Pascal D’Angelo wants to break your heart.
He’s largely forgotten today as a poet, or even as a writer of an immigrant narrative. His memoir, Son of Italy, first published in 1924, was not reprinted until 1975, and can be found most readily today in its 2003 Guernica Editions version, which unfortunately has one of the dopiest cover illustrations ever to come down the pike. But among the small circle of writers interested in a certain finely tuned type of Italian-Americana, one that deals in secret histories (myself guilty), D’Angelo inspires a kind of mania. He is our brother, our grandfather, our father, our son. He’s operatic, foolhardy, hardheaded, clumsy, passionate. He’s “big and elemental and simple,” in the gently racist words of a Brooklyn Daily Eagle writer from 1923. He is maybe our best self, the writer who never—do people say this anymore?—sold out. He wrote and he wrote and he starved and he suffered and, against the most miserable odds, he never gave in. And then he abruptly departed the planet, dying at Kings County Hospital at the age of 38.
The poet at the time of Son of Italy’s publication.
It’s quite a life, the story of this man called the “pick and shovel poet,” and D’Angelo tells it in Son of Italy in idiosyncratic self-taught English and with plenty of heart. He was born Pasquale D’Angelo into a peasant family in a hamlet near Introdacqua, a town in the Abruzzi, provincia L’Aquila, in 1894. The family was poor. Everyone slept in one bed—this reads like a comedy routine in the memoir—and the family’s goats and sheep were stabled downstairs at night, in the rooms that served as living room, kitchen and dining room for the humans during the day. Young Pasquale always worked, pasturing the goats and sheep on Monte Majella and helping his parents cultivate fields they did not own, where they “received a small pittance for wages” (25). At one point, as a fifteen-year-old, he’s helping “a neighbor at harvest for two cents a day” (44). Pasquale went to school intermittently from the age of seven until twelve—and that was the extent of his formal education.
D’Angelo’s birth home in Abruzzo, from TerzaClasse.it.
Trying to better the family’s conditions, the father borrows money to rent “two large pieces of arable ground on which he [toils] almost every minute of daylight” (49), only to suffer a disastrous season. He finds himself worse off after paying back the loan at exorbitant interest, and decides to go to America to join a work gang and seek his fortune. Pasquale, sixteen years old and already “a broad, husky lad” (59), decides to go with him.
They sail from Naples—this is the first time Pasquale has seen the sea—and come in through Ellis Island on April 20, 1910. Pasquale, his father, and the small group of men from their village are met at the Battery by their foreman, a paesano, who whisks them off to their first job. D’Angelo’s memoir captures the crazy newness of the experience, the confusion, the sensory overload of the big city. He’s also funny. He thinks a father and son chewing gum must be “afflicted with some nervous disease.” He sees “Ave.” written on the street signs and thinks, “How religious a place this must be that expresses its devotion at every crossing” (60).
They are taken to, of all places, a forest—in either New Jersey or on Long Island, depending on whom you read, and the muddle over this mirrors Pasquale’s confusion at the unfamiliarity of his situation. He has no context for any of this, not even for the tallness of American trees. That first night the crew beds down on planks in a shack and, the next morning, D’Angelo writes, “We set to digging and handling our picks and shovels. And I have been handling them ever since” (65). The crew would be digging its way through a hillock, flattening the land for a paved road. For this they are each paid two dollars a day; after deducting payments for money advanced them for passage to America, D’Angelo would be taking home less than 79 cents for a day’s labor (Jim Murphy, Pick & Shovel Poet: The Journeys of Pascal D’Angelo, 67).
In his memoir, D’Angelo delights in stories about his early bewilderment over English. He comes here not speaking the language at all, but in the first few months picks up words like “bread,” “gloves,” and “milk.” He’s sent to buy a dozen eggs, and the Polish shopkeepers offer him many things, including a dozen axes, until young Pasquale begins to “cackle like a hen” (69). He mutates the words “fall down” into “You damn!” and accidentally curses out people asking about a black eye (70).
