June 28, 2010

An Author in Search of a Cause: Luigi Pirandello – the Instrument of Creation

Luigi Pirandello
By Niccolò Graffio
“Well, if you want to take away from me the possibility of representing the torment of my spirit which never gives me peace, you will be suppressing me: that's all. Every true man, sir, who is a little above the level of the beasts and plants does not live for the sake of living, without knowing how to live; but he lives so as to give a meaning and a value of his own to life.” – Luigi Pirandello: Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1921.
It has often been said that tragedy and comedy are two sides of the same coin.  Indeed, most comedies seem to arise out of tragedies.  The late stand-up comedian Richard Pryor is an excellent example of this phenomenon.  For years he regaled audiences, both black and white, with tales of his childhood in the slums of Peoria, Illinois.  Audiences would regularly howl with laughter at his stories of living in bone-crunching poverty, abuse at the hands of his elders, substance abuse and trying to avoid falling into the “tender mercies” of street gangs.  One has to wonder, though, how many people would think all this funny if it happened to them, or how many others laughed simply because it was better than crying.

Tragedy, therefore, while lamentable, can also be a source of inspiration for those fortunate enough to be born with the creative spark that allows them to put feelings into words and convey their meaning to others.  This has been done not just with the genre of Comedy, but Drama as well (among others).  The subject of this article is one such man.  One who, in spite of the various tragedies that overshadowed his life, put pen in hand and gave the world some of its more memorable literature, as well as helping to reshape modern theater.

Luigi Pirandello was born on June 28, 1867 in the town of Kaos (Chaos), a poor suburb of the town of Girgenti (now Agrigento), Sicily.  Unlike the bulk of his fellow Sicilians, Pirandello was blessed with being born into a fairly wealthy family.  His father, Stefano, owned a prosperous sulfur mine.  His mother, Caterina Ricci Gramitto, descended from a family of professionals.

Ironically, the first of the many tragedies that would overshadow Luigi’s life occurred six years prior to his birth: the destruction of his homeland, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.  Stefano had participated with Giuseppe Garibaldi in the Expedition of the Thousand, and eventually took part in the Battle of Aspromonte, at which Garibaldi was taken prisoner by the forces of the infamous Enrico Cialdini.  Caterina, in the meantime, had been forced to flee with her father to Malta, where he had been exiled by the collapsing Bourbon monarchy.

Luigi Pirandello’s parents, like most Southerners of the time, had been infected with the idealism of the Risorgimento and its false promises of “unification”, land reform and republican government.  When the harsh and corrupt reality set in, Pirandello’s parents became angry and bitter.  This sense of betrayal would find its way to Luigi, who later expressed it in some of his works.
“'When he bent down over her gloomily to ask her exactly what had happened, she repelled him with both arms.  And clenching her teeth, she sadistically flung the confession of her betrayal into his face.  Huddling as she opened her hands, she said with a convulsive, malicious smile: ‘In the dream!...In the dream!...’”: Luigi Pirandello: Tales of Madness: The Reality of the Dream, transl. by Giovanni R. Bussino, Dante Univ. of America, pgs. 96-97, 1984. 
Growing up, Luigi was home-schooled (not uncommon at the time for wealthier folk).  When he reached the age for secondary school education, his father enrolled him in technical school, hoping that one day his son would follow him in the family business.  Behind Stefano’s back, Luigi transferred himself to the ginnasio to study the humanities, his real love.  When his father learned of this, however, he would neither look at nor speak to his son for months.  This formed the basis of the second tragedy that would overshadow Luigi’s life: his inability to communicate with his own father.

In 1880 Pirandello’s family moved to Palermo, the capital of the island of Sicily.  It was here he finished his secondary school education, and it was here he began to read in earnest the works of great 19th century Italian poets.  It was also here that Luigi learned, after discovering some secret notes, of his father’s adulterous betrayal of his mother.  This exacerbated the schism between father and son, while simultaneously drawing Luigi closer to his mother, whom he would later come to venerate in his work Colloqui con i personaggi (“Talks with the Characters”).
After graduating secondary school, Luigi enrolled in the University of Palermo in both the departments of Law and Letters.  It was here the young Pirandello got his feet wet with the subject of politics.  The University of Palermo was a hotbed of radicalism, especially of the movement that would soon morph into the Fasci Siciliani, a democratic socialist labor movement made up of farmers, workers and miners.  Though he was never an active member of the organization, Pirandello would maintain close, friendly ties with many of its leading ideologues.

