Stowaway on Board by Ezio Taddei

Fordham University Press
Chapter Title: Stowaway on Board: Ezio Taddei
Book Title: Voices of Italian America: A History of Early Italian American Literature witha Critical Anthology
Book Author(s): Martino Marazzi
Published by: Fordham University Press. (2004)
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Stowaway on Board: Ezio Taddei
Don Abbondio wonders: what merits did Carlo Tresca have?
And he answers: none. And he concludes: therefore it is a
question not of tragedy but of comedy, and the Carneadi have no
—Antonio Gramsci
By common consent, the war years mark a watershed in the
history of the immigrant community. In spite of hesitations among
the masses and the sometimes devious or simply opportunistic tactics
of the political and union leaders of the community, the Americanization
of the Italian Americans was consolidated. The stigma of “enemy
alien” had to be concealed, one’s loyalty to America proved; frequently,
and sometimes of necessity, people took new names. In the
newspapers and the theatrical farces of the period after the war (the
latter less often performed in public and more and more widely
broadcast by the local radio stations) there is no sense of the bustling
activity of the years just passed but, rather, an almost sudden sensation
of a survival, of a weird provincialism, of at times a petty disdain. This
change of climate is clearly the result of a great historical upheaval
that involves and overwhelms the communities, and, at the same time,
acquires meaning and solidarity from individuals, from a multitude of
individual revolutions in which personal identities are overturned.
This happens in literature as well, as the meteoric passage of the
“difficult” and isolated militant and writer Ezio Taddei (Livorno
1895–Rome 1956) confirms. His life was singular and atypical, and yet
it can be situated within that crisis, or confusion, that makes a rough
line of demarcation in the social and cultural history of Little Italy.
The Life and Works of an Unorthodox Individual
In attempting to understand Taddei’s life and work, we are prompted
to begin, not by chance, on Manhattan’s lively, imposing Fifth Avenue.
Here the Public Library preserves many of his publications: in
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voices of italian america 153
fact, it probably has altogether the largest archive of his works in
existence. First of all, Taddei appears in the heterogeneous “Collection”
deposited by the Italian American anarchists of L’Adunata dei
Refrattari.1 Second, his works are included in the United States history
section, as documents on America in the forties and fifties. Finally, on
the New York shelves there are some true rarities: volumes printed in
Italian, by the Societ`a Editrice Americana (S.E.A.) and by Edizioni in
Esilio of New York, between 1941 and 1944, as well as English translations,
which testify to a brief but significant success in East Coast
publishing and liberal intellectual circles. Moreover, this material
fragmentation of the works echoes the mobile, elusive features of the
man: Taddei is a writer to unearth in the special collections rather
than in general institutional catalogues.2 Similar difficulties in uncovering
the man are the result of the almost complete oblivion into
which his name has fallen: there was a bare mention of the tenth
anniversary of his death in 1967, in the old Chicago socialist journal,
La Parola del Popolo; and, some years ago, there was a precious but
fleeting mention by the great Italian historian of emigration, Emilio
Franzina.3 Imprisonment and exile seem to have been elevated from
facts of his real life to emblematic figures of his (understandably
meager) posthumous fortune.
But that location on Fifth Avenue, far from being simply a bibliographic
reference point, also marks a bloody break that provokes
what is perhaps the most decisive turn in Taddei’s path: on the pavement
of that very street, in fact, at the intersection with Fifteenth
Street, Carlo Tresca was assassinated, on 11 January 1943. Tresca had
been for forty years the charismatic spokesman of the radical left, the
fluent and polemical editor of Il Martello, in whose editorial offices
Taddei had been welcomed. Apart from the suspicions involving the
editor himself, and the charges and counter-charges within the
diverse and, to put it mildly, dynamic Italian American political, business,
and gangster worlds,4 what is important to note here is the leap
that Taddei then made, with disconcerting rapidity, which led him to
contribute just a few months later to L’Unit`a del Popolo, a New York
paper tied to the Italian Communists. It was the prelude, following
the liberation, to a long, stable relationship with L’Unit`a, in Rome,
and then a definitive return to Italy a free man.
