Charles Calitri and his novel, Father

Mr. Ernesto L’Arab has asked me to introduce this novel to Italian readers, and to “contribute personal memories of Charles” which illuminate Father.

When Frank McCourt, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Angela’s Ashes, died in 2009, it was no surprise that former President Bill Clinton attended his funeral, representing the American nation, as it were. McCourt, a novelist of the Irish American experience, had become a “Living National Treasure,” as the Japanese call their most eminent artists. Yet there is no doubt that the other guest of honor, had he lived, would have been Charles Calitri, a novelist of the Italian American experience. In his sequel to Angela’s Ashes, the memoir Tis, McCourt describes himself writing the first attempts at Angela’s Ashes for “Mr. Calitri,” as the aged McCourt still reverently calls him.

Sadly, Calitri died before seeing the fruits of his teaching in Frank McCourt, and McCourt died just before Calitri’s work was reissued in this volume, or McCourt would surely have been writing this preface. I, as editor of a standard work, The Italian American Heritage: a Companion to Literature and Arts, am here to fill in for Calitri’s better-known student. Calitri was my teacher too.

The book the reader holds seems to have been read carefully by the author of Angela’s Ashes. Father is not simply about Antonio Calitri. In Father, an ethnic American seeking to understand himself, returns in his mind to the very different circumstances of the Old Country. In Angela’s Ashes an ethnic American seeking to understand himself returns in his mind to the very different circumstances of the Old Country. The book could simply have been titled Mother. Both books find an answer in the impact of a long-vanished form of Old World Roman Catholicism on their parents’ lives.

“Il poeta italiano,” Giuseppe Prezzolini wrote of Charles Calitri’s father, Antonio, in his preface to Antonio Calitri’s Canti del Nord-America (1925) “e rimasto in America poeta ed italiano.” (p. 8) Italian readers will discover in the first pages of Father that this is true also of his son, Charles Calitri – even when Charles did not desire it. Raised by a man who had remained both poet and Italian, Charles grew up listening to the cadences of the Italian language, inhaling the fragrances of De Nobili and Parodi cigars, watching his poet father religiously read a page from Dante’s Commedia every night before sleep. “He kept a volume next to his bed,” Charles told me, shaking his head in awe. “Each year he finished it, and returned to the beginning again.”

When I – his student, finishing my own novel downstairs in his home, on his typewriter – asked him once why he had written Father, Charles Calitri looked at me in surprise. “Don’t you feel the need to know where you came from, and what your relationship with it is? How it defines you?”

I did not. I’ll rephrase that: Hell, no. My inheritance from my Russian Jewish mother barely filled out Fiddler on the Roof. My Polish Jewish side led straight back to Auschwitz. To hell with Europe.

Charles Calitri, however, like intellectual Italians and Italian Americans before and since, felt differently. Calitri both loved and felt burdened by a rich inheritance that stretched back through the Renaissance to Dante and to Rome itself. In Father’s opening pages, the narrator’s wife remarks on him gloating over Rome during this, his first trip to Italy. One must remember how new this dramatic subject was. The Italian American creative explosion did not come until the 1970s. In Father, Calitri is one of the very first Italian Americans writing in English to describe an Italian American artist wrestling with the gigantic, inspiring, sometimes suffocating Italian heritage.

Charles Calitri, moreover, was in the odd situation of being a son not only of Italy, but also of the Roman Catholic church. The title Father is a play on words. His father was also a Father. His father had been both an Italian poet and a priest.

For an Italian audience to appreciate Father, then, one must know how early it comes in Italian American literary history. A second point to keep in mind is how educated this novelist is. Any reference or allusion you think you have noticed is certainly there, and very much on purpose.

Calitri estimated once that each page of Father took him fifteen drafts. He slept little, and frequently wrote all night. He had the time and the freedom to do it right. Charles had just written a bestseller, and – on top of his book royalties – had sold the movie rights to Darryl F. Zanuck for a quarter of a million 1950s dollars. (My own father, a Columbia University lawyer, supported our family handsomely on seven thousand dollars a year.) Calitri, to support his family, had let his publisher sensationalize the original version of Strike Heaven on the Face – and he laughed about it all his life. “I cried all the way to the bank!” With two children and a wife to support, it was the only moral decision to make.

But as he sat down to write Father, Calitri was famous, owned a house and a cabin cruiser, and was willing to cut no corners. “I’m told there are a million copies of Strike Heaven in print,” he remarked once, “but when I see a student at Hofstra [his university] walking with a remaindered copy of Father, it pleases me more.”

