Cesare Pavese

1908 –

Cesare Pavese, regarded as one of Italy’s most important twentieth-century poets, was born on September 9, 1908, on his parents’ farm in Santo Stefano Belbo, a small town in the Piedmont region near Turin. Pavese’s father, a judge employed at the Court of Justice, died of a brain tumor in 1914, when Pavese was six. The family farm, now the site of the Pavese Museum, was sold. Pavese later went to live with his older married sister and her family. In 1930, the year in which his mother died, Pavese earned his degree from the University of Turin with his thesis on Walt Whitman.

Several years later, Pavese developed a relationship with the publisher Giulio Einaudi, who started a leftist press in 1933. Pavese published his first collection of poetry, Lavorare stanca (Edizioni di Solaria, 1936), titled Hard Labor in English, after returning to Turin from a ten-month exile in Brancaleone, a commune in Calabria. He also published three novellas from 1942 and 1949, short story collections in 1946 and 1947, and six novels, including La Luna e i falò (The Moon and the Bonfires) (Giulio Einaudi Editore, 1950), which won the Strega Prize for Fiction. Before his death in 1950, Pavese received Italy’s most prestigious literary award for La Bella Estate (The Beautiful Summer) (Giulio Einaudi Editore, 1949). He is also credited with helping Italians to understand American culture through literature as a result of his numerous translations. Pavese translated the novels of Herman Melville, Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, and Gertrude Stein, as well as those of other Anglophone writers, including Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, and James Joyce.  

In 1945, Pavese joined the Communist Party. In the same year, he became the editorial director at Einaudi’s press. To express his political sympathies, he wrote for the Communist newspaper, L’Unità, and won a literary prize bestowed by the Italian Communist Party. Due to his politics, he endured two periods of exile. The first was in 1935 when Pavese was sent to Calabria for editing the anti-Fascist newspaper, La Cultura. His sentence was reduced from three years to ten months. He next exiled himself in 1944 to a family farm in Serralunga. 

During his short lifetime, Pavese suffered from both chronic asthma and depression. He had a romantic relationship with the American model and actress Constance Dowling. Supposedly, her return to the United States, a country Pavese had never even visited despite his expertise in American literature, deepened his despair. He committed suicide in a hotel room in Turin on August 26, 1950.

Eight volumes of Pavese’s prose, poetry, and correspondence were published posthumously, including Death Will Come and Have Your Eyes (1951), a manuscript of poetry dedicated to Dowling that was found on Pavese’s desk after his suicide, as well as Le Poesie (Giulio Einaudi, 1998), his collected poems. In 1982, the Premio Grinzane Cavour Award was established in his honor to pay homage to both Italian and foreign writers for their civil commitments.