CHILDREN OF THE HEART: THE POETIC VISION OF BARTOLOMEO VANZETTI
The man with the thick mustache in the old time photograph gazes at us from a hundred years ago with an expression of soft bewilderment. He is sentenced to death, along with his best friend, for their alleged role in the infamous payroll heist in South Braintree, Massachusetts in 1920. An armed guard and the payroll master were murdered in the course of the robbery. The dead men were Alessandro Berardelli and Frederick Parmenter. Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco were the dead men walking. Vanzetti is the man with the droopy mustache and the doleful eyes.
Sacco and Vanzetti are as entwined together in history as they were handcuffed together in life. That is how they are most often portrayed. We see them walking from the Dedham Jail to the courthouse in cuffs. They are cuffed together in the courtroom. We see the iconic photo of them seated there. Sacco’s jaw is clenched. His expression; one of indignation and boredom. Vanzetti’s gazes at the camera thoughtfully and without venom. His droopy mustache, which contributed to his conviction, does not conceal a frown. His face is smooth.
A century after the heist and homicides and nearly ninety years after their execution most people who are familiar with the trial have come to believe, as I do, that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent. A weaker claim can be stated. Although they were found guilty the prosecution failed to make its case. The mustache was wrong, Sacco’s cap was wrong, Vanzetti’s gun was wrong, the bullet was wrong, the time and place were wrong, and the witnesses were wrong. It was not a jury of peers, the foreman was picked by the judge, defense testimony was disregarded, facts were suppressed, points of law violated. Motions were denied, petitions were ignored, and clemency was refused. The Criminal Court and the Department of Justice may well have been acting in collusion. After languishing in prison for seven years both men were electrocuted. Both men insisted they were innocent up until the second the switch was flipped.
Sacco and Vanzetti were self-proclaimed anarchists. Vanzetti was an itinerant worker and fish peddler who willingly chose a life of poverty in solidarity with the masses. Sacco was a professional machinist in a shoe factory with a stable position and income. Vanzetti, more so than Sacco, read widely and deeply. He wrote for radical newspapers, a short autobiography, as well as many letters. Vanzetti was a jailbird intellectual who corresponded with, among others, the American Socialist and perennial Presidential Candidate, Eugene V. Debs. Sacco and Vanzetti were truly hopeless romantics who held to their radical beliefs as persistently as they did to their innocence. They were convinced that, when executed, they would die as martyrs to their cause and not as convicted murderers. Worldwide public opinion at the time tended to agree.
One need not agree with Vanzetti’s politics but one cannot deny the truth of his perception and compassion. For his was an era of peonage, sweatshops and wage slavery, long hours of dangerous, hard labor often without time off. A period of violent strikes and even more violent company reactions. A time of government raids, brutal arrests, beatings, deportations and extra-judicial murder. Most of it was aimed at immigrants, many of them Italians. It was also rife with radical protests, assassinations, bombings, and in some case armed robberies to finance revolution. The perpetrators were mostly immigrants and again, many of them Italians. The Sacco and Vanzetti trial for robbery and murder was conducted in a time of great political instability and violence. Both men denied any history or support for violent political action both at the time of their arrest and anytime afterwards. That was not, at any rate, what they were arrested for, charged with, and convicted of. The real crime was their immigrant status and political beliefs. It was that for which they were electrocuted. A further crime, lost to most people even at that time, was the callous disregard by the court for justice for Berardelli and Parmenter. Their murder went unsolved.
I have written previously regarding Nicola Sacco and of his poetic sensibility which, although he denied such, was apparent in his letters. He fancied himself to be a cynic despite his overwhelming belief in Anarchy as a realistic political solution to the injustices of early 20th century industrial capitalism. Vanzetti considered himself to be a realist and also disclaimed any poetic inclinations. Yet his letters also reveal a profound poetic sensibility. It is to Vanzetti and his poetic vision that I now turn.
