When Ronald Regan nominated Antonin Scalia to the United States Supreme Court in 1986, my Sicilian father was ecstatic. Finally, he thought, some positive publicity about Sicilians! Scalia’s family had emigrated from a small town near Caltanisetta, and to have one of our own appointed to the highest court in the land was cause for jubilation. As I grew up, my father took pains to remind me about the great cultural contributions made by the people of that magical island. The Sicilians wrote the first literature in an Italian tongue, he insisted, and it was on Sicilian soil that Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor and Re di Sicilia, organized the first modern state, not to mention, he would add, that Sicily had produced not one, but two, noble laureates in literature: Pirandello and Quasimodo.
I first went to Sicily in 1976. There, I visited my father’s birthplace, Menfi (Prov. di Agrigento), where I stayed with my Aunt Nina, my father’s sister, and Uncle Ignazio. Upon leaving her small, two-bedroom flat one morning, I noticed that the street sign read Via Capuana. “Chi era stu Capuana?” I asked my aunt in my rickety Italian. “Scrittore,” she replied. “Scrittore Siciliano.”
Years later, when a change in career allowed me more time to research and write about the things I loved, I decided to edit an anthology of Sicilian literature in English, and I searched the Web for appropriate poems and short stories. At first it was easy; there are plenty of English versions of Verga’s and Pirandello’s fiction, of course, and several important poets had been translated as well. I even considered excerpting one of Leonardo Sciascia’s novels that had been rendered into English. Then, I came upon the name Capuana.
I recognized it immediately: “Scrittore Siciliano!” But I could find only one of his works, a short poem, in English. Capuana is famous not for his poetry, but for his novels, short stories, dialectical plays, fairy tales, and literary criticism. Along with his friend Giovanni Verga, he founded Verismo (Sicilian naturalism), the most important Italian literary movement in the nineteenth century, which influenced Pirandello himself.
As I searched through Capuana’s canon, I found a collection of his fairy tales, and, since I was intent upon including him in my anthology, I decided to translate a few myself. Though his dialectical plays are famous in Italy, Capuana wrote most of his work in Italian, including the fiabe. But at home we had spoken Sicilian, and I had had no formal training in Italian. It was tough going at first, but with the help of a good dictionary and a friend I met online—Nino Russo—I was able to produce a few tolerable translations, and I even managed to get several of them published in academic journals.
Finally, Adolfo Caso of Dante University of America Press took a chance and published my bilingual edition of C’era una volta (a collection of twenty fairy tales) under the title Sicilian Tales. A few years later, Dante also published my translation of Capuana’s tragic masterpiece, Il Marchese di Roccaverdina, which I consider one of the great novels of the nineteenth century. My dad is no longer with us, but the more I translate the more I realize how right he was about the richness of Sicilian culture.
So When New Jersey Governor Christie mentioned in a speech that his mother was Sicilian, I sent him a copy of Sicilian Tales. And I certainly wasn’t going to leave Justice Scalia out, so I sent him one as well. I didn’t expect a reply from either, but Gov. Christie sent me a polite thank-you. Justice Scalia, on the other hand, wrote a letter explaining that he knew the name Capuana very well: his father had completed a doctoral dissertation on the author at Columbia University. He went on to say that he would lend me a copy of the dissertation if I thought it would be useful to my research.
After climbing down from the roof of my college office building, from which I had shouted my news to the world, I wrote back explaining how highly my family—especially my dad—had thought of the Justice, and I asked to see the dissertation. Only a few days later, I got a call from Justice Scalia’s assistant, Crystal Martin, confirming my correct address and informing me that the book would be sent the next day. She said that this was his only copy, and she asked me to take special care of it. Of course, I said I would.
Each day I waited anxiously. When it hadn’t arrived two days later, I began to get worried. What if it had been lost in the mail? How would I be able to explain that I had not received it? I was like a teenager anticipating a back-stage meeting with a rock star. On the fourth day, I got a call from my wife on my cell phone as I was driving home from the college. “It came! It came!” she said. “Guard it with your life!” I implored.
When I got home, I noticed that the book was shrouded in bubble wrap for safe-keeping and, as I began to read it, I took special care not to damage the binding. I took copious notes, never once underlining or making notations on the text, as I do with my own books. After each reading, I returned it to the bubble wrap and stored it in a desk drawer.