Father, then, aims high. I saw the materials myself. When I was a young man, paralyzed by writer’s block and unable to finish my first novel, Mr. Calitri waved his hand and said, “Never mind! You will go downstairs to my study, and finish it on the typewriter, on which I wrote Father.” That almost killed me. Sitting there in a windowless cubic room, walled in from floor to ceiling on every side by well-thumbed copies of terrifyingly serious literature and books of continental philosophy, I was crushed. Father has in it all the books in that room, though it wears its learning lightly, thank God. In the years he wrote Father, Mr. Calitri spoke continually of two things, one of them a form of postwar Continental philosophy called “phenomenology” in which Calitri read deeply – particularly the works of Merleau-Ponty. His novel The Goliath Head, about the painter Caravaggio, is the most phenomenological, so – thank god – Merleau Ponty need not concern us here. But he’s in there. Everything is.

Above all, Dante is. The Italian reader will soon catch on that this book is no realistic Bicycle Thief but a Dantesque journey into the self. On the first page of Father, the pilgrim back to Italy arrives on a train ‘nel mezzo del cammin’ of its journey to Foggia. The words are left in Italian to call one’s attention to them. They are, of course, the famous opening lines of the Commedia, and the pilgrim to “Montefumo” (Panni) is, like Dante, in the middle of the journey of his life. His father Antonio, in Fanciullezza a Montefumo, (Milano e Roma: Gastaldi Editore, 1949) had rechristened Panni “Montefumo,” and Charles follows suit, linking their works together.

So the Italian reader, understanding that the work is cast as a kind of epic poem, should not be surprised by the formal, indeed poetic way that the citizens of Montefumo speak. In an epic poem which includes every philosophic argument that drove Antonio out of the Church, the speech, fittingly, is a kind of prose poetry. I remember Charles’s son, Robin, and I sitting in the kitchen one day, naively badgering him about this. I had made my own pilgrimage to Panni by then, and I protested, “Your cousin Bonaventura [with whom I had stayed] doesn’t talk like that! Everybody cuts off the end of everything. Bonaventura doesn’t even call himself that. He calls himself ‘Ventu’!” Charles just laughed at us. Did we really think he didn’t know that?

For, in addition to phenomenology, the other thing Calitri always spoke of was the possibilities of the novel as prose poetry. Father is his attempt. For him the epic poem was the most deeply Italian form. Calitri’s father, Antonio, ex-priest, but still poeta ed italiano, had abandoned the Bible but still read Dante every night, so that his Italian American son grew up seeing the Commedia as the ultimate artwork, the true gesamkunstwerk, the form that united poetry, character, drama, everything.

But Calitri is equally an American artist. Dante is not the strongest influence on him. Father should be understood as the last important work in what had been the 1930s American novel’s effort to write a novel as if it were poetry. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy had interlaced prose chapters with prose poems. Hemingway’s Italians, Spaniards and Cubans always spoke poetically. Poetry, for these novelists, and for Charles Calitri, is not decoration but revelation: it serves to uncover the godlike in an ordinary life, the spiritual in the everyday world, the mystical “Montefumo” in the real-life Panni.

Above all of them, there stood Thomas Wolfe, whose fame outshone everyone’s but Hemingway’s. Like Hemingway, not only the critics but the American public adulated Thomas Wolfe. Pulitzer Prize winner Herman Wouk fictionalized Wolfe’s life in the best-selling Youngblood Hawke. Sci fi master Ray Bradbury wrote a fawning story in which men from the future, lacking any writers equal to the epic poetry of space travel, come back in time– to kidnap Thomas Wolfe! Antonio’s love for Dante and for the epic poem, predisposed Charles to admire Wolfe’s poetic effort. When I asked Mr. Calitri what college I should go to, he said, “The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Wolfe went there.” Once Charles showed me how Wolfe’s prose, printed out with line breaks like poetry, scanned as well as a poem.

So much for Calitri as novelist. Any full estimation of Charles Calitri as an American cultural figure, however, must include his career as charismatic teacher. His conviction of Italy’s importance to American letters led me, many years later, to edit, with Pellegrino d’Acierno, the standard text, The Italian American Heritage: a Companion to Literature and Arts. I dedicated the book to Charles. Frank McCourt provides us with the fullest written account of Charles Calitri’s uncanny ability to inspire writers around him. Were McCourt alive, he would be telling the story himself here, so it seems right to quote his book at length. Combine my account and McCourt’s testimony as evidence of how many other writers Calitri transformed, who have not had a chance to publish their debt. Since ‘Mr. Calitri,” (like McCourt, I always respectfully, and nervously, called Charles Calitri, by that name) also gave me the power to write, Tis was particularly piercing to me. (In fact, I leaped straight up from my seat when I saw the name, “Mr. Calitri.”)

McCourt, the impoverished Irish immigrant, had discovered at prestigious New York University that “it’s dangerous, to raise your hand in any class,” because “the professor will look at you with a pitying little smile and the class will see that and the pitying little smile will travel around the room till you feel so foolish the face turns red….” Unsurprisingly, he became a poor student. “With all my latenesses and absences and falling asleep in class I know I deserve a C and I’d like to tell the professor how guilty I feel….” (Tis, New York City: Scribner, 1999, p 181) McCourt was losing strength.

