When Gay Talese raised the question, "Where are the Italian American Novelists?" on the front page of the March 14, 1993 New York Times Book Review, I believed that he might be bringing, for the first time, national attention to the possibilities that there might be a literary tradition that is distinctly Italian American. However, hindered by his lack of familiarity with the vast body of literature created by American writers of Italian descent, Talese reduced the experience of Italian-American writers to his own, and offered a number of explanations which sound plausible, but which, in reality, do not reflect my belief that you are what you read. Since he had not read Italian-American writers, he could only ask the question.
The history of the reception of literature produced by Italian Americans can be seen in microcosm through the Talese episode. From the earliest contributions found in Italian language newspapers to the first appearances of Italian-American writers in mainstream American publications, the poetry and prose produced by American writers of Italian descent has been viewed as singular achievements by anomalies. Why then, in spite of the fact that such prominent American critics as Frank Lentricchia locate the origins of Italian-American fiction in Luigi Ventura's 1886 collection of short stories Misfits and Remnants, did it take nearly one hundred years for a sense of a tradition to be realized? One answer lies in the fact that until recently, Italian-American culture has not depended on a literary tradition for a sense of cultural survival. Yet, it was a literary tradition which literally saved my life.
If it were not for reading, I would have become a gangster. This I know for a fact. I grew up in the 1950s, when the only Italians you saw on television were either crooning love songs or singing like canaries in front of televised government investigations. In my neighborhood, we never played cowboys and Indians. Inspired by television programs like The Untouchables, we played cops and robbers, and none of us ever wanted to be the cops. While there might have been Italian-American cops in our town, there were none on television. It is no wonder then that many of us young Italian-American boys became so infatuated with the attention given to the Italian American criminals that we found our own ways of gaining that notoriety and power.
Once, while I was being chased by the police for disturbing local merchants so my partners could shoplift, I ran into the public library. I found myself in the juvenile section and grabbed a book to hide my face. Safe from the streets, I spent the rest of the afternoon reading, believing that nobody would ever find me there. And I was right. So whenever I was being chased, I would head straight for the library, which became my asylum.
The Godfather was the first book with which I could completely identify, and it inspired my choice of the Mafia as a topic for the dreaded senior-year, semester-long thesis paper that my Irish-Catholic prep school required. One way or another I had been connected to the Mafia since I left my Italian neighborhood to attend high school, so I decided it was time to find out what this thing called Mafia was.
This was the first writing project to excite me. The more research I did, the more I learned about the men I thought I had known. Whenever I saw familiar names I would be amazed that they had done something so important that someone had taken the time to write about them. People never talked, in public at least, about these men.
One night I was in the back room of a restaurant for a private party given by my employers. I was the youngest employee, and as we were being served my boss turned the group's attention to me by proudly asking what I had been doing in school. I told them, quite loudly, that I was doing a research paper on the Mafia. When he asked what I was reading, I blurted out, The Valachi Papers. Everyone stopped talking and turned to me. I was shocked by the sudden silence; my eyes went around the table and I realized that there were men in that room who had their names in that book. Someone changed the subject and nobody said another word about my project.
When I completed that paper I was certain of an excellent grade. The grading committee decided that the essay, although well written, depended too much on Italian sources, and because I was of Italian descent, my writing never achieved the necessary objectivity that was essential to all serious scholarship. I read the "C" grade as punishment for my cultural transgression, and decided to stay away from anything but English and American literature in my future formal studies.
Ten years later, while I was doing research for my master's thesis on Walt Whitman, I got lost in the University of Chicago's Regenstein Library and stumbled onto Rose Basile Green's study, The Italian-American Novel (1974). Her book literally changed my life. I used it as a map to guide my search for Italian-American stories. With every novel I read grew my shame about my past. The same way that books by Mark Twain, James T. Farrell, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and other American writers had taught me about different worlds, the writings by Italian-American authors taught me different ways of being Italian American.
When I suggested that I might do a dissertation on the subject, I was taken aside and told that the subject would note help my career. I fought it for a while, searching for professors to support my change of plans. But when I could find no help, I gave up, left academia, and decided to do the work on my own.
