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Cooper Finds Life With Fante, Lecture Published By UCLA

Published: September 17, 2012

English’s Stephen Cooper saw his 2011 UCLA Bonnie Cashin Lecture published this year by the UCLA Library in a special limited and illustrated edition, “The Road to John Fante’s Los Angeles: A Biographer Reflects,” featuring an introduction by Carey McWilliams biographer Peter Richardson and an afterword by National Endowment for the Arts literature director emeritus David Kipen.

Cooper’s lecture marked the opening of “John Fante: A Life in the Works,” a 2011 public exhibit of original manuscripts, screenplays, letters, diaries and other materials from the John Fante Collection. Co-curated by Cooper, the exhibit ran through the summer at the Department of Special Collections of UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library. Cashin, a pioneer in fashion design, established the UCLA endowment with a mission statement committed to “bringing gifted individuals from varied creative pursuits to UCLA Library Special Collections to celebrate the creative process.” Cooper, a member of the university since 1984, said, “I was fortunate enough to be tapped for the 2011 lecture.”

The road to the Cashin lecture began in 2009 when, after 15 years of trying, Cooper finally persuaded the Fante family to entrust the famed novelist and screenwriter’s papers to UCLA’s Special Collection. “There, they are available to anyone who is interested in Fante’s career,” he said. “There are almost 50 linear feet of papers including manuscripts, screenplays, business records, personal correspondence, medical records and photographs. It’s the whole nine yards of a writer’s life.”

Cooper feels the publication of his Cashin lecture represents his chance to place an exclamation point at the end of a long biographical project. “It began in the 1990s and ended when I knew John Fante’s papers were safe for posterity,” he explained. “In the talk, I tried to address my involvement and enthusiasm, even my passion, for his writings. I traced the highlights of researching and writing his biography and the challenges in persuading his widow that I was the right guy for the job. My interest kept growing through the process of doing that book, several follow-up publications and two documentary films.”

Cooper addressed the significance of Fante’s life. “He is perhaps the most emblematic writer in the history of greater Los Angeles,” he said. “His writings, even though they come to us from the Depression Era, continue to speak to us. They capture the spirit of the city during a very important time. It was a privilege and honor to study a writer who is now known as the patron saint of Los Angeles writers and father of the Los Angeles novel.”

Cooper points with pride to the 2010 dedication of John Fante Square in front of the Los Angeles Central Public Library as an indication of Fante’s growing reputation. “He spent every minute he could in that library because he was starving, both literally and for literature,” he said. “There’s nothing very square-like about it, this being Los Angeles. But at each of the intersection’s four corners, there is a prominent sign proclaiming it John Fante Square. I couldn’t be more pleased with how this project has unfolded.”

Cooper thanked Peter Richardson and David Kipen for their support and acknowledgements at either end of the book.

“(Carey) McWilliams, who has been called California’s finest non-fiction writer, was Fante’s closest friend,” said Cooper. “They caroused through the haunts of 1930s L.A. When my Fante biography appeared, I was contacted by Richardson who told me that reading the Fante biography inspired him to think he might be able to do the same for McWilliams. I find it apt that both writers’ papers now reside at UCLA Special Collections.”

John Fante book cover

At the conclusion of his Fante research, Cooper wonders how future biographers will study the work of writers who compose on screen, not on paper. “I am concerned with how researchers will get to know authors as well as I did John Fante since electronic writing does not produce the same kind of record,” he said. “How will anyone write biographies of writers with no paper trail? Writers used to leave their marks all over the page. It is that much harder now to gauge the quality of a writer’s mind. We will no longer see their spirits forming on their pages.”

If any writer has made a mark on his or her age or culture, Cooper believes Fante has. “It’s been said that, if a book lasts 50 years, it might really last. Fante’s books have lasted longer than half a century. His legacy crosses cultures,” he said. “While Fante remains something of a cult figure in his home country of the United States, he is better known in Europe with his fame peaking in Italy and France. There, he is revered on the same level with any of the great modernists.”

Cooper completed, Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante, in 2000, the first biography of the 1930s writer whose novel Ask the Dust is increasingly considered an American masterpiece. He edited “The John Fante Reader” in 2002 from William Morrow/HarperCollins. In 2003, he received CSULB’s Distinguished Faculty Scholarly and Creative Activities Award. He got his B.A. in English from UCLA before taking a 10-year break to write. He returned to UC Irvine to earn an MFA in creative writing then to USC for his Ph.D. in 1991. Cooper joined the university in 1984 part-time, in 1989 full-time and in 1997 on the tenure track.

Biography is an important form, Cooper believes. “Any serious literary biography seeks to record an individual life that has mattered, and to do so in a way that will provoke the reader to go beyond the life to the works themselves. To do so, it must tell a story that engages the reader,” he said. “Biography is the novel sworn to facts, the novel that dares not speak its name.”

Cooper never expects to repeat such a discovery as that of John Fante. “I don’t expect ever to find such an unknown important writer again,” he said. “I belong to Bio Group LA, a periodic gathering of accomplished local biographers. Their motto is, ‘Get a life!’ I got mine in Fante.”