South of Rome–West of Ellis Island
South of Rome–West of Ellis Island
As the empiricist said to the metaphysician: “Should I believe you or my lying eyes.”
The first generation of Italian Americans (pre-1920 immigrants) lived in ethnically and culturally homogeneous city neighborhoods called “
By the 1950s the 2nd generation adults began moving to the suburbs with their 3rd generation children. Accordingly, the 3rd generation (current age approximately 60) is a culturally hybrid generation. Born in the years surrounding WW II and raised during their early years in “Little Italy”; they matured in ethnically and culturally heterogeneous suburbs. They inter-married with non-Italian Americans and raised a fully suburbanized genetically and culturally hybrid 4th generation of Italian Americans. The 4th (current age approximately 40) generation cohort is currently raising the 5th generation (age approximately 20) Italian Americans. As each generation increased the number of mixed marriages (i.e. Italians and non-Italian spouses) they became genetically and culturally less Italian than the previous generation. In short, it is no longer clear what exactly we mean by Italian Americans.
In the absence of comprehensive systematic social scientific studies that ‘precisely’ define a group and describe its culture, the study of an ethnic culture must revert to the historian’s method of deducing from documents ‘approximately’ the group’s membership and cultural characteristics. Accordingly, given the dearth of social scientific studies of suburban 3rd, 4th and 5th generation Italian Americans, the primary basis for the study of today’s Italian American culture is Italian American literature. From anecdotal critical studies of Italian American literature, we try to make generalizations about ‘who they are’ and the characteristics of their culture?
A distinction should be made between two types of literary criticism: ‘aesthetic literary criticism’ and ‘cultural literary criticism’. ‘Aesthetic literary criticism’ is literary criticism per se. It is the study of the aesthetic characteristics of literary works. The objective of this type of criticism is to achieve an understanding of ‘what’ the author was trying to accomplish, ‘how’ s/he proceeded towards that goal, ‘why’ the work succeeds or fails and, finally, a comparative aesthetic judgment about the ‘beauty’ of the work visa vis paradigmatic works. Thus, for example, an Aristotelian critique of Aeschylus’ tragedy “The Persians” would be based on the aesthetic doctrine developed in the “Poetics”. The play would be analyzed in terms of the tragic objective “Catharsis, the means to achieve it ‘the three unities’, and a comparative analysis with other Greek Tragedies such as Oedipus.
‘Cultural literary criticism’ is not concerned with the beauty of a work; rather, it is an attempt to deduce from literature the values, opinions or more generally the “state of mind” of the people in the cultural milieu. Cultural literary criticism is essentially an historiographic or hermeneutic tool for recreating and understanding the culture of societies or groups within a society. Thus, a cultural criticism of Greek tragedies tries to determine the values and opinions of the ancient Greeks. For example, what can be determined from Aeschylus’ tragedy “The Persians” about the ‘attitude of the Greeks’ towards Persians; more specifically those of the Sicilian-Greeks.
Fred L. Gardaphe’s “Italian Signs, American Streets” is an example of contemporary cultural literary criticism. He writes:
“This book is…my attempt to…form a critical approach to Italian American Literature that identifies and analyzes the Italian signs present in [the literature and] to explain the place of writing in the process of cultural transmission…” (emp.+ p4)
Clearly, what Prof. Gardaphe means by literary criticism is a study of culture. Indeed, a sub-title in the “Introduction” reads: “Making History: Creating a Culture-Specific Criticism” (emp.+ p5). More specifically, he intends to study the culture of the Italian American group within the American society. He writes:
“I present a way of identifying the distinctive features of the writing of Italian Americans … a cultural self-inventory which contain the Italian signs generated through codes specific to Italian and Italian American cultures.” (emp.+ p10) Prof. Gardaphe proposes to study Italian American Literature to find the “signs” or traces of the Italian American culture in that literature. More specifically, his method entails:
“… an attempt to categorize the diverse texts created by American writers of Italian descent and to form a critical approach to these texts that identifies and analyzes the Italian signs present in these American artifacts” (p 4) In short, he sub-divides the “eighty year history [1920 to 1996] of Italian American Literature” into three categories which, following Vico’s philosophy of history, he calls: poetic, mythic and philosophical. “These three stages represent periods that mark the evolution of [Italian American] narrative production. (p 17)
In each category, he looks for:
“Italian signs signifying Italianità, or the qualities associated with Italian culture. The most obvious signs will be the lexical units that appear in the Italian language or dialectal variants. Beyond language, there are two cultural codes that govern public behavior: omertà, the code of silence that governs what is spoken or not spoken about in public, and bella figura, the code of proper presence or social behavior that governs an individual's public presence. (p 20)
Thus, the method as described is empirical, in that Prof. Gardaphe will ‘look’ at the text to SEE if there are “signs signifying Italianità”. Presumably, if there are no signs to SEE, then the work will not be judged a manifestation of Italian American culture. This empirical method of analysis is effectively executed for the poetic mode narratives, created by first generation immigrants, and mythic mode narratives created by 2nd and 3rd generation writers. However, the third “philosophical mode”, in my judgment, is problematic, in that the analysis ceases to be empirical and becomes inferential based on questionable tacit assumptions.