I kept wondering why it was that Italian-American literature had gained so little recognition and thus little respect in the academy? One answer I found lies in the fact that until recently, Italian-American culture has not depended on a literary tradition for a sense of cultural survival. In my little Italy, stories, never died. As long as a good memory was nearby, the past could always speak to the present. Oral traditions were kept alive through regular and ritual interaction among families and friends. Even though my father died when I was young, there was never a lack of people in my neighborhood who, over a beef sandwich, an Italian ice, or a glass of someone's homemade wine, could tell me stories that made him live again. But as the years went on, the old neighborhood changed. Whole families moved away and with them went the stories. As long as that oral system operated, the need for reading and writing was limited. When that system started breaking down I turned to the writers.
I learned that the first Italian-American writers were immigrants who learned English and responded to their experience in America through poetry and prose more often than not found in the early Italian language newspapers. While these poets have yet to be documented historically, the most significant work was done by labor activist Arturo Giovannitti, whose participation in the great 1912 strike in Lawrence, Mass., landed him and Joe Ettor, president of the International Workers of the World, in jail. As a worker-poet, Giovannitti edited political and literary magazines. His first collection of poetry, Arrows in the Gale (1914), was introduced by Helen Keller. Through Giovannitti, I was able to hear the voices of hundreds of thousands of Italian immigrants who worked their way into status as Americans.
Pascal D'Angelo, who could have been my grandfather, recorded his struggle to become an American poet in his autobiography, Son of Italy (1924). To Americans, as D'Angelo wrote, "I was a poor laborer -- a dago, a wop or some such creature." That a ditch digger could become a poet was beyond belief for most American readers of the time. Accounts of entering America and facing new challenges for survival became the primary subjects of other early autobiographies such as Constantine Panunzio's The Soul of An Immigrant (1921) and as-told-to autobiographies such as Rosa, the Story of an Immigrant (1970). Through these works, I so understood my grandparents that, while they were dead, I felt I had to make up for the ignorance I had about their lives. I began interviewing surviving immigrants, most of whom lived in Villa Scalabrini, a local home for Italian aged. One woman was in tears after she read a story I did about her. She told me: "Grazie, sonny boy. Thank you for saving my life in these words. Now nobuddy is gonna forget me."
But it wasn't until I began to submit my own writing to publications that I realized that disseminating my work would demand political action. All the reading I had done told me that my story could not only be written, but that it had to be written. The reading I had done became the foundation upon which I would build my own career as a writer.
At the base of that foundation was Pietro di Donato, whose first story, Christ in Concrete, which dramatized the early death of his father in a construction accident, had grown into a novel of the same name, and became the main selection of the Book of the Month Club, chosen over John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. I learned that di Donato had never intended to be a writer, but the novel's success placed him in a national spotlight. Published during a time when the worker-writer was often posed as an American hero, di Donato's novel has remained conspicuously absent in critical studies of American literature. Through his novel, I better understood what happened to me after my father was killed, and how I, at the age of 10, had suddenly become the man in the house.
In John Fante I found the Italian-American Hemingway. He wanted to be a writer so badly that he sent stories, accompanied by long letters to H. L. Mencken, then one of the leading voices of American literature. Mencken rejected the stories and published the letters. By 1940, Fante had already published half of his lifetime production of short stories in national magazines such as "The American Mercury, The Atlantic Monthly, " Harper's Bazaar and Scribner's Magazine, and had also published two novels and a collection of his stories (Dago Red, 1940). His four-book saga of Arturo Bandini, of which Wait Until Spring, Bandini! is the first, follows a young Italian Catholic who lights out for California with the intent of escaping his family and its ethnicity by becoming a writer. All of Fante's work spoke to me with a voice that drowned out all the American literature I had read in school.
When I discovered Jerre Mangione's Mount Allegro (1943) I decided I had to meet him and to see if I could get him to read my novel. I ran into him at an American Italian Historical Association (AIHA) conference, and got him to agree to read some of my work. As he was leaving the hotel with his suitcase in hand, I pulled out a 500-page manuscript that I stuffed into his already over-packed suitcase against his shocked protest. Mangione, one of the most celebrated Italian-American writers, took the work and later gave me the most solid criticism I had ever received. Years later, the Library of Congress honored his career with a special exhibit, and I have become his literary executor. His first book, Mount Allegro is the first of four non-fictional books.
