Green Bay to Turin
The correspondence of Cesare Pavese, here with his American friend and distinguished conductor Antonio Chiuminatto, betrays a man living in an increasingly fascist country whose interactions with America constitute the major part of his optimism. For men of his and various succeeding generations, the freedom of America represented an ideal contrast to a growing climate of censorship that pervaded Europe and Russia at the time. Forced by the barest offerings of Italian libraries and bookstores to beg Antonio for English language editions of contemporary writing, Pavese had an insatiable desire to learn more about the United States. Chiuminatto even made lists of American slang words in books from authors like Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner.
Green Bay, WI
December 26th, 1929
Dear Mr. Pavese:
This concludes the list of phrases you sent me. You will probably note that there are two or three phrases that I have not explained, but there are reasons, to be sure. I noticed that these two or three phrases which I omitted are of no importance to slang, and by this, I mean that they are phrases used in one instance only - and as such I was unable to find a solution. I hope you will pardon my lack of English, at least, in this case! I shall remember these phrases, though, and if ever I come to know what they mean, be sure that you will hear from me about them. Negro slang is about the hardest to understand, for we hear so little of it and on the other hand we get so much of it in writing!
This kind of slang would be as well known to me as the pure American slang were I a resident of the negro states, such as Missouri or Alabama. Even at that, though, I consider myself fairly well versed in it - and am always glad to be of some service to you.
I shall finish my letter here in slang. See if you can translate it.
Say, darby, your letter was a card; you know it? Your scratching is about as bad as mine and that is why I use a machine. Don't let this remark get your nanny, though; I was perfectly able to wad right through your whole letter!
Christmas is over at last and, ye gods, I'm perfectly tickled to death. I called on a few of my friends yesterday afternoon and managed to burn some sigars and some candy. I suppose Max struck you for a present, too, didn't he? But did he get it, that's the question! On Christmas Eve I was over town but there was so little doing that around ten thirty I began to mosey home. (Say, I hope you don't get all balled up now!) On the way home I met a couple of keen mamas and took them home and then I came straight home myself to tune in on the radio a while! Talk about your damn tommyrot!! All Christmas carols which sounded like sleep-songs to me! And so I hit the bed!
I just mailed your other comments and the book so you'll be getting this all in a pile! Well, you see, I'm a fast man when it comes to friends like Mr. Pavese! Ya! I hope it'll be O.K. with you, though; at that you'll be down to brass tracks. By the way, if you run across that book entitled All Is Well on the Western Front by some Frenchman, try to send me it, will you? Gee! yes, in French.
Well, Mr. Pavese, so long, for this time! Write me again as soon as you can and tell me how you came out with these comments. I hope you get them straight alright! Best wishes to Max and you from your friend
January 12th, 1930
Dear Mr. Chiuminatto:
I'm befuddled, all in a daze, with your titanic kindness. I'm now seeing the world only through a veil of pink sheets, all bristling with slang-phrases which are meddling together re-echoing and staring at me from everywhere. I've got now I can no more take a pull out of a bottle together with my gang, without thinking I'm going on the grand sneak. And how flip I get sometimes! And how many keen mamas I'm looking after! And how ... so on. My whole existence has got a slang drift now. You could almost say I'm a slang-slinger. (Ha!)
But I must, for the first thing, give utterance to a whole row of thanksgiving for your long-yearned, hard-hoped, fast-sent and all-surpassing answer to my criminal letter. Criminal and murderous, I say, was that letter, with all its flippancy and hardboiled guyness, but you were so widely christian as to ship your hand, to the poor sinner hearkening to him.
I repeat, I'm yet befuddled, all in a daze, with your kindness.
Certainly, all your explanations are quite, well, easy, clear, better than any would have dream'd of (I'm studying them by heart), but I wonder, whence did you get the time to put them down? And, more, being such a work intended for a fellow you remembered scarsely perhaps? There is something of witchcraft in it. I can only stare at such a sight, bruit aloud your praise, go capering about and ... continue to get the most out of you. I'm sure I'll find no bottom.
Really, I went capering the day before yesterday on receiving your letter and yesterday on receiving the comments. Forewarned by the former, I was already thinking about something wonderful, darby, whizy and what not, but the latter, when on my desk here, got me flabbergasted.
All is useful and masterful in your items, and so abundant is the treasure there one is almost dumbfounded, not by lack of clearness but by dint of wealth. I've not to pardon you, as you say, for your shortcomings - certainly you cannot be acquainted with the queerest phrases a writer was contriving, the more so having you got these phrases detached from the context - but rather I must thank and thank again and praise you for your kindness and skillfulness and sound knowledge. Besides, you'll better understand my full satisfaction thinking (the scoundrel!) what impudent hurry I'm sending you another list.
But we are agreed - you'll explain and send it only when, and if, you'll be able.
Now, proceeding, I'll tell you that reading your letters I got an idea should like to let you know.