Then, after the specificity of these stories, the narrative collapses: and four years, “a monotonous repetition of laborious days” (70) is compressed into a handful of paragraphs. The work crew toils up and down the East Coast, from New York to New Jersey to Virginia to Maryland and back to New York again, all of the work thankless, miserably paid, and anonymous: “Who hears the thuds of the pick and the jingling of the shovel?” (72). D’Angelo interrupts this section with an extended description of his first real acquaintance with New York City—a night out on the town in 1914—when he’s at once dazzled by the city and amazed by the jadedness of New Yorkers (and it’s not clear if he’s joking or not when he mistakes a prostitute for “a lady of the aristocracy,” 78).
A Lewis Hine photo of Elizabeth Street in Little Italy, 1912, from Shorpy. D’Angelo and crew rented “a few dirty beds” from “an old Abruzzese woman” a blocks west, on Franklin Street, around the same time.
From there it’s more toil—in upstate New York, Connecticut, and on up to Massachusetts and Vermont—until the work dries up. The crew of paesani decides to go back to New York City, to “the slums where people of ill repute are not difficult to find,” and lay low until they can get another job (81). The trouble is, no one has work for eight men, and the crew doesn’t want to be broken up. Meanwhile, the money they’ve saved is running out, and “it hurts the conscious of honest people when they have to live on borrowed money” (90). At last, an opportunity is found: if they can each pay the five-dollar fare, there’s a big job waiting for them in West Virginia, “the land of summer and flowers” (98).
The reality they find is very different. The train lets them off at a freezing-cold platform; they must walk miles in the slush to get to their camp; their baggage with warm clothes and cooking gear gets mistakenly sent to Pennsylvania. At the job site, they’re grunted at and sent to a tarpaper shack with a weak and stinky coal stove to bed down for the night. The next morning, hopping around in their damp clothes to warm up, they’re greeted coldly by the foreman and Mike the commissary man, who eye them as if they’re “pigs in our sty” (103). From here D’Angelo goes into an explanation of the exploitative commissary system—how workers are forced to spend most of whatever money they make at the commissary, buying things at prices that “would make a New York profiteer green with envy” (104). They’re effectively enslaved, owing their souls to the company store.
The job is hellish, if confusingly described—they’re building a railroad, clearing rock after controlled blasts. They must work quickly among huge machinery, steam shovels and steam drills, and beneath immense derricks. Weeks pass, and they’re miserable and ill-used; there’s talk of leaving, but they stay on.
And things go di male in peggio. A cable that holds one of the massive derricks snaps, the derrick collapses, and two of Pasquale’s work crew are crushed. One, the giant of the group named Andrea, is still alive. The crew tries to raise the derrick, “but we were too excited; and as we raised a ponderous weight, in spite of our taut muscles, it slid down the embankment. With a horrible grinding sound of flesh and bones it crushed the last life out Andrea” (106).
The crew does break up now—they have “lost all heart.” Back in New York City, Pasquale’s dispirited father wants to return to Italy. But Pasquale, now twenty years old, wants to stay:
Something had grown in me during my stay in America. Something was keeping me in this wonderful perilous land where I had suffered so much and where I had so much more to suffer. Should I quit this great America without a chance to really know it? Again I shook my head. There was a lingering suspicion that somewhere in this vast country an opening existed, that somewhere I would strike the light. I could not remain in darkness perpetually. (106-7)
Pasquale gets a job in the Erie Railroad yard in New Jersey, near the Fort Lee ferry. The pay’s not great—$1.13 a day—and the work is dangerous. Men are crushed to death under freight cars and in coal dumps or they suffocate in the steam house. “It was a war in which we poor laborers—Poles and Italians—were perpetually engaged” (108). Pasquale and the other men live in an unheated boxcar in the center of the rail yards.
