di Donato, Pietro
Pietro di Donato 1911-1992
American novelist, biographer, short story writer, and playwright.
Di Donato is recognized as one of the first writers to chronicle the experiences of Italian immigrants in twentieth-century America. He is best known as the author of the autobiographical novel Christ in Concrete (1939), which recounts his life as the son of an immigrant bricklayer killed in a construction accident. Effectively capturing the lyricism of colloquial Italian expressions in the English language, di Donato's writings accurately and honestly record his impressions of the living conditions in tenement districts and bluntly document the plight of immigrants inhabiting that environment. Many critics have credited di Donato with introducing the values of the Italian American community to the general public and have acknowledged his role in raising awareness of the circumstances of Italian immigrants in the United States.
The son of emigrants from Abruzzi, Italy, di Donato was born on April 3, 1911, in West Hoboken, New Jersey, to Annunziata and Domenic di Donato. Di Donato was twelve years old when his father, a bricklayer, died in a work-related accident that buried him beneath the rubble of a collapsed building that had been constructed with defective materials. Obliged to find work in order to support his mother and seven siblings, di Donato took up his father's trade and soon became proficient at masonry. Two more job-related accidents that claimed the lives of two of his relatives led di Donato to renounce his Roman Catholic faith. When his mother suffered a fatal heart attack he dropped out of the ninth grade but continued his education at night school while he worked during the day. After many years of economic struggles, di Donato moved his family to Northport, Long Island, where he began writing fiction based on his own life experiences. In 1937 di Donato published his first short story, “Christ in Concrete,” which presents the tragic death of an immigrant bricklayer crushed by a collapsing building. This story later became the first chapter of di Donato's first novel. Di Donato then turned his attention to drama and wrote a one-act play, The Love of Annunziata (1941), which appeared in the drama anthology American Scenes. Nearly twenty years passed before di Donato published another novel, This Woman (1958), which was closely followed by the novel Three Circles of Light (1960). During the early 1960s di Donato renewed his Roman Catholic faith and wrote two hagiographic studies, Immigrant Saint: The Life of Mother Cabrini (1960) and The Penitent (1962). In 1970 di Donato collected excerpts of his novels and biographies in Naked Author, characterizing the pieces as “short stories.” Di Donato died of bone cancer on January 19, 1992.
Set in New York City during the 1920s, Christ in Concrete tells the story of an Italian American bricklayer and his family. The novel opens on Good Friday at the scene of a building that has collapsed and killed Geremio beneath its rubble. After his father's death, twelve-year-old Geremio's son Paul is forced to shoulder the responsibility of supporting his mother and seven younger brothers and sisters, since government agencies routinely deny assistance to recent immigrants. Determined to succeed, Paul enters his father's trade, but the tragic construction-site deaths of his godfather and uncle cause Paul to lose faith in God. His spiritual crisis eventually triggers a fatal heart attack in his mother, Annunziata, which closes the novel. Despite its harsh portrayal of the institutions and inequities of American society encountered by immigrants, Christ in Concrete ultimately celebrates the adaptation of Old World cultures in the New World, for by the end of the narrative Paul has successfully assimilated himself into his environment. Di Donato's second novel, This Woman, traces in intimate detail a tumultuous love affair between Paolo and Isa, the attractive widow of a rich New York hotel manager. Tormented by the presence of the dead man's belongings, which Isa refuses to relinquish, Paolo becomes so obsessively jealous of his predecessor that he has the body exhumed and desecrates it. While this desperate act calms Paolo's irrational jealousy, it plunges Isa into madness. As she slowly recovers her sanity, the details of her traumatic past come to light, including the revelation that Paolo is the actual father of her son, Jacky. Di Donato's third novel, Three Circles of Light, returns to the setting and characters of his first novel, tracing their lives during the years immediately preceding and following World War I. This novel portrays events in the life of Paolino di Alba (called Paul in Christ in Concrete) and his family, culminating with the construction accident that ends his father's life. Narrated by Paolino, Three Circles of Light deals with Geremio's extramarital relationship with an “American” woman, Delia Dunn. Paolino believes that the affair is the true cause of his father's violent death, which he attributes to retribution from God. Di Donato further developed his interest in religious subjects in subsequent works that deal with the lives of modern-era saints. Immigrant Saint chronicles the life of Frances Saverio Cabrini, who became the first American elevated to sainthood when she was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1946. Although The Penitent was inspired by the life of Maria Goretti, who was canonized by Pope Pius XII as St. Thérèse of Lisieux in 1952, the biography actually focuses on the transformation of Allessandro Serenelli, who murdered Goretti in 1902. This act eventually led to his conversion to Catholicism, his repentance, and his reconciliation with his victim's family. Di Donato's last work, Naked Author, features excerpts from his previous works, recast as short stories. He also published several stories and articles in various magazines.
