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An account of an Italian immigrant to America, related in the book Twilight in Italy, by D. H. Lawrence, 1916

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Italians as Europeans

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(ed.: The account begins with the meeting in an Italian village of Giovanni’s father, mother, wife and baby in a small café.  Then Mr. Lawrence and his friends meet the son, Giovanni, of whom his father has spoken so highly, and boasted of Giovanni's ability to speak English.)




Soon Giovanni came home, and took his cornet upstairs.  Then he came to see us.  He was an ingenuous youth, sordidly shabby and dirty.  His fair hair was long and uneven, his very high starched collar made one aware that his neck and his ears were not clean, his American crimson tie was ugly, his clothes looked as if they had been kicking about on the floor for a year.


Yet his blue eyes were warm and his manner and speech very gentle.


'You will speak English with us,' I said.


'Oh,' he said, smiling and shaking his head, 'I could speak English very well.  But it is two years that I don't speak it now, over two years now, so I don't speak it.'


'But you speak it very well.'


'No.  It is two years that I have not spoke, not a word--so, you see, I have--'


'You have forgotten it? No, you haven't.  It will quickly come back.'


'If I hear it--when I go to America--then I shall--I shall--'


'You will soon pick it up.'


'Yes--I shall pick it up.'



The landlord, who had been watching with pride, now went away.  The wife also went away, and we were left with the shy, gentle, dirty, and frowsily-dressed Giovanni.


He laughed in his sensitive, quick fashion.


'The women in America, when they came into the store, they said, "Where is John, where is John?" Yes, they liked me.'


And he laughed again, glancing with vague, warm blue eyes, very shy, very coiled upon himself with sensitiveness.


He had managed a store in America, in a smallish town.  I glanced at his reddish, smooth, rather knuckly hands, and thin wrists in the frayed cuff.  They were real shopman's hands.


The landlord brought some special feast-day cake, so overjoyed he was to have his Giovanni speaking English with the Signoria.


When we went away, we asked 'John' to come down to our villa to see us.  We scarcely expected him to turn up.



Yet one morning he appeared, at about half past nine, just as we were finishing breakfast.  It was sunny and warm and beautiful, so we asked him please to come with us picnicking.


He was a queer shoot, again, in his unkempt longish hair and slovenly clothes, a sort of very vulgar down-at-heel American in appearance.  And he was transported with shyness.  Yet ours was the world he had chosen as his own, so he took his place bravely and simply, a hanger-on.


We climbed up the water-course in the mountain-side, up to a smooth little lawn under the olive trees, where daisies were flowering and gladioli were in bud.  It was a tiny little lawn of grass in a level crevice, and sitting there we had the world below us--the lake, the distant island, the far-off low Verona shore.


Then 'John' began to talk, and he talked continuously, like a foreigner, not saying the things he would have said in Italian, but following the suggestion and scope of his limited English.


In the first place, he loved his father--it was 'my father, my father' always.  His father had a little shop as well as the inn in the village above.  So John had had some education.  He had been sent to Brescia and then to Verona to school, and there had taken his examinations to become a civil engineer.  He was clever, and could pass his examinations.  But he never finished his course.  His mother died, and his father, disconsolate, had wanted him at home.  Then he had gone back, when he was sixteen or seventeen, to the village beyond the lake, to be with his father and to look after the shop.


'But didn't you mind giving up all your work?' I said.


He did not quite understand.


'My father wanted me to come back,' he said.




It was evident that Giovanni had had no definite conception of what he was doing or what he wanted to do.  His father, wishing to make a gentleman of him, had sent him to school in Verona.  By accident he had been moved on into the engineering course.  When it all fizzled to an end, and he returned half-baked to the remote, desolate village of the mountain-side, he was not disappointed or chagrined.  He had never conceived of a coherent purposive life.  Either one stayed in the village, like a lodged stone, or one made random excursions into the world, across the world.  It was all aimless and purposeless.


So he had stayed a while with his father, then he had gone, just as aimlessly, with a party of men who were emigrating to America.  He had taken some money, had drifted about, living in the most comfortless, wretched fashion, then he had found a place somewhere in Pennsylvania, in a dry goods store.  This was when he was seventeen or eighteen years old.


All this seemed to have happened to him without his being very much affected, at least consciously.  His nature was simple and self-complete.  Yet not so self-complete as that of Il Duro or Paolo.  They had passed through the foreign world and been quite untouched.  Their souls were static, it was the world that had flowed unstable by.  


But John was more sensitive, he had come more into contact with his new surroundings.  He had attended night classes almost every evening, and had been taught English like a child.  He had loved the American free school, the teachers, the work.


But he had suffered very much in America.  With his curious, over-sensitive, wincing laugh, he told us how the boys had followed him and jeered at him, calling after him, 'You damn Dago, you damn Dago.' They had stopped him and his friend in the street and taken away their hats, and spat into them.  So that at last he had gone mad.  They were youths and men who always tortured him, using bad language which startled us very much as he repeated it, there on the little lawn under the olive trees, above the perfect lake: English obscenities and abuse so coarse and startling that we bit our lips, shocked almost into laughter, whilst John, simple and natural, and somehow, for all his long hair and dirty appearance, flower-like in soul, repeated to us these things which may never be repeated in decent company.