By 1887, having chosen the department of Letters, he moved to Rome to continue his studies.  His disappointment with life at the heart of the Risorgimento found their expression in his first collection of poems, Mal Giocondo (1889).  He was eventually expelled from the university for insulting a Latin professor, but was able to transfer to the University of Bonn, Germany, thanks to a letter of presentation given to him by one of his other professors.  Here he received a doctoral degree in Romance philology in 1891.  It was also here young Luigi formed the bonds with German culture that would be reflected in his works for the rest of his life.

Eventually returning to Rome, Pirandello would befriend the noted Verist writer-journalist Luigi Capuana, who encouraged him to pursue a career in narrative writing.  The year 1894 saw two milestones in his life: his publication of his first collection of short stories (Amori senza Amore), and his marriage to Antonietta Portulano, a Sicilian girl of Agrigentine origin.  Shy and from a good family, the marriage met with his father’s approval (she was the daughter of a business associate).  The first several years of married life were productive for Luigi in more ways than one.  In addition to writing numerous articles for magazines, he and his wife produced three children (Stefano, Fausto & Lietta).

In 1897, he accepted an offer to teach the Italian language at the Istituto Superiore di Magistero in Rome.  Over the next several years he wrote numerous poems, novellas and a novel, Il Turno.

Sadly, tragedy would not be far behind him.  In 1903 his father’s sulfur mine was flooded, financially ruining him.  Likewise, Antonietta lost her dowry (Luigi had invested it in the mine).  According to reports, upon learning of the disaster she became so distraught she entered a state of psychological shock!  Afterwards, she developed delusions of paranoia and jealousy which over time progressively worsened until by 1919 Pirandello had no choice left but to place her in a nursing home.  She would spend the last 40 years of her life there.

The family’s financial misfortunes forced Luigi for the first time to pursue writing as a profitable career.  In 1904 he published Il Fu Mattia Pascal (“The Late Mattia Pascal”), one of his most successful novels.  This novel, which draws thinly-veiled elements from the author’s own life, gave him the fame he needed to write for more important editors, and thereby fatten his bank account.  It also conveyed in no uncertain terms to the reader Pirandello’s feelings about the Risorgimento.
“He received us most cordially, speaking with a marked Neapolitan accent; then he begged his secretary to continue to show us the various mementos that filled the room, attesting his loyalty to the Bourbon dynasty.  At the end we were standing in front of a little square frame covered by a green cloth with the gold-embroidered legend: I do not hide; I protect.  Lift me and read.  The Marchese asked Papiano to remove the object from the wall and bring it to him.  Beneath the cloth there wasn’t a picture, but instead, framed under glass, a letter from the Royal Minister Pietro Ulloa who, in 1860, that is to say during the death throes of the realm, invited the Marchese Giglio D’Auletta to be a member of the Cabinet which was never to be formed.  Along with this invitation there was a draft of the Marchese’s letter of acceptance: a proud letter that castigated those who refused to accept the responsibility of power in this moment of supreme danger and anxiety with the enemy, the bandit Garibaldi, almost at the gates of Naples.” – Luigi Pirandello: The Late Mattia Pascal, transl. by Wm. Weaver, pg. 203, NY Review Books, 2005.
In 1913 he published in book form I Vecchi e I Giovani  (“The Old and the Young”).  This novel, which had earlier been published in episodes, deals with the violent Northern Italian suppression of the Fasci Siciliani in the years 1893-94.  It also put into perspective the author’s feelings towards his own parents.  While his mother is transfigured into the otherworldly character of Caterina Laurentano, his father, represented by Stefano Auriti, is dead and buried.

In 1921 Pirandello first staged what became perhaps his best known work: the satirical tragicomedy Sei Personaggi in Cerca d'Autore (“Six Characters in Search of an Author”).  Opening at the Valle di Roma, it was a riotous failure!  Ironically, the same play was a great success when presented at Milan a year later.  By now Pirandello was known internationally.  Six Characters was performed in English in London and New York.