Many critics enthusiastically hailed Christ in Concrete upon its publication for breaking new ground in American literature; some went as far as to proclaim the novel an American classic. Some commentators praised its vigorous pace and dramatic narration, but nearly as many reviewers faulted its episodic construction. Countering this complaint, however, other critics noted that the novel's substantial reliance on realistic dialogue to develop character and plot gives the work a theatrical quality. This theatrical quality in di Donato's writing has often been noted in criticism of his works. Widely recognizing di Donato's storytelling talents and his flair for the dramatic, critics have generally found his other works lively and at times powerful, but, again, many have faulted their construction as uneven, episodic, and melodramatic. Beyond the commentary that met their initial publication, di Donato's novels received little critical attention in subsequent years. Since the 1980s and 1990s, however, as popular and academic interest in ethnic literature has grown, di Donato's works have been reevaluated from a number of perspectives. Recent scholars have studied di Donato's contributions within the context of so-called immigrant Americana, analyzing his use of uniquely Italian expressions and a range of cultural and religious superstitions native to his ancestral homeland. Di Donato's novels have also been examined in relation to the rise and growth since the 1930s of proletarian and protest literature
Christ in Concrete (novel) 1939
The Love of Annunziata [published in the anthology American Scenes] (play) 1941
This Woman (novel) 1958
Immigrant Saint: The Life of Mother Cabrini (biography) 1960
Three Circles of Light (novel) 1960
The Penitent (biography) 1962
*Naked Author: The Collected Works of Pietro di Donato (short stories) 1970
*This work contains excerpts of di Donato's longer original works, which the author termed “short stories.”
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SOURCE: Deasy, Philip. “To the Nadir.” Commonweal 72 (19 August 1960): 429-30.
[In the following review, Deasy dismisses Three Circles of Light as “a cliché-ridden, overdone piece of hokum.”]
Twenty-one years ago Pietro Di Donato wrote a best-seller, largely autobiographical, about a West Hoboken Italian bricklayer and his family, entitled Christ in Concrete. In Three Circles of Light, he returns to the same scene and the same family, but to a time period about ten years earlier than that of the first novel, to the years, that is, immediately before and immediately after World War I. Paolino di Alba, the youngster protagonist of the present novel, is the Paul, the central character of Christ in Concrete. The death of Geremio, Paul's father, so searingly described in the opening of Christ in Concrete, is the closing episode of Three Circles of Light.
A loose collection of episodes rather than a sustained narrative, Three Circles of Light nevertheless gives promise in its early pages of effecting a genuine evocation of a tenement childhood in a crowded polyglot neighborhood, all the shapes, sounds, and colors surrounding a tree growing in West Hoboken, now Union City. But the promise dies a-borning and the novel's descent into sentimentality, bathos, and just plain scurrility is rapid. The nadir is reached in the concluding...
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SOURCE: Burnham, Philip. “American Saint.” Commonweal 73 (10 February 1961): 512-14.
[In the following review, Burnham sketches the character of Mother Cabrini presented in Immigrant Saint, concluding that “the book is bravely done.”]
Saint Francesca Xavier Cabrini is the saint most immediate to contemporary Americans. She died in Chicago only in 1917, was beatified in 1938, and canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1946. In [Immigrant Saint,] a fairly brief and rather strained chronicle, Pietro DiDonato gives the rush of day-to-day movement and interest and accomplishment which Mother Cabrini so recently created here in our own headlong society.
This society at the turn of the century was notably looser, less integrated and less rationalized than now. There was more leeway. Cost accounting, taxes, and rules and regulations were still restricted enough to encourage more surprising initiatives from the smallest beginnings, more flagrant failures, and more dramatic successes. Conductors could give free trolley rides to beguiling nuns, and park policemen could appropriate municipal flowers for orphans, with no scandal taken. A hospital could start off with hardly a store-bought sheet or pillow-case and with only a dozen bottles of donated miscellaneous medicines. Push-cart peddlers and neighborhood store-owners could give a bundle of modest merchandise in charity without...
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SOURCE: McDonnell, Thomas P. “Postcard Sanctity.” Commonweal 76 (13 July 1962): 406-07.
[In the following review, McDonnell finds the focus of The Penitent misplaced, preferring instead to consider the implications of Alessandro Sereneli's murder of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.]
The problem of sanctity is so special a bafflement to the modern writer, to say nothing of our general estrangement from its seemingly ineffable milieu, that the attempt to record it, if made at all, usually ends in disaster. At least, that is to say, in literary disaster. It is much like the movies you see which attempt to portray lives of genius in the creative arts. The result is invariably a production in kitsch. But if the creative life eludes the cinematic process, how much more the mystery of sanctity escapes the spectrum, from confinement to liberation, of the written word.
