Walt Whitman

Dialogues with Pavese: Lawrence Smith

For our themed column on Pavese’s contemporary critique, Iuri Moscardi interviewed once again Lawrence Smith, this time about his English translation of Cesare Pavese’s dissertation.

Lawrence Smith

Lawrence Smith was born in Washington, D.C., and graduated from Harvard College in 1959. He spent a year at the University of Padua as a Fulbright Exchange Scholar. He began his career in banking in 1964 but continued to work on his graduate dissertation and received a PhD from Harvard in 1972. Despite he is not an actual academic, his figure is quite relevant when it comes to Cesare Pavese. Reason why we had already interviewed him in 2020. He is the author of Cesare Pavese and America. Life, Love, and Literature (University of Massachusetts Press, 2008 e 2012) where, based on original sources and documents, he retraced the life and works of Pavese for American readers. He also owned some books that belonged to Pavese, with signed inscriptions, which the writer gifted to Constance Dowling, his last – desperate and American – love. Smith later donated them to the Special Collections Center of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst Library.

Your passion for Cesare Pavese began many years ago, when you spent some months in Italy as a Fulbright student (as you told us in your previous interview), and has now reached a peak with your translation into English of Pavese’s university degree thesis, Interpretation of the Poetry of Walt Whitman. What steps have you followed in this process? Why did you want to translate his thesis? 


While it is true that I first heard about Cesare Pavese while living in the Casa dello studente Fusinato at the University of Padua during the academic year 1960/61, it is not true that my interest in Pavese reached a peak with my 2023 translation into English of his thesis on Whitman. That culmination came with the 2008 publication of Cesare Pavese and America: Life, Love, and Literature (University of Massachusetts Press), a book that deals with the thesis as just one part of Pavese’s life and work and his unique relationship with American literature and culture. The translation, however, occupied more of my life than did the book. Let me explain. I passed my PhD general exams at Harvard in 1964. I then left the academy with an allowed seven years to turn in a dissertation, which, if accepted, would entitle me to the degree. I joined what is now Citibank that same year and, in 1966, the bank posted me to their branch in Milano. I first saw the original typescript of Pavese thesis in 1967 in the archives of the University of Turin. I had a letter of introduction from Professor Dante Della Terza confirming my degree eligibility and based on that, the archives graciously made a photocopy of the thesis for me. I had that copy bound and it remained with me until 2018 when I donated it, along with much more Pavese material, to the Special Collections Center of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst Library. I read the thesis as soon as I got my hands on it but did not then think about a translation. I had a dissertation on Pavese to complete, and I was working fulltime for Citibank. I finished that dissertation in 1971. I gave the dissertation the title The Emblems of Youth: Cesare Pavese and America. It contained my own translation of various quotes from Pavese’s thesis and was definitely a precursor to what turned into my 2008 book. My dissertation was accepted and in 1972 Harvard awarded me the PhD. I was still a banker, however, and my day job had nothing to do with Cesare Pavese. The evenings were something else though. I had, remember, a photocopy of Pavese’s typescript so I could open it whenever I chose. I worked in Milano only to 1970. After that my family and I moved to various postings (Belgium, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Bahrain, London, New York), none of which had me doing business in or speaking Italian. So as a way to keep my Italian from getting rusty, I began translating Pavese’s thesis into English. And I kept doing so for the next fifty years. I completed a first draft sometime in the early 2000s, and when I did, it struck me that no one had yet published an English translation of the work. Indeed, at that point, no one had even published the Italian original of the thesis. I began to take my translation more seriously. I queried Italian friends on usage and idioms, in particular a friend who went back to Padova in the 1960, the jazz saxophonist Claudio Fasoli. I polished my work and produced a complete second draft. Which is when I began to think seriously not only about the translation but about publication. This was around 2004. I knew the Pavese centennial in 2008 would cause increased interest in him so I proposed the work to several publishers. I suggested that they get a well-known public intellectual to write the introduction, as that would attract more attention that one by me. I mentioned in particular Susan Sontag who had written on Pavese as early as 1962. One of the publishers I queried was The University of Massachusetts Press. The editor I was dealing with, Paul Wright, changed my trajectory when he responded “I’m not sure we’re as interested in what Pavese said about Whitman as in what you might say about Pavese. Could you submit a proposal that expands your introduction or reworks your own dissertation into a full-length book?” I did. They accepted my submission and from then till the 2008 publication of the book, that is all I worked on. 2008 was, of course, the centennial of Pavese’s birth and because of my book I participated in several conferences and symposia on Pavese and in 2009 was honored by receiving in Santo Stefano Belbo the Premio Pavese for criticism. After what I call “my year as an author,” I still had my now-polished translation of Pavese’s thesis in my desk drawer. As a translator can do, I kept on polishing, and ended up with a third or maybe fourth version and finally said, Basta! It is done. I then worked up my own introduction and revised it with the help of Professor Shaun O’Connell of University of Massachusetts Boston. The pandemic delayed everything but when I felt satisfied with the introduction as well as the translation, I set about once again trying to find a publisher. Even though the original version had now been published in Italy, and Pavese had entered the public domain – so no issues about rights – I could not find a print publisher. All I queried, including University of Massachusetts Press, responded that the work was too specialized and wished me good luck. I then queried Professor Kenneth Price at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, one of the directors of “The Walt Whitman Archive,” that extraordinary online academic resource. The Archive accepted my translation and introduction. With the technical help of Kevin McMullan at the same university, the combined work went online in the spring of 2023. 