In time, Pasquale is lured north by the promise of $2.25 a day working on state roads in northern New Jersey, and sets off alone, spending the last of his money on the fare. He joins a concrete gang—backbreaking work, with bad conditions exacerbated by a tyrant of a foreman named Domenick, who speaks in a “weird Calabrese dialect” and has it in for Pasquale (112). Domenick criticizes him incessantly and, one wet day, browbeats him into taking an overloaded wheelbarrow of cement down a slippery plank. The inevitable happens—Pasquale slips, the wheelbarrow plunges into the foundation and, trying to save himself from falling, Pasquale jams his hand through a rusty nail. The foreman runs at him shrieking, “Get out, you fool!” (114). There’s nowhere to get his injury treated, so Pasquale walks in the rain to buy a bottle of peroxide to “medicate” his hand … and then there’s nothing for it but to lie around, in the cold bunkhouse, “like a hurt dog who slinks off to some dark corner where it can lick its wounds in silence” (115). The next day, his ballooning hand tied up in a handkerchief, he goes back to work, expecting to be given a less demanding job. But Domenick, unmoved, shouts at him to pick up his shovel. Pasquale drags himself back to the camp. That night the other workers eventually stream back home to cook their dinners. Pasquale can only watch. But instead of an extended lamentation for himself, surprisingly, this is what he writes:
The night was beautiful. The stars were like exquisite, happy, living spirits giving their bright laughter to the silent night. A few [of the workers] were beginning to munch their food. The rest were moving about or waiting. In spite of the soft weather they all seemed to be in ill humor … it seemed that the balmy summer night had awakened deep in their hearts the vision of another land, lovely and balmy and calm. A land that doesn’t know any such things as foremen, in small towns where one is never among strangers and people help one another. (119)
And, indeed, one of them helps Pasquale by sending him off to seek work on a different crew. Pasquale sets out and, of all things, runs into a drunken, vulnerable Domenick. Terrible fury flashes up in Pasquale. He hurries toward the man; he pauses. And then he feels a hand on his shoulder: It’s “old Michele,” an Abruzzese who works with another crew. “‘And where are you going, boy?” Michele asks him. Pasquale explains about his hand, the injury, the unfairness, his rage. Michele says to him:
“Boy … a stupid world drove nails through other hands—other hands.” (121)
And perhaps here old Michele has saved Pasquale from committing murder.
Weeks later, Pasquale is back in New Jersey, living once again in his old boxcar. But something has changed. He’s become weirdly light-hearted, laughing at foremen when their backs are turned. It’s as if the worst has happened, and he has nothing left to lose.
A group of Mexican workers comes to the yard and he becomes friendly with one man in particular, “a wiry young man, who had been with Villa and had been taken prisoner by the Americans.” The man (alas, never given a name in D’Angelo’s narrative) subscribes to a weekly Spanish newspaper, and Pasquale is amused to see how much time the man spends reading it—Pasquale had “gotten to think of a newspaper as something to start a fire with”—but then he also becomes interested, looking at the paper to pick out words that look like the Italian. Soon enough he’s buying English-language newspapers. He puzzles over them for hours, struggling to read them, and when he learns a new word he writes it “in big letters on the mouldy walls of the boxcar. And soon I had my first lesson in English all around me” (129).
A friend takes him to see an “Italian vaudeville show” on the Bowery—and Pasquale decides he can write a better one. Somehow, he begins writing in English. He reads his first attempt aloud, gets some laughs (whether they’re with him or at him, he can’t tell) and then he’s off and running. He becomes known for his joke-writing in the train yard. “Several good-natured lads” even bring him writing paper. He buys himself an old dictionary for a quarter … it’s “half-torn. But I thought I had gotten a treasure for the price. And I proceeded to memorize it” (132). He becomes “that queer Italian laborer” who knows so many big words in English that he’s challenged by a group of young American brakeman who want to put him in his place—but he defines all the words they throw at him, and even stumps them in turn with “caballine,” “anorexia,” “phlebotomy.” After so much wretchedness, it’s a delight to read this passage, with its strutting, boyish glee:
The defeat of these educated youths was, is and will be an eternal one, because there is no other pick and shovel man that can face them. (135)
It’s when he makes his way to Brooklyn to see Aïda, which is “to be represented in the open air” at the Sheepshead Bay racetrack, that his life changes:
… all at once I felt myself to be driven toward a goal. For there was revealed to me beauty, which I had been instinctively following, in spite of my grotesque jokes and farces … There were parts of such overwhelming loveliness that they tore my soul apart. At times, afterwards, when on the job amid the confusion of running engines, car screams, and all kinds of bad noises, I heard those supreme melodies around me. (137-8)
He has found his lodestar: beauty.
What D’Angelo saw at Sheepshead Bay, from the NYT, July 27, 1919. Turns out it was a benefit to help victims of an earthquake in Florence. This past year, 2016, central Italy saw two devastating earthquakes. My paternal grandmother’s hometown in Le Marche, just north of Abruzzo, was one of the worst hit: “Arquata del Tronto non esiste più”: “Arquata del Tronto does not exist anymore.”