In 1924, two years after Benito Mussolini’s “March on Rome”, Luigi Pirandello became a member of the Italian Fascist Party.  The following year, with “Il Duce’s” help, he assumed the artistic direction and ownership of the Teatro d'Arte di Roma.  By 1928, though, the company was forced to close due to financial problems.  Shortly after this, Pirandello began to reside abroad with great frequency, especially in Paris and Berlin.

Pirandello’s relationship with Mussolini has been much debated.  Initially he seemed supportive of the Fascist regime.  He even went on record as saying he was “…a Fascist because I am Italian.”  However, he would later state: “I’m apolitical.  I’m only a man on the world…”  His play, The Giants of the Mountain, has been interpreted as evidence of his belief the Fascists were hostile to culture.  In 1927 he tore his Fascist Party membership card to pieces in front of the secretary-general of the Fascist Party!  In 1934 Pirandello's libretto for Gian Francesco Malipiero's opera The Fable of the Changeling was criticized by the Fascist authorities.  That same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Yet the following year he is said to have given the gold medal to the Fascist government to be melted down for the invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia).  Yet he remained critical of the regime and its leader, once describing Mussolini as a “…top hat, and empty top hat that by itself cannot stand upright.” 

Cynics charge that Pirandello was a self-server who used his association with the Fascist regime to advance himself and his theater.  I am inclined to disagree.  It must be remembered first and foremost the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini was a totalitarian government, and such governments historically have taken a dim view of criticism, regardless of who makes them.  For his critical comments and works Pirandello was placed under close surveillance by the Fascist secret police until the day of his death on December 10th, 1936.  It should also be noted again that after 1928, Luigi Pirandello spent an increasing amount of time outside Mussolini’s Italy.

Numerous writers over the years have analyzed Pirandello’s works, attempting to get a glimpse into the mind of the great author and playwright.  Freudian themes fairly permeate his works.  One point on which there is almost complete agreement is the feeling he had a deep-seated disappointment in his fellow man.  Why shouldn’t he?  Throughout his life those closest to him more often than not were a disappointment to him.  From his own father, who betrayed his mother (and by extension, Luigi) to Mussolini, who became a disappointment as a leader.  One could even argue that Mussolini, as “Il Duce” of Italy, was in fact a surrogate father for Pirandello!

Not just people, but the ideologies that surrounded Pirandello disappointed him.  From the deceptive Risorgimento, to the failed socialist policies of the Fasci Siciliani, and finally to the sardonic myth of “Italian unity”, failure and betrayal always seemed close at hand.  One could imagine such an environment would produce feelings of melancholia in a more sensitive soul, and in Pirandello’s case it was certainly true.  He once described his life as a “…colorless existence broken only by daily walks.”

In spite of all this, however, he never stopped searching for the truth, either in the theater or in his own life.  Entire books have been written detailing his role in the debates on and around the theatrical event.  In particular the role of theater: theater as spectacle, from the director’s viewpoint, and theater as dramatic text, the author’s viewpoint.  This latter debate was perhaps best exemplified in his play Six Characters in Search of an Author.
While he may never have found something, ideologically-speaking, to give real meaning to his life, perhaps his life can give meaning to ours.  Even though he has been dead now 73 years, he still has something to teach us.  Standing where he is, on the pages of history, he is veritably shouting it at us from across the mists of time.  It is that we should never stop searching for the truth, because the truth is ever elusive.  Also, fiction can be a stronger force than reality, because reality is filled with people, and people are weak.  Left to their own devices, they can and will disappoint if not betray us.  In this day and age of so-called “conservative” politicos speaking vaguely of “family values” while spending us into bankruptcy, of leftist demagogues who preach “hope and change” while continuing with business as usual, these are lessons we would do well to remember.
"A man will die, a writer, the instrument of creation: but what he has created will never die!  And to be able to live forever you don't need to have extraordinary gifts or be able to do miracles. Who was Sancho Panza? Who was Prospero? But they will live forever because - living seeds - they had the luck to find a fruitful soil, an imagination which knew how to grow them and feed them, so that they will live forever." – Luigi Pirandello: Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1921.
Further reading:
1) Luigi Pirandello: Contemporary Perspectives; edited by Gian-Paolo Biasin & Manuela Gieri, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999.
2) Tales of Madness by Luigi Pirandello; translated by Giovanni R. Bussino, Dante University of America Press, 1984.
3) The Late Mattia Pascal by Luigi Pirandello; translated by William Weaver, NY Review Books, 2005.

