Italo Calvino on America
By Maria Popova
In late 1959, 36-year-old Italo Calvino (October 15, 1923–September 19, 1985) received “one of these marvelous grants” from the Ford Foundation and left Italy to travel around America for six months, “without any obligations whatsoever,” as one of seven young writers from seven different countries.
From Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) — which also gave us the beloved author’s timeless wisdom on writing, his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life, and his poetic “CV” — comes his remarkably dimensional portrait of his experience of America.
He begins with a fine addition to literary history’s greatest private recollections of Gotham:
New York has swallowed me up like a carnivorous plant swallowing a fly, I have been living a breathless life for fifty days now, here life consists of a series of appointments made a week or a fortnight in advance: lunch, cocktail party, dinner, evening party, these make up the various stages of the day which allow you constantly to meet new people, to make arrangements for other lunches, other dinners, other parties and so on ad infinitum. America (or rather New York, which is something quite separate) is not the land of the unforeseen, but it is the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day, the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little, the country where solitude is impossible (I must have spent maybe just one evening on my own out of the fifty I have spent here, and that was because my date with the girl that I had arranged for that evening fell through: here you have to order everything in advance, they are buying theater tickets for March now, and a girl, even if she happens to be your girl at present, has to know a week in advance the evenings she is going out with you otherwise she goes out with someone else).
Visiting Harvard, Calvino paints elite universities as a kind of isolated utopia:
Even though Harvard is not America, but a kind of Olympus containing the intellectual cream from all over the world, you would have the chance to see a bit of America traveling around. And one should not let slip any chances of “talking” to the Americans, of doing something to bridge this abyss which divides us, and it really is an abyss: this is a different world, as far from Europe and our problems as the Moon. And the universities are a kind of earthly paradise, so much so that they get on your nerves. Seeing such an abundance of resources for research, and a life so free from any difficulty in these garden cities, can only make us think: but might it not be that the price for all this is the death of the soul?
He is equally skeptical of California’s model-set of artificial bliss, contrasting it with the vibrant highs and lows scattered across the rest of the country:
Fortunately America is not all an artificial-natural paradise like California here. A quarter of America is a dramatic, tense, violent country, exploding with contradictions, full of brutal, physiological vitality, and that is the America that I have really loved and love. But a good half of it is a country of boredom, emptiness, monotony, brainless production, and brainless consumption, and this is the American inferno.
In a letter to another friend, he notes America’s literary groupthink:
That is just what America is like: for two months in New York I heard people talk only about Norman Mailer, for or against. If you are not either with the beatniks or with Saul Bellow’s group, nobody talks about you.
Calvino had intended to turn his travels into a book, but poignantly recognized that “to create ideas is a gift, but to choose wisely is a skill” and creativity means selecting, rather than merely generating, ideas:
Recently I have been frittering away my time a lot. The feeling that I am drowning in a sea of pointless activities is grabbing me by the throat. But these are times when what you don’t write counts for more than what you do write. I have destroyed that book on America, on which I had worked for many months. It hadn’t turned out badly, but for me to go down the road taken by travel writers was opting for an easy way out.
Three years after his American journey, Calvino received a letter from an Italian in New York named Mateo Lettunich, who asked the author to summarize his impressions of the country. Calvino responded:
What a question! The United States are a world. A world of which we in the Continent know everything that it is possible to learn from books, and our first visit is just to get a confirmation or a denial of our previous opinions. What I can say is that in the United States I didn’t feel alone in the Lonely Crowd, wasn’t persuaded by the Hidden Persuaders, would have liked to organize the Organization Men, found that the Ugly American does not mean the American. So I actually discovered what I was expecting to discover.
I can say that I haven’t wasted my time in your country: being completely free I’ve seen more America than any American (I’m not boasting) and, at the same time, I don’t know any country better than yours, my own included. Of course, now, this direct experience of the United States makes me able to participate with more feeling of reality to the everyday European discussion: the good and the evil of “Americanization.”
He adds a note on influence:
Since my visit, I gave interviews about my American impressions to the main Italian weeklies, wrote a series of about twenty articles for a weekly, and some for quarterlies and monthly magazines. My American experience is often recorded in my lectures. As for my editorial work, my knowledge of today’s American literature and my contacts with the American literary world are of course enormously improved. And as for my personal creative work, may I talk of any influence? Not yet; that takes much more time.
But Calvino’s impression of America formed long before his visit. In a letter to literary critic Mario Motta from January of 1950, Calvino begins with a meditation on Hemingway, the author who most influenced his early work, which unfolds into a strikingly insightful political analysis of post-war dynamics, and, in the process, teases apart the meaning of Americanism:
It’s a serious business; I’ve not got my ideas clear yet. I think I’ll have to start first with an exhaustive account of the meaning of America for anti-Fascist intellectuals who grew up under Fascism. I’ve been thinking a bit about these things, about America, about “that” America… This is perhaps something that would deserve a separate essay, to explain so many things… The Russian-American alliance was the fundamental condition for the “communistization” of Italian intellectuals in the avant-garde, and the end of that alliance has also counted for a lot. Now both “Russia” and “America” represented a collection of Italian data and aspirations, they were two utopian countries, two incomplete and complementary utopias, and the sum “Russia” + “America” (“that” Russia + “that” America) added up to the great country of utopia that was, I believe, for many people, and certainly not solely intellectuals, the true objective of the Resistance. (Was that a phenomenon that was an end in itself, or did it contain a historical truth which we must continue to take account of?)
He returns to Hemingway as the epitome of the American spirit, exploring his signature writing style as a vehicle for both America’s cultural sensibility and its greatest failings:
In [Hemingway] one finds almost all of what was meant by America. The virginity of its history, its technique (knowing how to do things), freedom and fullness of love, the open air, a direct democracy in human relations, courage. And, as writing, one finds in it the maximum help for developing one’s technique: [Hemingway]’s language is technical and functional, in which there is nothing that is without immediate, rational utilization, there is no abstraction, solipsism or fanciness (as had previously been the case in the great but obscure Faulkner). But [Hemingway] is an “America” that fails to find its “Russia.” It finds instead (and the problem is it goes looking for it) its “Europe.” This is [Hemingway]’s decadentism. And he finds it on the basis (and as a diversion and explanation) of the elements from the worst side of America (which is as real as the other side) that are in him: alcoholism, ignorance, emptiness. And, as a barbarian, he has highly refined intuitions regarding European barbarism-civilization; he enters the Olympus of our most refined irrationalism, he the “technical” writer: but what is that to us now? We could have sent any old Montherlant to see bullfights. It was something else we wanted from him, something else now that what comes back more and more to our eyes — to the point of covering the aspects we sought and loved in him and still seek and love in him — now that what comes back, as I was saying, are the other aspects… These matter to us less and less now, so it is something else, then, something that is now beyond him (A Farewell to Hemingway), beyond him (where?) that we are looking for now.
(Fittingly, George Saunders recently argued that “what separated [Hemingway] from greater writers (like Chekhov, say) was a certain failing of kindness or compassion or gentleness — an interest in the little guy, i.e., the nonglamorous little guy, a willingness and ability to look at all of their characters with love.”)
As you can see, these are very difficult ideas to express. And note that these things came to my mind as I was writing, and every time I’ve begun writing about this damned man what came to mind were different things, and certainly when I come to write this article I’ll write things that are different again, and now I need to keep the rough copy of this letter otherwise I’ll forget everything.
Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 is revelational in its entirety — a treasure trove of brilliant insights on literature and life, from the subtle to the pointedly opinionated, laced with invaluable wisdom on politics, education, and human nature.
Published September 6, 2013