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date: 16 June 2024

Italian-American Literaturefree

Italian-American Literaturefree

  • Thomas J. Ferraro


  • North American Literatures

That there exists any such thing as “Italian-American literature” has long been a surprise to most Americans, including the Italian Americans themselves—the kind of news that Mediterraneans greet with a shrug of the shoulders: So what? What has that to do with me? The lack of interest may in part reflect that peculiarly southern Italian mindset in which higher education is regarded as impractical and divisive, the intelligentsia is judged to be corrupt and effete, and any form of self-revelation or public affiliation is thought to be dangerous. The peasants developed this sensibility from hard experience in southern Italy and used it in the United States, in the face of difficult odds and vicious prejudice, to rally the restless young to the slow, taxing, several-generation family march to blue-collar security. But the disregard of Italian America for its own literature has persisted beyond the heritage of anti-intellectualism in southern Italy into the upper-middle classes of the third and fourth generations, suggesting that the persisting apathy of Italian America toward “its own literature” may be more than a matter of ancient class suspicions.

This lack of concerted interest in an Italian-American literary tradition may very well reflect a bone-deep disdain on the part of economically and socially mobile Italian Americans for what in the late twentieth century came to be recognized as “identity politics”: Wasn't “our” time for special pleading finished before it had ever really begun? (Italian Americans have always been the last and least successful at organizing formally but also, and not unrelatedly, the first to take umbrage at charity, relaxed standards, and tokenism.) The lack of interest may reflect, furthermore, aesthetic tendencies that lean away from the strictly verbal toward the performative, that forgo the rigorously monastic for the social and collaborative, and that are premised on the conviction that life is too short for anything second-rate. And it most certainly reflects the fact that the best-known piece of writing (really, the only well-known piece of writing) by an Italian American about Italian Americans—The Godfather (1969)—was not intended by its author, Mario Puzo, to be “literary” at all but merely a lucrative pop exploitation of southern Italian stereotypes: family, crime, and sexual primitivism. So why have an encyclopedia entry organized on an ethnic principle at all?

The first answer is that there is a coterie of novels written by the offspring of immigrants during the heyday of Italian-American working-class struggle that are as good as such novels ever are—in some cases better. These classic immigrant novels take us back into forgotten social histories; they deepen our understanding of the cultural and psychological conflicts integral to dislocation, modernization, and upward mobility, and they also identify and often embrace forms of cultural persistence and evolutionary transformation that continue to put Puritan America to the test—the making (not just tracing) of an Italian-American religio-aesthetic ethos. The second answer is that by any measure—inherent subtlety, mythic power, persisting influence—The Godfather is a work of world-class imagination, as wise as it is crafted and crafty, not despite but because it is Italian-American populist in subject, in form, and in effect. The third answer is that treating The Godfather seriously as literature is key to understanding not just the ethnic but also the aesthetic dimensions of Italian-American achievement in the visual and performing arts. The Godfather drew upon, cleared the way for, inspired, and provoked a late-twentieth-century explosion of creativity in the movies, in televideo, and in popular music.

During the Great Migration

The majority of Italians who emigrated to the United States—as many as five million of them—were contadini (peasants) from south and east of Naples, rarely skilled and less often literate. They arrived as transient wage laborers, for years shuttled money and themselves back and forth to Italy, and only decided to settle permanently after an extended sojourn, with the wartime suffering of Europe often the deciding factor. Notoriously suspicious of business, government, and the Catholic Church, they held their people emotionally and culturally close, making “the family” and immediate community, first defined by dialect and region, the principal means and so the logical ends of their existence. Only rarely schooled in northern Italian art and culture, they approached change with maximum caution, saying to themselves, “Chi lascia la via vecchia per la nuova, sa quel che perde e non sa quel che trova” (“Whoever forsakes the old way for the new knows what he is losing but not what he will find”). They cultivated street savvy and respected technical expertise, but feared characteristically American forms of self-determination, including liberal education, exogamy, and even (after those ocean voyages!) geographic mobility. During the early years, to become a writer from “out of the ghetto” was not only economically and socially improbable, but it was, given the immigrants' worldview, quite literally unimaginable.

It is no surprise given such demographics and outlook that during the migration period (from the 1870s to the prejudicial immigration restriction laws implemented by 1924), representation of Italians to the country at large fell by default to non-Italians. Progressivist reformers and social workers such as Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, and Ernest Poole addressed serious issues—tenement housing, infant mortality, child labor—but from their reports, some of which reached wide audiences, it was frequently difficult to distinguish between humane empathy and nativist anxiety. Riis, a pioneer police photographer turned successful housing reformer, reported on Italian foodstuffs with the ignorant disdain—“slimy, odd-looking creatures…that never swam in American waters,” “big, awkward sausages, anything but appetizing”—that greeted the immigrants themselves.

