enter the University Club in St. Paul, MN, where Fitzgerald used to have drinks when he was a young man, because I was able to describe to the door attendant, thanks to Dr. Bruccoli, in detail what the bar looked like, despite not having ever seen it in person.

In the midst of my sadness while at work today, one of my friends was kind enough to listen to me ramble on about how remarkable Dr. Bruccoli was. He reminded me that I was lucky to have known someone like that. Lucky indeed. I am lucky, but unfortunately it just doesn’t seem like there was enough time. There never is with someone like him.

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