Sylvia PoggioliThe author’s parents, Renata and Renato Poggioli, in the mid-1940s

For many years, my father’s letters, manuscripts, and essays filled dozens of bins that were stacked in piles, gathering dust in my study in Rome. I inherited these papers after my mother died in 1987. My work as a reporter kept me busy, and it was easy to put off sifting through all those documents. Finally, about a year ago, I decided to stop telling other people’s stories for a while and look into my own family’s. This meant breaking seals, opening dusty notebooks, deciphering faded handwriting, sharing secrets. It proved to be a fateful undertaking. I made an unexpected discovery of a literary landmark of the postwar period. I learned even more about my parents and the world they had moved in.

My father, Renato Poggioli, was born in Florence, Italy. He studied Russian and Slavic literatures at the University of Florence, and it was there that he met my Venetian-born mother. By charming coincidence, they shared the same name: he was Renato, she was Renata. My father completed his postgraduate studies in Prague, while my mother pursued hers, in Spanish literature, in Madrid. In the early 1930s, those two cities were hotbeds of intellectual and political ferment. In Prague, my father also worked as an actor and served as Luigi Pirandello’s interpreter shortly after the playwright won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In Madrid, my mother studied with the celebrated philosopher José Ortega y Gasset.

Sylvia PoggioliRenato Poggioli teaching a seminar, c. 1962

My parents were also staunchly anti-Fascist—so much so that they had to leave Europe in a hurry in 1938. After serving in the US military during the war, my father returned to his beloved literary studies. A prolific writer, as well as a scholar and linguist of vast scope and curiosity, he became a Harvard professor and the editor of an influential journal. In 1963, at the age of fifty-six and at the height of his professional career, he was killed in a car crash in California. I was sixteen, just coming into my own and at the age when he and I had begun serious father-daughter discussions about life, literature, politics, and other big ideas.

When my father died, he was putting the finishing touches to a manuscript that was to be his birthday gift to me, and which was published in Italy in 1971—a book of his translations of modern poets from across the world, which he had started to compile and read to me when I was very young. I’d grown up being fascinated by poems by Robert Frost, W.B. Yeats, and Constantine Cavafy. The manuscript’s title, I Pianeti della Fortuna (Planets of Fortune), comes from the leaflets Roma fortune-tellers handed out at the country fairs of his childhood in Tuscany. The anthology was conceived for children—but it was also intended for adults because, my father believed, “one loses the ability to enjoy creations of the imagination, if as adults we are not able to maintain at least a trace of the childish pleasure for play and even for childish whims.” Each poem he had chosen, he wrote in his preface, was “a shooting star seized in the sky of art.”

I’d always known my father’s papers contained a trove of letters from some of the big names in twentieth-century literature. They were people I had heard my parents talk about, and in childhood I had even met a few. In college, when I wanted to impress an attractive literary type, I would happen to mention those times when Robert Lowell dropped by our house to chat, or that time when I was five or six and my father and Vladimir Nabokov rolled me up in a carpet—like Cleopatra in the Bernard Shaw play so that she could be smuggled into Caesar’s presence. 

But it wasn’t until I finally began going through my father’s papers one by one that I discovered the breadth and richness of his literary world, his passion and political engagement. What I found told me a lot about my father—but also a lot about what made me, as I was struck by the continuities of his life and interests that have carried into my own. And I unearthed unexpected treasures that catapulted me back not only into personal, family history, but also into the literary and political history of the mid-twentieth century.

By 1947, my father was at Harvard, teaching courses in both the Slavic and Comparative Literature Departments, but with the war over in Europe, he also wanted to resume his literary activities in Italy. He and his close friend, the Milan-based writer Luigi Berti, founded a literary journal, Inventario. Its aim was to introduce Italians, after two decades of Fascist censorship, to some of the best writing in American and European literature. My father was convinced that the cosmopolitan world of letters could help regenerate the tainted world of Italian politics.

Besides publishing original poetry, fiction, and criticism, Inventario carried essays on the big themes of modern culture, such as “The Definition of Realism,” “The Alienation of the Modern Artist,” and “The Theory of the Avant-Garde.” Funding was a problem, and the early issues of the journal, published in Florence right after the war, were printed on poor-quality paper. Nonetheless, my father succeeded in getting support from an enviable list of literary stars: Inventario’s international board of directors included, at different times, Nabokov, Lowell, T.S. Eliot, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren. The journal ran contributions from writers such as Thomas Mann, Paul Éluard, Saint-John Perse, and Pedro Salinas, but as I went through the Inventario correspondence last year, I also discovered letters from a wide array of others eager to participate: Isaiah Berlin, William Carlos Williams, John Crowe Ransom, Richard Wilbur, Delmore Schwartz, Archibald MacLeish, May Sarton, Wallace Stevens, and Lionel Trilling, to name but a few.