June 23, 2010

The Neglected Genius: Giambattista Vico of Naples

Giambattista Vico 
Photos by New York Scugnizzo
By Niccolò Graffio
“I don’t believe in any science, but my imagination grows when I read Vico in a way that it doesn’t when I read Freud or Jeung.” – James Joyce (Ellman, Richard: James Joyce. 2nd ed. pg. 693, New York: Oxford UP, 1983)
The simplest definition of history is the branch of knowledge dealing with past events. Though it is admittedly an oversimplification, one could argue that human history is created by basically two types of people: doers and sayers. The doers could also be termed “people of action”; those who make their mark by engaging in activities that significantly alter the world, for better or worse. Examples of this sort include Alexander of Macedon, Christopher Columbus, the Wright brothers and Albert Einstein.
Sayers, on the other hand, are those who, through the printed and/or spoken word, seek to alter the world around them by impressing their thoughts on others. Examples of this sort include Kong Qiu (Confucius), Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Paine and Karl Marx.
As one might imagine, often there is a considerable degree of overlap between these two broad categories. Thomas Jefferson, for example, one of America’s greatest presidents, was also a political philosopher who sought, through his writings, to spread the ideals of liberal republicanism across the globe as a counter to the hegemonistic aspirations of British monarchial imperialism.
It has been said the only thing truly respected in the animal kingdom is strength, and though many still don’t like to admit it, we humans are members of that kingdom, albeit it’s most psychologically complex members. Thus, it should come as little surprise the bulk of the Great Unwashed would be more familiar with the “greats” among the doers than those among the sayers. It should be comparatively easy (thanks to Hollywood) to find Americans familiar with the life of General George S. Patton Jr. Good luck trying to find someone (outside of a university campus) who’s ever read any of the works of Thomas Paine.
Humans first began putting their thoughts into writing about 5,500 years ago. Over the centuries, as human societies became more sophisticated, the most intelligent and learned members of those societies found time to begin tackling problems related to abstract concepts such as truth, purpose, meaning, morality and value. These early sayers wrote down their thoughts on these issues in the early scripts for posterity. It was these writings that eventually gave rise to the disciplines which today we collectively call “philosophy.”
The millennia have produced countless philosophers; most of whom, together with their philosophies, have disappeared into the mists of time. People either ignored them and their teachings or some followed them only to discard them when another caught their fancy. Still other philosophies at one time enjoyed a wide number of adherents, only to disappear under a brutal suppression. Catharism is an example of this.

