The novel you hold in your hands has been brought back into print by the New England Press for several compelling reasons: it is a well-conceived and well-told story, a story about an important chapter in Vermont’s past, and, yes, a story written by a woman who was a native Vermonter. Like Lesser Gods is a novel about the plight of the Italian granite quarriers and stone carvers of Granitetown, Mari Tomasi’s fictional rendering of Barre, Vermont. The novel celebrates not only Barre’s Italian community but Miss Tomasi’s personal heritage as well. Nor is the novel restricted to Barre’s Italian influence: "in Granitetown, the Italian, Spanish, Scotch, Irish, French—all lived in harmony," as the Dalli family had written Mister Tiff entreating him to come to America. Equally important, here is a woman writer of the 1930s and 1940s, a thoughtful and compassionate, largely self-taught writer, a knowledgeable and careful researcher—and, for all that, a writer almost totally ignored today. By making this, her second novel, readily available, it is hoped that Mari Tomasi and her work can be recalled from the shadows and be reintroduced to a whole new generation of readers.
Mari Tomasi was born January 30, 1907, in Montpelier, Vermont, and went to school there before attending Trinity College in Burlington. Both her parents came from northern Italy. Her father settled in Vermont after a tour of South and Central America convinced him he would be happiest in the Green Mountains, an area that closely resembled his native lake region of northern Italy. Mari wanted to study medicine; her sister was a nurse and her brother and four of her cousins practiced medicine in Vermont. But when her father died, she abandoned that goal and decided instead to become a teacher.
Writing, however, seems to have been her major interest, and before she took her degree, she left Trinity College to become a free-lance newspaper and magazine writer. Later, in 1940, she published her first novel, Deep Grow the Roots. The next year she won a Breadloaf Writer’s Conference Fellowship. She also worked at this time on the Vermont Writer’s Project and served as the city editor of the Montpelier Evening Argus. The most interesting work to come out of the Vermont Writer’s Project was "Men Against Granite," a collection of interviews and stories (in manuscript) in which she bared her feelings of guilt and shame concerning the Italian involvement in World War II. "Men Against Granite" also deals with the history of Barre, Vermont, and the granite industry, two subjects that serve, in part, as the basis for Like Lesser Gods, first published in 1949.
Mari Tomasi apparently continued to write after the publication of Like Lesser Gods, but little, if any, of this work was of a fictional nature. For many years she was a very active member of the Vermont Poetry Society. She died, after a brief illness, in Burlington on November 10, 1965.
Favorable comments by three prominent women novelists of the day—Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Mary Ellen Chase, and Faith Baldwin—appeared on the dust wrapper of Deep Grow the Roots, but the reviewers were too kind, damning the work with faint praise. They implicitly passed it off as a slight production by praising its lyric qualities while ignoring the fact that the novel ends in tragedy. Structurally, the work is overly long for the simple tale it tells. Also, it ends not only in too contrived a manner but also too quickly in comparison with the earlier, more laconic pace of the exposition.
In the novel, Luigi, a young man of Ibena, in the Piedmont region, nurtures his chestnut grove with the expectation that it will provide him a handsome-enough income to marry the beautiful Nina. Just as all appears to be headed for a happy ending, Mussolini, whose ominous footsteps are heard throughout the novel, makes his presence felt in the remote felt in the remote hill town, and Luigi is drafted into the army to fight in Ethiopia. Luigi attempts to avoid the army by smashing his foot with a large stone, but ironically the wound turns gangrenous and kills him. For reader appeal, the novel relies almost entirely on the love affair between Luigi and Nina, an affair that has a delicately balanced tension between its outward actions and a sexuality and coyness that run beneath the surface. More important, the novel is a subtle attempt on Miss Tomasi’s part to present even native Italians as innocent victims of Musslini and, in so doing, further distance and dissociate Italian-Americans from Mussolini's actions and Italy's involvement in the war.
