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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Edmondo De Amicis (1846–1908)

IN 1869, ‘Vita Militari’ (Military Life), a collection of short stories, was perhaps the most popular Italian volume of the year. Read alike in court and cottage, it was everywhere discussed and enthusiastically praised. Its prime quality was that quivering sympathy which insures some success to any imaginative work, however crudely written. But these sketches of all the grim and amusing phases of Italian soldier life are drawn with an exquisite precision. The reader feels the breathless discouragement of the tired soldiers when new dusty vistas are revealed by a sudden turn in the road (‘A Midsummer March’); understands the strong silent love between officer and orderly, suppressed by military etiquette (‘The Orderly’); smiles with the soldiers at the pretty runaway boy, idol of the regiment (‘The Son of the Regiment’); pities the humiliations of the conscript novice (‘The Conscript’); thrills with the proud sorrow of the old man whose son’s colonel tells the story of his heroic death (‘Dead on the Field of Battle’). “When I had finished reading it,” said an Italian workman, “I would gladly have pressed the hand of the first soldier whom I happened to meet.” The author was only twenty-three, and has since given the world many delightful volumes, but nothing finer.

These sketches were founded upon personal knowledge, for De Amicis began life as a soldier. After his early education at Coni and Turin, he entered the military school at Modena, from which he was sent out as sub-lieutenant in the third regiment of the line. He saw active service in various expeditions against Sicilian brigands; and in the war with Austria he fought at the battle of Custozza. His literary power seems to have been early manifest; for in 1867 he became manager of a newspaper, L’Italia Militare, at Florence; and in 1871, yielding to his friends’ persuasions, he settled down to authorship at Turin. His second book was the ‘Ricordi,’ memorials dedicated to the youth of Italy, of national events which had come within his experience. Half a dozen later stories published together were also very popular, especially ‘Gli Amicis di Collegio’ (College Friends), ‘Fortezza,’ and ‘La Casa Paterna’ (The Paternal Home). He has written some graceful verse as well.

But De Amicis soon craved the stimulus of novel environments, of differing personalities; and he set out upon the travels which he has so delightfully recounted. This ardent Italian longed for the repose of “a gray sky,” a critic tells us. He went first to Holland, and experienced a joyous satisfaction in the careful art of that trim little land. Later, a visit to North Africa in the suite of the Italian ambassador prompted a brilliant volume, ‘Morocco,’ “which glitters and flashes like a Damascus blade.” Among his other well-known books, descriptive of other trips, are ‘Holland and Its People,’ ‘Spain,’ ‘London,’ ‘Paris,’ and ‘Constantinople,’ which, translated into many languages, have been widely read.

That unfortunate though not uncommon traveler who finds ennui everywhere must envy De Amicis his inexhaustible enthusiasm, his power of epicurean enjoyment in the color and glory of every land. His is a curiously optimistic nature. Always perceiving the beautiful and picturesque in art and nature, he treats other aspects hopefully, and ignores them when he may. He catches what is characteristic in every nation as inevitably as he catches the physiognomy of a land with its skies and its waters, its flowers and its atmosphere. His is a realism transfigured by poetic imagination, which divines essential things and places them in high relief.

Very early in life De Amicis announced his love and admiration of Manzoni, of whom he called himself a disciple. But his is a very different mind. This Italian, born at Onéglia of Genoese parents, has inherited the emotional nature of his country. He sees everything with feeling, penetrating below the surface with sympathetic insight. Italy gives him his sensuous zest in life. But from France, through his love of her vigor and grace, his cordial admiration of her literature, he has gained a refining and strengthening influence. She has taught him that direct diction, that choice simplicity, which forsakes the stilted Italian of literary tradition for a style far simpler, stronger, and more natural. De Amicis died March 11, 1908.