The surprising true story of Pietro di Donato, the bricklayer turned author

The dedication ceremony of Pietro di Donato, Plaza in Union City, New Jersey, May 22, 2010. Holding up a copy of di Donato’s novel, Christ in Concrete, is the author’s son, Richard (Wikicommons/Luigi Novi).The dedication ceremony of Pietro di Donato, Plaza in Union City, New Jersey, May 22, 2010. Holding up a copy of di Donato’s novel, Christ in Concrete, is the author’s son, Richard (Wikicommons/Luigi Novi).

In March 1937, when Esquire published Pietro di Donato’s first short story, “Christ in Concrete,” the magazine included a rare prefatory note.

“In the three years since Louis Paul’s prize-winning No More Trouble for Jadwick,” wrote Arnold Gingrich, the editor, “Esquire has received about eighteen thousand short stories from unpublished authors and has published forty of them. But not since then has a new writer come our way with the performance and promise shown by Pietro di Donato in this, his first, short story.”

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The praise didn’t end there. It didn’t start there either. The magazine dedicated a significant portion of its opening salvo on Page 5 to the discovery of di Donato and his unique story. “We find ourselves wishing for a stronger word with which to introduce the first published writing of Pietro di Donato,” wrote the editor, “an almost incredibly talented young Italian bricklayer lately turned author.”

In my mid-40s that I discovered Christ in Concrete while browsing books at the Tenement Museum store in Manhattan. I was immediately taken.

Wanting to know more,Esquire had the critic Meyer Levin bring di Donato into its New York office. The transcript of the conversation with Levin and di Donato, presented in the magazine “exactly as received,” revealed that di Donato, who was teaching drama on Long Island through a Works Progress Administration program, was indeed a bricklayer, and that “Christ in Concrete” was based on the true story of the death of his Italian immigrant father, Geremio. “He has been supporting family of seven brothers and sisters since he was 13,” relayed Levin, “when his father, a master mason, was buried under the collapse of a six-story building on which he was working.” The title refers to the death of Geremio on Good Friday in the rubble of the collapse.

We learn that after his father’s death, di Donato began laying bricks at 14 and was a master mason by 18. He had no formal education past grammar school and sporadic night courses, but in his own words, he “read hungrily and felt kin not only to those who expressed themselves, but also to those who had no voice.”

With his literary career launched, di Donato soon expanded his short story into a full autobiographical novel, also titled Christ in Concrete. Published by Bobbs-Merrill 80 years ago in 1939, the novel begins with the death of Geremio in the Lower East Side building collapse, and then follows the efforts of his eldest son Paul (based on di Donato) to learn the trade to support his mother, Annunziata, and seven siblings. In Paul’s coming-of-age story, we find a portrait of immigrants and laborers, so essential to the growth of the United States then as now, largely mocked and dismissed by the companies that used them, the authorities sworn to protect them, and even the church supposedly committed to minister to them. As Studs Terkel points out in the preface to the 1993 New American Library edition of the novel, it is “the story of so many immigrant peoples whose dreams and realities were in conflict” and where “the sanitized American Dream is challenged.”

The novel, like the short story, brought di Donato instant acclaim. It was a bestseller and the Book-of-the-Month Club main selection, notably beating out another popular Depression-era novel released at the same time, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In its review on Aug. 20, 1939, The New York Times called it “a stunning performance” by “an artist as story-teller” who “has the gift.” In the same newspaper a month later, Charles Poore dedicated the bulk of his column to the book, writing of “a strange and fiery mixture of realism, romanticism, naturalism and impressionism in...this moving and eloquent story of Italian immigrant life in America” that is “operatic, lyrical, ferocious and hilarious.”

While di Donato went on to publish dozens of additional short stories and six more books, including a biography of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (Immigrant Saint: The Life of Mother Cabrini), he never matched the critical acclaim or popular success of that first novel. As the writer and critic Barbara Bauer asserted in 1979, noted by Matthew Diomede in Pietro DiDonato, the Master Builder (Bucknell University Press), di Donato’s works “have gone relatively unnoticed in the annals of American literary scholarship.”

I grew up a second-generation Italian American in Jersey City, N.J., not far from Union City (then West Hoboken), where di Donato was born and raised before his father’s death. I showed an interest in literature and promise as a writer in high school, and went on to study English at a local Jersey City college. But di Donato and his work were never a part of my studies. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-40s that I discovered Christ in Concrete while browsing books at the Tenement Museum store in Manhattan. I was immediately taken with the work, both for its modernist prose and what I felt was its modern message. I wish I had discovered the novel earlier so I could better understand myself. More important, I wish it could be discovered by more people now so that we would better understand ourselves and our histories.

It would dispel the myth often perpetuated by third- and fourth-generation Americans who offer up the sanitized—to use one of Studs Terkels’ words—versions of their ancestors’ arrivals, in which they came to the United States through the legal channels, learned the language, worked hard and were integrated into American society. It would today, in a time of a humanitarian crisis at our southern border, illustrate the insensitivity inherent in bureaucracies that create detachment and harden our humanity.

In di Donato’s novel we find the brutal truth of the immigrant experience over and over again. In Chapter 2, “Job,” young Paul goes from one municipal building to another seeking relief for his family after his father’s death. At the building with JUSTICE and EQUALITY inscribed over its entrance, he finds himself in ROOM 32: OVERSEER OF THE POOR.

