Christ in Concrete (1939) by Pietro di Donato
1939 saw the release of two celebrated works about the experiences of downtrodden American migrants to California during the Depression: John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath and William Saroyan’s drama The Time of Your Life. Both would go on to win Pulitzer Prizes in their respective genres and enter the canon as classic American works of the proletariat in the Depression-era. Both would be mythologized in Hollywood films — the former starring Henry Fonda and the latter James Cagney. Equally celebrated in that year was a work of fiction that also would be turned into a film ten years later, Give Us This Day, directed by the blacklisted Edward Dmytryk. The novel’s author didn’t win any awards or achieve the canonical status of Steinbeck or Saroyan, despite his novel’s passionate prose, timely narrative, and (as almost eighty years of time has confirmed) timeless themes.
The novel was Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete, which focuses on the struggles of urban immigrants back east who risked their lives for starvation wages in the 1920s to help build the sprawling cities that drove an American economic boom that would come crashing down in 1929. Like The Grapes of Wrath and The Time of Your Life, Christ in Concrete is a critique of the mythical American Dream — an idea that fuels the capitalist exploitation of immigrants, migrants, ethnic minorities, and the working poor for the prosperity and comfort of the upper classes, thereby excluding from advancement the very American citizens who drive the economic engine. It is a novel in which the stark, bitter reality of the American promise becomes clear to the Italian immigrants who toil as bricklayers: their labor, their bodies, and their blood are used to develop a nation whose laws, justice system, and business practices not only preclude them from the profits of their labor, but dehumanize them at every turn — or simply refuse even to acknowledge their existence.
The novel opens with the death of a bright and skilled bricklayer named Geremio, the patriarch of a large family of Italian immigrants who assume that their father’s hard work and honest living will help them soon to achieve the American Dream: a steady job, their own home, financial stability, upward mobility, security for their children, etc. In truth, Geremio and his Italian-American co-workers are treated as expendable tools, whose safety is the last thing of concern to either the construction corporation or the law.
Give Us This Day (Christ in Concrete), dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1949
Geremio’s horrific death due to the negligence of uncaring bosses at his construction site is a brutal, visceral wake-up call: these immigrant laborers are not free and equal citizens in the American capitalist system. They are, instead, the Christs in concrete who sacrifice their lives for the pagan god “Job.” All that matters is Job. They live and die for Job. Job is their master.
His train of thought quickly took in his family, home and hopes. And with hope came fear. Something within asked, “Is it not possible to breathe God’s air without fear dominating with the pall of unemployment? And the terror of production for Boss, Boss and Job? To rebel is to lose all of the very little. To be obedient is to choke. O dear Lord, guide my path.”
–Pietro di Donato
Commentators often comment on the so-called “personification” of “Job” in the novel. However, it is not so much a personification as a deification. Job is another word for the pagan god of Capitalism (or even more specifically, Corporatism) with the owners functioning as high priests, the foremen as deacons, and the immigrant labor force as the flock, ostensibly “saved” by the holy auspices of Job, but ultimately guided to their demise like lambs to the slaughter. As the sacrificial offerings to the pagan god of the New World, the men are martyrs to a nation whose economic system exploits their sweat, steals their blood, and gives them only the hope of some better life in the future — the “American Dream” as an eternal promise for their suffering. I would even suggest that the designation “Job” is a textual connection to the Biblical Job. Di Donato’s novel, like the Old Testament book, grapples with the injustice of innocent humans suffering purely on the faith of a silent god. In di Donato’s novel, that silent god is extended to include the pagan god of Capitalism.
Set against this pagan god of the New World is the joyous, pastoral, communal celebrations of the Italian immigrants, as documented in the section titled “Fiesta.” Their Old World rituals are a stark contrast to both the stifling dominance of Job and the impotent emptiness of the Catholic Church, whose presence in the novel is epitomized by the Irish priest who dismisses a dire request for aid from Paul with a slice of “rich-rich cake.” Unable to nourish the spiritual needs of the immigrants or provide charity relief in their times of deep misfortune, the Church is the Old World equivalent of Job: taking from the people in the distant, empty promise of some mythical “better life” in the future. As a result, the working-class must rely on each other — as workers and as neighbors — drawing strength from their ancient, pre-Christian rituals of sharing food and song in a sense of communal bonding.