The dissertation, entitled Luigi Capuana and His Times, was wonderful! I had expected a dry, academic rendering of the author’s life and work. Instead, S. Eugene Scalia’s commentary was colorful and insightful in addition to being academically rigorous. As I gathered inspiration and information for later use, I felt as if I were reading a novel. In fact, the author often poked good-humored fun at Capuana and his contemporaries, and he provided a much larger vision of the man’s work, his life, and his genius than I could have hoped for.
When I was ready to return the book, the old fear that it might get lost in the bowels of some post office resurfaced. At the same time, I thought I could use this as an excuse to take the experience a step further. I had the nerve to email the Justice’s assistant and, under the pretense of not subjecting the dissertation to the vicissitudes of the mails, I asked if I might return it in person. Fifteen minutes later, she replied with a gracious invitation to come to Washington. Again, I was ecstatic! If only my father had still been with us.
We set a date during my college’s spring break in March, 2013. When my wife, Elaine, and I arrived at the Supreme Court about a half hour early, we introduced ourselves to the guard at the side entrance as Ms. Martin had instructed. “Oh, yes,” he said. “We’ve been expecting you.” It was a paradoxical moment. Suddenly, the significance of the majestic building we were about to enter appeared more immense, more awe-inspiring than ever. At the same time, the very contours of the building’s façade seemed to soften and, as we entered, we no longer felt like two anonymous tourists moving through the corridors of a complex and indifferent bureaucracy, but two citizens blessed with a government that values the individual.
After passing through security, we walked into an enormous and stately lobby, and we asked, as instructed, to be taken to the Marshall’s Office. Once there, we were welcomed and told, once more, that we were expected. As we waited, I kept checking to see if my camera’s batteries were still charged, my tie straight, my glasses clean.
Suddenly, Ms. Martin appeared, greeted us warmly, and whisked us upstairs to the Justice’s chambers. As we entered, we heard a friendly welcoming voice call out from the inner office, “Hello, hello, come on in, come in!” It was Justice Scalia himself.
My very first impression was that his photographs do not do him justice. He is much better looking, much taller man than I imagined, and his voice projected a warmth that immediately put us at our ease. At the same time, those deep penetrating eyes clearly revealed the same piercing intelligence seen in photographs and on television. There is no mistaking the man’s brilliance.
Instantaneously, it seemed, all the anxiety we had felt melted away as we sat down next to him on the couch. After I returned the dissertation and thanked him, he asked if I had found it helpful. Of course I had, and I commented on how easy it had been to read, how entertaining. “Oh, you would have loved my dad,” he said, his tone betraying enormous affection. I agreed, of course, and informed him of the respect my own father had for him. We spoke a little about his dad’s teaching Italian at Brooklyn College, where, I have since learned, there is a library named for S. Eugene Scalia.
We continued to talk for about 25 minutes, exchanging bits and pieces about our roots, both in Sicily and in New York. (He grew up in Elmhust, Queens, I on Long Island). As he told us about the joyous reception he had received upon visiting his dad’s hometown in Sicily after being appointed to the Court, I felt as if I were sitting on my best friend’s back porch, sipping a glass of good Sicilian wine. We had been informed by Ms. Martin that Justice Scalia was an avid hunter, a fact evidenced by a few animal trophies mounted on the wall. At one point, I asked if he had actually shot the massive elk head on display. “Santi!” he laughed, “Of course I did. After all, I’m a member of the Supreme Court. I’m bound by the truth. I can’t just display any old animal head in my chambers!”
With that, he quickly turned to my wife and asked nonchalantly, “So, Elaine, what do you think of the new pope?” (Pope Francis had been elected only a few days before). After deciding upon the course that Roman Catholicism should follow for the next century, we began to talk about our own country, and, as one might expect, he revealed himself not simply as a patriot, but also as a lover of all that our country stands for, especially its rule of law and its marvelous system of justice, to which, of course, he has contributed so much.
During our visit, we even talked about our children and grandchildren—he has several. We told him that we had thought about bringing our fourteen-year-old grandson with us, but we had not wanted to impose. He dismissed our concern and invited us to return with Matthew to observe the Court in session as his guests, a trip we will surely make.
After a quick photo and some warm goodbyes, he delivered us into the hands of a knowledgeable and personable guide who took us on a half-hour tour of the Court building. It was the perfect end to a day that exhausted us with excitement and pride.
After we returned to New Jersey, I emailed friends and relatives a photo with Justice Scalia and a short wrap-up of the trip. My cousin, a retired attorney, wrote back to emphasize the high regard in which legal professionals hold Justice Scalia. Many believe he is as one of the greatest justices ever to have sat on the United States Supreme Court. And so do I.
October 7, 2013