It was during these earliest decades of migration, however, that a few émigrés from Italy with middle-class intellectual backgrounds, usually journalists in the New York City Italian press, reported back to Italy, producing expatriation memoirs in the Italian language (some of which may have also circulated among the literate few in the United States). One of these migration-era literati, Luigi Ventura, an itinerant scholar and teacher of Romance languages, even tried his hand at dialect fiction for the American audience, producing first in French and then translating a long story, Peppino (1885), which is now regarded as the first work of Italian-American fiction. The other early figure of note, Bernardino Ciambelli, was a prolific spinner of melodramatic East Side tales, written in simple Italian and published by the New York Italian press, treating the lives of ordinary immigrants who were also their prime consumers. (Each neighborhood had its designated letter writer who also read aloud to groups gathered on the stoop or around the kitchen stove.) During the 1890s, Ciambelli published no fewer than five book-length collections of such tales, with titles such as I Misteri di Mulberry (“The Mysteries of Mulberry Street”) that promised the urban Gothic but for all their cheerful sensationalism more closely resembled the immigrant folk operas that dominated the Italian-language vaudeville theaters.

Successful Careers from the Classic Period

It was not until the 1920s that Italian-American immigrants began producing memoirs and autobiographical fiction for the mainstream American press. Several of these earliest writers in English had emigrated as children or young men, but most were the children of immigrants. These children had undergone a more intense form of “ethnic passage” from the foreign-language enclaves of the illiterate working classes to the national and even international “republic of letters”—a more intense experience because the hostility to education and to self-reliant individualism in the Little Italies remained powerful at least until after World War II, and in many precincts for yet another generation and beyond, into the 1970s. The rare few from the Italian-American working classes who became writers (whether they majored in English at Columbia University or through some other more dramatic route) were, in effect, rebels, even if they had received a modicum of encouragement from a parent or relative, as occasionally happened. From a larger perspective, however, they were all outcasts (“excommunicated”) from their old neighborhoods who, in addition, had to find their way in mainstream literary institutions on their own—without the help of an established or even developing network of fellow Italian-American editors, publishers, reviewers, or readers (who were, of course, as much a rarity as the writers themselves were) of the type that supported Jewish writers of the same period. Yet there was a positive side to the seeming handicap of double isolation: finding a mainstream audience proved to be a stimulating, creative challenge in its own right, and individual writers were free to meet the challenge of cultural translation/critique without having to placate an ethnic literary elite sensitive to the group's reputation or jealous over their own status as mediators.

Established literary circles first registered the publication of a series of “from alien to citizen” autobiographies—most notably those by the sociologist Constantine Panunzio (The Soul of an Immigrant, 1921) and the pick-and-shovel-poet Pascal (né Pasquale) D'Angelo (Pascal D'Angelo, Son of Italy, 1924), both published by Macmillan. Honorable mention also goes to Louis Forgione's Men of Silence (1928), a novelization of the famous Cuocolo murders. The novel documents the investigation and prosecution of the Camorra (organized crime) back in Naples by New York City's Joseph Petrosino, a great police detective of Neapolitan descent who was brought onto the Cuocolo case at the behest of the Italian government. Men of Silence confirmed crime as an Italian problem (in the wake of the resurgence of anti-Italian sentiment surrounding the trial of anarcho-syndicalists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti) yet figured Italian Americans as its solution. It was also a harbinger of the hard-boiled detective genre, which Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (1929) launched a year later.

The first work of Italian-American literature to reach a national audience was a short story by Pietro DiDonato called Christ in Concrete, which appeared in Esquire in 1937. In the story, a bricklayer supervising his small work crew is buried alive on Good Friday when a wall, which he had not been allowed to build to specifications, collapses. In “Christ in Concrete,” DiDonato fashions a rough lyric vernacular to give the impression, in English, of the dialect sensibility of preliterate skilled laborers, earthy yet articulate in ungenteel ways. He foregrounds a man of fierce family dedication, fixated upon the culmination of twenty years of work to buy a modest house, about to be trapped (literally) by capitalism's contradictions. He laces the story not only with a Christian protest idiom—his hero is sacrificed at the altar of capitalist greed—but also with a “pagan Catholic” sense of sacramental materiality, especially toward food and connubial sexuality. So positive was the popular and critical reception to the short story that DiDonato continued the narrative, and in 1939 the Book-of-the-Month Club chose Christ in Concrete to be its main selection, at the expense of the first alternate, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Over the course of his lifetime, DiDonato continued to write fiction and nonfiction, including a history in 1961 of Mother Cabrini, the first American saint, as well as a bit of pornographic indulgence for Bob Guccione's Penthouse magazine.

