This is a guest post by Tyler Anbinder, professor of history at George Washington University and author of “City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York.”
When Pasquale D’Angelo arrived in New York in April 1910 from Introdacqua, a mountainous village eighty miles east of Rome in the Abruzzi region of central Italy, he discovered that life in America as a day laborer would not be as easy as he had imagined. “Everywhere was toil — endless, continuous toil, in the flooding blaze of the sun, or in the slashing rain — toil.” D’Angelo, along with his father, Angelo, and seven other townsmen, were met at the Battery by an Italian labor contractor (padrone in Italian) from the same part of Italy. He had jobs waiting for them building roads 125 miles north of New York City. Although it was illegal to enter the United States with a job already arranged, back then, as today, day laborers had no trouble finding contractors who were willing to flout the law.
D’Angelo initially liked his new life. He was only sixteen, with a strong back and plenty of experience doing hard work in the fields surrounding Introdacqua. But when the contractor ran out of jobs for D’Angelo and his “gang,” their prospects worsened. New bosses were cruel, the pay was miserable, and the work was often very dangerous. Two of D’Angelo’s coworkers were crushed to death by a falling derrick on a railroad construction site. Over the course of about two years, D’Angelo and his surviving coworkers found employment in Spring Valley, Tappan, Poughkeepsie, Staatsburg, and Glens Falls along the Hudson, Utica and Oneonta in central New York, White Lake in the Catskills, and Otter Lake in the Adirondacks, as well as in Westwood and Ramsey, New Jersey, Falling Waters, West Virginia, Williamsport, Maryland, “and many other places . . . always as a pick and shovel man.”
When a job ended and a new one could not be found nearby, D’Angelo and his compatriots often returned to New York’s Mulberry Street, headquarters of dozens of Italian padroni. In Five Points, D’Angelo and his friends would rent spots in one of the overcrowded boardinghouses on Bayard Street, enjoy a brief respite from work, and weigh various opportunities, often in some far-flung southern or western location. “Going to a distant job is a gamble,” D’Angelo later noted. “A man may pay a large part of his scanty savings for fare. And when he gets there he may find living conditions impossible and the foreman too overbearing. Perhaps he will be fired at the end of the week. Where will he be then?” Sometimes a contractor went bankrupt, and D’Angelo might then lose weeks of back pay.
Some of the immigrants could not stand these hardships. D’Angelo’s father, concluding that he was no better off in America than he had been in Introdacqua and that he would never save enough to bring his wife and remaining children to America, decided to return to Italy. Two other members of D’Angelo’s original work gang also went back. But Pasquale was determined to succeed in America. His life became a bit easier when, at the end of 1915, after five years of itinerant labor, he found steady work doing track maintenance just across the Hudson from New York in the Erie Railroad rail yard in North Bergen, New Jersey. The pay was so miserable — just $1.13 a day — that D’Angelo lived in an unused boxcar on a siding rather than squander most of his wages on rent.
The work that winter was just as hard as any he had yet encountered. D’Angelo was “liable to be called out at any hour—usually in the middle of the night,” if there was “a wreck or other trouble . . . In spite of rain, snow, sleet and icy wind, we had to work until the wreckage was removed and the damaged tracks repaired.” It was dangerous work, too, “with the heavy ties and rails on our shoulders and the slippery ice under our feet.” Yet a fall was the least of D’Angelo’s worries. “All around was noise and confusion; trains piling on trains — cars creeping smoothly at you in the darkness, bells, toots.” Two of his predominantly Italian and Polish coworkers were crushed by the wheels of a locomotive. Several more died under an avalanche of coal in the yard’s “coal dumps.” Another “suffocated in the steam house.”
Meanwhile, as World War I entered its third year, East Coast ports became increasingly frenetic supplying Europe with war matériel. To fill a labor shortage in the rail yard, the Erie brought Mexican immigrants from Texas to New Jersey, and a couple of them moved into D’Angelo’s already crowded boxcar. One of the Mexicans spent hours each week reading a Spanish-language newspaper sent by mail from Texas. “I had gotten to think of a newspaper as something to start a fire with or to wrap objects in,” D’Angelo later wrote, but now he decided to start reading again and also to learn English. At first he studied American newspapers, decoding words from their context or enlisting the aid of coworkers. “When I did learn a word and had discovered its meaning,” he recalled, “I would write it in big letters on the mouldy walls of the box car.”