D’Angelo makes some stumbling attempts to learn music, and then he begins writing poems. He writes and writes. He goes to the public library near Edgewater, and is “kindly received in spite of [his] broken English and the ragged appearance of [his] working clothes” (and God love that nameless librarian). In the library he discovers Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. In it he finds the same beauty that he has found in Aïda, but while “music was impossible” for him, he could “proceed to emulate [Shelley] almost immediately” (144). And then, one November morning in 1919, he decides to quit the laborer’s life entirely and devote himself to writing poetry. “I reflected: what was one little starvation more or less in a man’s life, especially in that of a self-appointed poet?” (147).
Image from Wikipedia.
Image from Wikipedia.
Pasquale moves to New York City to write, probably becoming Pascal along the way, and eventually finds cheap quarters for himself in “the slums along the Brooklyn waterfront” (148)—and good luck with that today. He lives cheaply; he writes and writes; he sends his poems everywhere but finds no takers; he loses heart and finds a job in the dockyard. “But the Enchantress would not let me free” (152). He finds the cheapest, most miserable housing available, an unheated hovel that used to be a chicken coop with an entrance “through a toilet which served ten families besides unwelcome strangers and dirty passers-by” (154). He lives on stale bread, rotten bananas, thin soup. He perseveres.
These are some of the most thrilling passages in this brief and ardent book, how he keeps going through his despair, through his disappointment, through his hunger and wretched physical discomfort, through what must have been all sorts of mockery and derision, to achieve his heart’s desire. And he does it. He does it. He writes an impassioned, impossible, ridiculous, beautiful letter to The Nation’s Carl Van Doren—the journal is holding a poetry competition and Pascal believes he should win it, if only on heart alone—and Van Doren hears him. As Van Doren would go on to write in the introduction to Son of Italy:
If this was not an authentic cry, I had never heard one. It drowned out the loud noises of Vesey Street; it seemed to me to widen the walls of my cramped office.
Van Doren meets D’Angelo and is taken with him: “He came with the mark of his hardships upon him … yet I found him full of that quiet patience which is the underlying quality of the peasants of his race, and capable of gaiety.” He writes a profile of D’Angelo in The Nation, and D’Angelo becomes something of a sensation. The work of the young poet is picked up by leading journals—The Literary Review, The Bookman, The Century—and he’s published alongside the likes of H.D. and Carl Sandburg in The Bookman Anthology of Verse in 1922. Van Doren urges him to collect his story in a narrative—and the book Son of Italy is born. As D’Angelo writes in the final pages of the memoir, “The literary world began to take me up as a great curiosity and I was literally feasted, welcomed and stared at.” He receives letters “from Boston to ’Frisco”; he is celebrated by his fellow workers; and, perhaps most meaningful of all, his fame spreads across the sea to his homeland:
And sweeter yet was the happiness of my parents who realized that after all I had not really gone astray, but had sought and attained a goal far from the deep-worn groove of peasant drudgery.
And there ends his narrative—on a high note, and one that not only reflects the reality of D’Angelo’s experiences, but that’s also, perhaps, driven by the swell that accompanies the moment when one finally finishes a book: the angels do sing. Sometimes falsely, but that’s what revisions are for.
The first edition, which would remain the only one for 50 or so years. You can order up a lovely, decaying copy of it at the NYPL and read it in the Main Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street—perhaps at the very table where D’Angelo had his few last pennies stolen from his coat pocket during the cold winter of 1921, forcing him to walk all the way home to Brooklyn: “My clothes became bright and studded with the frozen rain.”
From one of the wholeheartedly positive reviews of Son of Italy, written by Elizabeth Stead Taber, which ran in the Literary Digest International Book Review.
Was the book well received? I’m not sure I have the answer to this. It was reviewed in the New York Times, and nearly anyone who writes about D’Angelo cites some version of the beginning of this piece, where the unnamed reviewer tells us that D’Angelo is:
… one of the few Americanized immigrants whose success has been non-worldly yet decisive. Edward Bok, Jacob Riis, to mention but two of our best-known national conversions, stand for the practical, solid achievement that constitutes mundane success. Pascal d’Angelo is one of that class of men, rare in America, whose success is so spiritual as to be almost entirely devoid of material embellishments.