You speak always of slang as of a special language or dialect, which exists by itself and is spoken only on certain occasions or places and so on. Now, I think, slang is not a diversified language from English as, for instance, Piedmontese is from Tuscan, so that a word or a phrase can be told to belong to a class or another.
You say: this word is slang, and this is classic. But is not slang only the bulk of new English words and expressions continually shaped by living people, as for all languages in all times? I mean, there is not a line to be drawn between the English and the slang words, as two different languages usually spoken by different people and only in certain cases used together.
That book you know, Dark Laughter, for instance is written in English but there are numberless slang-expressions in it and they are not as French words in an Italian book, but they are a natural part of that language. And I said always English, but I should have said American for I think there is not a slang and a classic language, but there are two diversified languages, the English and American ones. As slang is the living part of all languages, English has become American by it, that is the two languages have developed themselves separately by means of their respective slangs.
My conclusion is then that there are not a slang and a classic language but there is an American language formed by a perfectly fused mixture of both. Have I succeeded in getting this before you? Write me something about this also, if you'll have the time.
I should also like, were it possible, to have something written down by the curious young lady-friend of yours, about American literature or whatever else there is of common interest. Would she be interested in it, I would gladly inform her about our modern Italian writers and culture. As for me, I would have her speaking about Edgar Lee Masters or Vachel Lindsay whose works also (Spoon River Anthology by the former, and methinks The Congo - The Chinese Nightengale - The Golden Whales of California by the latter) I should pray you to look for, whether there is a cheap edition of them.
But there are other troubles for you. Would you be so kind as to go fetch them, I should pray you to send me a copy of Waldo Frank's City Block and something of Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises - Men Without Women - Farewell to the Arms) or whatever else is attainable of him. Especially about the latter there is much talk now here, but no editions of it are seen.
And still there are scores of modern American books I should like, someone really I need: by J. Dos Passos, by E. Cummings, by W. Carlos Williams, by Countee Cullen, by Eugene O'Neill, by Robinson Jeffers, by Carl Sandburg, by Sherwood Anderson, etc. They are numberless. To buy them by means of an Italian bookseller, there is the danger of finding himself gratified with a cheap edition of five dollars. You see how you christian help is here necessary for me. We'll digest those books little by little, in future letters. Each time one or two among them, and you'll seek for and mail them, together with your bill. Now let us begin with Frank and Hemingway.
Do you know? I found an American library in Rome very rich with American works such as historical and critical ones. Some classics also, such as Thoreau and Howells. I'm borrinwg two volumes a fortnight by it. But as for modern, living productions, there is nothing. There is only your help there yonder.
Accordingly, I send you now the Drolarie by Arnulfi, you wrote about and A l'ouest rien de nouveau, which you are wrong in believing a French book. It is by a German author, as you'll see perusing it, for it is worth while. As I don't know whether you are conversant with German language, I don't send you the German text, nor the Italian translation which does not exist by way of a legal prohibition. It seems that this book has the wrong to describe the war how it is really, an atrocious thing, and naturally we Italian babies are defended to know it by means of a direct translation. We could become too moody and refuse the next war. Mr Chiumminatto, we also wonder how Fascism will fan out.
But I must leave off. I wind up my yarn with a final thanksgiving for the book you kindly sent me. I'm waiting for it, and I assure you hardly I'll have received it, by the by, I'll read it notwithstanding my many scholarly occupations and I'll write you something about it.
And still I beseech you to undergo the expounding of my shameful Babbitt-list only when you'll have nothing else, really nothing else to do. You're so kind I should feel sorry to bother you again.
Now I'll slip you the accustomed glove and am
October 7th, 1930
Say, Max got me all wrong my feelings towards America. I merely wrote him my impression of Chicago and life as it is here. I have no kick to make personally save in a very general way. What Anderson says of America, what you say and what I said is all perfectly true - but that doesn't necessarily mean that I'm disatisfied. I'm merely looking at the condition from a cultural standpoint, if I may be permitted to say so. To be personally dissatisfied would be an injustice to thousands of real people, thousands of educated people, thousands of artistic souls right here in Chicago!
I'm all hot and bothered about these damn Sicilian gunmen who have never done a damn thing but ruin the reputation of Italy. They are pimps, procurers and brothel keepers; they are assassins, usurers and musclemen, which means that they use threatening means to an end; they have become listed in America as 'public enemies.' Racketeers, just about all of them, they traffic in dope, liquor, women and whatnot!
It's all well and good for you to remind me that Italians are distinctly in two classes, the Northern and the Southern. But who the hell knows that but us Italians and about 10% of Americans? The general conception of the Italian in Chicago today is not so pleasant; people look at you askance when they know you are Italian, as much as to say, look out! And the general run of America will tell you that they are afraid of Italians, that they would not even rent rooms to an Italian. How do you like that, eh?
Last week I was beyond myself with indignation, damn it! The police department openly published a list of 26 public enemies who were to be arrested on sight - and believe it or not, Buddy, old boy, 22 of them were Italians. And this is the case in every metropolis in America. I have the list here which I am going to send to Miss Franchi, as usual, but I'll quote it to you with the qualifications. Here goes:
'Scarface' Alfonso Capone - Commander-in-Chief of Chicago rackets and responsible for at least fifty gang killings.
