It s Biographers Day today, in honor of the first meeting in London, in 1763, of James Boswell and that formidable man of letters, Samuel Johnson, who would soon become the subject of Boswell s celebrated biography.
We usually think of biographies as accounts of the lives of great men and women -- our leading cultural figures. But there are, of course, other lives to tell about -- lives that are engrossing and complex and courageous. Around 1900, Hamilton Holt, the editor of a New York newspaper, the Independent, began publishing a series of articles that he later collected in a volume called The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans. These were accounts of working men and women who had come to the United States in that great rush of immigration near the end of the 19th century and took whatever jobs they could find -- as peddlars, bootblacks, seamstresses, cooks, factory and slaughterhouse workers, and day laborers. They never turned their rags into riches, like Horatio Algers best-selling characters always seemed to do; instead, these folks led difficult, exhausting lives. Like many people in this country and around the world still do. And it s important that our children understand this dimension of human experience.
Which is why its good to have Jim Murphy s moving Pick and Shovel Poet, the Journeys of Pascal dAngelo on the biography shelf this year. Pascal d Angelo came to America from Italy in 1910, when he was sixteen. He had only enough money to make the trip, and no relatives waiting for him here when he arrived in New York. He ended up working as a railroad and construction laborer, but he was intensely curious and eager to learn, and he somehow managed to teach himself how to read and write. He also found his way to poetry, as a way to express not just the cruel facts but the deep yearnings of his own and so many others lives. His poems were eventually published and he became, for a time, a kind of working-class literary hero. Friends urged him to take an easier job indoors -- an office job -- to save himself. But he insisted on continuing to do manual labor, and writing about it. That was, after all, his subject -- and it eventually claimed his health and his life at the age of thirty-six. Hard work was anonymous, he realized. No one will ever remember what you did with a pick and shovel. But if I write a good line of poetry, he observed, then when night comes and I cease writing, my work is not lost. My line is still there. It can be read by you today and another tomorrow. Bravo, Pascal, bravo.
Copyright © 2001 by John Cech
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Wednesday, 04-Sep-2002 22:24:06 EDT