• Telling Vermont’s Italian story
     | March 19,2013
    Courtesy of Tomasi Family

    Mari Tomasi and her English setter enjoy some quiet moments as Tomasi writes, most likely during her years writing for the Works Progress Administration. She lived in Montpelier her whole life and wrote about Barre.

    When Mari Tomasi died of cancer in 1965, she still lived in the house where she was born at 63 Barre St. in Montpelier.

    The street is significant for a couple of reasons. First, it is named for the town she immortalized in much of her written work, and Montpelier’s other great novelist, D.P. Thompson, in the 19th century also made his home on Barre Street, a few hundred yards from the Tomasi house.

    Tomasi is best known today for her second novel, “Like Lesser Gods,” as well as the compendium of oral history interviews collected for the Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration from 1938 to 1940. The project used tax dollars to employ journalists and fiction writers during the difficult years of the Depression.

    Despite the increased interest in her work over the past several years, Tomasi’s personal life remains, to a great degree, a mystery. Her nieces, Linda and Barbara, remember a stylish woman who was so appealing that people were drawn to her. Embracing her Italian heritage, Tomasi cooked in the Piedmont tradition, and polenta was a staple on the Tomasi table.

    In season, she gathered wild mushrooms in the forests around Berlin Pond, and every fall she harvested chestnuts from trees along Three Mile Bridge Road. Like many in town, she picked dandelions for wine and served the greens in salads.

    A doting aunt, she had pet names for her nephews and nieces, selected from classical mythology, remembered all of their birthdays, and encouraged them to speak Italian. Despite her vivacious nature she was a devout Catholic, and religious icons and symbols were rife in the Barre Street home she shared with her family. Priests from the church down the street often came to their home to celebrate the Mass for Tomasi’s infirm mother, and a font of holy water near their front door was refreshed weekly. Once she even paid niece Barbara a dollar to learn the Hail Mary in Latin.

    She was very active in the Poetry Society of Vermont, and Berlin poet Arthur Hewitt was a great friend, kindred spirit and enthusiastic supporter of her verse.

    Linda and Barbara remember family outings on Sunday afternoons in Tomasi’s gold Studebaker or Aunt Mari working in her beautifully maintained perennial garden, where a typewriter mounted atop a stump served as her makeshift study in fair weather.

    Early life

    Tomasi’s parents emigrated from Turin, Italy, to Montpelier in the early 20th century, and she was born (as Marie) in the capital city on Jan. 30, 1907. At birth she had a walking disability, and her gait was marked by a distinctive limp. She was taken to Burlington for corrective surgery, which was partly successful, and later convalesced on a trip to Italy. Never marrying, she remained at her family home at 63 Barre St., pursuing a career as a writer and journalist. She never regretted her dedication to writing and her family.

    Tomasi found time to work as an editor for the Montpelier Evening Argus during the war years, as well as edit the Vermont State Welfare Magazine, compile three state legislative yearbooks and serve briefly as Montpelier’s representative to the Vermont General Assembly. She also wrote for Vermont Life.

    Her parents, Bartolomeo and Margarita, chose Vermont for their home because the Green Mountains resembled the area around northern Italy’s Lake Como and the countryside near Turin from whence they came. In Montpelier they established a grocery and cigar store. Tomasi attended St. Michael’s School on Barre Street. After graduation it has been reported that she briefly attended Wheaton College. It is known that she attended Trinity College in Burlington, a Catholic school. With her father’s death in 1926 she no longer had the resources to pay for tuition and left academia to test her ability as a writer for newspapers and magazines.

    Through the Poetry Society of Vermont she met Arthur Wallace “Pop” Peach, a professor at Norwich University, who recognized and nurtured her talent.

    Her first book, “Deep Grow the Roots,” published in 1940, is set in fascist Italy and brought her distinction as a new American novelist. The novel is a warning about the menace of Mussolini and his virulent fascist form of government. Very likely it was based on her visit to Italy. The novel had modest sales, but Tomasi’s work was well received by the critics as a promising new voice in fiction, earning her recognition and a fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College.

    Barre’s story

    While working on her first novel, she was employed by the WPA for the Writers Project. She collected oral histories in Barre, and her work, aside from contributing to source material for the Granite City, instilled in her the knowledge and background of the granite industry (she collaborated on a thesaurus of terms used in the manufacture of monuments) that enabled her, with the support of a Bruce Fellowship, to write “Like Lesser Gods,” her enduring second novel that has been hailed as a significant work in the literature of Italian-Americans.

    It is set in the fictional village of Granitetown, unmistakably Barre. The theme of immigrant assimilation is in stark contrast to the imminent tragedy of silicosis, the disease that sent legions of stonecutters to an early grave. This tragedy was compounded by the fact that the carvers loved their art and practiced their craft despite its mortal consequences.

    Originally published in 1949, the book has seen two subsequent printings, first in 1988 and again 10 years later. Despite a style that may seem dated to some, the book has been popular as a means of interpreting the Italian-American immigrant experience and as an insight to the lives of Italian stonecutters in Barre.

    To Tomasi, the granite is even more interesting as a symbol. “It is not merely blasted, hoisted out of the earth, sawed, carved, polished, 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 sent 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.”

    The leading character of “Like Lesser Gods,” Pietro, also appears in Tomasi’s short story “Stone,” published in 1942. In this instance the disease slowly compromises his health, and Pietro is admitted to a sanatorium that resembles the one that once cared for sufferers on Beckley Hill in Barre. There he dies the slow and inevitable death from silicosis but, nevertheless, content in the satisfaction of his art.

    The WPA interviews later published as “Men Against Granite” were collected primarily by Tomasi with assistance from Roaldus Richmond, whose work on the project was primarily administrative and who would also become a novelist in the genre of Western fiction. Under the direction of folklorist Ben Botkin, they used a questionnaire to collect basic information from their sources and then conducted a free-ranging interview in which the informant became a storyteller.

    The expressed purpose of the project was to create a body of interviews that would extol the melting pot of America, featuring Barre’s wide range of ethnic groups. Botkin intended the archive to combat the nationalistic fervor of fascism, which had become popular in Italy and Germany. Sadly, the collection of interviews remained unpublished for more than 60 years. New Deal projects were often discredited in their time because of suspicions of the political agendas of many of the participants. Nevertheless, the 52 narratives that compose “Men Against Granite” evoke the Granite City in all its pre-war glory.

    At this time, while still working for the WPA, Tomasi also began the research that would become “The Italian Story in Vermont,” a substantial nonfiction work that appeared in Vermont History in 1960.

    Whether she is considered enigmatic or self-effacing, her work has seen a resurgence of interest among critics who study the literature of the immigrant experience. Her equal devotion to the ideals of her family and heritage, as much as literature, may account for the small body of work she produced in her short life. But in recent decades her work has been read as much (if not more) as when she lived on Barre Street in Montpelier.

    Paul Heller is a writer and historian who lives in Barre.

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