Antonio Volpe - Capone gangster with several killings to his credit.
Ralph Capone - brother of Al and beer boss of Cicero, Illinois.
Fracesco Rio - a Capone watch-dog and notorious hoodlum.
Giacomo Gherbardi - Capone machine-gunner.
Giacomo Belcastro - Capone pineapple-man.
Rocco Fanelli - Gunman and bomber, a terrorist.
'Wop' Lorenzo Mangano - Boss of the Capone gambling syndicate
Giacomo Mondi - Secretary of the Capone gambling interests.
Giuseppe Gennaro - proficient murderer, hi-jacker, bomber and what have you?
Samuele Campagna - One of Capone's toughest.
Filippo D'Andrea - City Hall agent of Capone.
Carlo Fischetti - a Big Shot in rackets.
Giovanni Gennaro - brother of Giuseppe and of the same caliber.
Solomone Visione - Graduate of the Giacomo Zuta school of hotelkeeping.
Francesco Nitti - Director of the Capone murder squads.
Domenico Aiello - Lieutenant of the booze rackets.
Giuseppe Aiello - brother of Domenico and boss for the Moran gang.
Ernest Rossi - another two gun man of Capone.
Giovanni Armondo - A pleasant boy from Maxwell Street at anyone's orders.
Domenico Bello and Domenico Brancato - Aiello gun-men.
Hot stuff, isn't it, eh? And the list keeps growing day by day with the lovely surprises that two out of every additional three are Italians. Isn't that a swell list, though, with swell recommendations, to be published in every newspaper of prominence in America? Who wouldn't feel hurt - indignant? This is why I kick to Max - and not for myself.
There is no deep cultural atmosphere, here, either, of which I probably kicked a little in writing to Ma, too, but that did not mean that I was dissatsfied. I was merely commenting. My possibilities in Chicago are very promising, to say the least, and I love the city for its opera, its concerts, its lectures, its debates, its museums, its library - and God knows for what else! Mine was merely the indigination of an Italian over what I have just told you.
From Chiuminatto's February 1932 letter to Pavese:
I had to buy a copy of As I Lay Dying by Faulkner, since it was impossible to get a copy in any other way. I still have some forty pages to read and then I'll mail it to you. The reason why I am reading it is because I discovered that you're going to need some comments on the English, which is all in the Southern drawl, dialect - and poor English, at that! Southern conversational English, is what it is!
While the rest of the world may accuse Faulkner of being a genius, I can't say that I DO! not from this single reading, st least. I consider him an excellent writer - even profound - but I don't like his choice of subject matter. However, that's for you to decide! Books are an avocation for me - not a profession!
Cigar store Indian - busto di pelleroso in legno che trovavasi sul marciapede davanti al tabaccaio. Quasi sempre una figure di vecchio pellerosso austero, solenne. Da lontano si vedeva cosi il tabaccaio. La figura si usava allora forse perche nei primi tempi furono i pellirossi a fumare - che gia conoscevano l'uso del tobacco.
say-so - il dire
'On my say-so' (sul mio dire - sulla mia parola)
Swapped - da 'to swap' (fare lo scambio)
tom-boy - dicesi delle donne che hanno l'andamento maschile
miscue - da 'cue' che e il bastone da bigliardo. 'Miscue' si dice quando il basto scivola dalla palla, facendo un colpo irregolare.
ourn - per 'ours' (il nostro)
sho - per 'sure' (sicuro!) detto alla maniera dei negri
durn - per 'darn' - esclamativo come sarebbe 'accidenti,' ecc
dassent - il volgare per 'to dare out' (non osare) i dassent - per 'I dare not.'
durn nigh - quasi, quasi!
to aim - to adopera qui nel senso di 'fare conto di' 'I aim to do it' (faccio conto di farlo)
holp - per 'help' (aiutare)
Laid-by - messo a posto!
outen - per 'out of' (fuori di).
Old Master - Old Master (Vecchio Padrone)
et - ate - (mangiato).
gittin' - per 'getting!'
hit - per 'it'
That ere - per 'that there' (quello la)
keer - care (cura)
sich - such
sot - set (fisso)
Paw- Pa - (papa) alla moda del Sud.
kilt - killed - (ucciso)
Git - get - come imperative vuol dire ('va!')
hit want - it wasn't
to hitch the team - metter la coppia dei cavalla [sic] al carro.
to give someone the creeps - dare i brividi. Far paura.
swole-up way - Swollen-up way (nel modo di gonfiato).
To dicker - pasticciare, litigare per certe piccolezze
You can find more of the writing of Cesare Pavese on This Recording here.
"Basement Scene" - Deerhunter (mp3)
"Helicopter" - Deerhunter (mp3)
"Fountain Stairs" - Deerhunter (mp3)