“What building collapse? Never heard about it. Was he an American citizen?” Paul is asked.
“He had taken out his first papers.”
“But he’s dead.”
“Yes….”
“Well then he wasn’t a citizen.”

When Paul goes with his young sister to the police station after the collapse to claim his father’s body, he is confronted with ethnic slurs and a stunning lack of compassion.

“On Friday—Good Friday—the building that fell—my father was working—he didn’t come home—his name is Geremio—we want him—”
The sergeant thought for a moment, and called to the next room: “Hey Alden, anything come in on a guy named—Geremio?”
A second later, a live voice from the next room loudly answered: “What?—oh yeah—the wop is under the wrappin’ paper out in the courtyard.”

The presence of Christ and the theme of Christianity are clear throughout the novel, from its title to Geremio’s death on Good Friday to the devoutness of Paul’s family. It is in that context that di Donato calls out the bureaucracy, and perhaps hypocrisy, of the church as well. Paul seeks help for his family from their local parish, St. Prisca—a saint who was martyred for her faith. He originally goes to the church to ask innocently for his father to be resurrected. His request to see Father John is at first rejected. “He is at supper...then he has many duties,” he is told.

In a time of a humanitarian crisis at our southern border, Christ in Concrete would illustrate the insensitivity inherent in bureaucracies that harden our humanity.

After refusing to take no for an answer, and being let in to see the priest, he finds a long table covered with plates filled with baked potatoes, lamb, fresh peas and strawberry shortcake. “Has your mother applied at the Welfare?” Father John asks Paul. “They say my father was not a citizen,” he replies. “Has your mother tried to get up a collection among the neighbors?” Father John asks. “Can you help us?” Paul responds.

In the continuation of this conversation—indicative, perhaps, of di Donato’s feelings on bureaucracies and the church— Father John replies, “I have nothing to do with the Charities. There is a board of trustees who confer and pass on every expenditure.” The priest cuts off a piece of the shortcake to give to Paul and sends him on his way.

Later in the novel, on a fruitless visit to the Workmen’s Compensation State Bureau to make a claim for money after her husband’s death, Annunziata finds plenty of people like herself in desperate need of help. “They were as herself,” she reflects. “They were wounded and sought the helping hand of Christ’s Christians.” Dealt with by “fine-looking men” who “carried leather cases beneath arm,” Annunziata notes that they “seem masters” and “not of Christ.”

Why Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a novel that dealt with similar themes (simply trade di Donato’s immigrants for Steinbeck’s migrants) and was equally lauded, continues to appear on syllabuses in high schools throughout the country while di Donato’s book has largely been forgotten or relegated to Italian American studies is unclear. Perhaps it is di Donato’s prose, which may strike the contemporary reader as challenging. Rather than have his Italian immigrant characters’ dialogue be in clear English, he chooses to have them speak in cadences that reflect a literal word-for-word translation into English.

Take, for example, the words of Paul’s godfather, Nazone, to whom Paul is apprenticed and who is trying to convince Paul that they should skip work and go to the beach:

“Why, godson, each wave brings in saltine bafts that scour the breathing sacks and impart the appetite of ten Christians, and your skin will consume the touch of sand and sun like a sitting to platter of spaghetti...” and “there is at this morning’s young hour a surpassing lovely color...let us wrap up this tender day in pocket and steal it to the ocean’s side.”

While it may take the reader a few passages to adjust to, it is an effective device, meant to turn the everyday language of common people into poetry. Ernest Hemingway used a similar tool a year later in For Whom the Bell Tolls to give voice to the Republican guerillas in the Spanish Civil War.

“Mr. di Donato retained his sense of outrage at economic inequality.”

Both Steinbeck’s and di Donato’s novels were adapted into films, The Grapes of Wrath in 1940 by director John Ford, and Christ in Concrete in 1949 by Edward Dmytryk. Ford’s film is as classic and well-regarded in its medium as the book from which it is derived, and generally considered one of the greatest films ever made.

Dmytryk’s film version of Christ in Concrete also drew accolades, winning the Grand Masterpiece Award at the 1949 Venice Film Festival. But the film never enjoyed a theatrical run in the United States, largely because its director was among the Hollywood Ten, a group of ten filmmakers blacklisted in 1947 for refusing to answer inquiries from the House Un-American Activities Committee about their alleged involvement with the Communist Party. Even today, a DVD copy of the film is hard to come by in this country.

Another theory as to di Donato’s exclusion from the mainstream of America’s literary canon may be found in an interview by Carol Strickland with the author in The New York Times in 1990, less than two years before his death on Jan. 19, 1992.

“[Di Donato] differed from other ‘proletarian’ novelists like John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos in his consistent concern for the poor,” Strickland writes. Indeed, even his biography of Mother Cabrini, published 21 years after his debut, focuses on and gives agency to the poor and the immigrants in every community where Cabrini ministers.

“Whereas the youthful idealism of those two writers gave way to conservatism,” Strickland adds, “Mr. di Donato retained his sense of outrage at economic inequality.”

“The older you get, the more you must become a dangerous element in society,” the novelist is quoted as saying.

That sentiment may be true for novels as well. Christ in Concrete, 80 years old this year, may be more important and dangerous than ever.

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