Whatever strengths Deep Grow the Roots has, they lie outside the areas of story and plot. The sense of place that Miss Tomasi creates is almost symbolic, but it is neither overdrawn nor overly abstract. Ibena is an Arcadia and is as idyllic as pastoral Vermont; the characters that people the setting are durable and interesting, even if at times they appear stereotypic. The village priest, Don Paolo, and the witchlike Tonietta are well contrasted but coexist as each strives to be the spiritual leader of the community. One of the more interesting characters in the book is Luigi's little friend Gobbo, who inherits Luigi's land. Late in the novel Luigi kidnaps Gobbo and ties him to a tree, a folk remedy he had seen villagers employ to cure a sick goat. This stratagem is intended to ward off his misfortune—the diabolic Mussolini, the destroyer of his pastoral happiness. As he flees the scene after tying Gobbo to the tree, Luigi stubs his toe; he later speculates that it was no mere accident but an event directly occasioned by his kidnapping Gobbo. The stubbing of his toe leads him to the thought that if he were to damage his foot permanently, he would avoid being drafted. As he lies in a near coma for several days after inflicting the wound on himself, he dreams that he is in the arms of the Virgin—only to awaken and find himself in Gobbo's arms. Gobbo forgives him the kidnapping, and Luigi feels that superstition and divine intervention have joined to relieve him of his problem.
The curious mixture of superstition and religion represented in the characterizations of Tonietta and Don Paolo must be the same that Miss Tomasi recognized in Italian-Americans in Vermont and in Italians she encountered in the hill country during her only visit to Italy. This flavor of authenticity, without ever becoming superficially ethnic, gives Miss Tomasi’s first book the strength that it has.
Like Lesser Gods, Mari Tomasi’s second novel, is a realistic story set in Granitetown. The novel is divided into two books: the first takes place in 1924, the second in 1941. In the novel, Miss Tomasi chronicles the growth of the family of Pietro Dalli, a quarrier who came from Ibena, the setting of Deep Grow the Roots.
The novel begins with the arrival of an important unifying character, Maestro Michele Pio Vittorio Giusseppe Tiffone, who soon becomes familiar to all the townspeople as Mister Tiff. Pietro Dalli’s uncle and teacher in Ibena, Tiff moves in with the Dalli family and represents throughout the novel an un-Americanized, old-world morality. The major conflict in the lives of almost all the people of Granitetown is, of course, narrowly focused in the conflict between Dalli and his wife, Maria. She wishes, indeed begs, her husband to quit the carving sheds before he dies of tuberculo-silicosis, the dreaded sickness caused by the dust of the granite he works. He refuses, working the stone being tantamount in his view to religious devotion. Later in the novel, when Pietro goes to young Dr. Gino Tosti to get the results of his X-ray examination, we hear an exchange that must have been spoken many times in the history of the granite industry in Barre. When asked by Tosti why he never quit the sheds, Pietro says that he doubted at first that he would get sick and that later he needed the money for his growing family. Tosti still doesn’t understand why Pietro didn’t look for other work, and Pietro again attempts to give an answer. Then Tosti has an epiphany that makes clear the meaning of the title of the novel:
"You have to cut it to know. It is hard stone. Beautiful. Lasting. Always
when I carve a name on a memorial, I feel, well, important." A half-smile
wiped the earlier fear from Pietro’s face. It was as if, for a moment,
he had forgotten the grim reason for this visit to Gino’s office. "I carve
the name and I say to myself, From up there in heaven the Dio create new
life; and when He sees fit to take it away, then we stonecutters on earth
take up where He left off. We take up the chisel, we carve the name, we
make a memory of that life. Almost, boy, it is being like—like—."