But read this more closely—and keep reading—and one finds a review that’s actually quite sour and condescending. It’s filled with jocular contempt for the big, striving yokel, and peppered with “funny” phrasings (“the paraphernalia of Italian peasant life” is described “with a candor that is disarming, even if a bit affected”) that dismiss D’Angelo’s struggle. “One gladly passes over his account of the privations on which he prides himself”—words that could only have been written by someone who’s always had a full belly. Perhaps snottiest of all, in response to D’Angelo’s moment of insight that comes toward the end of Son of Italy—“without realizing it, I had learned the great lesson of America: I had learned to have faith in the future”—the reviewer writes: “This apparently was not enough, and so he learned the second lesson of America: ‘It Pays to Advertise.’” And the reviewer wonders aloud:
… what percentage of [D’Angelo’s] subsequent success is due to the mental laziness that makes people judge a work of art by its source rather than on its merits, plus the inverted snobbery which leads one to admire the “dancing dogs” of Dr. Johnson’s well-worn simile.
Remember the origin of that simile? Dr. Johnson was talking about the spectacle of a woman preaching: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” What is this attitude besides the power group’s unwillingness to share the power? God forbid an Italian peasant attempt to write poetry in 1920s America.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle loving on D’Angelo, March 25, 1923. You can go here for a heartfelt appreciation of D’Angelo’s poetry, written just last year (in Italian).
Dig around in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from that era (click here for a terrific, free resource from the Brooklyn Public Library ) and you’ll find plenty of similar amazement—in this case, however, it’s tempered by appreciation for D’Angelo the human in a way that only a populist daily paper would have it. Lost in all of this seems to be any kind of real discussion of the quality of the work. Am I having it both ways when I say that, as far as the poetry, does it even matter? It strikes me as serviceable, Romantic-inflected stuff, deeply rooted in the land, with moments of beauty, moments of terror, plenty of near-misses, and very often a frustrated striving toward grandeur. It’s young writing that needs nurturing to keep growing.
But Abruzzesi are notoriously hardheaded. We really don’t want to hear it at all! In Van Doren’s introduction (which, frustratingly, isn’t included in the Guernica reprint) the reader learns that D’Angelo at the height of his fame was offered all sorts of assistance—everything from money to editorial jobs—but, “after paying so high a price to be a poet, he was not willing to take his reward in some meaner coin.” So what happened next? Son of Italy came out in 1924 and D’Angelo died in 1932, and every source I found said that he died destitute, with no money even to pay for his funeral. What went down during those eight years? What did he write? How did he live? I wanted answers to all of these questions, and I couldn’t help but fixate on something else. In all the mentions of his death, I found none of where he was buried. Find-A-Grave, a pretty encyclopedic resource, didn’t list him at all; and far as I could see not even those notorious baptism-of-the-dead Mormon folks seem to have claimed him online. Where were his bones?
Jim Murphy’s young adult book, Pick & Shovel Poet: The Journeys of Pascal D’Angelo, offers some interesting ideas about his last years. He conjectures, for example, that perhaps it was D’Angelo’s embarrassment over his lack of education and thick accent, rather than pride, that kept him from taking a job as an editor. But I was looking for something more concrete.
The answer was actually very close at hand, in a book published just this past year. Tyler Anbinder’s City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York has a terrific, engaged section about D’Angelo. He follows the poet’s trail, filling in the blank stretch from Son of Italy’s publication to D’Angelo’s death eight years later.
Anbinder writes that a few months after D’Angelo’s memoir was published, he dropped off the map, disappearing from the New York literary scene entirely. Maybe he was suffering from writer’s block? What’s clear is that, after a reprieve from his wretched living conditions, he’d gone back living near the Brooklyn waterfront, in what the Herald Tribune would describe as an “incredibly bare and cold shanty.” Drawing from accounts published in papers at the time of D’Angelo’s death—and I’m indebted to Anbinder’s book for leading me to these sources—Anbinder writes:
He stopped answering letters from his relatives… They wondered if “the strain and deprivations of his struggling years had affected his mind.” Indeed, his landlady reported that “he sometimes acted strangely.” Among other oddities, he decided that despite his desperate circumstances, he had to teach himself Chinese. The onset of the Great Depression must have made things even more difficult … By  D’Angelo had pawned his typewriter and could not even afford paper. He continued to write, however, scrawling his poems in the margins of old newspapers, on the backs of calendars, and eventually on the walls of his apartment. (City of Dreams, 388-9)
By the time D’Angelo began suffering from terrible stomachaches, likely he had waited too long. “From his neighbors it was not possible to learn much … except that he had been out of a job for some time,” a reporter writes in a contemporary account in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Those neighbors had to call for the ambulance that took Pascal D’Angelo to Kings County Hospital, where he died on March 13, 1932, after an appendectomy. No doubt his health was compromised from so many years of subsisting on trash.
