By: Lesley Messer
Since childhood, Matthew J. Bruccoli has been captivated by newspapers. Today, at age 73, his fascination has become an obsession: The University of South Carolina professor and historian is trying desperately to find lost issues of the former Pottsville (Pa.) Journal from 1924, 1925, and 1926, when famed novelist John O’Hara worked there as a general assignment reporter.
When the newspaper died, the archives were sent to a local historical society. But those three years of issues were either missing or were misplaced. Bruccoli believes that the articles would provide deeper insight into the fictional town of Gibbsville, which O’Hara often used as the setting of his stories.
“There has got to be good resource material; there has got to be evidence for the development of John O’Hara’s concept of American social history,” Bruccoli says. “All great fiction is social history, and what better way to assess it as a social historian than to see his earliest work, a social history, as a newspaper man on a small city paper?”
However, Bruccoli’s deep affinity for social history also includes a passion for newspaper journalism itself. As a child, the self-proclaimed “newspaper nut” remembers reading the five papers his father brought home daily. Bruccoli proudly notes, “I learned more from William Randolph Hearst than I learned at Yale.” During a summer vacation, he worked as a copy boy for what he believes to be “America’s greatest newspaper,” one for which John O’Hara also wrote: New York’s Herald Tribune.
“It was wonderful. I wanted desperately to go into journalism,” Bruccoli recalls. However, this was not an option. At the time, parents decided the futures of their children ? and his were far from thrilled at the idea of their son becoming a reporter. “I was forbidden,” he says. “My mother said, ‘All newspaper men die drunk in the gutter,’ and that was the end of my ambitions to be a newspaper man.”
Instead, Broccoli became an English professor and an author. He did, however, contribute many book reviews and articles to the Richmond News Leader.
Currently, Bruccoli serves as the Jefferies professor of English and the curator of American literature at the University of South Carolina. He also is a member of the honorary board of Nicholson Baker’s organization, the American Newspaper Repository, formed to preserve old American newspapers. He has written dozens of books on American literary history, including several biographies of O’Hara, the author of such books (later made into movies) as Pal Joey and Butterfield 8.
And if Bruccoli is able to find the information he believes is in the missing O’Hara articles, he also hopes to turn his discoveries into another book. He also wants to use them for an entry in the Dictionary of Literary Biographies, which he publishes.
But first he has to locate the missing volumes. He believes that someone unknowingly has them in his basement or attic. Bruccoli describes them as 30- to 40-pound books, not single pieces of paper. And he’s offering a reward for anyone who will let him copy them.
“I will pay $1,000 or more for the privilege to take them to a place where I can microfilm them, and then I will return them,” he offers. “For American literature, for research, for scholarship, for teaching ? I want to recover John O’Hara’s earliest writings.” Bruccoli can be reached via mail at the Department of English, University of South Carolina, Columbia, S.C., 29208.