In Gino’s mind tiptoed a sentence from an old mythology book: On Olympus lived the greater gods; and below, the lesser. He nodded to Pietro, understanding him, and he murmured quietly—"like lesser gods." (p. 166)
In the most poignant scene in the book, a scene that occurs also in Miss Tomasi’s short story "Stone," Maria awakens from her sleep, rises from her bed, abandoning as it were her husband and her marriage, and steals to Gerbatti’s shed where Pietro has been passionately carving an ornate granite cross, the design and execution or which he hopes will be his crowning achievement. Maria angrily enters the shed, vandalizes the cross, and, as she leaves the shed, sneers at the work being done on the tombstones of those she neither knows nor cares about. In so doing she actualizes her fears and vents her anger on a symbol so rich that it resists complete explication. The cross is a symbol of her love for her husband, her marriage, and her religion. Working the stone is killing her husband, but the cross represents all of Pietro’s artistry and inspiration as well. The cross that Pietro has designed is entangled in vines smothering other vines in a baroquelike ornateness symbolizing the complexity of the life/death, love/work struggle that lies at the heart of the novel. Maria slips back to the house and into bed and never tells Pietro that it was she who, in desperation, tried to discourage him from his work.
The strategy fails. Pietro continues to work in the sheds, but he never finishes the cross. However, Maria’s fear of an early death for Pietro is also unfounded. As expected, he contracts tuberculo-silicosis and endures considerable pain, but he lives to see his family grow. After a stay at Chisel Point Pond, he is admitted to the sanitarium, situated on a Granitetown hilltop. One day he dreams that the four o’clock whistle blows, signaling that work for that day is completed, and then he dies contentedly. His beloved cross is reintroduced as plans are made to have it completed and erected as Pietro’s own cemetery marker. Thus, Pietro and Maria are finally reconciled by the stone and symbol that had been the cause of the major tension in their otherwise happy relationship.
With the publication of Like Lesser Gods, Mari Tomasi’s novelistic talents showed remarkable improvement. Her sense of story, now more panoramic and detailed, and her recognition of the need for a plot and a unifying theme lead one to believe that if she had produced any subsequent work and had continued to show the same refinement of her talents, we would be reading yet more of her work today. But perhaps this is too facile. In Like Lesser Gods she uses a beautifully rich, unifying symbol for the story that she tells, but it is one that, if exploited thoroughly, she perhaps could not use again. The question remains then whether or not, in any subsequent novel, she could have found as easy a vehicle for the expression of the human condition as she had found in the granite of Barre. How fortunate we are, however, to have this solid attempt to render in fiction the passion and anguish of the Vermont quarriers’ special plight.
Miss Tomasi was extremely knowledgeable about the quarrying of granite, and it was as if her whole life had prepared her for working out the symbolism attached to granite. She had grown up in her father’s grocery store listening to the quarriers’ tales of the old country: tales of excavating a softer granite in northern Italy and the even softer marble from the Carrara quarries, where marble had been cut from the mountains as far back as Roman times. She later worked on the history of the granite industry for the Vermont Writer’s Project and still later, in an even more scholarly way, she gathered information for "The Italian Story in Vermont," an article she published first in The Stone Cutters Journal, a trade publication, and then in Vermont History. Her notes, correspondence, and bibliography for "The Italian Story in Vermont" show how comprehensive and meticulous she was in gathering information that went beyond her own reminiscences. For her second novel Miss Tomasi used her youthful reminiscences and her later research in a fictional account of the granite story.
Mari Tomasi was deeply aware of the treachery of the granite that brought Italians to Vermont. She knew the torture of the tuberculo-silicosis—or "stonecutters’ TB," as it was called—that lay in wait behind the incredibly durable and stately granite. The hardness of the stone allowed it to be polished to a mirrorlike finish. Unlike marble, however, its hardness necessitated methods of tooling that created a fine granite dust, which like microscopic razor blades lacerated the lungs of the workers who inhaled it. The hacking, wrenching coughs of the older workers, coupled with their devotion to the stone and their jobs, must have entered Miss Tomasi’s consciousness early in her life and later compelled her to attempt, in Like Lesser Gods, to actualize the irony of the quarriers’ calling. And the ironies are indeed heavy here. The more the workers dedicated themselves to the stone, the more they created their own figurative and literal tombstones. But it was this aspect of their lives, as Miss Tomasi embodied it in her title, that gave the workers their almost godlike power to achieve immortality. The granite they excavated and the tombstones they carved were also the very markers of their own passing. In a startling and profound way, Mari Tomasi realized that the granite workers continually celebrated and memorialized their own deaths in the stones they quarried and carved for others they would never know.