Once he had command of basic English vocabulary, D’Angelo bought a secondhand dictionary for a quarter and began obsessively memorizing its contents. Word of the “queer Italian laborer” with the phenomenal English vocabulary soon spread throughout the rail complex. The American-born brakemen and office clerks would try to embarrass D’Angelo by challenging him to define obscure words, “but their efforts and mental ambushes were all useless.” Soon these “high school lads” left him alone. By this point he had become a regular visitor to the nearby Edgewater Public Library, where he fell in love with the work of the Romantic poets Percy Shelley and John Keats. He also decided that his true destiny was to write. At first, he tried his hand at sketch comedy, hoping to sell his work to a vaudeville producer. But poetry seemed a far nobler calling, and sometime in 1919, feeling an insatiable urge “to cry out my hopes and dreams to this lovely unheeding world,” D’Angelo burned the piles of comedy manuscripts that he had drafted, quit his job with the railroad, and moved to Brooklyn, determined to become a poet.
D’Angelo rented an unheated one-room apartment in “the slums along the Brooklyn waterfront,” probably the neighborhood now known as Gowanus. “I wrote continuously for several weeks. It seemed to be a great relief to have all my time free for my beloved poetry.” He began submitting his work to magazines, newspapers, and literary journals, but in every case his submissions were quickly returned, accompanied by pre-printed rejection slips. “Now I realized that I was merely a small drop in the sad whirlpool of literary aspirants . . . I was one, only one of the millions of literary beggars who clog the halls of literature, who stand like a sluggish crowd in the way of anyone wishing to forge ahead.” He went back to day labor, finding a job “in a wild, insane shipyard” in Gowanus.
“But the Enchantress would not let me free.” Abandoning poetry was “soul-torture. It was hard for me to combat the spell of beauty. It was hard for me to think that I could never succeed.” Deciding that he had a better chance of being published if he personally delivered his poems to the city’s literary editors, D’Angelo quit his waterfront job toward the end of the summer of 1920 and once again devoted himself entirely to poetry. He moved to an even less expensive apartment, “the cheapest hole that I could find in the slums of Brooklyn. It was a small room which had previously been a chicken coop and wood shack
. . . The entrance to it was through a toilet which served ten families” as well as “unwelcome strangers and dirty passers-by.” The toilet would often clog and overflow, causing its contents to run beneath his door “and stand in malodorous pools under my bug-infested bed.” He cut his food budget, too, now buying only stale bread the bakeries would otherwise throw away and rotten bananas that vendors sold at a steep discount and assumed he was feeding to a pet.
Meanwhile, at his local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, D’Angelo made a list of the names and addresses of every one of the two hundred or so newspapers and magazines published in the city. He vowed “to pay personal visits to all of them” until one agreed to publish his poems. “It took courage to continue writing in those months, but I kept it up. I forced myself to believe in eventual success.” He devoted all of 1921 to this task—introducing himself as “Pascal” rather than Pasquale D’Angelo because he wanted to sound more assimilated—yet every editor he met rejected his work. His financial situation became so dire that he could no longer afford even stale bread and rotten bananas. Some nights he shivered so badly from the cold that he would walk three miles to the warm Flatbush Avenue depot of the Long Island Railroad because he knew he could stay there all night.
Then, in January 1922, all of D’Angelo’s hard work and perseverance suddenly paid off. Carl Van Doren, a professor of literature at Columbia University who also judged The Nation’s annual poetry contest, later recalled that when he first read the impassioned plea that D’Angelo sent to accompany his submission, “it drowned the loud noises of Vesey Street” in lower Manhattan, where The Nation had its headquarters. “It seemed to me to widen the walls of my cramped office . . . Some incalculable chance had put the soul of a poet in the body of an Italian boy whose parents could not read or write and who came into no heritage but the family tradition of hopeless labor.” Van Doren did not award the prize to D’Angelo, but he arranged a meeting with the poet and wrote a short profile of him in The Nation in which he recounted D’Angelo’s life story, accompanied by two of the young man’s poems.
The recognition from Van Doren was the break D’Angelo had long hoped for. Within days, the New York Evening Post’s literary review published two more of D’Angelo’s poems. The Bookman soon ran several others, The Century Magazine printed two more, and The Nation published another toward the end of the year. Several were included in The Best Poems of 1922. “The literary world began to take me up as a great curiosity and I was literally feasted, welcomed and stared at.” Letters of congratulation poured in from across America. Those he found most gratifying “were the tributes of my fellow workers who recognized that at last, one of them had risen from the ditches and quicksands of toil to speak his heart to the upper world.”
