Pietro di Donato Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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

Principal Works

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.”


Philip Deasy (review date 19 August 1960)

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...

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Philip Burnham (review date 10 February 1961)

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.


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Thomas P. McDonnell (review date 13 July 1962)

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...

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Michael D. Esposito (essay date spring-summer 1980)

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...

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Michael D. Esposito (essay date summer 1980)

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...

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Nicholas Coles (essay date autumn-winter 1987)

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...

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Dorothee von Huene-Greenberg and Pietro di Donato (interview date autumn-winter 1987)

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...

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Franco Mulas (essay date 1991)

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...

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Petra Fachinger (review date summer 1995)

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...

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Matthew Diomede (essay date 1995)

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...

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Further Reading


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,...

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