Pietro Di Donato (1911-1992)
Contributing Editor: Helen Barolini
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The lack of perception of Italian-American authors as literary and the general lack of knowledge concerning the body of Italian-American writing is an obstacle to be overcome. In particular with Di Donato's classic work, Christ in Concrete, there is the question of linguistic uniqueness--a result of transposing Italian thought forms into English. This lends richness and texture to the work, but must be explained.
The Italian-American author and his/her work can be examined in terms of the general theme of the outsider and can be related to authors of other groups, bridging the narrow ethnic theme to the more general one. Students are interested in issues of workers' exploitation, what impels immigrants toward the American dream, and what the country was like fifty years ago as compared to today.
The language can be dealt with by showing how language forms thought patterns, and so viewpoints. However, beneath the uniqueness lies the same human feelings and their expression.
There is a film version of Christ in Concrete that could be useful to promote classroom discussion.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Di Donato's Christ in Concrete is an achievement in giving literary form to the oral culture of the immigrant peasant transformed into urban worker. His is a prime example of the proletarian novel of the 1930s.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Di Donato created an American language that accommodated the oral culture of his protagonists, a language that reflects the texture of the peasant-worker discourse. It is important to note that dignity and intelligence are not the social prerogatives of the more articulate social group.
Di Donato's work was written in the 1930s period of the depression, social protest, and growing interest in socialist solutions for the ills of the world and its workers. It was hailed, at its appearance, as "the epithet of the 20th Century." In some ways it continues to be extraordinarily actual, as witness the collapse of the building in Bridgeport during the summer of 1987 that duplicated the tragedy of Christ in Concrete with the loss of workers' lives.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Di Donato can be related to Clifford Odets, another writer of social protest, who had some influence on him. Also, compare with the lyric proletarianism of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and with John Fante's evocation of his mason father in The Brotherhood of the Grape.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. I think it is useful to have some perspective on the social conditions of the times in this country as reflected in Christ in Concrete.
2. Study the techniques of characterization. What makes a character live, or, on the other hand, fade? What makes a successful character?
How do Di Donato's Italian-American working-class characters relate to all people everywhere?
Diomede, Matthew. Pietro Di Donato, the Master Builder. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1995.
Esposito, Michael P. "The Evolution of Di Donato's Perceptions of Italian Americans." In The Italian Americans Through the Generations. Proceedings of the 15th annual conference of the American Italian Historical Association. Staten Island: AIHA, 1986.
--. "The Travail of Pietro Di Donato." MELUS 7, no. 2 (Summer 1980): 47-60.
Napolitano, Louise. An American Story: Pietro Di Donato's Christ in Concrete. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.
Sinicropi, Giovanni. "Christ in Concrete." Italian Americana 3 (1977): 175-83.
Viscusi, Robert. "The Semiology of Semen: Questioning the Father." In The Italian Americans Through the Generations. Proceedings of the 15th annual conference of the American Italian Historical Association. Staten Island: AIHA, 1986.
--. "De Vulgari Eloquentia: An Approach to the Language of Italian American Fiction." In Yale Italian Studies, 1, no. 3 (Winter 1981): 21-38. An interesting commentary on language usage.