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Pietro Di Donato. Photograph by Eve Arnold, 1960.
Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection: LC-USZ62-117756).


 

di Donato, Pietro (3 Apr. 1911-19 Jan. 1992), writer, was born in West Hoboken, New Jersey, the son of Geremio di Donato, a bricklayer, and Annunziata Chinquina. The eldest of eight children of an immigrant couple from Abruzzi, Italy, di Donato lost his father to an accident in a construction job when a building collapsed and buried him on Good Friday, 1923. The twelve-year-old was forced to leave school in the seventh grade and begin work in his father's trade, and when his mother died a few years later he assumed full responsibility for the support of his seven siblings and a nephew. However, demanding as his work was, he found time to study, taking night courses in construction and engineering at City College; he also read voraciously, especially French and Russian novelists. In 1927 on the night of the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the sixteen-year-old di Donato joined the Communist Party. In time the family was able to move to Northport, Long Island, where di Donato continued to work as a mason and, inspired by the work of the French naturalist writer Emile Zola, was determined to write about his own experiences as a laborer in the Italian immigrant community.

His first publication was the short story "Christ in Concrete," relating the death of his father Geremio. The story appeared in the March 1937 issue of Esquire and was so widely praised that the magazine republished it as a separate volume with an enthusiastic introduction by editor Arnold Gingrich. It was included in Edward O'Brien's Best Short Stories of 1938 and later in many other anthologies, and di Donato used it as the first chapter of the novel of the same name in 1939. Christ in Concrete remained on the New York Times best-seller list for several months. Its first printing of two hundred thousand sold out quickly, and it was chosen (over John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, published the same year) as a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection. One of the most powerful working-class novels of its time, it was recognized as an important document of both ethnic life and social protest. Louis Adamic described the novel in the Saturday Review of Literature as "robust and full-bodied and passionate, now and then almost to the point of craziness" (26 Aug. 1939, p. 5). The Times [London] Literary Supplement praised it for its "coarse virility of phrase . . . closely moulded to Italian forms of speech" but criticized its "yards of rhetorical and overwritten stuff" (21 Oct. 1939, p. 611). In 1949 Christ in Concrete was made into a motion picture, Give Us This Day, which won an award at the Venice Film Festival. Released in 1950, the film was directed by Edward Dmytryk and starred Sam Wanamaker as Geremio.

Di Donato was never to fulfill the promise of his sensationally successful first effort. For nineteen years he published nothing of significance, partly because so much was expected of him after his early achievement; he acknowledged years later that when an author "becomes known and becomes a success . . . then he has the success hanging over his head" (Diomede, p. 102). He founded a short-lived construction company and gave public readings of Christ in Concrete, which had acquired something of a cult following. He registered as a conscientious objector in World War II and worked as a forester in a Quaker camp in Cooperstown, New York. In 1941 his one-act play, "The Loves of Annunziata," about his parents, appeared in American Scenes and was included in Best One-Act Plays of 1941, and in the next few years he published occasional short stories in Esquire, Discovery, and American Mercury. In 1943 he married Helen Dean, with whom he had two children.

In 1958 di Donato's second novel, This Woman, appeared. A sequel to Christ in Concrete, it continued the story of Geremio's son after his father's death, probing his spiritual conflict and obsessive sensuality. In 1974 Rose Basile Green wrote, "The tumbling turmoil of the words reflects poetically the agony of the protagonist's mind" (p. 155), but the novel received little attention in the press, most of it unfavorable. Two years later, di Donato produced a third volume in the saga of his fictionalized family, Three Circles of Light, set in the years of the son's childhood before Geremio's death. A loosely assembled collection of vignettes, it evokes the tenement life in di Donato's West Hoboken neighborhood with little narrative structure. It sold poorly and received generally unfavorable press notice. The Kirkus Review described it as "a unique example of a novel in which the poetic, the narrative, and the dramatic solidly mesh" (15 Mar. 1960, p. 251), but Philip Deasy's review in Commonweal was more typical of the book's critical reception: the book was panned for "the execrably bad taste" of its humor and "the phony Biblical idiom that purports to be a translation of the speakers' Italian, a device that was lyrically effective in Christ in Concrete but here is only exasperatingly cloying" (19 Aug. 1960, p. 429).

The same year saw the appearance of The Immigrant Saint: The Life of Mother Cabrini, a slightly fictionalized biography of Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first United States citizen to be canonized. It was well received and named a main selection of both the Catholic Book Club and the Maryknoll Book Club in 1961. The following year he published The Penitent, an account of the man who killed the twelve-year-old St. Maria Goretti and his contrition and spiritual rebirth. Di Donato's last book-length publication was Naked Author (1970), a miscellany of reprinted short stories and selections from his longer works. "Christ in Plastic" (1978), an article he wrote on Aldo Moro, the Italian Prime Minister who was kidnapped and murdered that year, earned him the Overseas Press Club Award when it appeared in Penthouse in December. He later retold the story as a play entitled Moro. At his death he left an unfinished novel entitled "The Gospels."

Di Donato spent his last years in Setauket, Long Island, and died in a hospital at nearby Stony Brook. Although largely forgotten by his once-wide readership, he retains his place as an important chronicler of the Italian-American experience, and Christ in Concrete is recognized as a classic example of the proletarian novel of the 1930s.

 



Bibliography

The papers of Pietro di Donato, including some manuscript material, correspondence, and recordings of interviews, are collected at the Immigration History Research Center (Collection IHRC541) at the College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. A full-length biography of the author is Matthew Diomede, Pietro di Donato, the Master Builder (1995). Much about his early life may be learned from his autobiographical 1939 novel. A detailed examination of his work is in "The Travail of Pietro di Donato," MELUS (Summer 1980), and transcripts of interviews with di Donato about Christ in Concrete are in MELUS (Fall, Winter 1987). A book-length study of his first novel is Louise Napolitano, An American Story: Pietro di Donato's Christ in Concrete (1995). His work is discussed in Rose Basile Green, The Italian-American Novel: A Document of the Interaction of Two Cultures (1974), and in Edward Rodriguez, "An American Writer" in The Invention of Ethnicity, Werner Sollers, ed. (1989). The author's work was widely reviewed as it appeared; critiques of Christ in Concrete are in Publishers Weekly (28 Jan. 1939); the New York Times (20 Aug. 1939); the Nation (26 Aug. 1939); the Saturday Review of Literature (26 Aug. 1939); the New Republic (30 Aug. 1939), and the Times [London] Literary Supplement (21 Oct. 1939). Three Circles of Light was reviewed in Time (10 Apr. 1960); the New York Herald Tribune (5 June 1960); and Commonweal (19 Aug. 1960). Obituaries are in the New York Times (21 Jan. 1992); the Chicago Tribune (22 Jan. 1992); and the Times (London) (27 Jan. 1992).



Dennis Wepman




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