Contributed by F. Anthony D’Alessandro
I felt like a child going to his first circus, an avid soccer fan attending an Olympic soccer match, or a Boy Scout packing for his first camping trip. My editor at the Italo-American Times, the multi-talented Richard Capozzola phoned to ask me to interview Pietro diDonato. Immediately, ideas crisscrossed and leapt across my mind. In a daze, I sat mouth wide open in anticipation. My thorough and meticulous friend and editor arranged for the interview. The responsibility of selecting a time and place fell to me.
My mind was consumed with the excitement of a future interview with one of my two literary idols. Two great writers occupied my thoughts at that moment. Hemingway, who had motivated me to scramble with the bulls on the crowded streets of Pamplona a score of years later, and diDonato whose powerful words drove me to my once existent typewriter to record my own Italian-American experience. Several hours after my editor’s call, under my hissing mica fireplace, I began rereading Christ in Concrete.
I paused several times to reflect on the contrasting writing styles of my two literary idols. What a contrast indeed! Hemingway famed for an economic understated writing style, while diDonato proved a tad wordier. I loved reading them both. Why not? I loved both Jackie Robinson and Joe DiMaggio as baseball players. Robinson was known for speed and hits, DiMaggio for home runs and power hitting. Hemingway met his maker 15 years earlier. diDonato lived. I never dreamed I’d ever shake Pietro’s hand, much less interview him, or eventually drive him to lectures.
My racing mind reminded me to research and prepare for my diDonato meeting. I locked myself in a mahogany reference room at a college library. In the time it took to boil an egg, I surrounded myself with books and magazines dealing with my writer. I piled up a stack of crinkled note papers covered with reference scribble. That pile looked like a papered version of Pisa’s Leaning Tower. Research ended, I moved the essential notes aside, then hugged the bulky mound of irrelevant notes and poured them into the closest pail.
Pietro diDonato came before great Italian-American writers such as Evan Hunter (Salvatore Lombino), Mario Puzo, Don DiLillo, Paul Mariani, John Ciardi and Gay Talese. diDonato stood as an icon for a generation of younger writers who’d dripped their souls onto the printed page. After his passing, Newsday (a New York based newspaper) quoted writer Gay Talese. “When you ask yourself to make a list of writers of Italian-American ancestry, the one name you could always depend on was Pietro diDonato, and now he’s gone.”
In 1939, Pietro, an unknown and unpublished writer without any writing training surprised the literary world with the publication of his autobiographical novel, Christ in Concrete. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1911, to immigrant Italian parents, he learned about life’s true values: love, faith, honesty, family and hard work. Hoboken may have served as the cradle of superstars. My favorite entertainer, musical icon Frank Sinatra, was also born in Hoboken, New Jersey to immigrant Italian parents, less than five years after Pietro.
Pietro educated himself on a steady diet of Russian novels. When his dad, a bricklayer, was tragically buried alive on his construction job, diDonato quit school, donned workman’s garb, grabbed a trowel and entered the building business. Before his teen years, Pietro accepted the responsibility of supporting his family.
I remember our interview day. The writer greeted me with such a firm handshake that the bones in my right hand crackled and complained. The man looked impressive in his haberdashery. A Rodin-like woolen beret covered his head. To my unsophisticated eye, diDonato looked like a cousin of the actor Marcello Mastroianni. Initially, he pointed out cement work. I noticed how perfectly straight his bricks appeared. I didn’t notice any globs of stray cement. The masonry appeared smooth as a baby’s face. Pietro pointed out the essential elements of skilled cement work and bricklaying. He then took me to his den where the savory aroma of herbal teas wafted thru the air. Thank the Lord for those primitive tape recorders of that period, for I was so captivated by the beauty and pictures framed by diDonato’s words and phrases that I might have listened only to the music and not scripted its lyric.
After stumbling my way into the sun splashed room, I mentioned his most well-known book, Christ in Concrete and how it was selected by the Book-of- the Month Club over Steinbeck’s, Grapes of Wrath in 1939. Neither his chin or nose pointed upward. He looked down pensively waiting me out, choosing to ignore any praise. The silence made me uncomfortable prodding me to wriggle my neck and wipe beads of sweat from my brow. He ignored my question, preferring instead to comment on his novel. “I had to write it. I was doing the same work as my father and feared that I too would be killed in construction. I simulated my own death thru my father. I don’t know what my father thought when he died. It was (the book) a catharsis.”
That comment roused my curiosity. I asked if all the great books resulted from life experiences. diDonato said, “The important thing to know is that with all creative writers the best book is about our own lives. It’s something no one else has experienced, that embodies the whole spectrum of the senses. The places we see, the colors we observe, the feelings we sense are unique to ourselves.”