It is seldom remembered that the national coordinating editor of the Federal Writer's Project and its major historian (The Dream and the Deal, 1972), Jerre Mangione, was the scion of a Sicilian family of bricklayers. Born and raised in Rochester, New York, he was educated at Syracuse University and employed as a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. Mangione was also the uncle of the accomplished jazz trumpeter Chuck Mangione. Repackaged at the publisher's insistence into “a fictional memoir,” Jerre Mangione's set of autobiographical sketches, Mount Allegro (1942), focused on the conviviality of his extended family, with considerable attention to the mystique of the dinner table, including the skill of its regulars at storytelling. Mangione focused as well on the tension between the official Catholicism of the Irish-American church and the heathenish pleasures of the evil eye; of cannoli (cheese-filled pastries), worshipped for their quality; and of strong sensual women. As the cultural historian Werner Sollors has observed, Mount Allegro provides an anthropological folklore corrective (featuring a strong comic component) to the despairing sociological portrait of Christ in Concrete. This difference in approach was sponsored, in part, by the economic conditions distinguishing metropolitan New York at the height of the Great Depression from the smaller industrial cities upstate during Mangione's youth in the 1920s. Over the course of a long career, Mangione wrote books on a wide range of topics—A Passion for Sicilians (1968) on famed Sicilian socialist and social worker Danilo Dolci, Ethnic at Large (1978) on his own experiences as the honorary Italian among the New York Intellectuals, and La Storia (with Ben Morreale, 1992) on five hundred years of Italian-American history—as well as several novels.

Of more concentrated ambition as a novelist was John Fante, who was raised in Colorado and sporadically educated at the University of Colorado and Long Beach City College in California. Wait until Spring, Bandini (1938), Fante's best-known novel, attempts psychological realism within a second-generation setting. It details a son's effort to deal with the tension between his mother's devout Catholicism and his father's philandering ways, against the backdrop of labor, poverty, and prejudice in the stone-cutting industry in the Colorado Rockies. Fante turned Wait until Spring, Bandini into the first book of a tetralogy, The Saga of Arturo Bandini. A half-century later, after Black Sparrow Press's republication of Fante's corpus, an Italian-French-Belgian production company produced a quite faithful film adaptation of Wait until Spring, Bandini with the actor Joe Mantegna playing Arturo's father.

Remembering Lapolla, De Capite, and Tomasi

Of all the immigrant novels that have disappeared even from scholarly sight, the most remarkable is Garibaldi M. Lapolla's The Grand Gennaro (1935), an epic in miniature of turn-of-the-century East Harlem that, more than any other source, sociological or literary, gives us a sense of what life was like in the tougher industrial precincts during the obscure years of Italian immigration. In a witty literalization of the rags-to-riches metaphor, the title character, Gennaro Accuci, is a ragpicker who pulls himself up by the bootstraps to become a big local entrepreneur, the Rag King of Harlem. Accuci's success in “making America” (the term in broken Italo-English expressed both wonder and disdain for class-defying economic success) combines product, personnel, and market savvy with callous intimidation and brutal deception. Although the title is a deliciously sardonic echo of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), and the central issues of ethnic exploitation and masculine overdrive almost a direct response to Abraham Cahan's 1917 The Rise of David Levinsky (first serialized as “The Autobiography of a Jewish Businessman”), the rigorous sociological detail, the tapestry of interrelated lives followed through time, and the objective third-person narration is reminiscent neither of Fitzgerald nor even of Cahan but of the great nineteenth-century European realists. There is even a Balzac-like empathy for the incorrigible title character, Gennaro Accuci, who knew himself well enough to keep calling himself, despite his success, a cafone (a country “clodhopper,” brutishly straightforward and socially clueless).

There are two other novels from the classic period that are especially worth remembering, in part because they are conceived from a woman's perspective. Michael De Capite's Maria (1943), narrated in sparse prose of almost Dreiserian insight, recounts the story of a poor woman in Cleveland married at the bidding of her family, then abandoned (the husband cannot face the shame of his financial stupidity), yet who learns to fight against the Depression with inarticulate intensity to support her children. She bounces between factory lines and relief lines, ultimately finding the courage and means (married again to an improvident man) to abort an untimely pregnancy. Mari Tomasi's second novel and the first major work of Italian-American fiction by a woman, Like Lesser Gods (1949), is told over the shoulder of an immigrant schoolteacher with a resolutely Franciscan sensibility. It analyzes the pleasures and dangers of the Vermont granite industry, where cutters from Italy's Piedmont make art of stone. At risk of death from a lung disease specific to granite and unknown in Italy, the Vermont granite-cutters put their wives in the untenable position of having to mediate between a vocation of sacred force (stone-cutters being “like lesser gods”) and its threat to life, love, and security.