There are more than a few passages in his letters where his language moistens and becomes soft although it is often hard pressed between crisp political discourse and stony rants regarding his own deep suffering at being wrongly accused, wrongly convicted and wrongly condemned to death. When his outrage cools and his sentiment rises and he once again embraces the suffering of others, Vanzetti mixes their plight with his own and it stirs a deep compassion and righteousness that is born out of an outraged sense of honor and dignity that such things can happen in the world to good people of all nations who labor with their hands and are exploited ruthlessly; men, women and children all, and how their grievances are suffocated and snuffed out along with their lives.
I offer an example from one of Bartolomeo’s letters dated from December, 1924 from Charlestown Prison to Mrs. Elizabeth Glendower Evans of Brookline, Massachusetts, a staunch supporter of both men during their long ordeal. The following is a poetic reiteration of that letter. In it I edit Vanzetti’s uneven English to provide a format but preserve his mood and to a great extent his language.
Under the Visible Stars at Night
For water, freedom is
To flow, to rise and fall
For fire, freedom is
To expand and grow
Freedom is for each and
All things, to follow their
Own virtues, qualities
Freedom is not an abstraction
It does not allow us to call a
Man dead from lack of food
To say he has not starved to death
But rather to say he died for not
Having exercised his right and
Freedom to eat…
Oh, the blessed green of the
Wilderness and of open land
Oh, the blue vastness of the oceans
The fragrance of flowers and the
Sweetness of fruit
The sky reflecting lakes
The singing torrents
The telling brooks
Oh, the valleys, the hills
The awful Alps
Oh, mystic dawn
The roses of aurora
The glory of the moon
Oh, the sunset, the twilight
Oh, supreme ecstasies and
Mystery of the starry night…
The heavenly creature of eternity
Yes…yes… but not for us
Not for us who are chained
Without freedom unable to walk
To the open horizon…
Under the daytime sun
Under the visible stars at night
Vanzetti’s letter is composed in a conventional form and expresses his definition of freedom, his passion for the suffering of others, his reverence for nature, and a heartbreaking articulation of his own suffering and lack of freedom. It was written in the course of his general correspondence. Its poetic sense is all the more revealing for its sincerity. This letter, like all of his letters, lacks artifice. It is one of many written over a period of seven years wherein Vanzetti, like Sacco, is constant in his denial of guilt, his support of poor and working class people, and in lamenting his plight as being wrongfully condemned.
It is also important to recall that they were Italians, born in the 19th century and immigrants to America during tumultuous times. Vanzetti along with Sacco think and feel like people from a time and place alien to our own. Their values predated the Industrial Revolution. In our time we get a glimpse of that same sensibility when we encounter recent immigrants from poor, often rural countries. And then only if we take the time to listen to them. I am reminded of the young Mexican mechanic, Hector, who works on my car. He says old people have sabiduria; wisdom. Not because they may say something wise but for having somehow lived a long life, mostly against the odds.
I would have to reach back more than fifty years to recall an Italian immigrant who was from the generation that produced Sacco and Vanzetti. A man who was ninety in 1967. He was a friend of my father, Antonio Leonardo Bocchicchio, who would stop by his shoe repair shop in Elmhurst, Queens to talk. They spoke in Italian which I was not taught despite it being the first language of my parents, the children of immigrants from Sicily and Naples in the early 1900’s. My father with his rich tenor and quick laughter was a contrast to his friend, known only to me as Mr. Jim, who was old and frail and soft spoken. He stood barely five feet tall and I, at 14, had seven inches on him. Mr. Jim always wore a full length grey wool coat and matching fedora. His pants and well shined shoes were black. His white shirt; clean and pressed. He was smooth shaven but with a robust handlebar mustache like that of my father. His skin was clear, his hands soft but with the shadow of calluses. His eyes shone with an animal like luster. After they talked I would walk Mr. Jim home, carrying his gallon of red wine as he needed a cane to keep balance. I never knew anyone before or after who walked so slowly. I, in my father’s oversized shoemaker’s apron, hands stained with dye and polish, teenage metabolism at light speed measured Mr. Jim step for step. He would talk to me in Italian as we made our way to his house despite his knowing I could not understand him. His affection was still obvious in his tone and gaze. I would smile and nod as we walked and “talked”. He had what I would call wisdom, sagezza. Not for anything , he may have said, but for his having lived so long against the odds.
