New York: The Viking Press. 1928. 8vo. xi+ 414 pp. .$3.00.
WILL not some publisher sponsor a library of prison literature? It could begin with the Phado, and include works from many climes and times. Raleigh’s History of the World would be in it. and Pilgrim’s Progress, and Silvio Pellico’s Le mie prigioni; Kropotkin’s vital autobiography, Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, and Boethius’s De Consotation Philosophar. In such a collection, these Letters would hold an abiding place.Apart from any judgment on the famous case,theycannot beforgotten; they burrow too deep into reality.
They represent, among other things, the desperate effort of two men to hammer an alien medium of expression to their purpose. In a way, they are at their best when simplest. The peasant mind of Sacco finds effective passages: ‘Every night when the tight goes out I take a long walk, and really I do not know how long I walk, because the most of the time I forget myself to go to sleep, and so I continue to walk, and I count, one. two, three, four steps, and turn backward and continue to count, one, two, three, four. . . . Frequently I stop to my window cell and through those sad bars I stop and look at the nature into crepuscular of night, and the stars in the beauti blue sky.' His letters to his son Dante, to Baby Inez, whose ‘little and so dearest letter' he will ‘carry right under my heart to the last day of my life,’have authentic pathos. Vanzetti’s English is more tormented, for he is trying to render ideas, Yet he too can find memorable phrases. ‘Our agony is our triumph — that epitaph will not die. He has indeed, as he foretold, become ‘a vanquished man but a formidable shadow.' Both men were learning English in the school of noble books. Literary terms appear with quaint effect, as when Sacco calls himself ‘thes sad recluse.’ or Vanzetti varies his favorite expletive, ‘ By Gosh,’with writing of Fascism as 'the exploitation of a purulent growth which has been forming and ripening itself in the sick body of the social organism.'
Vanzetti was a thinker. Through his tortured sentences burns an intellectual fire. He liked ‘the teaching of Tolstoy, San Francesco and Dante.' During the tragic leisure of the prison years, he reads insatiably: William James, much savored because 'he speaks with simplicity '; Marcus Aurelius, Yedanta philosophy, Emerson. ‘I will delight myself at the lecture of Emerson’s Politics, Nature, New England Reformers, so exquisitely anarchist. Take notice, Boston! He is the perfect anarchist himself, Vanzetti. He grows into warm sympathy with his middle-class and sometimes conservative defenders, but through his escape from class consciousness his anarchist convictions never flag,
Vanzetti takes the wide resonance of that ease quite impersonally. It ’should cheer every one of goodwill.' 'That is done for us by the people of the world, the laborers and the greatest minds and hearts, proves beyond any possible doubt that a new conception of justice is plowing its way in the soul of mankind. Believing this, he did not die unhappy: 'I have brought my pebble to the altar of freedom and life.' He forgave ‘some people' at the last ‘for what they are now doing to me.' This was no easy feat. ‘I can not forgive murderers,’he had written not long before. The deepest interest of this book is that it presents, albeit in a clouded mirror, the progress of a spirit subjected to such tests as few have known. Cries of bitterness abound. ‘There is venom in my heart and fire in my brain.’ But he advances from the anguished, writhing letters written in 1925, within the hospital for the criminal insane, to the dignity, the thought for others, the high composure, of the letters of 1927. Before such letters as these last, silence is best.
VIDA D. SCUDDER