D’Angelo’s last address, the “incredibly bare and cold shanty,” from Google Maps. Zillow it and you’ll see that its sale price is zestimated, God help us, at $1.74 million today.
Trolling through those newspapers of 1932, you read on as all the lamentations pour in. This is by turns moving and strange and corny and infuriating, with plenty of handwringing, plenty of sensationalism. Who will bury him? A brother, John, is found in Paterson—who knew he existed—but he’s a jobless laborer, in equally dire straits. A cousin, Arthur, turns up in Philadelphia, and he says he’s “an automobile salesman and that’s just like being out of a job at present,” in a cheeky-sounding assessment quoted in the New York Herald. Arthur calls MacMillan to see if any royalties are due from Son of Italy, and finds out that the poet’s estate is entitled to $4.60. The paper also checks in on Van Doren, who remembers D’Angelo as a “peasant boy who spoke English badly.” He recalls that he was “‘inert in conversation’ but then so are lots of poets.” He describes D’Angelo as “the only extremely unlettered immigrant I knew who wrote pretty good poetry without rising above the level of a day laborer.” Van Doren seems to want to keep an even tone, not dive into the sensationalism, but the effect is dismissive, as if he regretted his earlier enthusiasm.
The Herald reports that strewn around the “two mean rooms,” besides an uncashed money order for fourteen dollars, are manuscripts that, if stacked, would reach two feet high. Many contain “formless snatches of unfinished poems.” Ten days later, a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter and the poet’s brother are digging through the garbage, attempting to retrieve these very papers. Among the things they find is Pascal’s beloved 25-cent dictionary.
Hometown sensationalism from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 20, 1932.
However, if the landlady wasn’t so much a fan, it turns out that—pace Humboldt’s Gift—there were fans of modern poetry at the morgue.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, D’Angelo’s huge booster a decade earlier, rallies on the dead poet’s behalf—and helps raise money to save him from a burial in New York City’s potter’s field. The coverage is lavish, excessive, self-congratulatory (and in one instance, no doubt rushing to meet a deadline, the typesetter has mashed up an article about Pascal’s burial with a wholly unrelated one about a St. Patrick’s party—just after we read that “the body of a romanticist whose reward for his ideals was only humility will rest in dignity in a Catholic cemetery,” we discover that Mrs. J. Frank Fanning has received “a large cocoanut pie last night as a gift”). The paper makes good, and through its intercession D’Angelo is given a proper burial, where many seem to have come to pay their respects (among them apparently was Garibaldi LaPolla, who would publish The Grand Gennaro, a touchstone of Italian-American fiction, the next year). Some months later, the grave of Pascal D’Angelo is given a headstone—donated, who knows why, by a now-closed girls’ school in Cooperstown, New York.
These good women paid for D’Angelo’s headstone.
And then, the man buried, his life celebrated and lamented, the coverage peters out. The last mention in the Eagle I found is from May 30, 1934, in an article titled “Grave of Poet Spared Poverty Plot Decorated by Idolators”—fire that headline writer—which is a short item describing how members of the Pascal D’Angelo Society placed a wreath on the poet’s grave. It must have been a slow news day. By now, it seems that Pascal has learned English through a “ten-cent dictionary,” losing a full fifteen cents and, I suppose, gaining that much more in pathos.