Now I think of Mr. Jim as I read and reflect upon Sacco and Vanzetti. Had they lived they would have seemed very much like him. It is out of respect then that I translated Vanzetti’s poetry / letter into Italian.
Sotto il visibile stelle di notte
Per l’acqua, la libertà a
flusso, a salire e cadere
Per il fuoco, la libertà è
Per espandersi e crescere
La libertà è per ciascuno e
Tutto per seguire il loro
Proprio virtù, qualità
La libertà non è un’astrazione
Non ci consente di chiamare a
Uomo morto per mancanza di cibo
Dire che non è morto di fame
Ma piuttosto per dire che è morto per non
Avendo esercitato il suo diritto e
Libertà di mangiare …
Oh, il verde benedetto del
Natura selvaggia e di terra aperta
Oh, la vastità blu degli oceani
La fragranza dei fiori e il
Dolcezza Di Frutta
Il cielo riflette i laghi
I torrenti che cantano
I ruscelli rivelatori
Oh, le valli, le colline
Le orribili Alpi
Oh, alba mistica
Le rose dell’aurora
La gloria della luna
Oh, il tramonto, il crepuscolo
Oh, supreme estasi e
Mistero della notte stellata …
La creatura celeste dell’eternità
Sì … sì …ma non per noi
Non per noi che siamo incatenati
Senza libertà incapace di camminare
Sotto il sole diurno
Sotto le stelle visibili di notte
These two men from long ago dead these nearly 100 years begs the question, “so what?” That was then, this is now. It is, perhaps, a particularly American perspective that is dismissive of history as “bunk”. They died young. They were naive, if not foolish for their political faith. In essence they lacked wisdom. Vanzetti considered himself and his comrades to be “children of the heart’. Their guilt or innocence remains an enigma. One can argue that case was in compliance with judicial practice of its day. Or support its verdict based on the circumstantial evidence presented. One can condone the authorities for having an understandable loathing for Sacco and Vanzetti based on their politics. It is possible to shrug off the bigotry of the times and dismiss any role it may have had in the outcome of the trial. I offer an alternative presentation of the case. I challenge anyone to read the letters for themselves and try to find evidence that contradicts their consistent passion for their cause and sincerity regarding their innocence. The odds were against Sacco and Vanzetti. They forfeited their lives for their cause. America, however, forfeited its wisdom in allowing its values to be hijacked for political expediency.
I have previously described the saga of Sacco and Vanzetti as a cautionary tale. It remains shrouded in the past and in current indifference. Yet then as now oligarchs and racists prevail. Too many of our men in uniform moonlight in white robes. Too many of our judges in black robes have their hearts in white hoods. Too many of our preachers stand for a burning cross. Too many of our political leaders are in collusion with all of them. Then, as now, too many want to define who is an American as white, Christian, and conservative. Too many of them have guns. This then is a cautionary tale and a species of endangered history. We are obligated to know that history, if not to prevent its recurrence, then at least to honor the memory of Sacco and Vanzetti.
 . The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti: Written During the Seven Years of their Imprisonment
Citadel Press, Secaucus, 1956 (out of print), pp.134-136
Joseph Bocchichio’s work has been previously published in OVUNQUE SIAMO, and several other publications. His work has also been included in a forthcoming anthology, The Healers Burden, due out this September. He is currently writing a book about Sacco and Vanzetti. He was born to an Italian American family in which English was a second language for my parents. He lives in Boston and works at Revolutionary Spaces: Old South Meeting House and the Old State House.