The Italian-American realist genre continued with particularly accomplished contributions by Raymond De Capite (Michael's brother), The Coming of Fabrizze (1960), whose protagonist is, as Rose Basile Green writes, “a folk-hero of the Italian-American zest for life”; with Rocco Fumento's Tree of Dark Reflection (1962), whose lyrical yet ominous title invokes the psychological dynamics of second-generation cultural reformation, including sexual ambivalence and self-doubt, during World War II; and with Octavio Waldo's A Cup of the Sun (1961), an even better psychological coming-of-age-during-the-war novel. Set in South Philadelphia, A Cup of the Sun is also sexually inflected, as a female adolescent must come to terms with the discrepancy between an emergent sensuality of real aesthetic power and the jeopardy to which it exposures her in the neighborhood and even within her family. A special recommendation also goes to a dialect family memoir, George Panetta's We Ride a White Donkey (1944), a black-humored self-critique that includes a riotous exposé of Italian male obsessive-compulsiveness and fear of cuckoldry.

Puzo's the Fortunate Pilgrim and Its Marian Successors

In 1964, just when U.S. immigration restriction laws were finally stripped of their pro–northern European bias, a New York writer of serious bent and ambition by the name of Mario Puzo published his second autobiographical novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, based on the experience of his female-centered family in the Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan during the 1920s and 1930s. The Fortunate Pilgrim is at once the most specifically southern Italian and the most generically ethnic achievement in American immigrant fiction. Puzo's southern Italian matriarch, named Lucia Santa (after the popular saint who holds her eyeballs aloft in a dish), operates at the center of Italian-American life in symbolically heightened actuality, as one husband is killed in a longshoreman accident and the second is lost to insanity. It is the immigrant mother who first calls for loyalty to la via vecchia (the old ways) only to then instigate, under the cover of her rhetoric, the supposedly rebellious transformation of her children, who mistakenly presume that they alone are responsible for abandoning the old ways, and hence for rejecting the parent who articulates and symbolizes them. It may sound like a peculiarly Italian version of American Oedipal complaint to blame Americanization on mom, but granting foresight, courage, and self-acceptance to the immigrant mother are crucial steps in healing the break between the generations—an imaginative act of forgiveness and reconciliation that The Fortunate Pilgrim effects, surprisingly, on mamma's own terms.

The persistence of Marian Catholicism across the generations has been made especially manifest in Italian-Canadian as well as Italian-American fiction, usually male-authored. The representation of “mamma mia” has been a near-obsessive subject: the Blessed Virgin incarnated as the immigrant matriarch, struggling to make it on behalf of her progeny in North America. F. G. Paci's Black Madonna (Ottawa, 1982) and Nino Ricci's Lives of the Saints (Dunvegan, Ontario, 1990) join De Capite's Maria and Puzo's The Fortunate Pilgrim as maternally focused autobiographical novels. Distinguishable in various ways, they nonetheless share a religiously inflected double-minority consciousness—of being Catholic in a Protestant nation, and of being Mediterranean-Catholic within an Irish (in the United States) or French (in Canada) Jansenist Church. All four novels converge around a larger-than-life woman who, for all her nurturing of her favored son, is not so all-forgiving and not so all-protective after all, neither so blessed nor (and this is at the heart of the matter) so virginal. We are prompted then to inquire whether the domestic Marianism in these texts is paradoxically that of filial resentment at the mother's effort, failed or succeeding, to implement her own agenda. Underneath the son's charge of maternal inadequacy (if not, in the case of Puzo and possibly Ricci, betrayal) lies enabling mother-worship. In turning to write penetratingly about their mothers, De Capite, Puzo, Paci, and Ricci, each in his own way, was able to recover how her nascent, including sexual, self-determination (as well as that of her female allies—her daughters) both fomented and sanctioned his own. A third-generation variation on the classic immigrant novel, Helen Barolini's Umbertina (1979), provides a fascinating confirmation of the empathetic treatment of changing Italian-American womanhood in otherwise male-concerned male-authored novels. In the penultimate chapter of Umbertina, a young woman's decision to undergo an abortion is portrayed as a victory for feminist self-determination over the patriarchal hypocrisies of the church hierarchy. But that decision puts into check as well the Italian peasant imperative to reproduce, an imperative not only inherited from the great grandmother, who is the title character, but also embodied in the form of the novel itself, which is determinedly multigenerational. Barolini thereby unself-consciously echoes the stunning abortion in De Capite's Maria and the equally instinctively feminist disavowal of children (by the oldest daughter, Octavia) in Puzo's The Fortunate Pilgrim—while also anticipating the figural regimes of celibacy, sterility, and barrenness that dominate contemporary North American ethnic women's fiction (especially by those of Asian descent, including Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa, Amy Tan, and Sky Lee).