'Oh,' he said, 'at last, I get mad.  When they come one day, shouting, "You damn Dago, dirty dog," and will take my hat again, oh, I get mad, and I would kill them, I would kill them, I am so mad.  I run to them, and throw one to the floor, and I tread on him while I go upon another, the biggest.  Though they hit me and kick me all over, I feel nothing, I am mad.  I throw the biggest to the floor, a man; he is older than I am, and I hit him so hard I would kill him.  When the others see it they are afraid, they throw stones and hit me on the face.  But I don't feel it--I don't know nothing.  I hit the man on the floor, I almost kill him.  I forget everything except I will kill him--'


'But you didn't?'


'No--I don't know--' and he laughed his queer, shaken laugh.  'The other man that was with me, my friend, he came to me and we went away.  Oh, I was mad.  I was completely mad.  I would have killed them.'


He was trembling slightly, and his eyes were dilated with a strange greyish-blue fire that was very painful and elemental.  He looked beside himself.  But he was by no means mad.  


We were shaken by the vivid, lambent excitement of the youth, we wished him to forget.  We were shocked, too, in our souls to see the pure elemental flame shaken out of his gentle, sensitive nature.  By his slight, crinkled laugh we could see how much he had suffered.  He had gone out and faced the world, and he had kept his place, stranger and Dago though he was.


'They never came after me no more, not all the while I was there.'


Then he said he became the foreman in the store--at first he was only assistant.  It was the best store in the town, and many English ladies came, and some Germans.  He liked the English ladies very much: they always wanted him to be in the store.  He wore white clothes there, and they would say:


'You look very nice in the white coat, John'; or else:


'Let John come, he can find it'; or else they said:


'John speaks like a born American.'


This pleased him very much.


In the end, he said, he earned a hundred dollars a month.  He lived with the extraordinary frugality of the Italians, and had quite a lot of money.


 He was not like Il Duro.  Faustino had lived in a state of miserliness almost in America, but then he had had his debauches of shows and wine and carousals.  John went chiefly to the schools, in one of which he was even asked to teach Italian.  His knowledge of his own language was remarkable and most unusual!


'But what,' I asked, 'brought you back?'


'It was my father.  You see, if I did not come to have my military service, I must stay till I am forty.  So I think perhaps my father will be dead, I shall never see him.  So I came.'


He had come home when he was twenty to fulfill his military duties.  At home he had married.  He was very fond of his wife, but he had no conception of love in the old sense.  His wife was like the past, to which he was wedded.  Out of her he begot his child, as out of the past.  But the future was all beyond her, apart from her.  He was going away again, now, to America.  He had been some nine months at home after his military service was over.  He had no more to do.  Now he was leaving his wife and child and his father to go to America.


'But why,' I said, 'why? You are not poor, you can manage the shop in your village.'


'Yes,' he said.  'But I will go to America.  Perhaps I shall go into the store again, the same.'


'But is it not just the same as managing the shop at home?'


'No--no--it is quite different.'


 Lunch Atop a Skyscraper, 1932
Lunch Atop a Skyscraper, 1932

Then he told us how he bought goods in Brescia and in Said for the shop at home, how he had rigged up a funicular with the assistance of the village, an overhead wire by which you could haul the goods up the face of the cliffs right high up, to within a mile of the village.  He was very proud of this.  And sometimes he himself went down the funicular to the water's edge, to the boat, when he was in a hurry.  This also pleased him.


But he was going to Brescia this day to see about going again to America.  Perhaps in another month he would be gone.


It was a great puzzle to me why he would go.  He could not say himself.  He would stay four or five years, then he would come home again to see his father--and his wife and child.


There was a strange, almost frightening destiny upon him, which seemed to take him away, always away from home, from the past, to that great, raw America.  He seemed scarcely like a person with individual choice, more like a creature under the influence of fate which was disintegrating the old life and precipitating him, a fragment inconclusive, into the new chaos.


He submitted to it all with a perfect unquestioning simplicity, never even knowing that he suffered, that he must suffer disintegration from the old life.  He was moved entirely from within, he never questioned his inevitable impulse.


'They say to me, "Don't go--don't go"--' he shook his head.  'But I say I will go.'


And at that it was finished.



So we saw him off at the little quay, going down the lake.  He would return at evening, and be pulled up in his funicular basket.  And in a month's time he would be standing on the same lake steamer going to America.


Nothing was more painful than to see him standing there in his degraded, sordid American clothes, on the deck of the steamer, waving us good-bye, belonging in his final desire to our world, the world of consciousness and deliberate action.  With his candid, open, unquestioning face, he seemed like a prisoner being conveyed from one form of life to another, or like a soul in trajectory, that has not yet found a resting-place.


What were wife and child to him?--they were the last steps of the past.  His father was the continent behind him; his wife and child the foreshore of the past; but his face was set outwards, away from it all--whither, neither he nor anybody knew, but he called it America. 


My list of books by and about D. H. Lawrence



Also see my pages:

Hyphenated Italians

Mulberry Bend, NYC

Old New York

Roaming the World, G. P.


Brazil / Argentina,  by R. B.

John, Italian Emigrant, by D. H. Lawrence

Joe Petrosino, NYC Pioneer Policeman

East Haven, Conn, J. M.

Rivesville, West Virginia, R.T.