Cesare Pavese was born on September 9, 1908, in Santo Stefano Belbo, a small rural community in the hilly Langhe district of Piedmont, a province in northwestern Italy. His father, who was a minor official in the municipal court of Turin, died in 1914, when Pavese was six. His mother, whom Pavese described as strict and authoritarian in bearing, rarely showed either himself or his sister, Maria, who was six years older, any parental affection or support. Despite this fact, Pavese seems to have been strongly attached to her, and he continued living with her in the family home, remaining unmarried. Following her death in 1930, he moved to his sister’s home, where he lived for the remainder of his life, entertaining friends and callers in the single room that served him as bedroom, study, and parlor.
Though Pavese’s family belonged to the middle class, after the death of his father, the family had to sell the few assets it had to maintain this position. Nevertheless, Pavese received an excellent education. During his early years, he attended school in Turin, spending every summer in the country at the family’s farm in Santo Stefano Belbo, where he had been born. By 1918, however, only four years after the death of his father, the family could no longer afford the privilege of a second home, and the farm was sold, ending what Pavese saw as a vital part of his childhood experience. With the loss of the farm, his direct, personal contact with the simple peasants of the region and the renewing forces of the natural environment, which were so entwined with their agricultural lifestyle, was severed.
In 1923, Pavese entered a Turin liceo, or secondary school, where he received the classical education that was to form him into that special type of scholar, the humanistic intellectual. In 1927, he entered the University of Turin, from which he took his degree in letters in 1930 with a dissertation on Walt Whitman. The interest Pavese developed in American literature during this period had an important effect on his later development as a writer. This interest in American literature, which was not well known in Italy at the time, seems to have been stimulated in part by his friendship with Antonio Chiuminatto, a young Italian American who came to study at the University of Turin in the summer of 1929. In any event, Pavese’s interest in American literature and culture is clearly evident in his choice of Walt Whitman for his dissertation topic—against the counsel of his advisers.
Following his graduation, Pavese remained in Turin, making his living by teaching and tutoring. Because of the increasing power of the Fascist Party—which, by the time he graduated, was in complete control of all levels of government bureaucracy—Pavese joined in 1932, as did everyone who wished to secure or maintain any position controlled by the government. That this action was a matter of convenience, not conviction, is attested by the fact that Pavese was one of the first contributors to the leftist journal La cultura, which was produced by the newly formed Einaudi publishing house, founded in 1933 by one of Pavese’s university friends. During the next two years, Pavese became increasingly involved with La cultura and its publisher, Einaudi, as well as with those who shared its leftist, and therefore anti-Fascist, sympathies.
In 1934, Pavese took charge of La...
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