The Question of Ethnicity in di Prima and Delillo

Feminist scrutinizing of literary history reveals Diane di Prima as the strongest of the female Beats, that is, the contributors to the famous 1950s and early 1960s literary movement that featured another San Francisco poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (whose Italian ancestry is now a matter of scholarly debate). Focusing on the crucial figure of Jack Kerouac, the cultural historian James T. Fisher has shown that the utopian mysticism of the Beats, long identified with the New York poet Allen Ginsberg and the Jewish mystical traditional called Cabala, included a meditative dimension drawn from northern European traditions of introspection and monasticism. Concentrating on Di Prima throws Beat spirituality into a yet more Mediterranean light. Her poetry happily echoes the claim of unmediated access to the divine—often if not primarily embodied and sensual—of the early modern female mystics. Di Prima's Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969) envisions participation in a between-men orgy as a festive, spiritually charged, nondemonic rite. It is written with a lightly penned graphicness that puts the proudly sensationalistic “zipless f–k” of Eric Jong's Fear of Flying (1973) to shame, and with an awareness of the mystical possibilities and disappointments of gender-bending sexuality that puts the antibiologism of academic feminist orthodoxy in doubt. The dynamic Italian-American lesbian arts community identified by the periodical SinisterWisdom (Summer/Fall 1990), centered mainly in the Berkeley, California, area, surely owes a debt to Di Prima, yet for all her experimentation (literary as well as personal), Di Prima's original spiritual headquarters was across the bay, in the Beat/gay Haight area she helped to create with Robert Duncan and others.

It has been argued that Don DeLillo, the heir to Thomas Pynchon's crown as the major (postmodernist) intellectual novelist of our time, betrays nary a sign of his Bronx Italian-American background, except for a famous Yankees game and a riff on the Mafia that appear in his magnum opus, Underworld (1997). Yet DeLillo's stinging appreciation of the contemporary American family, White Noise (1985), which became a collegiate sensation in the early 1990s and has achieved the canonical orthodoxy of several teaching companions, investigates the rituals of postmodernity from a quietly Italian-Catholic perspective that is intriguingly fractured between populist empathy and traditionalist longing. The novel insinuates a dizzying identification with consumer-driven culture, with the simulacra of the advertising-information media, and with no-blame, no-guilt divorce—which are shown to feed upon the sacramental needs of American individualists and to yield for them, somewhat miraculously, a sanctifying sense of membership in larger (often much larger) wholes.

The Godfather on Its Own Terms

In the late 1960s, as disenchantment with U.S. involvement in Vietnam was escalating and domestic protest from various sectors was turning increasingly violent, when “white ethnics” were thought of as thick-necked hardhats and militarized cops beating up scraggly or braless college students, a long-suffering serious writer of fiction published his first mass-market novel. The country's understanding of itself and the role of ethnic difference within it has not been the same since. That writer was, of course, Mario Puzo; the novel—a mob thriller-as-family-romance, narrated in an insider's voice—was The Godfather. Puzo's calculated act of intuitive genius became, in very short order, the best-selling and, indeed, most widely read work of fiction in world history. It served as the narrative basis and framing style for the young Francis Ford Coppola's movie version (The Godfather, 1972) that with its immediate sequel (The Godfather Part II, 1974) constitute one of Hollywood's transcendent achievements. And they gave rise, in turn, to seemingly endless literary (Gay Talese's Honor Thy Father, Nicolas Pileggi's Wiseguy, Richard Condon's Prizzi's Honor) and especially movie creativity. Dozens (now hundreds) of film and videomakers—including John Huston, Jonathan Demme, Sergio Leone, Ivan Reitman, and a veritable host of break-out Italian-American directors including Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, Michael Cimino, Abel Ferrara, and Quentin Tarantino—could now “talk back” to Puzo and Coppola. By century's end, “The Godfather” referred less to a book or film than to a modern secular mythology of Romanesque proportions and ancestry. All over the United States, but especially in and around New York, from the inner city to the suburbs, ordinary people of all stripes and colors—especially those of Italian descent—continue to model themselves on the style (not criminality) of the gangsters that Puzo first visualized in prose and that Coppola (with Puzo and a massively gifted collective of actors and cinematographers) put on screen. How did such a thing happen? What does it mean?

The offer that the American public could not refuse was Puzo's diabolical mixture of family and business, filial devotion and fraternal betrayal, seductive male domesticity, and deadly capitalist immorality. Not only did he produce Sicilian family values as “the secret” to truly effective organized crime, he also “revealed” a monomaniacal capitalist conspiracy as southern Italy's dream-destiny. Over the decades, certain Italian Americans, academics and self-appointed “leaders of the community” especially, have protested the renewal of the criminal stereotype, but it is difficult to overestimate how revered The Godfather is in its several media or, more importantly, the degree to which it has changed the American ideological and social landscape.

