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Event Marks 75th Anniversary Of Fante Novel

Published: November 3, 2014

The George L. Graziadio Center for Italian Studies at CSULB presents John Fante’s “Ask the Dust: 75 Years and Counting” on Thursday, Nov. 6, from 2 to 5 p.m., at the Karl Anatol Center.

The conference will mark the 75th anniversary of the classic Los Angeles novel’s November 1939 publication. Fante scholar Stephen Cooper, a member of the English Department since 1984 and the author of Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante, is looking forward to the event.

“We still remember Ask the Dust 75 years later because Fante (1909-83) captured the spirit of Los Angeles in a particularly intense way that still speaks to readers in general and young writers in particular,” said Cooper. “Anyone writing about the Los Angeles area needs to know about John Fante. This novel defines and dramatizes our region not only geographically but also spiritually and aesthetically, and in a wonderfully tragic-comic way. At first, you laugh out loud but, by the end of the story, your heart is broken.”

Opening remarks will be delivered by Clorinda Donato, chair of the Graziadio Center followed by Italian scholar Miriam Amico on the topic “From the American Dream to the (Re) Discovery of Italian Roots: The Question of Ethnic Identity in John Fante’s Characters.” Also due to participate in the half-day panel are UCLA’s Daniel Gardner on “A Ramona in Reverse: Writing the Madness of the Spanish Past in Fante’s Ask the Dust,” Cooper on “Prelude to ‘Prologue to Ask the Dust‘,” National Endowment for the Arts David Kipen on “Did You Feel That? John Fante, the Long Beach Earthquake and Seismic Activity in the Literature of Los Angeles” and Santa Monica College’s Anna Mavromati, a CSULB graduate, on “Life under a Palm Tree in the 21st Century: A Contemporary Reflection on John Fante.”

The origins of the conference began in spring 2014 when Donato and Cooper recalled the campus’ first Fante conference in 1995, a three-day international event that drew scholars, writers, artists, and filmmakers to CSULB to resurrect Fante’s legacy.

“It was a big deal because it was the first academic attention that Fante had ever received,” Cooper recalled. “After its initial publication Ask the Dust did not get the critical attention it should have. With World War II, it fell into obscurity for the next 40 years.”

John Fante.

Cooper feels a personal satisfaction at Fante’s 75-year survival. He first came upon the writer in 1974 when he found in a second-hand bookstore a copy of Ask the Dust. Cooper had studied literature as an undergraduate at UCLA but his professors never mentioned the name John Fante. When the book was re-issued in 1980 thanks to the support of poet Charles Bukowski and John Martin of the Black Sparrow Press, it began to establish itself as a Los Angeles classic. “It has taken its place in our literary history and it still stands despite four decades of complete obscurity,” he said.

In addition to his American audience, Fante has acquired an enthusiastic Italian readership.

“Fante is Italian-American,” Cooper explained. “He was born into an immigrant family where Italian was the first language at home. He was writing about American life from a thoroughly ethnic perspective. This was a time before ethnicity was something to honor and preserve. He was far ahead of his time,” Cooper said.

Will John Fante survive? Cooper believes he will and one big reason is the argument that, if a book is still being read after 50 years, it has a good chance of lasting. “This is 75 years and counting,” Cooper said. “Ask the Dust is not going away any time soon. “

Cooper is so confident in the continued appeal of Ask the Dust that he offers a money-back guarantee. In every class he teaches, he tells his students to buy their own copy and read it. If they disagree with his opinion that the novel is a classic of American fiction, and in particular Los Angeles fiction, all they need to do is send him a note explaining why, along with a receipt, and he will happily refund their purchase price. “No one has ever taken me up on my offer,” he said.

–Richard Manly