“Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?”—Walt Whitman, from “Song of the Open Road.”
Empathy, sympathy and love. Author Richard Gambino has felt them all his life, as did 19th-century poet Walt Whitman.
The late, great American author coined the trio as “magnetic sympathy,” Mr. Gambino said, a force that floods Whitman’s writings—from his controversial poetry to his lesser-known essays.
Mr. Gambino, who lives in North Haven, would know. He has read them all.
“Whitman built a way of life to develop the greatness of the human spirit based on these three modes of compassion,” Mr. Gambino, professor emeritus at Queens College, explained last week. “And at my age, I’m interested in many things, but I found that this is what, really, is great in life. The people I love, the things I love. I feel that kinship with all of life, with the nature, that he wrote of so beautifully and so movingly.”
Inspired by the timeless works of Whitman, Mr. Gambino penned his own take on magnetic sympathy, or the lack thereof, in two short plays—”Camerado,” a raw look at Whitman’s life, views and criticism, and “The Trial of Pius XII,” an examination of the pope’s reign during one of the world’s most tumultuous periods—that were recently published in one book by Guernica in 139 pages.
“There are these moral insights Whitman had and I think Pius should have had,” Mr. Gambino said. “He is an illustration, to me, of someone who was too intellectualized regarding morality and really had his own biases disguised in these intellectualizations, all about piety. Who cares? Blood is falling around your feet and you’re crying piety. Very few Catholics today are impressed by that, believe me.”
Born Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, Pope Pius XII ruled from 1939—Mr. Gambino’s birth year—until his death in 1958. Growing up in an Italian family, the young boy watched the pope through the worst of times: World War II, the Holocaust and the Cold War.
Some say Pius XII did nothing. The author says his play illustrates the pope’s reactions to the time.
“People ask me, ‘Are you putting him on trial?’ I say, ‘No, history put him on trial,'” Mr. Gambino said. “He had the position of a great moral leader and how did he do in the face of all of this? What did he do, what didn’t he do? And I try to be fair, but I show that moral leadership is something that has to be very real today. This bombing in Boston, these atrocities all over the world, they’re never going to stop. We go through these rhythms. That’s the dark side of human history.”
Whitman also witnessed his dose of human tragedy during his days volunteering as a Civil War military hospital nurse. In 1873, he suffered his first stroke, leaving the author partially paralyzed and without any drive to write.
The opposite is true for Mr. Gambino. Two days before Thanksgiving 1977, doctors diagnosed him with metastatic melanoma. He was 38. He had one year to live.
“They said, ‘Make out your will, get your life in order.’ My daughter was just a child,” he said, pausing to gaze out the window. “But after a year, I’m still alive and I don’t know why. What the hell am I going to do with my life? How did I get through? By doing all the things I thought were important. I taught, I wrote. There’s nothing dramatic, real Hollywood film here, but over time, it led me to think, ‘What is life about?'”
It’s about humor, he said. It’s about nature. It’s about empathy, sympathy and love. And it’s about writing.
“I don’t take things for granted. I take the best things in life very seriously,” he said. “Not just profound things like love, but just being outdoors and enjoying the sunshine sometimes. And saying, ‘Wow, who needs anything better than this?’ Just looking at that blue sky.”
Or sitting down poolside on a sunny afternoon, diving into the works of Whitman.
“I’ve read everything he wrote and I love rereading him. It’s inspiring,” Mr. Gambino said. “Even though I’m an old man now, it’s still inspiring. He still moves me.”