America Is Still a Land of Searchers
A son of Italian immigrants found his own Columbus voyage, seeking the Other, in the exploration of poetry
I HAD two views of Columbus as a child, one for home, one for school. In the Italian neighborhood where I grew up we honored Columbus not only as the Great Navigator, but as the Great Outsmarter.
He beat out the other explorers, which soothed Italian pride, especially on the occasion of Columbus Day speeches. He also, as my uncle Freddie insisted, always knew he had not reached Asia when he landed in the Bahamas, but never owned up to it. To immigrants, who have to discover America every day, this is enviable savvy. Columbus saved his job.
In the tradition of immigrant complaints that goes back at least to 1630, when an anonymous poet penned "New England's Annoyances," a lament about the wilderness of the New World, we coined our own forlorn witticisms. One was that Columbus was a fool for not discovering America for the Italians, instead of the Americans. My folks had no trouble reconciling this historical irony with the more magnanimous idea that, for all his faults, Columbus was just another Italian who, like them, had to turn his back on his country and make a living in the cruel, scheming, outside world.
These hard-boiled notions made us rather proprietary about the man, who after all was one of us. I remember a play the whole family went to see, when I was a boy, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, once a mecca for Italian immigrant theater.
The author presented a Mrs. Columbus on the deck of the Santa Maria. There she came up with a telephone and called up Queen Isabella of Spain, long distance. In injured tones she notified the Queen that Columbus was doing the New York night spots with the girls, instead of tending to business. The audience roared with laughter.
Joaquin Miller's immensely recitable poem, "Columbus," reverberated in our ears all through elementary school. His "Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!" line was tailor-made for the assimilationist enthusiasm that reigned in school in my childhood.
Columbus struggled against the odds, in darkness and danger, to find a New World, humanity's rescue from "tired, old Europe." We never heard of tired, old Africa, or tired, old Asia. We are only now beginning to hear of tired, old Indians.
The legendary message our teachers delivered did not fall on deaf ears. I knew that I was somehow Italian (like Columbus), un-Italian, and American, all at the same time. It's a headful for any child.
Growing up better than tired, old Italians made me, for a while, a prig at home. I would fall into a mood and start hectoring Mom and Pop about their English pronunciation. I told my mother I hated spaghetti, that "other" children called us spaghetti-eaters. Fortunately for me my parents were great twinklers, and took my outbursts in stride. Things settled down eventually, though not before I had earned, without much merit, the family nickname of The Professor.
For me this remains the quintessential educational experience for many American kids, regardless of nationality or origin, when nationality or origin comes into play. Our country's history indicates, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, that we have been a society of Others, whether Indians, immigrants, or kidnapped Africans.
There is divorce here, and heartbreak. And yet when our need commands, we manage to serve up any number of heroes from among our foreign born or native born, who, in the dream of time, have become our common ancestors. We break through to the Other. Great truths have the uncomfortable habit of becoming trite. It is my firm belief that America's future destiny, in our 500th year, is the same as its past: We discover Americans.
For all that I have said, I still recall my public school days with militant gratitude and affection. Especially close to me are those sunny story hours, a steady class treat in my time, which fell on Friday afternoons, at the end of the week. Great names swim up in my mind: Sir Walter Scott, "Pinocchio," Louisa May Alcott, "Ichabod Crane," Byron, and so many others.
In my fifth year we had Mr. Aronowitz for both 5-A and 5-B, lucky for us. He was an eager and alert young man, with a terrific grin. He did not recite literature in that haughty, elocutionary, Britished-up style so many teachers affected in that era, a style which often made us children feel as though we were sitting in church, listening to a sermon. He read unpretentiously, but with fervor. We could tell he loved what he was doing, and this whetted our curiosity.
Because of him I cannot forget Longfellow's dark and lovely poem "The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls." Longfellow's plangent language throbbed like a gong in my ears.
For two or three glittering minutes I let myself be surrounded by language, as by a copious spirit, palpable, inescapable, and thrillingly alien. I became aware, in a moment, of how separated from my familiar world of broken English, street talk, and an Italian dialect I didn't always understand, this airy, melodious universe was. I felt as though I were stepping over a line somewhere, into undiscovered country. Loneliness welled up in me, almost like homesickness. The after-shock of that reading stayed with me a long time. I had glimpsed the Other, without whom I could not be whole.
Mr. Aronowitz was firm, and fiercely tender-hearted. He let us struggle happily with that recurring tide, that mysterious ocean, of Longfellow's poem. Yolanda, who was our point soldier in class, always ready to pipe up with the question we all wanted to ask, but wouldn't, asked what a curlew was. She paid dearly. Weeks later, some miscreant pals of mine in that room were still calling her "Curlew."
How I detested them. I brooded and brooded, not only for Yolanda, whom I liked and whose nerviness I admired, but for a violation I sensed of my new feelings. I started to read Longfellow, by the ream. I didn't understand much, but I gloried in my yearning.
I wrote a poem about a beautiful princess who was waiting for her lover to rescue her from some peril. It went on and on, full of words like "prithee," and "knave," and "avaunt." I showed parts of it to Mr. Aronowitz, who said it was pretty good, and that I had to give my knight a horse. He put a little piece of it in the school newspaper that June. When I saw my poem in print, with my name underneath, as bold as that of some confident and imperious Stranger whom I had not noticed before, I was off and r unning, tracking the unexplored wilderness of my bursting heart. Columbus had nothing on me.