Fifth Avenue and the assassination of Tresca can, in short, function
as a geographic, historical, and political marker, providing a chronology
of the brief but intense success of Taddei as an independent
writer and highlighting a trauma that we must keep in mind in order
to explain the writer’s progressively realist perspective. Taddei’s life
and work are closely intertwined, illuminating each other without
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154 voices of italian america
being superimposed. This is an important reason for the discordant
fascination he exercises and, at the same time, for his more ingenuous
and ephemeral features. The autobiographical, memoirist formula
emphasized in his books helps delineate the features of a writercharacter,
and we should keep in mind that it is in fact Taddei’s
writings that constitute the primary source of our knowledge of his
But let us look briefly at the story. The first stop involves the sentence
imposed on Taddei in February 1922, along with thirty-two
other anarchists, by the Court of Assizes in Genoa “for having gathered
together for the purpose of destroying buildings, private and
public structures, by means of bombs and other explosive materials”
(Bartolini). The facts (as well as preventive detention) went back to
March of the preceding year, when, in the big cities of the north, a
wave of disturbances had accompanied the hunger strike of Errico
Malatesta in San Vittore, Milan. Ezio Bartolini, a member of the
defense team, recalled Taddei as an “angelic bomb thrower”: an
irregular who, because of his shy demeanor and lack of support,
ended up—between delays and imprisonments, between brief periods
of release and commutation of the sentence to internment—
living until 1938 under a regimen of limited, closely guarded freedom.
But the young anarchist was already acquainted with the jails
(military prison, to be exact) of his homeland: as a young veteran of
the trenches in Friuli (with a bronze medal), with years of service on
the front line, he had done a clumsy job of counterfeiting a leave.
Before that, enlistment had put an end to a mixed-up, delinquent
adolescence and youth. He fled Rome and his bourgeois family
home at the age of thirteen, becoming a vagrant, acquainted with the
world of la leggera (the Italian popular underworld), living by odd
jobs and his wits, spending his first nights in jail, and briefly frequenting
the proletariat and subproletariat milieus of central and northern
Italy, from Terni to Milan and Livorno. The experience of war
solidified his anti-hierarchical spirit and fostered a more urgent
desire for justice, reinforced by his reading, which included, most
significantly, the realist novels of the nineteenth century, particularly
Russian. Anarchism, populism, and literature merged chaotically in
the formation of the young Taddei; Bakunin, Malatesta, and Tolstoy
are the names that recur as models for the fictional alter egos under
cover of which Taddei evokes those years. It should be noted, however,
that it is with the liberal government that he expresses dissatisfaction,
and that it was the bourgeois government, not the regime
of Mussolini, which punished his subversive activities; not until
later, in prison, did he join the school of anti-Fascism, as through
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voices of italian america 155
newly arriving fellow-prisoners he was able to observe the progressive
closing off of every revolutionary prospect, along with the bitter and
even violent divisions in the camp of the opposition.
More and more, meanwhile, prison (or prisons, rather, given the
prisoner’s many transfers) takes on the features of a parallel world,
with its rituals and characters, its stories handed down from prisoner
to prisoner, even its folklore. In prison, the young anarchist writes the
words to a Hymn for the Barricades, which immediately becomes part of
the clandestine tradition of anti-bourgeois and anti-Fascist protest.
Jail is not, for Taddei, a passage, a punishment to be endured; rather,
it coincides substantially with an entire historical period of nearly
twenty years—that of the dictatorship, outside the walls, and of his
own coming of age, in the cells and places of confinement. His first
stories were written at Bernalda, in Basilicata, and they have a bland,
school-like flavor.
In 1938, he made an adventurous flight into Switzerland, then
France (where Gli umiliati [The Humble], a story that he took up
again later, came out in the first issue of the Parisian anarchist journal
Il Pensiero), and finally the United States, where he disembarked
clandestinely in the port of New York, on the infamous docks near
the bohemian neighborhood of Greenwich Village: fitting coordinates
for the wandering and worn spirit of the exile (who would later
get to know the mean neighborhoods of Harlem, Astoria, and the
Lower East Side). His anarchist and anti-Fascist companions on the
other side of the ocean had already, during the year 1938, been able
to read his political pieces and stories in L’Adunata dei Refrattari. In
the United States, Taddei immediately came out with an autobiography
of the interminable years of imprisonment (L’uomo che cammina
[The Man Who Walks]) and wrote his most convincing fiction, Alberi
e casolari [Trees and Barns] and Il pino e la rufola [The Pine Tree and
the Mole]. In confirmation of a period of happiness, the collection of
stories Parole collettive (brought out in English as Hard as Stone, in a
delightfully designed edition) and, almost simultaneously, valuable
English translations appeared. But his time in New York was darkened,
as noted above, by the shadow of Tresca’s murder; and, while
he attended to literature, he abruptly ended his more than twentyyear
militancy as an isolated anarchist to join the Communist ranks
(which, in his prison autobiography, he had been sharply critical of ).
When he returned to Italy (September 1945), his inspiration continued.
