Di Donato’s signature novel—Christ in Concrete—is too often neglected by educators, whose negligence denies underprivileged students of the opportunity to make meaningful connections in the literature classroom as a result of di Donato’s relatable background, consummately effective rhetorical devices, and poignant storytelling.
Trading the Trowel for the Pen
Born in 1911 to immigrant parents in West Hoboken, New Jersey, di Donato dropped out of school when he was twelve years old to care for his family after the death of his father in a construction accident (Severo, n.d.). Like most students from underprivileged backgrounds, di Donato’s education was much more hard-earned than that of his contemporaries, and what little extraneous schooling he was able to obtain came in the form of the occasional night class at City College of New York, where he managed some coursework in construction (Diomede 111). When he did start writing his life story in the form of a novel, di Donato did so as an extracurricular endeavor while continuing his blue-collar work. Students in today’s universities would benefit from an understanding of di Donato’s life and works, lest they come away from their studies with the erroneous impression that only college degrees and European travels qualify a writer for publication.
Matthew Diomede records how Christ in Concrete was chosen for the Book of the Month Club in 1939, beating out The Grapes of Wrath for that month’s choice and bestowing on di Donato an almost instant fame and wealth that soon had him living in the Hamptons and vacationing in Cuba with Ernest Hemmingway (11, 142). And although students from humble backgrounds might admire the change to di Donato’s economic status as a result of this fame, they should know that with wealth and fame, di Donato lost the proverbial writer’s edge (Diomede 15). Indeed, his subsequent publications failed to garner any public acclaim because his voice and subject matter changed; he now waded into topics of interest to his nouveau riche mentality and abandoned the blue collar grit that fueled the fires of his first novel’s passion. In short, he was a one-hit wonder.
Traversing Socioeconomic Boundaries
Di Donato’s novel is one of inclusion, according to Anthony Tamburri, because “the reader, in witnessing the various trials and tribulations of the characters . . . is made to feel part and parcel of their experience” (3). Certainly, students from underprivileged backgrounds will readily relate to di Donato’s life story, but students living lives of economic ease will also benefit from the novel’s portrayal of working class life in 1920’s America and all of its accompanying strife.
Louis Adamic says that “sometimes one feels as though bricks and stones and trowelfuls of mortar have been thrown on the pages [of DiDonato’s book] and from them have risen words,” yet it is “robust and full-blooded and passionate, now and then almost to the point of craziness” (Gardaphe 69), a craziness that is certain to appeal to students who are too often asked to abandon their teen/young adult angst and consider the plights of the staid modernist intellectuals whose texts fail to inspire young minds.
Janet Galligani Casey agrees, noting that modernism’s values “were typically represented via intricate formal structures beyond the grasp of the average reader,” and they represent a “retreat from the pressures of the real world, which necessarily involved more than the overwrought sentiments of an educated elite” (Casey, 239). In other words, modernist sentiment is an elitist discursive practice that discriminates against “average readers” with “real world” backgrounds and cares. Educators and curriculum-writing bureaucrats certainly find high modernism inspiring—why else would it be such common fare in secondary and undergraduate classrooms?—but their strict adherence to the modernist canon deprives students of the inspiration derived from the working class angst that permeates the pages of Christ in Concrete.
This angst is not exclusively felt by readers from working class backgrounds, either. Louise Napolitano said that despite “the surface subject of Christ in Concrete,” the novel’s “symbolical subject is universal. Paul is everyman, symbolical of any individual who feels alienated, isolated, and frustrated. These are universal emotions. This is the condition of modern man and woman” (117).
In Christ in Concrete, di Donato ultilizes themes of food, family, and faith to create what I call “tri-fecta fiction,” a triad of potent yet relatable literary fare that is sure to please even the most reluctant reader. This triad can be readily applied to Aristotle’ s three modes of persuasion (pathos, logos, and ethos), because the themes of family (pathos), food (logos), and faith (ethos) are presented to readers as sources of emotional strength, irrefutable need, and honest debate, respectively.
High modernist literature typically provides readers with “carefully attenuated depictions of individual angst” (Casey, 239; emphasis added), but Pietro di Donato’s angst is almost exclusively family-centered as he chronicles young Paul’s struggle to provide for a family of nine.