It’s a funny thing, the monolithic entitled-white-guy tone of so many critics of D’Angelo’s day. I know, it’s unfair to criticize from our vantage point, but the unchecked condescension is breathtaking these 90 years on. John Farrar—yes, that Farrar—hits a typical snide tone in the introduction to D’Angelo’s entry in The Bookman Anthology: “Convinced he is a poet, excited and pleased by each new bit of public acknowledgement, he will come to you displaying his trophies: a picture in an Italian paper, an article in a Sunday magazine, a new poem in ‘The Century.’” I wonder on Van Doren’s dismissiveness after D’Angelo’s death, on the tendency of so many around him to see him as a sort of freak. Maybe to all of these tastemakers, D’Angelo was ultimately more interesting as a story, not as a person. Maybe it’s actually best of all if he’s dead, so that he can be ruefully lamented—and finally out of their hair.
And maybe the poet was not as dumb as they all thought.
Was he reading those reviews? As his English got better, was he getting hip to all that snark? Did it burn his peasant ass? Did he tell himself that he’d quit the public poetry scene, lock himself away, sharpen his pencils and write his heart out in his Gowanus hovel? That he’d perfect his poetry until he was finally ready to come out perfect—not only mastering English, but speaking Chinese, just to show everyone else how stupid and lazy they were? Once again I’ll deal in some pretty subjective tribalism here and say that Abruzzesi are nothing if not tenacious. We’re stubborn, we’re great fixators. But we’re also great dreamers. D’Angelo had to cling to his beliefs, crazy as they might have seemed to others; they are what made him, and what kept him going. Book people criticized him for “advertising” his poetry—but would he have gotten anywhere at all if he hadn’t come knocking on their doors? He recognized the mobility possible in America, the opportunity to take his chances and make himself a new self—a poet, which would have been impossible in Italy, even if he did grow up a stone’s throw from Ovid’s native Sulmona, even if there was an actual tradition of Abruzzese shepherd poets. The U.S. destroyed D’Angelo, but it also made him a poet.
While the Guernica edition doesn’t have Van Doren’s introduction, it does have an absorbing and too-brief essay by Kenneth Scambray, who argues for a deeper reading of D’Angelo’s book. Scambray doesn’t find it the Horatio Alger success story that so many others do. He finds it “a countertext to the melting pot theory that dominated American society at the time” (169). Not only was D’Angelo’s assimilation unsuccessful but, he argues, he has nothing to do with “canonical Italy.” Scambray points out that Van Doren doesn’t call D’Angelo an Italian at all but “a typical example ‘of the peasants of his race’” (176). The triumph at the end of D’Angelo’s narrative is negated by the wretched end of his real life.
And yet we have this lovely book to read.
So, double back for a moment here. Before I found City of Dreams and the many answers it gave me, I was fixating on where D’Angelo was buried. He died in Brooklyn—but was he buried there? Had they shipped his body home, to the land he loved so much? Not likely; too expensive. I happened to be emailing about something else with my exceptional uncle, Raymond Firmani, a WWII bomber pilot, now 95 years old and fit as a fiddle and sharp as a tack, and he’d mentioned something about his long-passed uncle Emil. Seriously, Emil, that was his name? Ray told me, No, it was Emidio, but he changed it to Emil. Unsaid was that it was classier to be French than Italian in those days.
And then I realized: Pasquale D’Angelo. In the death registers, he would be listed as the peasant, not the poet.
And so I found him, at last, in Queens:
The anonymous Pasquale D’Angelo, buried in Saint John Cemetery.
It’s not two hours out by train and bus and the briefest of walks to St. John Cemetery, final resting place of Gerry Ferraro, Mario Cuomo, Robert Mapplethorpe, and more mafiosi than you can jam into Umberto’s Clam House. We went out there, I with my map in hand, looking for Section 25, Row Y, Grave 113. It was a beautiful autumn day, lovely and balmy and calm. We walked the sections and then the rows, counting down the letters, and then we walked the line of well-kept headstones. And there he was.
I don't know—why is it so important to me to find his old bones? Why does it hurt my heart to think of Dawn Powell’s remains turning to dust in an unmarked grave on Hart Island? They’re not suffering. They’re up there smoking cigarettes and drinking gin and eating flapjacks and playing the harp. But we’re still here, I’m still here. It will sound corny as hell but perhaps going and finding them is just a way of saying: I have seen you. I have read you.
You inspire me, and I give you my thanks.
“I am a poor worker,” D’Angelo wrote, “but a rich defender of truth.”