The novelist took cowboy-like strides and peered out of his wide angled window. The determined sun, engaged in a peek-a-boo struggle with blockading clouds, bullied its way into the room once again. Pietro suggested that books based upon one’s own life are inevitably successful because, “…we’re not conscious of fabrication. You are caught in the heat of something you know is true. In short, it is very difficult to tell a lie and sustain lies. How can a grown, mature writer with philosophies and ideals successfully see, sit, and pretend? How can he say, ‘I’m gonna sit down and write lies?'”
Flummoxed, my brows raised, a stutter slipped into my speech. I finally asked about fabricating writers. diDonato searched my eyes hoping to discover windows for understanding. He took a deep breath, sipped tea, and while sloshing and savoring it said, “This is the great problem. This is why they drink and destroy themselves because they sit and write lies. This is peculiar only to the art of writing. You can’t lie with a hammer and chisel, with a musical instrument, or paint brush. Imagine someone you’ve created, a pretense, three hundred to four hundred pages of falsity. It’s a shock to the image of yourself.”
We chatted about the writers of the day. When I asked his opinion of modern writers, once again, he took a long quizzical look at me, much like the stare the Dominican nuns gave the boy me when I ‘d forgotten a multiplication table that they’d reviewed a hundred times. Then, this word wizard almost whispered, “The superficial writers like Robbins, Stone, and Puzzo are like kids. They lie, lie, lie, laugh, and giggle. The writing has no character or soul.” He opined on those achieving the highest levels of commercial success. “They glory in playing this childish game. They write one adventure book after another. It’s a crucifixion for the serious writer, a real crucifixion.”
Mr. diDonato hesitated, stood up resembling a wartime Hollywood leading man, and glided toward the door. While inhaling the beauty of our bucolic surroundings thru squinty windows, he turned toward me and said,” No, I didn’t study writing. I read for many years when I worked as a bricklayer. I helped build Pilgrim State Hospital. Finally, in 1935, all construction came to a stop. I was living in Northport (Long Island) raising seven brothers and sisters. I opened a summer theatre. What is interesting is that I was so disappointed in actors. I equated heroism with actors and assumed an actor who played a good man was a good man. I was so naive…”
Somehow we touched upon art and its relationship to tragedy. The question did not originally appear in my interview notebook, yet it escaped from my lips. diDonato said, “I don’t think anyone really knows what art is. True nature seems to come out in times of stress, great tragedy, war, want, and desperation. Most people live and die a pedestrian life, the life of a domesticated animal. They are like sheep fed, and bred for wool and meat. They are permitted to exercise bodily functions, slain and sent to market. Without tragedy, I would not have become a writer.”
I dug some more asking how tragedy affected writing. He answered, “There are some sensitive, sympathetic souls who could imagine all of the horrors. After Steven Crane wrote Red Badge of Courage, he degenerated and wilted. He gave all his simpatico away in one work. If a person writes one great book, it should be enough. Writing the one great book is like visualizing a lobster or a snake shedding its exoskeleton in order to change. The process of writing the book is the shedding the skeleton. The problem arises after the book. You have sung your aria and the writer is not the same again. The inside fabric has changed form.
Falkner and Hemingway were creative, yet they destroyed themselves. I drank heavily for years. I could save myself because of my fundamental background. I broke my ass as a bricklayer. Other writers were teachers and journalists.”
diDonato sat, leaned back in his accommodating and ample chair, fingers knitted behind his head. As Pietro stretched out and unfolded before my eyes, I realized that in a physical sense had he not been lured by the writing life, all sorts of opportunities would have availed themselves to this Renaissance man. diDonato appeared athletic and possessed the long look of a volleyball or basketball player. For a moment, in fact I visualized a spinning basketball in his left hand. I realized that with his package of gifts and talents, he would have been successful at any career he chose: writer, impresario, athlete, teacher or bricklayer. Pietro reflected on actors once again and said,”…they are filled with problems and lies. I turned away from theatre and lost myself in reading the great writers. I avidly read the Russian novelists.”
Then I felt the moment I’d been waiting for approaching. A flood of emotion provoked me to discuss Christ in Concrete once again. That novel always roused and stirred my soul. That tome also instigated deceptiveness in me because it forced me to camouflage and blanket swelling emotions as each sentence drained and extracted its teary, emotional toll. I mentioned his classic book and before I added unneeded words, he gently interjected, “I had a discussion with a writer and he recommended that I read, Awake and Sing. I was turned off to those people in contrast to my people: middle class, whining Bronxites concerned with little sexual affairs, and with an affected lyricism. I told the writer what I thought. I said, ‘I’ve never ever written a letter, but I’ll write a story about my father with more truth and meaning. My father was a bricklayer and he knew what he wanted: home, family, and dreams. I said I’ll call it Christ in Concrete.’ The writer was surprised and asked if he could use what he considered to be a tremendous title. I said, ‘ Consider the story written.’ I wrote the story in a month.”
Based on F. Anthony D’Alessandro’s interview with Pietro di Donato published in the Italo-American Times in January, 1977. At that time, D’Alessandro was a contributing editor to that now defunct newspaper.