Then, one day last spring, I found two yellowing, handwritten sheets of paper among the mostly typewritten letters. At the bottom of each was the clear signature of W.H. Auden; I held in my hands a true literary find.

The first page was a letter dated October 26, 1946. In it, an apologetic Auden told my father he was “too cluttered up with work to write you an article about English poetry.” But, he added, “if the enclosed unpublished poem is of any use to you, please use it.” On the second sheet were four handwritten verses under the title Landfall. My father did indeed use it. The original poem, with its Italian translation, was published in the 1946 fall-winter issue of Inventario.

Sylvia PoggioliThe letter and verses that W.H. Auden sent Poggioli for his literary magazine, Inventario, in 1946

Landfall evokes the docks of New York Harbor, “this greasy juncture of water and earth.” I couldn’t find the poem in any Auden anthologies, but I discovered that it had been a seminal composition: Auden later included these verses in a much longer piece, perhaps one of the most powerful poems of the mid-twentieth century, The Age of Anxiety, an eclogue based on imagined conversation between four strangers in a New York bar. Besides giving a name to an era, that poem won Auden the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and inspired Leonard Bernstein to write a symphony of that title. 

After reading his correspondence with my father, and learning more about their lives, I was struck by a few similarities between the two men. Like my father, Auden was known for his political engagement and the social themes of his work; and he, too, had left Europe for the United States (in 1939), just a few months after my parents had done the same; and, like my father, he went on to teach at American universities. I don’t know if the two ever met, though Dad did once tell me that Auden was his favorite contemporary poet—and he included another Auden poem, Their Lonely Betters, in that anthology he was compiling for me at the time of his death. In 1962, at the last Christmas of my father’s life, my present to him was Auden’s book of essays The Dyer’s Hand.

Sylvia PoggioliLandfall, by W.H. Auden, as published in the 1946 fall–winter edition of Inventario

I made one other great discovery among my father’s papers. There, I found three packets tied with string and sealed in red wax. Instinctively, I knew what they contained; it took me several days before I finally got the nerve to break the seals. What spilled out were the hundreds of letters, postcards, and telegrams my parents had exchanged during their six-years-long courtship carried out across the length of Europe. Although the sheets were faded and fragile, and I had always had trouble with the highly-wrought, prewar style of my parents’ handwriting, this time I understood almost all. Reading those musty letters—the earliest of them almost ninety years old—I felt immersed in a novel of passionate, enduring love, a romance worthy of Stendhal or Tolstoy. But the stark historical framework was also very present: each envelope that had been postmarked in Italy bore the year followed by a Roman numeral. This was the menacing imprimatur of the Fascist regime, the numbers 1929-VII, for example, indicating that it was the seventh year since Mussolini’s 1922 takeover with the March on Rome.

My parents did not want to live under the Fascist regime. After they married in 1935, they moved to Poland where my father taught Italian literature—first in Vilnius, then in Warsaw. During their third year there, an acquaintance whom they believed shared their political ideas turned out to be an informer who had reported them to the Mussolini regime back in Italy. Fortunately, a journalist friend with regime connections tipped off my parents about a possible threat of arrest, and that prompted them to quit Europe without delay. They were planning to go to Argentina when my father landed a one-year teaching job in the Italian Department at Smith College. They set sail for America from Naples on board the SS Rex, the ocean liner glorified years later in Federico Fellini’s Amarcord. To pay for their passage, my father translated, in a furious burst of energy, a Polish novel into Italian—The Stranger, by Maria Kuncewiczowa—in just three weeks. My parents landed in New York in September 1938.

Despite their flight across the Atlantic, my parents did not escape surveillance by Mussolini’s goons. Fascist secret police files I have obtained from the Italian National Archives show their movements were closely monitored, not only in Europe in the 1930s, but also in the US in the 1940s, after my father became one of the founders of the Mazzini Society, the largest anti-Fascist movement outside of Italy. In an August 21, 1941, dispatch from the Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C., to the Foreign Ministry in Rome, a Fascist informer oozed disgust for what he described as the “Jewish nature of the Mazzini Society.” Other dispatches voiced outrage over the media coverage the Mazzini Society received from “Anglo-Jewish dailies such as P.M. and The New York Post,” as well as the financial support it got from the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

By then, my father was teaching at Brown. But when the US entered the war, the government classified him as a citizen of an enemy state. He was given a choice: either go into an internment camp for enemy aliens or be drafted. He did not hesitate, and in the fall of 1943, he set off for basic training at Camp Barkeley, near Abilene, Texas. He was assigned to a Military Intelligence unit in New York City, where he worked on the Anglo-American dictionary for US troops sent to fight in Italy after the landing in Sicily.

