Poke almost anywhere into post-war Italian literature and one can find the fingerprints of Italo Calvino: novelist, essayist, editor, publisher, anthologizer and champion of his fellow writers. One might add to this list: travel writer. Few accounts I’ve read by foreign writers of voyages within the United States have proven as surprising and engaging as “America 1959-1960,” a sketch of six months Calvino spent in America on a Ford Foundation grant. Writing in a hybrid journal/diary/epistolary form and addressing his observations to Daniele Ponchiroli of Einaudi publishers, Calvino intended a book, but as he thought the material “too slight” as literature, the book never materialized. His unpolished account - “a kind of journal for use by my friends in Italy” - has fortunately survived, one of several autobiographical writings translated by Martin McLaughlin and collected under the title Hermit in Paris (2003).
The rough form of the piece notwithstanding, one could scarcely ask for a more responsive, insightful, amusing tour guide, one whose comments still resonate six decades later. Calvino seems capaciously open to adventure, nearly always finding himself in the right place at the right time, even if this means a frequent inability to find a motel room. His comments on literature and other writers reveal a wide-ranging reader and a writer with sharp opinions. His perceptiveness with regard to American culture and politics is astute. On top of this, the piece is strewn with marvelous details. Italo Calvino wrote pop songs? Who knew? Following the lead of a tossed off comment in the narrative, I find that he in fact wrote the great anthem of the Italian partisans, no less.
“America 1959-1960” is organized quasi-chronologically: we move as Calvino moves, but within a particular place, Calvino largely abandons linear time, his writing turning around themes, a page, sometimes just a line or two on a particular topic: “Cars,” “Chinatown,” “How a Big Bookshop Works,” “Broadway,” “Tree-houses,” “Prospects for the Election,” “TV Dinners,” “The Suburbs.” He spends most of his time in New York, which bookends a trip of two or three months through the upper Midwest, Chicago, then California and Las Vegas, before a combination of trains and buses take him across the south and back up the eastern seaboard to New York.
In New York, Calvino is entranced and can hardly get enough of the city. He lavishes praise on the United Nations building and on Frank Lloyd Wright’s just-completed Guggenheim Museum. He attends a new Paddy Chayefsky play on Broadway. He rides a horse through Central Park. He finds himself in gay bars in Greenwich Village. He visits with publishers and writers, and at a party meets Allen Ginsburg, “with his disgusting black straggly beard, a white T-shirt beneath a dark, double-breasted suit, and tennis shoes.” He arranges for a visit to Merrill Lynch and, in the head office of IBM, is wowed by the imminent computer age. He visits Lee Strasberg’s Actors’ Studio and, with an astuteness typical of his observations, limns method acting:
…to make your own psychological problem identify with the problem portrayed in the play is regarded as the ne pus ultra. In short, it is the umpteenth proof of the weakness of American thought; however, it is a place where one breathes a genuine atmosphere, full of passion for improvement, and it is also the place which symbolizes better than any other the elements that make up the American spirit in New York.
About American writing, Calvino is skeptical: “Good literature in American is clandestine, lies in unknown authors’ drawers, and only occasionally someone emerges from the gloom breaking through the leaden cloak of commercial production.” He’s amused by American writers’ privileges in comparison to those afforded writers in Europe: “All writers here have the chance to say that they have to write a book and have to stay at home for a year and can obtain a grant for it.” A publisher provides him a list of up and coming writers, some of whom came up – Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Bernard Malamud – and others who seem to have lapsed into relative obscurity - Peter Fiegelman, H. E. Humes, William Humphrey.
Calvino also displays a deft ability to switch from high culture to low, as when he turns his attention to the details of American automobiles:
A study of the American psyche could be carried out by examining in particular the enormous tailfins of their cars and the great variety and elegance of the shapes of their tail-lights, which seem to embody all the myths of American society. Apart from the enormous round lights, which one often sees even in Italy and which evoke chases of cops and robbers, there are those shaped like missiles, like skyscraper pinnacles, like film-actresses’ eyes, and the full repertoire of Freudian symbols.
