Pietro di Donato Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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