As a symbol, the granite is even more interesting. It is not merely blasted, sawed, hoisted out of the earth, and shipped to far-off places. Certainly, the granite is reminiscent of the ice in Thoreau’s Walden Pond, which in winter was cut from the top of the pond and send all over the world. Like the ice, the granite celebrates a region but also, by its distribution, achieves a level of both actual and symbolic universality. Yet the granite is more than this. It can be artistically tooled into sculptures that are unique in the mixture of the boldness and mysticism they reflect. The granite workers were not, however, artists in the truest sense of the word. Their interest was not, for example, in brilliance of conception, imaginative flights, or in experiments of form. Rather, it was in being in harmony with the substance, of having a true understanding of it and the techniques used to work it. They were dedicated craftsmen and artisans in a far more literal sense than we normally use these designations today.
Melville’s whale hunters surrounded themselves with functional and artistic by-products of the bones of whales to serve as symbols of their love of whale hunting and of the dangers that necessarily went along with that calling. Similarly, the quarry workers used granite for windowsills and doorsills, for roads, and sometimes in personal ways. Pietro and Maria, in yet another interesting symbol, use a large block of the stone as a step to their bed. The step, the granite, is what makes their marriage, allows for it, but it is also the substance that generates the tension in it. The stonecutters are also described, in images reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s wasteland in The Great Gatsby, as being completely covered with the stone dust, thus looking like the stone they worked. Like the New England transcendentalists, who considered water the universal element because their very bodies were constituted largely of water, the stonecutters identified with and were obsessed by stone, since it, too, became a part of their bodies not merely externally but internally, but with vastly different and sadly ironic consequences.
There is much to admire in Miss Tomasi’s Like Lesser Gods. In addition to the vivid characterizations, the ethnic contrasts, the rich symbolism of the granite, and the strong story, there are passages reminiscent of the works of her contemporaries—Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald in particular. She is especially good at portraying small-town life and emerging importance of the automobile as an American institution. But the central theme is, of course, the granite and its cultural importance, and no one has handled this theme better than Mari Tomasi.
September 12, 1988
A Note on the 1998 Edition
During the ten years since the New England Press first reprinted Mari Tomasi’s Like Lesser Gods in 1988, interest in Italian-American literature has flourished. A new generation of readers has experienced the literary imaginations of an immigrant people and come to appreciate their often difficult assimilation into American life by reading the works of such writers as Tony Ardizzone, Helen Barolini, Don DeLillo, Tina DeRosa, Pietro Di Donato, John Fante, Jerry Mangione, Giose Rimanelli, Gilbert Sorrentino, Gay Talese, and Mario Puzo. And critics such as Helen Barolini, William Boelhower, Mary Jo Bona, Fred Gardaphe, Paul Giordano, Anthony Tamburri, and others have examined the significance and offered their interpretations of that large body of work. Books by two of these critics deserve special mention in this context: Helen Barolini’s The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian-American Women (1985) and Fred L. Gardaphe’s Dagoes Read: Tradition and the Italian/American Writer (1996) and Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative (1996). Clearly, these critics have not only shown us the worth of Italian-American writers but they have modified our views of the landscape of American literature as well. Thus, there is also a new respect for Mari Tomasi’s achievements and her place within our literary tradition. Not only have scholars found genuine worth in Like Lesser Gods but instructors at all levels have adopted the novel wishing to share it with their students in American literature courses in general as well as with those in more specialized courses in immigrant and ethnic literature. There is every reason to believe that with this new printing many more readers will find their way to Like Lesser Gods and the history, insight, and pleasures it provides.