When I found Mari Tomasi's Deep Grow the Roots (1940) and Like Lesser Gods (1949), I read, for the first time a work by an Italian-American woman. Her realistic portrayal of the plight of immigrant granite workers in Barre, Vt., made me realize why my grandfather had taken so much pride in his menial work. Through Tomasi, Julia Savarese, The Weak and the Strong, (1952) and Marion Benasutti No Steady Job for Papa (1966), I better understood my own family's struggle to survive immigration and the Great Depression.
All this reading inspired me to try my hand at writing. My first attempt was a novel that received mixed reactions from a number of editors. One suggested that I follow in Puzo's footsteps and heighten the Mafia material that he was certain was lurking under the surface of my story; another suggested that I change the characters' ethnicity because Italian Americans do not read and so could not be counted on to buy the book, and because Italian-American characters could even alienate those who did buy books, unless of course I was willing to tell more about the many murders that occurred in my family's past. Not willing to follow any of these suggestions, I put aside my fiction thinking that before I could do anything with my novel, I had to change the mistaken notions of those editors. I believed that if I could prove there was Italian-American literature beyond Mafia stories, and that it did not depend on a distinctive Italian-American audience, then my own writing would have a tradition and I a place in it.
From my studies in American literature, I had learned that a tradition is built when writers read each other and learn to either extend or escape what has come before. This process requires literary models, something Italian Americans such as Louise DeSalvo could not find. As she tells us in her memoir Vertigo (1996), "Though I had read scores of books, not one had been written by an Italian-American woman. I had no role model among the women of my background to urge me on." For DeSalvo, and other Italian Americans born in the 1940s, a sense of Italian-American culture and identity would come from one's family and perhaps one's neighborhood, but certainly not from school. Without Italian-American models in educational institutions, those, like DeSalvo who would choose to become teachers and writers, would need to look elsewhere. As Alice Walker tells us in her essay, "Saving the Life That is Your Own:" "The absence of models, in literature as in life, . . . is an occupational hazard for the artist, simply because models in art, in behavior, in growth of spirit and intellect -- even if rejected -- enrich and enlarge one's view of existence." And this is what these writers did for me; they enlarged my view of existence as an American of Italian descent. Toward the end of this essay, Walker writes: "It is, in the end, the saving of lives that we writers are about. Whether we are 'minority' writers or 'majority.' It is simply in our power to do this."
Italian-American writers had saved my life by lifting my eyes to the horizons that lie beyond my neighborhood. They had given me a new respect for my culture, but more than anything, all this reading extended my sense of family. In the poets, John Ciardi, Felix Stefanile, and Joseph Tusiani, I found artists who could have been my uncles. Helen Barolini's Umbertina (1979) helped me to understand the women in my family. At most of my family's gatherings, the men would gather in one spot and the women in the other, and Barolini's The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women (1985) helped me to better understand why women would shift into Italian whenever I would drift near their side of the room. The anthology, by winning an American Book Award, was proof that the rest of the world was beginning to take Italian-American literature seriously.
Joseph Papaleo's two novels, All the Comforts (1967) and Out of Place (1970) which both deal with the struggle of the second-generation of Italian American to find a respectable place in American society, helped me to understand the passionate life my father led. And when I found Ben Morreale's novels The Seventh Saracen (1958) and A Few Virtuous Men, (1973) I learned about Sicily and what it is like to live on the other side of the Mafia. In Monday Tuesday Never Come Sunday (1977) he recounts 1930s life in a New York Little Italy that defies cinematic stereotypes. And his latest novel, The Loss of the Miraculous (1997), spins a tale of love, art, and loss through an old Sicilian painter. Josephine Gattuso Hendin's The Right Thing to Do, (1986) which won an American Book Award, is a powerful account of the relationship between an old world father and a new world daughter. Hendin helped me understand the story my mother tells of how she had once followed her brother across the railroad tracks, and as punishment my grandfather tied her to a chair in the basement.
At the poetic foundation of my own rebellion in the 1960s, there were a number of Italian Americans, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Diane di Prima, who had a profound effect on America's poetry scene through the infamous Beat period of the early 1950s. Di Prima's autobiography Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969) and her forthcoming memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman, taught me that Italian-American women can break the hold of patriarchy. This struggle, recounted in the poetry of Maria Mazziotti Gillan (Where I Come From, 1995), and Daniela Gioseffi (Word Wounds and Water Flowers, 1995), made me realize that the world of my aunts was different from what I had thought.