This is the problem faced, though not squarely confronted, by Pietro DiDonato in The Penitent, an account of the spiritual transformation of Alessandro Serenelli after his murder of the child-saint, Maria Goretti, in 1902. As a sketch of the relatively “unknown” Allessandro, The Penitent has a certain undeniable interest. But it falters rather seriously in its mere idealization of Maria Goretti. In saying this, of course, one proceeds on the assumption that authentic sanctity is the rarest phenomenon...
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SOURCE: Esposito, Michael D. “Pietro di Donato Reevaluated.” Italian Americana 6, no. 2 (spring-summer 1980): 179-92.
[In the following essay, Esposito discusses di Donato's works within the context of Italian American life and experience, reassessing the significance of his works to immigrant Americana.]
Although Pietro di Donato's Christ in Concrete (1939) was one of the earliest novels treating the life of America's Italian immigrants, both it and the rest of di Donato's fiction have attracted little critical attention by scholars and critics whose interest lies outside the sphere of ethnic and immigrant literature. Before discussing his neglect, I feel it is appropriate to refresh the reader's memory regarding the events surrounding di Donato's literary ascent.
An event that perhaps drastically changed Pietro di Donato's life and significantly shaped the radical attitudes inherent in Christ in Concrete occurred four days prior to his twelfth birthday. On Good Friday, March 30, 1923, di Donato's father, a thirty-six-year-old master mason and foreman, met a violent death while working on a construction job. Years later, di Donato swore that the contractor was directly responsible for the disaster, since he had insisted on using cheap materials on the project to cut down on expenses. Henceforth, di Donato gradually realized that his father, the paesani, and the...
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SOURCE: Esposito, Michael D. “The Travail of Pietro di Donato.” MELUS 7, no. 2 (summer 1980): 47-60.
[In the following essay, Esposito discusses the success of Christ in Concrete and how di Donato merits recognition as a pioneer among Italian American writers whose works stirred the American public to fully recognize the condition of the country's Italian immigrants.]
As a twenty-six-year-old bricklayer living on relief in Northport, Long Island, in 1936, Pietro di Donato wrote a short story based on his father's death in a construction accident twelve years earlier. Entitled “Christ in Concrete,” the story appeared in Esquire in March 1937, and was such a success that the editors of the magazine issued it in the form of a small book for twenty-five cents, bound and printed in a distinguished format, in typeset from the original manuscript.
Publishers immediately besieged di Donato to turn his story into a book, so he authorized a friend, Michael Blankfort, who was writing a book for Bobbs-Merrill at the time, to negotiate a contract for him. Bobbs-Merrill gave di Donato a five-hundred dollar advance plus twenty dollars a week. This financial support enabled the young author to abandon bricklaying and to concentrate on finishing the novel. Letting his original story stand as the first chapter in what became Christ in Concrete, di Donato completed the book in...
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SOURCE: Coles, Nicholas. “Mantraps: Men at Work in Pietro di Donato's Christ in Concrete and Thomas Bell's Out of This Furnace.” MELUS 14, nos. 3-4 (autumn-winter 1987): 23-32.
[In the following essay, Coles discusses the representation of immigrant life in all its contradictions in Pietro di Donato's Christ in Concrete and Thomas Bell's Out of This Furnace.]
Whether we want it there or not, for most of us work squats at the center of life. It consumes our time and energy and to a large extent determines our experience in every other activity of living. When we are out of work, the lack of it and the search for it takes its place as the dominant condition. One of the continuing uses of literature has been to counteract that dominance, to provide a form of imaginative vacation to other lives and other places governed not by work but by love, perhaps, or mystery, or nature. Yet there has also been a strand of literature which centrally engages the subject of work in order to explore the effects of its centrality in our lives. This perspective is particularly clear in the literature of those people, including poor European immigrants to industrial America, for whom the job was especially long and hard and never enough to quite support a family—for whom, in other words, work was inescapable, a palpable force to be wrestled with every day. They sought in their writing to understand...
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SOURCE: Von Huene-Greenberg, Dorothee. “A MELUS Interview: Pietro di Donato.” MELUS 14, nos. 3-4 (autumn-winter 1987): 33-52.
[In the following interview, di Donato discusses with Huene-Greenberg his major works and his influences.]
