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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Pietro Di Donato

An anomaly in American literature and eccentric in the true sense of being off-center, the primitivism of Pietro Di Donato burst like a meteor on the literary scene of the late Thirties. This mainly self-taught son of Italian immigrants was to immortalize his tragically killed worker father as the veritable Christ-figure of his classic novel Christ in Concrete, published in 1939 to extraordinary critical acclaim.

It was, perhaps, the precisely right moment for this novel to be acclaimed: the portrayal of exploited workers fit the social protest sympathies of the period; and the unique language which expressed in English the Italian rhythms and thought patterns of Di Donato’s immigrant characters appealed to critics newly receptive to the linguistic innovations of modernism. The searching energy and the raw idealism behind Di Donato’s literary debut was not again achieved; Christ in Concrete remains the classic expression of the Italian American experience in the thematic material of the young boy’s seeking identity in a new and alien world that is as rejecting as the old one of tradition (which had been his father’s) is closed to him. Christ in Concrete is the most searing and thorough representation of the condition of an immigrant suspended between two worlds and held in thrall to work and the job.

Christ in Concrete, which began as a short story in Esquire, is an autobiographical rendering of the most haunting, ineluctable event of Di Donato’s life—the tragic accident which killed his father on a construction job just days before his own twelfth birthday, casting the young boy into his father’s role as brick-layer and supporter of the destitute family. When, during the Depression of the Thirties, Di Donato was laid off the job, the circumstance brought about his Golden Age: “With unemployment and Home Relief I was permitted the leisure to think...That sent me to the Northport Library and the discovery of the immortal minds of all countries. They gave me freedom....”

When it appeared in 1939, Christ in Concrete was hailed as “the epithet of the twentieth century.” It was chosen over John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for the Book-of-the-Month Club, and Di Donato, the working man, was transformed into a literary lion only to have the too-instant celebrity status and financial affluence render him silent for the next two decades.

From 1942 Pietro Di Donato spent time in a Cooperstown, New York, camp as a conscientous objector during World War II; while there, he met the widowed Helen Dean, a former showgirl. They were married in 1943, became the parents of two sons, and subsequently moved to Long Island, where Di Donato continued to write. Much of Di Donato’s internal conflict—the contradictory pull between sensual hedonism and idealism, between the attraction to the woman he married and the insane jealousy harbored toward the dead husband who preceded him, between his feeling of having betrayed his Italian American identity and his unsure place in American society—found expression in his next autobiographical novel, This Woman.

Critics were not impressed with this work, which was dramatized, or with his next novel, Three Circles of Light, which was called “a loose collection of episodes rather than a sustained narrative...The novel’s descent into sentimentality, bathos, and just plain scurrility is rapid.” Subsequently Di Donato seems to have secured his identity within the framework of the reclaimed religious faith of his people, and he went on to write two religious biographies: Immigrant Saint: The Life of Mother Cabrini and The Penitent, which is the life of Maria Goretti.

Di Donato’s short pieces, articles, and stories were collected in Naked Author. In 1978 his reportage on the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, “Christ in Plastic,” which appeared in Penthouse magazine, won the Overseas Press Club Award. At his best, as in Christ in Concrete, Di Donato’s narrative patterns form, in their diversity, one of the richest linguistic textures to be found in the twentieth-century novel and make the bridge, for him and for his characters, between a lost and mythical Italy and a real but never realized America.

Helen Barolini

In the Heath Anthology
Christ in Concrete (1937)

Other Works
This Woman (1958)
Immigrant Saint: The Life of Mother Cabrini (1960)
Three Circles of Light (1960)
The Penitent (1962)
Naked Author (1970)
The American Gospels, work-in-progress (2000)

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Italian American Narrative: A Study in Pietro di Donato's Fiction
Contains the complete text of an undergraduate student's thesis.

Pietro Di Donato
Relevant links and a bibliography.

Secondary Sources