Then Charles Calitri, his writing professor, asked the class to write “an essay on a single object from our childhood.” McCourt, frightened of American professors, already felt “safe” with “Mr. Calitri.” Charles had that rare quality. I can vouch for that. Writers say, “Tell it to one man.” Since “Mr. Calitri will be the only one reading it and I’ll feel safe,” McCourt, the C student, produced “The Bed,” which, forty years later, became one of the famous set pieces in Angela’s Ashes.

Then the turning point: “The next week Mr. Calitri sits on the edge of his desk on the platform,” and says to the class, “there’s one I’d like to read to you…. Mr. Calitri is up there talking about it now, telling the class why he gave it an A, that my style is direct, my subject matter rich. He laughs when he says rich… He tells me I should continue to explore my rich past.” McCourt had the same amazed reaction I had when Mr. Calitri read my first novel and told that to me: “I don’t know what he’s talking about.” (172-174)

But Mr. Calitri, with his enormous confidence – which his son Robin inherited – gave one confidence in oneself. Mr. Calitri’s verdict that McCourt’s life was worth writing about showed him for the first time not only that he could write, but even what he should write. So says McCourt. I’m not interpreting here. “Because of Mr. Calitri I scribble memories of Limerick in notebooks, I make lists of streets, schoolmasters, priests, neighbors, friends, shops.” Charles Calitri next assigned McCourt “a family essay, where there’s adversity, a dark moment, a setback, and even though I don’t want to go into the past there’s something that happened to my mother that demands to be written.” Another chapter of Angela’s Ashes appears, in embryo. McCourt’s at work on the book that will make him a national figure. In its sequel, three years later, he’s careful to include this tribute to “Mr. Calitri.”

Certainly there are great differences between Calitri and McCourt, between Father and Angela’s Ashes. McCourt could write himself in as an eyewitness and Calitri could not. Calitri was a Italian American poet; McCourt an Irish American raconteur. Otherwise, the moment you place Father next to Angela’s Ashes, the parallels simply flood over one. It is, after all, Frank McCourt who tried to call our attention to “Mr. Calitri” and his influence; McCourt, who, by adopting “Mr. Calitri” to be his artistic Father, had replaced the absent cad that Angela’s Ashes so bitterly described, and thereby gained the power to create.

Charles Calitri lived to see none of this. In the film, It’s a Wonderful Life, an angel comes down to reveal to Jimmy Stewart the impact he has had on the world. In real life there are no angels, so one must have faith. He died quite young, without seeing his son Robin rise to become a renowned educator, a New York State Highschool Principal of the Year,; without seeing the entire Italian American Heritage dedicated to himself, and a newspaper cartoon of Antonio Calitri in its foreword; without seeing his student McCourt’s enormous fame, or his act of public gratitude; without seeing this translation of his masterwork into Italian, which would have moved him to the core. There is a moral here for all of us who write and teach. No angel will come to tell us what we have done, but it is happening. We must have faith.

Which leads me, finally, to marvel at what has happened to Father today – for novels, like people, change with time. I had not read Father in some years when I picked it up to write this introduction. I was startled to find how contemporary it has become. America’s taste for Father’s heroic genre declined abruptly during the Vietnam War years, when anti-heroes captured the Zeitgeist. Salinger-style neurotic adolescents, Joseph Heller’s madman Yossarian in Catch 22, Philip Roth’s onanistic Portnoy, these caught the spirit of that embittered age. Heroism was passe. In that atmosphere, Steinbeck was sneered at, Dos Passos forgotten, even Thomas Wolfe’s reputation evaporated. When the museum dedicated to him burned down in 1998, newspapers had to explain who Wolfe used to be.

Yet Time kept passing. In the half century that now stands between us and the Vietnamese War, and the cynical anti-heroes the Vietnam era spawned, a form emerged in Latin America which captivated American audiences: “magical realism.” Father isn’t yesterday anymore. It has become, stylistically, Magical Realism, like Isabel Allende’s similarly poetic chronicles of her ancestors. In the second decade of the Twenty First Century, the Italian or American reader, opening Mr. Calitri’s magnum opus for the first time without the mental baggage of the Thirties novelists, can finally enjoy Father for the magical time-shifting philosophic prose poem that it is.

Dr. George J. Leonard created a rock group, Sha Na Na, which played the Woodstock Festival, the Woodstock Movie, and Grease. He went on to teach at Yale, and publish novels which have been translated into Spanish and Chinese, and purchased by director Ron Howard for Universal Pictures, Hollywood. A Columbia PhD with Distinction, Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities at San Francisco State University, Leonard’s critical books have twice won “One of the Outstanding Books of the Year” from the American Library Association. His website is

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