Pietro Di Donato was twelve years old when his Italian immigrant father was killed in a construction accident on Good Friday in 1923. As the oldest boy, Di Donato took his father's trowel and began supporting his seven brothers and sisters. Not until he became unemployed and went on relief did he have the leisure to study, read, and write about his experiences. The resulting Christ in Concrete, published in 1939, became an instant success. In 1960 he wrote the introduction to that work, Three Circles of Light, followed by Immigrant Saint, a life of Mother Cabrini; and The Penitent, a life of the man who killed Saint Maria Goretti. Currently Di Donato is finishing a work entitled The Gospels. Christ in Concrete was reprinted by Macmillan in 1985, and Immigrant Saint is due to be republished soon.
The following interview is from a series of meetings with Di Donato and his wife Helen, which took place January 12, February 12, and June 8, 1985, at his home on Strong's Neck, Long Island.
[von Huene-Greenberg]:What is your attitude to the body of your work? What trends do you...
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SOURCE: Mulas, Franco. “The Ethnic Language of Pietro Di Donato's Christ in Concrete.” In From the Margin: Writings in Italian Americana, edited by Anthony Julian Tamburri, Paolo A. Giordano, and Fred L. Gardaphé, pp. 307-15. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Mulas evaluates both the linguistic achievements and limitations of di Donato's prose style in Christ in Concrete, highlighting the use of Italian expressions in American literature.]
Pietro Di Donato's Christ in Concrete (1939) stands as one of the best and most powerful accounts of the Italian immigrant experience in the New World. It is the story of a full-blooded Italian bricklayer, Geremio, whose love for his homeland is reflected in his love for his devoted wife, Annunziata, their seven children, and the eighth about to be born. Geremio is an honest, hardworking man whose enduring loyalty not so much to the nation but to the particular region of his birth is manifest in his preservation of the old habits and customs. He dies on Good Friday when the building he and his paesani are working on collapses, burying him alive under a flood of settling concrete (hence the title of the book). After his death, and the almost immediate crippling of Luigi, Annunziata's brother, in another construction accident, the responsibility of assisting the fatherless family falls on little...
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SOURCE: Fachinger, Petra. Review of Christ in Concrete, by Pietro di Donato. Canadian Literature, no. 145 (summer 1995): 150-52.
[In the following assessment, Fachinger contrasts the themes, style, and narrative techniques of Christ in Concrete with those of Caterina Edwards' The Lion's Mouth.]
Although both Christ in Concrete and The Lion's Mouth describe the experience of Italian immigration to the New World and draw on autobiographical material, they could not be more different in subject matter, style and narrative technique. Published in the same year as John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Christ in Concrete was hailed by the critics of its time but did not receive much further attention until it was rediscovered with the surge of interest in “ethnic” literature.
Christ in Concrete tells the story of an Italian immigrant bricklayer and his family in the New York of the 1920s. Geremio dies on Good Friday when the building which he is working on collapses, burying him alive under settling concrete. With his death, the responsibility to support the family falls on twelve-year-old Paul, as the government refuses to assist recent immigrants. After two more tragic accidents involving his uncle and his godfather, Paul loses his faith in God. As a consequence of her son's religious crisis, his mother Annunziata, image of the suffering...
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SOURCE: Diomede, Matthew. “The Love of Annunziata” and “Christ in Concrete.” In Pietro DiDonato, the Master Builder, pp. 47-55; 71-88. London: Associated University Presses, 1995.
[In the following essays, Diomede explores the relationship between religious and cultural “mysteries” in The Love of Annunziata, and examines the socioeconomic or political protest dimension of Christ in Concrete.]
In chapter 2 in this study, the author commented that Pietro DiDonato told him that no matter what we do, it takes in mystery, containing elements of love and sacredness that have the power to overcome death (DIOM, 105). The Love of Annunziata is about death and life and the forgiveness that comes out of love. It is about Geremio, Paul's father, and about Geremio's wife, Annunziata. Love does shame death in this play. In addition, this drama of love takes place in an atmosphere of mystery. The word “mystery” also appears repeatedly in the play.
The mystery that occurs in the play has several levels of meaning. First, a very important sense of foreshadowing, occurring in a dreamlike atmosphere, and the many references to threes, or a trinity, both secular and religious, create suspense. The religious mystery of the Crucifixion on Good Friday when Annunziata mentions the Trinity (LOA [The Love of Annunziata], 131; scene 2) to Paul, her...
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Gardaphé, Fred L. “Left Out: Three Italian-American Writers of the 1930s.” In Radical Revisions: Rereading 1930s Culture, edited by Bill Mullen and Sherry Lee Linkon, pp. 60-77. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1996.
Analyzes the critical response to and marginalization of the writings of di Donato, John Fante, and Jerry Mangione within the context of the 1930s proletarian novels, focusing on their ethnicity, class, and religion.
Additional coverage of di Donato's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 101, 136; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9; and Literature Resource Center.
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