Pietro di Donato
As the narrative shifts from Geremio’s concrete crucifixion to the coming-of-age of his 12-year-old son Paul, the reader shares in Paul’s gradual awareness of his friends and family not as the recipients of the blessings of the Land of Plenty, but rather as the burnt offerings to this new pagan god. Although di Donato was drawing from his own personal experiences as the son of a bricklayer who died in an accident on the job, one can’t help but be reminded of Marx’s theory of surplus value from the first volume of Capital, in which he uses bricklayers as an example of highly skilled workers whose labor generates new value well beyond the labor-cost: “The distinction between skilled and unskilled labor rests in part on pure illusion, or, to say the least, on distinctions that have long since ceased to be real, and that survive only by virtue of a traditional convention; in part on the helpless condition of some groups of the working-class, a condition that prevents them from exacting equally with the rest the value of their labor-power. Accidental circumstances here play so great a part, that these two forms of labor sometimes change places. Where, for instance, the physique of the working-class has deteriorated, and is, relatively speaking, exhausted, which is the case in all countries with a well developed capitalist production, the lower forms of labor, which demand great expenditure of muscle, are in general considered as skilled, compared with much more delicate forms of labor; the latter sink down to the level of unskilled labor. Take as an example the labor of a bricklayer, which in England occupies a much higher level than that of a damask-weaver. Again, although the labor of a fustian cutter demands great bodily exertion, and is at the same time unhealthy, yet it counts only as unskilled labor.” Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete is one of the purest fictional depictions of Marx’s theory of surplus value. As Paul begins his bricklaying career, he soon comes to realize that the fruits of his labor far exceed the value of his compensation.
“Mister Rinaldi, if you don’t mind — I’d like to say something to you –”
Rinaldi bent his ear a little toward Paul but did not look at him.
“Mister Rinaldi, we can’t do anything with my five dollars — oh, please, Mr. Rinaldi, am I not worth more than five dollars? Oh please, I can’t go home with only five dollars…”
“You see, Pauli, I don’t run the corporation by myself. Understand?”
“But, Mister Rinaldi, don’t you think I should get more than five dollars…?”
“…I — say you are.”
“So, Mister Rinaldi…please…?”
“I can’t fight with the corporation.”
“But they knew my father and worked for him — they know I am worth more than five dollars — why don’t they help me? Mister Rinaldi, why?”
Rinaldi looked for the first time at Paul, and kindly, then said with a shrug:
“I’m sorry, Paulie…That’s the way the world is.”
–Pietro di Donato
Di Donato’s deeply empathetic portrait of the Italian immigrant laborers is both humanizing and glorifying: like Paul, the reader comes to see these men as martyrs, whose gruesome deaths on the scaffolding of the new cathedrals of the pagan god Capitalism are preserved in concrete like the saints who adorn the stone parapets of medieval cathedrals — monuments in stone that were created, not coincidentally, by the guilds of Old World working-class stonemasons, carpenters, and metallurgists who were the forefathers (perhaps even literally) of these Italian immigrants.
It cannot be coincidental that di Donato names his young protagonist Paul. Like St. Paul the Apostle, he witnesses a “crucifixion” and undergoes a spiritual transformation, accepting his role as an apostle of the new labor movement by testifying to the Christs in concrete who have suffered and died so that their families may one day secure a better life in a New World. Paul’s conversion roughly follows the new spiritual awakening described in the Pauline epistles, culminating in Paul’s mystic dream-vision — not in subjugation to the false gods of Job or Church, but in service to the very human sacrifices of his fellow laborers. Paul’s dream details his conversion to a new faith in socialism and the labor movement.
He looks about Job. He is in a huge choir loft with scaffolding about the walls. In niches are Saints. They wear overalls and look like paesanos he dimly recalls. They step down and carry hods and push wheelbarrows. But what Saints are they? The little fellow and the curly-headed and the mortarman look like Thomas and Lazarene, and the Snoutnose who once visited the house.
— Pietro di Donato
Paul’s allegiance is now with his working-class brethren, whose martyrdom he has witnessed on the scaffolding of Job. Paul’s mother, a devout Catholic, soon makes the heart-rending decision that her faith must be born anew, not in the “plaster man and wooden cross,” but in her fellow man: “Follow him,” she tells her children of this newly transformed Paul. His mother’s blessing is a testament to his new faith, which is documented in Christ in Concrete much like St. Paul’s own conversion was recounted in his First Epistle to the Corinthians.
Almost eighty years after its publication, di Donato’s autobiographical portrait — testifying to the sacrificial burden of new immigrants in a nation that purports to welcome them, while simultaneously exploiting their labor and dehumanizing their struggle — remains, unfortunately, all-too-relevant. The American conceit of being a land of hope and plenty for tempest-tossed refugees is belied by every new generation’s attempts to deny immigrants the same opportunities granted their ancestors. As we have learned from the fiction of so many great American writers who emigrated to the United States in the twentieth century — Yezierska, Cahan, Saroyan, Rølvaag, and di Donato, among them — the success of immigrants is won in the face of overwhelming challenges and hardships. For them, the promise of the American Dream exists at the expense of their struggle, rather than as a safe harbor from it. Their triumph is an overcoming of adversity built into a system that actively denies them its loftiest ideals.