Van Doren urged D’Angelo to turn some biographical fragments the poet had shared with him into a full-length autobiography. When Macmillan published Son of Italy at the end of 1924, with an introduction by the Columbia don, D’Angelo received even more publicity, as newspapers nationwide told the extraordinary story of his improbable rise from day laborer to literary sensation. “There’s something very clean and strong and elemental about Pascal, something like the rough brown earth on whose bosom he was born,” gushed an interviewer from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “He seems well on the way up the ladder of literary fame,” observed the Boston Herald. “Young D’Angelo may never become one of our great poets, but after the miracles that his life has known thus far, almost anything in his future seems possible.”
Once D’Angelo burst on the literary scene and admirers heard about his “unspeakably shabby” living situation, they offered him improved housing, free of charge, so he could properly concentrate on his art. Others proposed to pay his way through college, and still others sent him checks so that he might live and eat better. Yet he rejected these offers and refused to cash the checks. “If people want to help me, let them pay more for good poetry,” he insisted, referring to the nation’s publishers. Given that he made only $5 or at most $10 for each published poem, he continued to live in an unheated room (albeit now in a far less shabby Brooklyn neighborhood, Prospect Heights) and subsist on stale bread and bananas. “He neglects his body’s needs,” concluded one interviewer, “while feeding those of his heart and mind.”
Given D’Angelo’s experiences, it should come as no surprise that his poems are dark and bleak. Words like “torment,” “darkness,” “emptiness,” “blackness,” and “anguish” predominate. Perhaps it was inevitable that those terms characterized the short and tragic remainder of his life. Within a few months of the publication of his memoir, D’Angelo disappeared completely from the New York literary scene. It is not clear whether he stopped sending his poetry to publishers or his submissions were rejected. At the time his autobiography appeared, he told an interviewer that he planned to begin work on several novels. Perhaps he became one in a long line of New Yorkers to suffer writer’s block.
Short of cash, he was eventually forced to move back to an “incredibly bare and cold shanty” at 98 16th Street. He stopped answering letters from his relatives, including a brother in New Jersey and a cousin in Philadelphia. 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. With Americans by the millions canceling their magazine subscriptions, editors had even less money to spend on poetry. Nonetheless, D’Angelo assured his landlady at the beginning of 1932 that some of his latest work would be published very soon.
This was obviously wishful thinking. By that point 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. He began suffering from severe stomachaches, but given his mental and financial condition that winter, he probably waited too long to seek medical care. By the time he made it to Kings County Hospital, it was too late. He died there on Sunday night March 13, 1932, at age thirty-eight, of acute appendicitis.
Few outside Brooklyn took note of D’Angelo’s death, but one journalist did: a young midwestern wire service editorial writer named Bruce Catton. Decades later he would become one of America’s best-known authors for his books on the American Civil War. Catton found D’Angelo’s death poignantly meaningful. In a piece titled “Why Poets Starve,” which ran in newspapers across the nation, the thirty-two-year-old Catton described the circumstances of D’Angelo’s death and lamented that the zeal and commitment it took to devote one’s life to poetry seemed incompatible with earning a decent income or even maintaining one’s sanity. “So they go along,” Catton observed, “writing poems, starving in chilly attics, and generally stubbing their toes over obstacles the rest of us never even see. They make the world brighter for the rest of us — but they pay for it with their hearts’ blood.” At least D’Angelo left us with Son of Italy, a work that Van Doren aptly called one of the “precious documents” of American literature.
Pascal D’Angelo may not seem like the typical Italian immigrant, but in most ways he really was. Like the vast majority of Italian newcomers, he arrived in New York in the period between the turn of the twentieth century and the beginning of World War I. Like most, he spent many of his early years in America toiling on labor gangs at dangerous work in the countryside. Like the typical Italian immigrant, he eventually managed to free himself from dependence on unscrupulous labor contractors and find steady employment on his own through his network of paesani (immigrants from the same part of Italy). Finally, like most first-generation Italian Americans, he aspired to move beyond the “drudgery” of menial day labor, all the while recognizing that he might never succeed.
Tyler Anbinder is a professor of history at George Washington University. This post is adapted from his new book, “City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York,” which was published in October by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He is also the author of two previous prize-winning books: “Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum and Nativism” and “Slavery: The Northern Know-Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s.” He lives in Arlington, Virginia.