On his circuit to the west and back, Calvino again displays a remarkable knack for exploration. He visits the nation’s oldest African-American theater (the Karamu House in Cleveland), drives through impoverished housing projects and enters a mission for the down-and-out in Detroit. In San Francisco he lunches at Bohemian Grove, meets with labor organizer Harry Bridges, runs into Graham Greene at a Beatnik party, and encounters perhaps the most interesting person of his entire trip, the poet Kenneth Rexroth. In Los Angeles, where no one walks, he’s nearly arrested for walking. In Taos Calvino meets Freida Lawrence’s husband (the one after D. H.). Calvino’s timing too is impeccable: he arrives in San Francisco to catch the Chinese New Year’s parade, hits Houston in time for the rodeo and New Orleans just as Mardi Gras is getting under way. His observations, while necessarily somewhat superficial given the tight itineraries and limited time of Calvino’s visit, still give the impression of an observer able to grasp the essence of a place and a people with extraordinary rapidity:
On San Francisco: “Life is monotonous here…New York is perhaps the only place in America where you feel at the centre and not at the margins, in the provinces. So for that reason I prefer its horror to this [San Francisco’s] privileged beauty, its enslavement to the freedoms which remain local and privileged and very particular, and which do not represent a genuine antithesis.”
On Texas: “What comes over is an impression of a country in uniform, these middle-class families marching in formation all wearing Stetsons and fringed jackets, proudly displaying their practicality and anti-intellectualism which has developed into their mythology, fanaticism, and alarming belligerence. Luckily it is a mythology that is constantly tied to work, to production, to business, to this enormous amount of livestock… so there is a hope that, even though Texas feels itself ready to make war on Russia, immediately if need be, as some of them claim, nevertheless deep down the isolationism of the agricultural mentality will have the upper hand.”
On the South: “This famous Southern aristocracy gives me the impression of being uniquely stupid in its continual harking back to the glories of the Confederacy; this Confederate patriotism that survives after a century, as though they were talking of things from their youth, in the tone of someone who is confident you share their emotions, is something which is more unbearable than ridiculous.”
On American insularity: “You cannot really have a discussion with an American in which you outline first the seriousness and historical legitimacy of certain phenomena, and then their negative aspects – but they don’t understand a thing, it’s like talking to a brick wall.”
“…capitalism wraps itself round and permeates everything, and its antithesis is nothing but a meager, childish claim to a spiritual dimension, devoid of any coherent line or prospects…here we are in a totalitarian structure of a medieval kind, based on the fact that no alternative exists nor even any awareness of the possibility of an alternative other than that of individualist escapism.”
“the American ruling class understand nothing but power-politics, is a thousand miles away from starting to think that the rest of the world has problems to solve.”
At a dinner in New Orleans with several heads of corporations, Calvino is taken aback by the “reactionary discourse,” especially when one of his hosts expresses support for Richard Nixon by asserting that “at this point in time you need ‘a tough, ruthless guy’.”
One could raise a few issues with Calvino’s account. Whenever finding himself before a group of women, he has a disagreeable tendency to separate them into attractive and unattractive. He occasionally displays a sour grapes attitude, for example regarding Death Valley and the Grand Canyon – neither of which he could visit – as places likely to differ little from the deserts he’s seen. The west’s open spaces, in fact, make little impression on the humanist Calvino, who seems incapable of processing the vastness of wildernesses “without human dimensions.”
The planned title for the book Calvino hoped to write – An Optimist in America – may seem ironic, given the disparagement implicit in many of his observations. But a healthy skepticism and bemusement, even towards his own perceptions, pervades the narrative, throughout which one can’t help but sense Calvino’s awe of and admiration for the U.S. despite its evident, abundant flaws.
At one point during his trip, Calvino has a nightmare. He is back in Italy unaware of why he is there, “seized by a mad despair at not being in America, a terrifying sense of anguish, a desire for the USA that is not connected to any particular image but it is as though I had been snatched out of my normal existence.” Awakening in “the squalid little room” of his New York hotel “is like finding myself back home.”
This sense of personal attachment amid conflicting attitudes about the U.S. reaches a dramatic denouement during an especially congruous arrival in Montgomery, Alabama and a confrontation with the savage brutality of American racism – “a day that I will never forget as long as I live.” Almost completely belying Calvino’s assertion that his travel account is “slight,” this remarkable, unexpected scene - showing Americans at their most terrible as well as at their best - casts Calvino in a light and a setting one might not expect for a writer of such fantastical leanings, capable of creating a family drama set in a liquid nebula at the beginning of the universe and of describing invisible cities. But it is riveting, essential writing, showing a side of Calvino often less visible to American readers: a figure politically engaged with and at the center of the issues of his time, even those far from his own country. “America 1959-1960,” however rough around the edges, reveals a writer with his finger on the pulse of literature and one surely with his finger on the pulse of life – a humanist of very high order.