One subject that has always fascinated this writer is that of the neglected genius; a person who through their writings exerted a significant if not profound influence on future generations, but for whatever reason is not rightfully given their due by historians. The subject of this essay is one such person; a son of il sud who deserves more space in the history books than he is given.
Giovanni Battista (or Giambattista) Vico was born on June 23rd, 1668 in the city of Naples in the Kingdom of Naples.  He was born in a room over his father’s small bookshop. His father, Antonio di Vico of Maddaloni (in Campania), was a farmer’s son who had moved to Naples about 1656. His mother, Candida Masullo of Naples, was the daughter of Giambattista Masullo, a carriage maker. She was Antonio’s second wife and their son Giambattista was the sixth of eight children she bore her husband.
Giambattista Vico described his father as being of “a cheerful disposition” and his mother of “a quite melancholy temper.” He stated both contributed to his character.
At the age of seven he fell head first off a ladder, fracturing the right side of his skull. The family physician predicted the boy would either die or grow up an idiot. He did neither. Years later, however, he would attribute his penchant for melancholia and his irritable temper to this childhood injury. He convalesced for three years, his father making sure the boy attended to his studies. When young Giambattista was well enough to return to school, both his father and his teacher discovered to their surprise the boy not only had maintained his studies, he was actually ahead of his peers in learning. He was advanced to the next grade level.
He was next tutored by Jesuit priests where he again demonstrated surpassing intellectual gifts, but he withdrew from them when he felt they slighted his intelligence. He continued home schooling, often studying through the night, ignoring his mother’s admonitions to go to sleep. He credits the Jesuit priest Antonio del Balzo, a nominalist philosopher, with first piquing his interest in philosophy.
In 1686 Vico fell ill (modern historians believe it was epidemic typhus). After he recovered he accepted a tutoring position from one Domenica Rocca in Vitolla, south of Salerno. It would last for nine years. Though he did recover from his sickness, Vico would be plagued with bouts of ill health that would last the rest of his life.
He went to the city of Rome in 1695. Four years later he married a childhood friend, Teresa Caterina Destito. Together they had eight children; three of whom died before reaching adulthood. By his own admission, of the surviving five, only one, Gennaro, was not a disappointment to him.
The same year he married he took a chair in Rhetoric at the University of Naples. For the remainder of his career, he would seek to attain, but never get, the more respectable chair in Jurisprudence. Like most of his children, this would be one of the sources of disappointment in his life.
In 1710 Vico first formulated his verum factum principle, as outlined in his work De Italorum Sapienta. Simply put, this principle states that truth is verified through creation or invention, and not through observation, as the eminent French philosopher René Descartes had argued years earlier.
Vico’s greatest and most controversial work was La Scienza Nuova (It: “The New Science”). First published in 1725, in it Vico argued that human societies, like mathematics, are wholly constructed and therefore knowable. He contended that civilizations basically develop in three cycles which he termed “the divine”, “the heroic” and “the human”. Each age, he claimed, displayed distinct political and social features. This theme of the cyclical nature of civilization would centuries later form the nucleus of Oswald Spengler’s masterful tome The Decline of the West (1918). Vico’s La Scienza Nuova would remain the most profound analysis of class struggles in human societies until Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital (1867).
In 1734 Vico was appointed Royal historiographer by King Charles III of Spain (who was also King Charles of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily). This gave him a salary far greater than his meager earnings as a professor of Rhetoric. Declining health forced him to give up his chair in Rhetoric to his son Gennaro in 1741. On January 23rd, 1744 Giambattista Vico died at the age of 75.
Giambattista Vico, during his lifetime and forever afterwards, has remained relatively unknown. Vico described himself as a “stranger” and “quite unknown” in his native Naples. Beginning in the 18th century, however, his views began to make quite an impression on the philosophical world. This occurred even though, ironically, in many cases the people being influenced by his ideas were unaware as to their actual origin.
In Italy, Vico’s influence on jurisprudence, economics and political theory can be traced from Vico’s own pupil Antonio Genovesi to Ferdinando Galiani and Gaetano Filangieri. His impact on aesthetic and literary criticism is evident in the writings of Francesco De Sanctis, Giovanni Gentile and his most ardent admirer: the redoubtable Benedetto Croce!
His thoughts went far beyond Italy, however. In France, his influence has been seen in the writings of Charles de Secondat, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Denis Diderot, Etienne Bonnot, and Joseph Marie.
In Germany Vico’s ideas found fertile ground. They influenced such people as Johann-George Hamman, J.G. von Herder, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Friedrich August Wolf and even the eminent figure of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe! A German translation of The New Science in 1822 by W.E. Weber and a French translation by Jules Michelet garnered for Vico’s views an even wider audience, even if Vico’s part in them was all too often downplayed. Subsequently, Vico’s views strongly influenced James Joyce (seen in his final work Finnegan’s Wake), R.G. Collingwood and Karl Marx.
In the UK Vico’s influence can be seen in the philosophical writings of the Empiricists and thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, though there is no evidence they were aware of its source.
20th century scholarship has drawn parallels to the writings of Vico and luminaries such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Spinoza and Nietzsche, numbering him with the greats. Like these men, Vico is recognized by some as a highly original thinker whose views have spread far beyond philosophy and influenced such disciplines as anthropology, education, cultural theory, literary criticism, psychology and sociology.
To those who know and appreciate his works, however, Giambattista Vico is chiefly remembered as the “father of the modern philosophy of history”. That his legacy is obscured, even if his works enjoy a wide dissemination, is a testament to the enduring bigotry our people face as a matter of course by our European neighbors. This obviously great man certainly deserves a loftier place in the history books than what has been given him.
Further reading:
• Vico, Giambattista: The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico; transl. by Max Harold Fisch and Thomas Goddard Bergin, Cornell University Press (1995).
• Croce, Benedetto: The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico; transl. by R.G. Collingwood, Transaction Publishers (2002).
The New Science of Giambattista Vico; transl. by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch, Cornell University Press (1984).