My father kept a wartime diary of his US Army service that I found among his papers. It contains many critical analyses not just of the Allies’ plans for postwar Europe, but also of the widespread racism and prejudice he observed in American society. On Christmas Day, 1943, he wrote:

In America, despite all the talk about a melting pot, nationalities live in sealed compartments. I had to tell off a Yankee who called a poor Italian-American a dago. Those who are not anti-Semitic are very rare exceptions. They tell me that in another platoon there’s a soldier from a Southern state who constantly brags about having taken part in the lynching of a nigger.

Once again, my father’s political ideas got him into trouble. While serving in the army, he applied for US citizenship but was turned down without explanation. When he pressed his captain, he learned (as he later wrote in his diary) that his citizenship application had been rejected because an FBI inquiry had found his membership in the Mazzini Society suspicious. “You are far from being considered a political enemy,” the officer told Private Poggioli, but “you cannot be considered—especially in foreign policy—a political friend.”

What I learned from my father’s papers led me to file a FOIA request. Eventually, I received several FBI documents concerning my father during that period. Though they were heavily redacted, with entire paragraphs blacked out, I was able to piece together that the investigation had been triggered by someone he knew in the army who had informed on my father’s “suspect ideas.”

My father was finally granted citizenship in 1950, but being seen as “suspect” by authorities was a recurring theme of his career. The Mussolini regime first put him under surveillance when he was still a student. In February 1932, while he was in Prague, an anonymous informer reported to Italian police in Florence:

Indirectly, I have learned that he does not have Fascist sympathies—not due to any particularly malevolent reason or out of resentment but simply because this young man, although gifted with a remarkable education and culture, is the typical example of that ‘liberal’ mentality that emerges in every circumstance despite his efforts to hide it.

Seventeen years later, my father encountered political disapproval of a different sort. After the fall of Fascism, something unforeseen by anti-Fascist expatriates like my father was the speedy embrace of Communism by a large portion of Italian intellectuals. As soon as my father’s book of translations and literary criticism of modern Russian poets, Il Fiore del Verso Russo (The Flower of Russian Poetry), was published in 1949, it provoked the wrath of the Italian Communist Party, which dubbed his book “the poisoned flower.” He had written positively about poets who had been persecuted by Stalin, some of whom had even died in the gulags. (Despite the Communist intelligentsia’s fierce denunciations, Il Fiore del Verso Russo was reprinted in Italy four times over five decades.)

It is a measure of the very “age of anxiety” Auden named that even as the Communist-dominated Italian literary world treated my father as a pariah, the US authorities suspected him of being a Communist himself. Some of the FBI files I received about my father revealed the existence in the mid-1950s of a US Army intelligence operation called the Kent Project, whose purpose was to root out “US citizens living in Italy suspected of Communist sympathies.” At the time, my father—by then a naturalized US citizen—was on sabbatical leave teaching at Rome University; he was even lecturing throughout Italy on behalf of the US Information Service, based at the US Embassy in Rome. Still, he was “suspect.”

Sylvia PoggioliPoggioli, c. 1962

My father’s favorite question was, “Do you see a pattern?” He would ask his students this question in his literature courses; and at home, after reading a few poems out loud, he would put it to me. He always spoke in Italian with me, except for the word “pattern,” which he always said in English. In fact, I still can’t think of an Italian equivalent.

Five decades after my parents left Europe for America, through a combination of chance and historical developments, I found myself, a journalist, often retracing stops on their journey in reverse. I covered momentous events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, and the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. Suddenly, I found myself in some of the same squares, cafés, and theaters my parents had frequented long before in Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, Ljubljana, and Zagreb. How it would have pleased my father that, in 1989, as a reporter, I was following his footsteps to Prague’s Lanterna Magika Theater, to witness the playwright Vaclav Havel, seated on the stage, directing the Velvet Revolution that brought down the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. It was then that I realized that the stories they had told me about their experiences in pre-war Europe were not simply distant, exotic tales but turned out to be useful tools for understanding the history-making events I witnessed as a radio reporter years later.

That was a more optimistic time. Much of what I found in my father’s papers and the files on him had an uncomfortable resonance with the tumultuous political and social upheavals our societies are going through today. Some of my parents’ descriptions of how demeaning life was under Italian Fascism—a repressive, inward-looking society filled with prejudice and falsehoods—could easily be applied now to Hungary and Poland, where autocrats are shutting down dissent and manipulating history to create narratives of victimhood. The charge leveled today against reporters as “enemies of the state” is exactly the same language the Mussolini regime used against anti-Fascists like my parents.

How painful it would be for my father to see his beloved, cosmopolitan Mitteleuropa, after peacefully toppling its Communist regimes, now enthusiastically embracing nationalism, nativism, and racism. These are patterns he would never have wanted to see repeated.

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