In the mainline of Puzo's narrative, which Coppola deftly extracted and beautifully cast for the first film, the gangster prototype was transformed from orphaned loner to devoted patriarch, and the last-ditch clever clannishness of poor “guinea” immigrants was metamorphosed into the damnably sacralized empire-building of illegitimate yet charismatic business visionaries. Sicilians were, all of a sudden, not part of an embarrassing blue-collar morass, an industrial underbelly losing its significance, but the capitalist nation's underground brain trust, and a potential mirror of corporate capitalism's requisite brutality. What Puzo and Coppola did, then, is change the national story, reimagining the place of Italians in America, and America as a different kind of place. They injected Italian-American values, idiom, imaginative reach, and even experience into the national narrative. Puzo and Coppola not only made Italian America the center of conversation but remade that conversation—its storytelling conventions and figurative repertoire, the questions it asks and the answers it seeks—in the Italian-American image, responsible to its fears and reflective of its desires. By 15 May 1983, when Stephen Hall's famous New York Times Magazine cover story, “Italian Americans: Coming into Their Own,” announced the first coming of Italian Americans into the power professions, Americans at large had for a decade been getting used to the idea that those of southern Italian descent might be forces to reckon with, that their families and transplanted values were somehow going to matter even in their professional walks of life, and that the problem of ethical legitimacy would raise its ugly head wherever power was concerned, if only one was “in the know.” Multi grazie, Mario Puzo.

Literary Self-Consciousness and the New Ethnicity

The publication and filming of The Godfather was, by any criteria, spectacularly well timed, instigating the rise of the new ethnic consciousness nationwide while instinctively anticipating, perhaps even drawing upon, a specifically Italian-American, increasingly salient, and ultimately quite formidable demographic shift. The early 1970s marked the initial breakthrough, in proportionally significant numbers, of the third and fourth generations of Italian America into upper-middle-class life, and into the culture and power professions especially. Included was the very first coterie of what Antonio Gramsci called “organic intellectuals”: predominantly sociologists and historians, mainly but not hermetically academic, working across the minority-majority line. These Italian-American intellectuals produced “thick descriptions” (in Clifford Geertz's sense) of what their people already knew—of the reciprocal interplay between the family and capitalism, of the special role of a de facto matriarchy in ethnic change, and of masculine peer groups in developing street-corner societies, organizing crime, and taking over the labor unions. In 1964, the historian Rudolph J. Vecoli wrote a short, blistering critique of the historian Oscar Handlin's The Uprooted (1951), which initiated much reconsideration of Italian Americans over the next two decades—by Humbert Nelli, Virginia Yans-McLaughlin, John W. Briggs, Thomas Kessner, Judith Smith, Andrew Rolle, Francis Ianni, Victor Greene, and others. Vecoli's critique put the family inflection (as opposed to labor and women's foci) in what would be called “the new social history” as it arrived on the national academic agenda, and which was codified after a quarter century of research in John Bodnar's The Transplanted (1985). By 1975, Richard Gambino had produced Blood of My Blood, which systematized “the old ways” for a popular as well as academic audience; Wayne Moquin had written A Documentary History of the Italian Americans and Francesco Cardasco and Eugene Bucchioni The Italians: A Documentary History; Rose Basile Green had catalogued Italian-American literary production, on the heels of Olga Peragallo; Luigi Barzini produced his best-seller, The Italians, in 1964, while Ann Cornelisen had followed up Torregreca (1969) with Women of the Shadows (1976); journalist Gay Talese (1971), sociologist Francis Ianni (1972), and historian Humbert Nelli (1976) had produced works on syndicate crime; and Marcella Hazan had produced what is still arguably the most effective translation of cuisine for an American audience, Classic Italian Cooking (1973). The American Italian Historical Association would be founded over the next decade, including its own journal (one of several, serious but minutely scaled) devoted to Italian-American history, sociology, and the arts.

Although Peragallo and Basile Green pioneered the cataloging of Italian-American literature, the first steps to thinking imaginatively about it appeared in the early 1980s from Robert Viscusi, a comparativist scholar whose essays spun a transatlantic genealogy; and from the Americanist scholar William Boelhower, a Wisconsin expatriate living in Venice, who applied semiotics to demystify ethnic representation as an Americanizing genre. In The Dream Book (1985), Helen Barolini gathered a group of women writers with some degree of Italian ancestry, several of whom are known under other aspects (Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, a travel writer; Sandra M. Gilbert, a feminist English critic; and Mary Gordon, the best chronicler of contemporary Irish America), and most of the rest of whom are more valuable as historic witnesses than creative writers. The Dream Book did, however, feature an excerpt from Tina De Rosa's Paper Fish (1981), latter-day immigrant fiction in an arrestingly modernistic, surreally impressionistic style that has made the book a standard offering in Italian-American and ethnic women's writing courses. At the intersection of these pioneering efforts, a triumvirate of Chicago-area scholars—Fred Gardaphé, Paul Giordano, and Anthony Tamburri—combined critical essays and creative writing in an anthology, From the Margin (1991). This uncannily answered the long-whispered question “Where are the Italian-American novelists?” before senior Italian-American statesman Gay Talese publicly pronounced it, in a front-page essay for the New York Times Book Review (1993).