June 16, 2010

Bronze Medal of Mary of Burgundy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Profile portrait of Mary of Burgundy (1457-1482) looking right by Giovanni Filangieri di Candida (ca. 1445-ca. 1498), on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It's believed that this exquisite medal was struck at Ghent, ca. 1477 during Candida's service to Archduke Maximilian of Austria (later Holy Roman Emperor) and his wife, Mary of Burgundy. It commemorates the royal couple's union.

Unfortunately, we are unable to see the Archduke's portrait on the obverse.

The Neapolitan born Candida served as a courtier for several European courts, including that of King Louis XI of France. As a diversion from his diplomatic duties he sometimes worked as a medalist.

Candida's medals are highly regarded for their beauty and craftsmanship, they can be found in various collections around the world.

June 15, 2010

A Day to Remember: The Burning of the General Slocum

The PS General Slocum
By Niccolò Graffio
Anyone who’s been reading the articles I write for this blog knows that I am a Sicilian* and am quite proud of that fact. My people have a long and rich history filled with fascinating people and events that deserves to be retold and discussed. Though the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was invaded and destroyed by its enemies in 1861, its children, scattered across the globe, still contribute to this wonderful thing we call Western Civilization, even if we no longer have a homeland to call our own.

However, I am also an American, born and raised in the City of New York and am equally proud of both of those facts, as well. Why shouldn’t I be? America, economically and militarily, is still the preeminent power in the world. New York City is the economic hub of America. Just as the Christian theologian Saul Paulus of Tarsus (aka the Apostle Paul) was proud to call himself a Roman citizen, so am I proud to call myself an American one.

Some might accuse me of being a “hyphenated American” or worse, a dual loyalist, saying it is impossible to share love and loyalty with two homelands. I find such a sentiment laughable! Do we not as human beings share our love and loyalty with both our parents (if we’re lucky enough to have two parents, anyway)? I have always thought of i Due Sicilie as my fatherland, because the seed which produced me sprang from there. Likewise, I have always felt America was my motherland because I was raised and nurtured here.

Make no mistake about it; I was born and raised in these United States of America, and I intend to die and be buried here! Yet I shall also always have a place in my heart for members of my ethnos and the lands from which they sprang. Call it tribalism, ethnocentrism, or anything else you wish; that’s just the way it is, with no apologies to anyone, including narrow-minded nativists.

To date I have written exclusively about the trials and travails of my people, the Sicilians*, both here and abroad. This is hardly surprising; given the fact this is an ethno-cultural blog. Yet if the expatriates of i Due Sicilie are my brethren, are not Americans my fellow citizens? I do not intend to go off on a tangent and start writing about American history; there are plenty of other blogs that engage in that activity, for those interested in such a topic.

Yet sitting here, staring at my calendar, I am reminded of the imminent approach of a somber date in the history of the City of New York. An anniversary of a tragedy, a horror in fact, that took the lives of over a thousand innocent New Yorkers. It is to them, my fellow New Yorkers, that I dedicate this article.

From its inception America was intended to be a place for European expatriates, wishing to escape authoritarian regimes on the other side of “the Big Pond”, to settle (read the Immigration Act of 1790 and its revision in 1795 if you don’t believe me). In the beginning the bulk of those who chose to come were mainly from northwestern and central Europe. In time, however, others joined them for a variety of reasons.

Large numbers of Germans began immigrating to what is now America as early as the 1680s. The Colony of Pennsylvania was the favored destination of these early settlers. Its rolling hills, dense, deciduous forests, mild summers and snowy winters undoubtedly reminded them of Deutschland.