In college I learned that the way to tell if a literature is growing is the arrival of serious humor and parody. I found the most eloquent tragi-comical Italian-American fiction in Valentino and the Great Italians, According to Anthony Valerio. Anthony Valerio elevated Bensonhurst Joes and Josephines, as easily (and as wittily) as he leveled the stature of such household names as Enrico Caruso, Frank Sinatra, and Joe Dimaggio. His earlier fiction in The Mediterranean Runs Through Brooklyn (1982) established him as a major voice of Italian-American culture, but his latest work, Conversation with Johnny will turn Italian America upside down.
What Mario Puzo romanticized in The Godfather(1969), what Gay Talese historicized in Honor Thy Father (1971), Giose Rimanelli parodied in Benedetta in Guysterland (1994). In my early days, Rimanelli had tended to me as though he was my literary Godfather, guiding me in new directions of reading. His Benedetta tells the story of America's flirtatious relationship with Italy and debunks the traditional stereotype of the Italian-American gangster through the love story of Clara "Benedetta Ashfield" and the real-life "mafioso" Joe Adonis.
Two writers who are have become like sister and brother to me are Tina DeRosa and Tony Ardizzone. When Tina De Rosa's novel, Paper Fish, was first published back in 1980, I must have bought 50 copies to give as gifts. The novel, in some of the most poetic prose to come from the hand of an Italian American, tells the story of a young girl growing up and out of a dying Little Italy. Unfortunately, after the press that first published it went out of business, the novel disappeared from those shelves, surfacing occasionally in used bookstores and in conference conversations. As the years went by I would send copies to editors and publishers hoping that one would see its value and reprint it. When I met Florence Howe of The Feminist Press in 1995, she took my suggestion seriously and Paper Fish was resurrected with an important "Afterword" by Edvige Giunta.
Tony Ardizzone, one of the best short story writers around, has been winning literary prizes for years. His Larabi's Ox: Stories of Morocco, published in 1993, earned the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the Chicago Foundation for Literature Award for Fiction, and a Pushcart Prize. His first story collection, The Evening News, won the prestigious Flannery O'Connor Award in 1986. His latest story collection, Taking it Home: Stories from the Neighborhood (1996) features stories set in Chicago and filled with Italian-American and Catholic themes and characters.
The writing of Italian-American gays and lesbians have taught me much about why my family shows their respect and their fear of some of my cousins through silence. Theresa Carilli's Women as Lovers (1996) and Rachel Guido DeVries' novel Tender Warriors (1986) demystified the notion of the stereotypical, happy and warm Italian family. Her poetry, How to Sing to a Dago (1995) denies the nostalgia of the immigrant myth through lyric reinventions of what it means to be Italian American. Likewise, the fine novels of the late Robert Ferro explore the complex relationships among gay Italian Americans, their families, and straight and gay communities. Rose Romano, poet, editor, and publisher of Malafemmina Press, presents a more politicized persona through her publications and her own poetry. Besides bringing lesbian issues to the forefront, she has also advocated the Italian-American position in the multi-cultural arena through her books: Vendetta (1992) and The Wop Factor (1994).
As my own career in academia grew, I gained strength through reading the criticism of Robert Viscusi whose imaginative memoir Astoria (1995), which can be read as part novel and part cultural criticism, won an American Book Award and established his reputation as one of Italian America's leading writers.
This power of literature to create identity and community has taken a long time for Italian Americans to realize. Louise De Salvo, the winner of the first Gay Talese literary prize, a $10,000 award presented by UNICO, has written: "It is as simple as this, reading and writing about what I have read have saved my life;" those words could be mine, for not only has reading kept me from becoming a gangster, but it has made me a professor who realizes that if reading can save a life, then it must be true that literature can save a culture. If you are what you read, then you are not Italian American until you read Italian American writers.
* This essay was originally presented at The Italian-American Writer 1997, the Fall of 1997 Symposium sponsored by the Center for Italian Studies of SUNY Stony Brook, and is based on an article that appeared in the Spring, 1997 issue of Italian America published by the Order Sons of Italy in America.