Gardaphé's Italian Signs, American Streets (1996) drew upon Giambatista Vico's mythic historiography to offer the first comprehensive interpretation of Italian-American narrative—from Constantine Panunzio and Pietro DiDonato through its contemporary prophetic and ethnically parodic take on postmodernists Gilbert Sorrentino and Don DeLillo. In 1998, the first Gay Talese Prize was given to English professor Louise DeSalvo of Hunter College for Vertigo, in the genre of critical autobiography, visited variously by myriad others—including contributors to Beyond the Godfather (1997) such as Sandra M. Gilbert, Frank Lentricchia, Marianna Torgovnick, and coeditor Jay Parini (author of The Patch Boys, 1986). Beyond the Godfather also featured especially impressive work by a younger generation of women writers—Mary Cappello, Alane Salierno Mason, Regina Barreca, and Maria Laurino (whose Were You Always an Italian? was published in 2000)—rivaled by contributors to The Voices We Carry (edited by Mary Jo Bona, 1994) and such works as Rita Ciresi's Blue Italian (1996). Made impatient by ethnic apologetics, ghetto sensibilities, and the banalities of cultural relativism, the Italian-American intelligentsia has nonetheless focused on recovering and debating the persistence and reemergence of Italianità in those who have taken the major stage. Accomplished literary intellectuals such as Camille Paglia (on the image, in Sexual Personae, 1990) and Frank Lentricchia (on the drama of quotidian life, in The Edge of Night, 1994) theorize but also enact within formal literary writing the persistence of visual and oral forms—bridging the gap between folk culture and intellectual history, as well as the gap between minority and majority representation.

Pellegrino D'Acierno, a comparativist, screenwriter, and theoretician of architecture and film, led a prodigious effort in the late 1990s to consider the entire span of Italian aesthetic production. The Italian-American Heritage: A Companion to Literature and the Arts (1999) was an exemplar of its kind: hugely informative, smart, provocative, and beautifully illustrated. The work by diverse scholars in the volume pays testimony to the consolidation of an Italian-American intelligentsia, but what the pages themselves reveal is a simple, paradoxical, yet elegant fact. In the final analysis, Italian America has had its most lasting intellectual impact on mainstream culture not through intellectual work proper but rather via aesthetic form, especially through art, music, film, and literature broadly defined.

From One Book to American Culture Writ Large

The Godfather cut into the national consciousness a model in which ethnic family values supported, rather than destroyed, however “illegitimately,” upward mobility under capitalism. Once the genre of the frustrated loner, the gangster film was reborn as a debate over the fate of the ethnic patriarchal family in the face of corporate aggrandizement, masculine street glamour, and female self-determination. This was particularly evident in Coppola's The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), as well as in several dozen films involving directors as distinguished as John Huston, Norman Jewison, Sergio Leone, and the Coen Brothers. The blistering response issued by a then-unknown graduate of Greenwich Village's Little Italy and New York University's film school, Martin Scorsese, Mean Streets was the harbinger of the actor Robert De Niro–centered masterpieces—Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas—that would redefine cinematic art in the 1980s. Although given courage by the new ethnicity, and as importantly bolstered by the initial registering of a demographic shift, Italian-American self-representation distinguished itself in several ways that are traditional to strong ethnic literature—not the least of which its refusal of the renewed mandates to claim victimization, refute stereotypes, and mobilize politically. It would take writer John Patrick Shanley and director Norman Jewison to produce the cartoonish cuckoldry of Moonstruck, writer Richard Condon and director John Huston to produce the capitalist pastiche of Prizzi's Honor, and director Jonathan Demme (with a couple of non-Italian writers) to produce the feminist comedy Married to the Mob. What Coppola and Scorsese gave us was the twin stereotypes used against Italian Americans (the crime charge going back to the 1870s, the family charge to the 1920s), mythically reinvigorated, made sociologically responsible, and subjected to critique.

Of the several media in which it would excel, popular film was to be the paramount mode not only for the representation of America by Italians—Frank Capra in the 1930s, Vincent Minnelli in the 1950s, and such contemporary directors as Brian De Palma and Michael Cimino—but for Italian-American self-representation, which remains forever in Puzo's debt. Coppola's Cotton Club and The Godfather Part III, Scorsese's Goodfellas, Brian De Palma's The Untouchables, and a spate of independent films by Abel Ferrara (China Girl, The Bad Lieutenant, The Funeral) continue the mob-focused end of the conversation. The discourses of family, festa, and romance, given early cinematic birth in Love with a Proper Stranger (1963) and Lovers and Other Strangers (1969) are revisited from women's perspectives in Nancy Savoca's True Love and Household Saints and from a gastronomic aesthete's perspective in Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott's Big Night.