Though it is long-forgotten by most Americans living today, these early German immigrants were hardly greeted with open arms by many native-born Americans of the time. Differences in language, culture and religion caused many to speak out (or worse) against incoming Germans. No less than Benjamin Franklin wrote these words:
“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.“
In spite of this bigotry, the Germans continued to stream into the colonies. Sadly, many of them were poor and forced to sell themselves as indentured servants in order to raise the passage fare to get here. The ships that brought them were crowded, filthy and often disease-ridden. The mortality rates from such ‘niceties’ as epidemic typhus, especially among children, were horrid!

Once here, they were often abused by their “employers” as indentured servants had few if any rights. In fact, indentured servants were typically treated worse than black slaves because unlike indentured servants, slaves were chattel property. The mindset of many plantation owners was undoubtedly: “Why risk an expensive slave when a dumb immigrant will do?

The bulk of these German immigrants passed through the City of New York on their way to the American Dream. Though most eventually settled elsewhere, a goodly number of them remained in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, forming a tightly knit community of German immigrants known affectionately as Kleindeutschland (German: “Little Germany”). Non-German inhabitants of New York City erroneously referred to it as “Dutchtown.”

As New York City grew, so did Kleindeutschland. Between 1845-55 its population more than quadrupled. By the beginning of the 20th century it was home to more than 50,000 people, almost all of whom were German. Though many if not most of these people went on to become American citizens, they were by no means in any hurry to assimilate (i.e. lose their ethno-cultural heritage). There were German shops, German factories, German language newspapers, German-style beer gardens (!), German theatres, German churches and synagogues. A person in Germany rendered comatose and who woke up in the middle of Kleindeutschland might be tempted to think they were still somewhere in Germany!

As one might expect to happen in an area such as this, the older families had become more settled and established by the turn of the century. Some of them had even achieved a fair degree of opulence!

Such a vibrant and colorful community could have and should have continued well into the 20th century (and beyond); a totally avoidable disaster, however, sealed its fate.

St. Mark’s Lutheran Evangelical Church (founded 1848) was located at what is now 323 East 6th Street in downtown Manhattan. It was the parish of choice for many of “Little Germany’s” finest citizens. Starting in 1887 and for ever year after that, the church would organize a community picnic to commemorate the end of the school year. For the year 1904 the church had decided to rent (for $350) a wooden paddle steamer, the PS General Slocum, as it had done every year previously, for its outing.

The General Slocum was 235 ft. long, 37.5 ft. wide, and had three decks. It had a crew of 23 including its captain, one William H. Van Schaick and two pilots. Captain Van Schaick was 68-y.o.with years of experience under his belt. He had recently been giving a citation for having ferried millions with an unblemished sailing record.

The day’s outing would be as follows: the ship would depart north along the East River for a tour of Manhattan, then turn east and continue sailing along the Long Island Sound before finally arriving at Locust Grove in Eatons Neck, Long Island for the day’s picnic.

On June 15th, 1904 the Slocum set sail with at 9:30 AM with some 1,358 passengers, most of whom were women and children. In addition to refreshments, a live band was onboard to provide entertainment. All indications were this day was to be a joyous one!

Around 10 AM, the PS General Slocum began to die.

The fire began in the Lamp Room in the forward section, probably by a discarded cigarette or match. That would have probably been nothing in and of itself, but for the fact the room was a mess of discarded straw, oily rags and lamp oil. The fire spread quickly to a paint locker filled with flammable liquids and a cabin room filled with gasoline. By this time the fire had evolved into a full-fledged conflagration!

Even at this time, most of the people on the ship were still unaware of their impending doom. Witnesses on shore stated that while they could plainly see the smoke and fire, the band onboard was still playing.

One of the first people on the Slocum to notice the fire was 12-y.o. Frank Prawdzicki, who ran to the pilot house to try to warn the captain. Instead, he was told: “Get the hell out of here!” He and his mother survived, but his four sisters perished.

When the crew finally realized what was happening it was still another ten minutes before they notified the captain. A number of other factors had a hand in the monstrous death toll. The Knickerbocker Steamship Company, which owned the General Slocum, had allowed the safety equipment to rot, never replacing a thing. Fire hoses and life preservers crumbled to the touch. Life boats were either tied up, or some claim were wired and painted in place! Incredibly, the crew had never been given fire drills!