From the earliest pages of the book, when Geremio extols “the joy of my home!” and is thinking of “the coming baby,” to the book’s end, when the semi-present narrator exclaims, “ah brother and sister, this is the life—cuddlingly arranged close to the flash and smell and joy of them who are your own people (di Donato 187), readers hear a cacophony of family frolic that includes the proverbial pitter patter of little feet in passages such as these:
“The children scampered off to the icy yellow bedroom where three slept in one bed and three in the other. Coltishly and friskily they kicked about under the covers; their black iron-cotton stockings not removed . . . what! And freeze the peanut-little toes” (di Donato, 6).
“Children, out of the path, children! My God, these millions of children are tangled in people’s legs—Lucio! Pasquale! Do not cling to the doorway—remove yourselves . . .” (di Donato, 182).
“You are ours, dear brother. Let no burdening thought cloud your breast . . . we shall be as sticks bound in union. We shall divide our loaf. We shall warm each other and be as one . . .”(di Donato, 144).
While the characters throughout di Donato’s novel frequently declare their love of siblings and children, they also praise women in a manner that can only be described as worship, a form of veneration that might have roots in the Italian Catholic tradition of praying to the Madonna. At the end of the day, laborers long to return to “food, drink, and the hairy flesh-tingling warmth of wife” (di Donato 11) and the phrase “wife force” (di Donato 33) is coined by the narrator in a play on words that means “life force” and “floodgate” at the same time. Gardaphe also notes a type of matriarchal worship in Concrete; “the final image [in the novel] suggests that the matriarchal powers still reign. The image we are left with is an inversion of the pieta, in which the son is holding a mother” (69).
Most importantly, the novel’s focus on family and familial relationships “challenges the wider society’s narrow faith in personal autonomy,” writes Dan Shiffman, because it portrays “human identity formed by a weaving of relationships, a notion arguably distinct from . . . self-enclosed individualism” (57), the same individualism that permeates the high modernist literature so irrelevant to working class readers. Furthermore, “in Christ in Concrete . . . Paul’s desire to finish school cedes to the more pressing exigencies of the family” (Napolitano 24) just as students from underprivileged backgrounds often cede their homework assignments to the exigencies of their own turbulent lives. And so the family-centered dynamic of di Donato’s novel is more than just good rhetoric—it also provides educators with a means of fostering greater inclusiveness in the classroom.
Di Donato’s novel takes readers through an alimentary journey of early twentieth century working class life where “always, there had been hunger and her bastard, the fear of hunger” (8).
At the onset of di Donato’s story, cakes are cooling simultaneously with the corpse of young Paul’s father because “father’s hands were our home. They gave to us food and warmth” (22, 51). The correlation between food and family here is only one of many instances in which di Donato’s tri-fecta of rhetoric overlaps, forming bonds between the pathos of family love and the logos of nutritional necessity. “Love is a hunger!” one character asserts, and the God-figure of mother chants a psalm of poverty as she peruses her scant pantry:
“Two onions. Four potatoes. One-two-three-four-five-six large crumbs one-two-three-for-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten-eleven small crumbs. Paul Annina Lucia Giorgio Joseph Adela Johny Geremino two onions four potatoes. Who will tap on the door and put baskets of food on Geremio’s table? Who will come in quietly and feed the family of Geremio day upon day week upon week month upon month year upon year until they are strong men and women and I join Geremio? Jesu Giuseppe e’ Mari . . .”(di Donato 51).
Meal preparation is also an equal-opportunity endeavor in this novel, where the men folk participate as actively as the women, as illustrated in the following passage:
“The rich tomato-y olive-oil cooking of the spaghetti sauce brought the paseanos to the kitchen. The Lucy ordered Head-of-Pig and Bastian to wash the table top. Then he went over it with a cloth wet with olive oil. Taking the pots of white-boiled spaghetti he heaped tow high rows of it from end to end of the table-top, and upon them he poured the pans of thick red oily sauce and handfuls of grated cheese and hot pepper, mixing contents of the separate rows deftly with fork and spoon”(di Donato, 191-2).
“To highlight the powerful hold food has on culture and memory, di Donato devotes several pages to describing the flavorful ingredients of each dish, when the item is served, and who eats it,” Fazio says (n.d.). The power of food in narrative is palpable, Fazio notes, and “eating these ethnic specific foods helps the characters diminish the geographical and temporal distance caused by immigration and assimilation” (n.d.). But I would add that this literary technique also diminishes the geographical and temporal distance between author and reader, rendering the text much more palatable for reluctant (or burgeoning) literati of our classrooms.