For all the force of Puzo-inflected family-and-crime narrative, Italian Americans have weighed in heavily in other matters, dramatically enough to have been recognized without having been thoroughly or, at times, adequately understood, at least within the academy proper. Surely the earliest impact involves identifying and embracing “the urban sublime”—in which the industrial cityscape, including the ultimately abandoned industrial cityscape, is rendered sacred and prophetic—the focus of terror and wonder simultaneously, the kind of doubly layered emotion that Italians live by, in faith and daily praxis. It serves as the focal point of both the naturalist immigrant novels (Christ in Concrete, Maria, The Fortunate Pilgrim) and postmodern, postethnic, proto-apocalyptic novels (Don DeLillo's Underworld, Frank Lentricchia's Johnny Critelli and the Knifemen). And it reaches its most influential incarnations in the mean-streets cinema of Coppola, Cimino, Scorsese, and Ferrara, which Professor D'Acierno has identified as the mainline of an “Italian-American” visual style; and in the song cycles of rocker Bruce Springsteen that are set on the Jersey Shore or in the industrial heartland and that are Dantesque in atmosphere, Eliotic in their lyricism, and doggedly redemptive on the order of Flannery O'Connor (whom Springsteen has identified as a favorite writer).

Literary critic Paul Giles was among the first scholars (with Leo Braudy, another non-Italian fellow traveler) to press for a consideration of the effect of immersion in an iconic culture—Catholic, yet in a very Italian way—on putatively secular arts, the visual and performing arts especially. What emerges is an extraordinarily material aesthetic sensibility, in which various modes of writing (screenplays, song lyrics, rock performance) are channeled into the visual and performing arts. These in turn inform more strictly literary productions (novels that read like films, literary criticism that is highly theatrical, videos produced from songs, and so forth). In other words, it is an intuitively Catholic kind of charismatic communion and liturgical orchestration, not just the marked poetry of his song lyrics, that makes the rock performance of Bruce Springsteen (his mother is a Zirilli) at once more American romantic (in the tradition of poets Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson) and more Mediterranean-Catholic than even he would think to admit. Springsteen then arises as a direct descendant of that other Jersey boy-made-good, Francis Albert Sinatra (whom English professor Paula Marantz Cohen identified as the “Poet” Emerson had once prophesied), and the premier soulmate of pop feminism's daringly Catholic material girl, the rock-and-video avatar Madonna (born Madonna Louise Ciccone).

Almost a century after Italian immigration peaked in the United States, during the television season of 1998–1999, a merry band of northeasterners led by David Chase (né Cesare) took the American imagination by storm with a black comedy about the New Jersey mob entitled The Sopranos. In print and especially on the Internet, some Americans of Italian ancestry complained bitterly that here was the old formula, Italians are (just) gangsters, all over again. Yet the complaints sound hollow in the face of the ferocious self-knowing and sardonic grace of Chase's writers, actors, and design crew. The first year of The Sopranos played less like a television series than a serial novel that the nineteenth-century Londoner Charles Dickens might have written had he grown up an Italian American in New Jersey. The Sopranos satirized upscale suburban domesticity by revealing its entanglement in the enterprise zones of postindustrial crime, places Italian Americans in the suburbs for the first time, living side by side with dentists and CEOs, while portraying their particular forms of ethnic self-conflict as fundamentally American. When the midlife performance anxiety of chief gangster Tony Soprano is held accountable to a formidable trinity of very Italian-American women (his mother, his wife, his psychiatrist), something new and wondrous has taken place in the national imagination. The icon of the Mafia family, which under Puzo and Coppola's regime played out as strictly male, has been corrected for gender bias, not in generic feminist fashion, but in a way that holds our understanding of the sexual dynamics of masculine achievement under capitalism accountable to the nearly hundred years of Italian-American literary and literature-entailed cultural production.

Further Reading

  • Barolini, Helen, ed. The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women. Rev. ed. Syracuse, N.Y., 2000. A generous primer on writing by women, with a seminal introduction.
  • Ciongoli, A. Kenneth, and Jay Parini, eds. Beyond the Godfather: Italian American Writers on the Real Italian American Experience. Hanover, N.H., 1997. Several essays on Italian-American literature and even more memoirs written with a literary critical eye.
  • D'Acierno, Pellegrino, ed. The Italian-American Heritage: A Companion to Literature and Arts. New York, 1999. A capacious overview of the representation, self-representation, and general participation of Italian Americans in U.S. literature and the other arts, with the essays on film especially helpful.
  • Ferraro, Thomas J. Ethnic Passages: Literary Immigrants in Twentieth-Century America. Chicago, 1993. A comparative study of ethnic writing with a useful introduction and a chapter on Mafia narratives.
  • Gardaphé, Fred L. Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative. Durham, N.C., 1996. The first synthetic scholarly treatment of Italian-American writing.
  • Hall, Stephen. Italian Americans: Coming into Their Own. New York Times Magazine 15 May 1983.