Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 780
Elio Vittorini was born in Syracuse, Sicily, on July 23, 1908. His father was a stationmaster who moved with his family from one small Sicilian locality to another, wherever the Italian railroad administration assigned him. Vittorini took a train to go to the nearest school, and also to run away from home, which he did for the first time at the age of thirteen. His formal schooling never went beyond the business courses he took by his father’s decision. By the time he was eighteen, he was reading furiously, mostly novelists and philosophers. Wanting desperately to leave the provincial environment, where he felt he was suffocating, he sent his first writings to literary journals published in major Italian cities, had them published, and moved to northern Italy. His jobs on the Continent included bookkeeping, manual labor, and proofreading for a newspaper. By 1930, he was in Florence learning English and was ready to publish his first collection of short stories. Within three years, he was also publishing translations of British and American authors.
By the middle 1930’s, even the young Italians who, like Vittorini, had thought that fascism could bring renewal and socialistic reforms to Italian society, were forced to acknowledge their misjudgment. Vittorini had already denounced Fascist nationalism and had associated with intellectuals and publications that favored a culture with a European dimension. As he became more interested in political activism and more vocal about the direction that, in his view, the Fascist Party should have taken, the party became hostile to him and expelled him. Those were the years of the Spanish Civil War, when artists and writers such as Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway created works that marked a turning point in Western culture. In Sicily, Vittorini’s first major work, was born out of his political and personal crisis.
It is clear even to the casual reader that Vittorini viewed politics as an integral part of his literary activities; in this, he was definitely of his times. From his first pages, when, as an adolescent, he supported a Fascist vision of the Italian reality, through the crisis of the 1930’s, and up to the years of his work in the Resistance and his critique of the Communist Party, he remained consistent in his commitment and sense of personal responsibility. At the time he wrote his volume on Sardinia, he was already speaking of his awareness of brute labor, “toil that buys a crust of bread, crust of bread that buys that toil.” Through forty years, Vittorini developed the principles that are essential to an understanding of his politics and his career as a writer: Literature, if it is to be vital, must be twice bound to the grass roots of society, by giving a voice to all laboring human beings and by speaking to them in an understandable voice; the writer must be constantly “available,” in touch, immersed in the present. For Vittorini himself, that meant moving in the orbit of Socialist thought and working with the Italian Communist Party (PCI). From 1937 to 1945, Vittorini’s biography reflects the events of Italian history. He was an editor for the Bompiani publishing house in Milan, became a member of the Resistance, and worked on the underground publication of the Communist newspaper L’Unità. He was arrested, then released, and continued his Resistance activities, which included joining the guerrillas in the mountains.
After the war, although he was totally committed to the Left, he began a polemic with the PCI, because—he asserted—an intellectual could not be bound by dogmas or prescriptions dictated by political agendas. He articulated, in a more explicit and sustained manner than most, the arguments brought against party authoritarianism and narrow-mindedness by communist intellectuals all over Europe. Particularly important in this context are two journals: Il politecnico, of which he was the editor, from 1945 to 1947, and Il menabò, which he coedited with Calvino from 1949 to 1966. They are fundamental to Italy’s cultural history. They also show the development of Vittorini’s concept of the function of literature, which he entrusted with the task of revealing truly revolutionary needs not voiced or fulfilled by political parties.
The issues raised in articles and documents published in the two journals include the “question of the Italian South,” the use of dialect, and, above all, the relationship between literature and industrial society, as Italy emerged from its agrarian past into the 1950’s and 1960’s, through an almost total transformation of its social and economic structures.
Vittorini lived through the 1960’s, intellectually active but tormented, disillusioned by the failures he perceived in Italian political and social life, publishing little, and struggling against severe health problems. He died in Milan on February 12, 1966.
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