When twelve year old Paul goes to the church seeking food for his family, he witnesses “the wasteful extravagance of Father John’s meal, which contains whole cuts of meat, of ‘dripping lamb’ and multiple dishes” (Fazio, n.d.). Father John does not invite the starving child to his table, but offers Paul a small shortcake, which “provides neither physical nor spiritual sustenance, but is both a tempting and contemptible object” (Fazio n.d.) as opposed to the more nutritious fare offered by the hero-women of the novel, whose meals are offered freely to children, neighbors, even pets. In this novel, then, “food serves as a sacrament of communal solidarity” (Shiffman 68), yet another instance of overlapping in di Donato’s fictive triad, where faith is the third component.
Christ in Concrete opens with the tragic death of Geremio, whose last words are a poetic prayer of death: “Jesu my Lord my God my all Jesu my Lord my God my all Jesu my Lord my God my all Jesu my Lord my God my all” (17). Throughout the text, the characters often use the exclamation “Jesu, Giuseppe e Mari!” an Italian reference to Jesus, Joseph, and Mary (16, 41) that forms a trinity not unlike the one I delineate here, where Mary represents family, Jospeh—the provider—represents food, and Jesus represents faith. The religious references and dialogue that permeate di Donato’s novel are representative of Italian American working class vernacular at that time, and it is also a discursive style that will resonate in the minds of readers with equally religious backgrounds.
But Christ in Concrete does not extol the values of religion the way it does the importance of food and family. Instead, it “deconstructs Italian and American myths,” including the Catholic faith when, by “revisiting the pre-Christian, matriarchal roots of Catholicism, . . . di Donato unmasks the inherent fatalism in Catholicism” (DeAngelis 143). He does so via Paul, who “arrives slowly at the recognition that religion cannot save him, that he must save himself” (143).
Before losing his religion, young Paul offers a prayer at the funeral of his father that is equally poignant and poetic:
“Here in the church of worship I kneel, my Lord. You have taken dear father away for your own need . . . can you not send him back, O Lord? We love him—we are hungry—we need him . . . Pleasepleaseplease, dear Jesus, may I not go home and find him seated with the children, and mama placing the hot food and macaroni on the table, and laughter, laughter of all our family, my Lord God and Creator of the earth and skies and all the living? It would be simple for you and I know you want us to be happy and we all adore you and sing your praises every-every minute . . . Wouldn’t it be glorious, O Lord, to bring father right here right now and I’ll take him by the hand and up the stairs and knock on the door and then when mama opens the door I’ll say mama here’s papa—O Lord, don’t you see how wonderful—?” (54-5)
But when God failed to answer Paul’s prayer, he lost all faith in divinity—a change that killed his mother, whose final words included a prayer that graced the last page of the text. Still, the novel’s final words were her encouragement to her family to “love ever our Paul . . . Follow him” (226) as the author would fain have his readers follow his doubts about a religion that would turn away the poor the way he was turned away by the clergy in his family’s darkest hour of need (57-9).
“In his treatment of religion, [di Donato] is simultaneously blasphemous and reverent, profane and sacred” (Napolitano 13). Furthermore, “at no time in Christ in Concrete does di Donato overtly propagandize for or against any specific ideology” (Esposito 48). In other words, he is an equal opportunity believer—yet another example of how the use of his text in a classroom setting helps foster a more inclusive learning environment.
The Callous Canon
Christ in Concrete, once a nationally acclaimed novel, has disappeared from “historical and literary studies of American Literati” (DeAngelis 137). Janet Galligani Casey also laments this novel’s disappearance from literary curricula, calling for a movement to challenge our “bourgeois literary paradigms” by “reintroducing proletarian literature, [and offering] students the chance to see that literary history was not always codified . . . [by reincorporating] texts that are neglected within the undergraduate curriculum or that are typically relegated to a small group of specialists” (235-6). Although Casey calls for the reinstatement of Christ in Concrete in the classroom, she also advocates the inclusion of other texts written by wealthy elites who wrote pro-Marxist and therefore pro-working class texts. My recommendation, however, is one of including those authors from working class backgrounds regardless of political ideology (be it Marxist, capitalist, etc) in order to expose students to the full socioeconomic spectrum of writing talent in the literary tradition, rather than creating the impression that moneyed ivy-leaguers are the standard for publication-worthiness.
Like the Holy trinity that di Donato’s characters use to chant or curse throughout the book, this text’s trinity of family, food, and faith are a reassuring and familiar combination of cultural concepts that help readers feel connected to the text, and can help students from underprivileged backgrounds to feel represented in a place where the concerns of family, food, and faith are too often ignored: the classroom.