The topic of Pavese’s thesis was one of the most important American poets, Walt Whitman. As an American, what do you think of the interpretation given about his poetry by Pavese in his thesis? Do you think that Pavese missed any important element of the American culture because he was Italian?


My introduction to the translation and Chapter 6 of my book state as well as I can what I think about Pavese’s interpretation of Whitman. But to summarize, I find Pavese’s interpretation as amazing as was his discovery of Whitman in the first place. By the time he had graduated from the liceo at seventeen, he had taught himself English – not a language the school taught – and was passionately praising Walt Whitman’s poetry. Four years later he produced his three-hundred pages tesi. The thesis is full of energy, of appreciation, of love of Whitman’s poetry. The thesis also shows how well Pavese understood Whitman’s English and shows Pavese’s critical acumen even at a young age. His close reading of Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d rivals anything written about that poem in English. Did Pavese miss any important element of American culture because he was Italian? Of course he did. He never visited America, much less lived here. He came to American culture first through American movies and then through American literature. Imagine if an American of his era knew Italy only through Italian films of the 1930s and 40s, or Italian novels, classic or then contemporary. Would he have missed any important elements of Italian culture? But what matters is not what Pavese missed, but what he got. And he certainly got Walt Whitman.


What kind of impact do you think your translation will have on American scholars and readers? Do you think that it will increase the interest of Americans for Pavese? Also, do you think you will print it?


I would love to see the translation and my introduction in print form, and as my answer to your first question shows, I certainly did try to find a publisher. I am still open to all suggestions. As you know, I come from an earlier generation of readers and scholars. So, it feels odd that my translation of Pavese’s thesis exists only in a digital state, in a cloud somewhere, or on a massive server. I am encouraged, though, that it is available to anyone in the world with a computer, smartphone, or tablet. That is more than you can say for a printed book. I do hope it will interest students, scholars, or general readers who happen on it, whether through a random search or from reading an interview like this one. Further, while we cannot say for sure, digital content should last as long as printed works do. That is, unless the world runs out of electricity. But even if it were in print in addition to digital form, I doubt the translation would much increase American interest in Pavese. That interest is limited as it is. Not many Americans outside of students and teachers of Italian literature read Pavese these days. Italian writers translated into English do from time to time succeed with American readers. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose from 1980 comes to mind, as do the Inspector Montalbano mysteries by Andrea Camilleri, and more recently the Neapolitan quartet by Elena Ferrante. That’s not a lot when you think about it. For all their intrinsic worth, writers like Pavese or, say, Calvino, remain on the periphery of the American literary consciousness.


In your introduction, you wrote that this thesis “presents not only an uncommon approach to Whitman, but also a view into the intellectual mindset of one of Italy’s important twentieth-century writers at the beginning of his literary career”. What are the elements supporting this claim?


Though his fame rests on his writing, Pavese’s day job was in fact that of book editor, a job that requires critical taste and a feel for the elements of composition. Not just in the close reading of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, but throughout the thesis, Pavese’s attention to Whitman’s language, structure, images, transitions, tone, and movement indicates a mind already attuned to the components of literary composition and able to analyze the ways a master practitioner put all the pieces together. Already at twenty-one, Pavese, though just a young Piedmont provincial, was a mature man of letters. 


You mentioned in your introduction that this thesis provides insight into Pavese’s passion and sincere love for Whitman’s poetry, and that Pavese followed Croce’s necessity for critique to define if a work of art is really art. Do you think that these two elements fused together and characterized all the entire career of Pavese as a translator, a critic, a poet, and a novelist? Also, do you consider these approaches as positive or, on the contrary, useless in general for an author?


For sure, the Crocean framework Pavese used in writing the thesis proved useful for him at the time. It gave him a framework for looking at Whitman’s poems without limiting his appreciation or analyses of them. But I do not see Crocean theory playing any significant role in Pavese’s later critical essays. For example, in the introduction to his great translation of Moby-Dick he never states that his job is to determine if that novel succeeds or fails as a work of art. I do think, however, that Pavese internalized Croce’s dictum that all art is one. I say that based on Pavese’s fluidity in moving between novels, poetry, short stories, critical essays, “dialogues,” and book editing.