In addition, most of the passengers were unable to swim. Given the fact beach-going was still a rarity in those days, this was hardly unusual.

Finally, in what could only be described as a moment of monumental stupidity, Captain Van Schaick, instead of ordering the ship immediately beached along the shores of the East River, commanded that it stay its course! By continuing into the headwinds, he actually fanned the flames, helping them to consume the ship.

Numerous people threw themselves into the waters of the East River in a desperate attempt to escape the fire. Unfortunately, the weighted dresses of females at that time dragged down even those who knew how to swim. Many people put aged life preservers around their children, threw them into water, then watched in horror as the preservers crumbled and their children sank!

Before the ship reached North Brother Island, just south of the Bronx shore, the scene became one of gore. Hundreds perished when the overloaded decks of the ship collapsed. Still others were literally torn apart by the Slocum’s still-turning paddles as they tried to escape into the water or over the sides of the vessel.

By the time the ship reached the island it is estimated 1,021 people were dead from fire or drowning, including two crew members. Numerous acts of heroism occurred among passengers, witnesses and emergency personnel. Both staff and patients from the hospital on North Brother Island helped to form a human chain, pulling victims from the waters.

Seven people in all were indicted following the disaster: Captain Van Schaick (who lost an eye in the fire), two inspectors, the secretary, treasurer and commodore of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company. Only Van Schaick was convicted, of criminal negligence, for failing to maintain proper fire drills and extinguishers. He argued the reason he refused to beach the ship was to prevent the flames from spreading to buildings along the shore.

The judge sentenced him to 10 years imprisonment. In spite of appeals for clemency, then-President Theodore Roosevelt refused to pardon him. He was eventually released after serving only 3 ½ years by the Federal parole board under the Administration of President William H. Taft, who pardoned him in 1912. Van Schaick died 15 years later.

In a gross miscarriage of justice, the Knickerbocker Steamship Company was only given a relatively small fine, in spite of the fact evidence existed they falsified safety inspection records. The remains of the ship were recovered and made into a barge, which sank in 1911.

Though official estimates put the death toll of the disaster at 1,021, in actuality no one knows the true number, since this figure does not include family and close friends of the victims who later committed suicide out of grief. It also does not include those who survived but may have later died as a result of injuries sustained in the fire.

Little Germany, which was already in a state of decline, saw its demise rapidly accelerated as many of those who perished were among its leading citizens. In addition, the desire to find someone to blame caused sharp differences of opinion among the locals. Finally, disagreements as to how to properly disperse relief funds caused many family members and friends to turn on one another. Large numbers of denizens of Kleindeutschland eventually wound up living in Yorkville, Manhattan or on Long Island, NY. St. Mark’s Lutheran Evangelical Church is now the Max D. Raiskin Center of the Community Synagogue.

On January 26th, 2004 Adella Wotherspoon (née Liebenow), the last survivor of the General Slocum horror, died at the ripe old age of 100. She was only six months old at the time of the tragedy. Her two older sisters perished in the blaze.

In spite of the fact the death toll surrounding the burning of the PS General Slocum remains the second largest loss of life in New York City history (surpassed only by the events of September 11th, 2001), incredibly, few New Yorkers alive today seem to remember it. Probably even fewer Americans can recall it. Why?

Undoubtedly the events of the next 41 years (two world wars, with Germany the chief antagonist) are partly to blame for it. It was not popular to be German in this country for quite a long time. There’s also the fact that, unlike the Titanic, there were no super-rich among the victims of the General Slocum. Hey Steven Spielberg, how about a movie about this ship?

As a New Yorker and a European-American, I find those excuses totally unacceptable. The victims of the burning of the Slocum were Americans and New Yorkers, as well as Germans. They have every right to have their memory honored, and we as Americans (and especially New Yorkers) have a duty to honor it. To do anything less is a desecration of the dead.

Sitting here, staring at my calendar, I’m reminded of a somber event in the history of this city; when a piece of the tapestry of New York was cut from it, and “the Big Apple” was made lesser for it.

*Sicilians – native inhabitants of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Further reading:
1) O’Donnell, Edward: Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamship ‘General Slocum’; New York, Broadway Books (2003).