First, within a brief period in 1945 and 1946, a series of
volumes that had been written or even published in the United States
came out: Le porte dell’inferno [The Gates of Hell]; and the Italian
editions of Il pino e la rufola and Rotaia [The Sowing of the Seed]. In
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156 voices of italian america
the following years, from 1950–55, in spite of the gap in chronology,
his output was constant, although the results appear in general to be
repetitious and sometimes trite: the memoir La fabbrica parla [The
Factory Speaks]; and harsh testimony on the criminality of capitalism
in the United States, Ho rinunciato alla libert`a6 [I Renounced
Freedom], and on its moral decadence, C’`e posta per voi, Mr. Brown!
[You’ve Got Mail, Mr. Brown!]. Taddei also worked on behalf of the
party, composing articles and pamphlets that were often marked by a
falsely ingenuous sectarianism; it was a new role for him, that of the
simple-minded propagandist who puts his years of forced exile to use
in the divisions of the Cold War. In the meantime, he made an
attempt, worthy in its intentions, at least, at what we might call a
national-popular eclecticism, with works that range from an apocrypha
of the left (Il quinto Vangelo [The Fifth Gospel]) to a story of the
Resistance (“Potente” [“Powerful”]) and a very short contemporary
historical serial novel (Michele Esposito). This last constitutes the main
event of a notable literary initiative that Taddei undertook, bringing
out, from April to December of 1955, eight monthly issues (the last a
double) of a journal of stories, raccontanovelle, which had a clear
realist and didactic purpose but is nevertheless admirable for the
gravity of the choices.7 It was an operation that in terms of literary
history would be called retrograde; for the writer, however, it represents
the most important attempt—perhaps not very successful but
undoubtedly generous—to give a non-partisan meaning to his own
militancy. It was an attempt, that is, to confer a broad sweep and an
authentic inspiration (both with the serial novel and with the various
“pieces” from the anthology) on the populist realism that he had
practiced for years. With his monthly, though it lasted only a couple
of seasons, Taddei tried to assume a greater public role than had
previously been possible, after agreeing to spread—at times with
disconcerting partiality—the watchwords of the party. The following
year (1956), he died, leaving various unpublished writings.8
Constant Narratives
After his death, in the leaden climate of the Cold War (which the
writer and journalist had in his way contributed to), Taddei was
made, on the part of opposed alliances, a banner for humanity. The
“case of Taddei” was that of a writer who is “with” the people even
before he “speaks to” or “writes for” the people; yet one gathers in the
praise of contemporaries a certain reserve, as if ultimately his art did
not equal in dramatic engagement and intensity the quality of his
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character and the singularity of his destiny; one notices, that is, regret
for a failed promise, in the words both of his editor Davide Lajolo
and of his sympathetic biographer Domenico Javarone (whose book
has an intelligent preface by Giancarlo Vigorelli), and in those of a
group of admirers united around Longanesi (among them his friend
Guglielmo Peirce, who commemorated him in Il Borghese, and the
great Giancarlo Fusco, who made a vivid portrait of him). This sensation
is, over the years, only reinforced, in fact intensified, yet does not
keep one from wishing to understand in more detail the meaning,
the values, and the contradictions of the work.
I will begin by singling out—among repetitions, actual superimpositions,
variations on the theme—some large narrative blocks connected
to little noted biographical matter. What is evident from the
first volume (L’uomo che cammina)—disorganized and uneven, and
yet with an almost raw power—is a strong desire to recount the
sufferings of an unimportant man, led on and overwhelmed not so
much by restlessness as by a simple wish for freedom and basic justice:
an inner impulse that is enough to turn his youth upside down,
sending him on the path of the vagrant. This story is, with greater
speed and less effectiveness, taken up again ten years later, in La
fabbrica parla; while the period that immediately followed, that of the
Great War and the traumas linked to the return to civilian life, is
amplified in Rotaia, a novel with more plots and more protagonists.
In the unpredictable, corrupt climate of the postwar years, which
Rotaia represents in an almost grotesque manner, the first-person
narrator of the two autobiographical novels predictably follows the
route taken by their real author: assassination attempts organized by
the anarchists, arrest, the tomblike caesura of prison. A similar but
more ambitious arc, with a portrait of an entire society (the Livorno
of those years, in its various social strata, from marginalization to
conformity), emerges in Il pino e la rufola. Rather than explain,
Taddei—consistent with his personal history—foresees, anticipates,
signals the approach of Fascism as the response that cuts off the
freedom of both the individual (with a pitiless, repressive turn of the
screw) and society as a whole. But it is to prison life—and justifiably—
that Taddei devotes the most lucid, most

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