The Poetic Mode in the history of Italian American literature entails:
“Oral traditions and the narrative autobiographies of immigrants …These narrative constructions are rooted heavily in Italian folk culture, reveal a dominance of Italian over American traits, and display a fairly extensive use of Italian language… there is a movement of the Italian alien subject toward conformity with mainstream American society. (p 16) Examples of poetic stage narratives created by immigrants are: Constantine Panunzio’s “The Soul of an Immigrant”, Pascal D'Angelo’s “Son of Italy”, and Marie Hall’s “Ets Rosa”. (p21)
As stated, the analysis of this mode is empirical. Prof. Gardarphè writes: “Narratives in the poetic mode are strongly connected to the oral traditions of Italian preindustrial culture.” (p 25) For example, “there are many references to the plight of the Italian peasant being the same as that of the donkey, the typical beast of burden in southern
Similarly, the mythic mode narratives are divided into three phases and analyzed empirically for “signs of Italianità.” Beginning with “works created by children of immigrants…these texts use such figures as Christ and the Madonna to encode Italianitα…the primary texts considered are Pietro di Donato's Christ in Concrete ( 1939), John Fante Wait until Spring, Ban dini (1938), and Jerre Mangione Mount Allegro ( 1943). (p22)
Prof. Gardaphe then goes on to analyze, mythic mode in terms of “…models of behavior based on heroic figures who inspire a struggle with destiny…(p16) “…the dominant heroes are the figures of the immigrant and the godfather (p21) For example, “the Mafia myth in Mario Puzo The Godfather ( 1969), Gay Talese Honor Thy Father ( 1971), and Giose Rimanelli Benedetta in Guysterland (written in the 1970s but published in 1993)” (p.22)
Finally, moving to mythic mode works of 3rd generation writers: “Italian Americans had assimilated into the larger American culture via educational institutions, intermarriage, and exodus from the "little
In short, like the poetic mode, all three aspects of the mythic mode are empirically analyzed. Prof. Gardaphe points out the “signs of Italianità” that clearly can be SEEN by any reader of the book. Put another way: if any of the books he presents were published anomalously, without the Italian name of the author to give any clue to their character, they still would be considered descriptions of Italian American culture. Further, it takes no special university hermenutic training to SEE the “signs of Italianità” in any of them.
Moving to the philosophical mode: Again, what differentiates the works in the philosophical mode [from the poetic and mythic] is the “invisibility” of the “signs of Italianita.” This is to say that the signs have to be hermeneutically (my word) revealed. Prof. Gardarphe writes: “Although linguistic signs of Italianness are not obvious, they are visible to the trained reader.” (p17) He goes on: “Even the most invisibly Italian American writers retain signs of their ethnicity that, when identified and read appropriately, can situate their works in a truly Italian American tradition…[he] discusses the disappearance of a distinctive Italian American subject in light of the advance of postmodernism and uncovers submerged signs of Italianitὰ that are imbedded, consciously or not, by these writers.” (emp+ p.23)
Representative writers of this mode are Don DeLillo and Gilbert Sorrention:
“[who] have not been read as proponents of an Italian American literary tradition [because] their work has yet to be read for signs of Italianità.” (p 154) In part, they have been ignored because they are “(in) visible ethnics…[who] rarely choose to deal with distinctly Italian American subjects.” (p154) Further, “These authors may have avoided or suppressed dominant ethnic traits in their attempts to transcend ethnicity…” (emp.+ p.155)
In what is otherwise a great book and magnificent contribution to Italian American literary criticism, history and culture; I find this section incomprehensible. Personally, I’m not comfortable with invisibles. As the empiricist said to the metaphysician: “Should I believe you or my lying eyes.”
Further, more importantly and coming full circle to the beginning of this commentary, from the point of view of cultural literary criticism; Prof. Gardaphe, refuses to accept a more (to my mind) rational cultural implication of the “philosophic” mode narratives. He writes:
“According to Richard Alba's notion of the "twilight of ethnicity"… traditionally stable signs of Italian American ethnicity diminish over time, inevitably disappearing entirely… However, twilight has a way of obscuring signs that are visible during other times of the day...” (p154)
Seemingly, Prof. Gardaphe, resorting to the metaphoric, cannot accept the empirical implication of writers like Sorrentino and DiLillo: as we approach the 6th generation of Italian Americans, the process of assimilation is completed and the culture of the 1st-3rd is passing. I am not say that is the case. However, it is a distinct possibility that in the absence of empirical social scientific study has to be entertained.
Ironically, Prof. Gardaphe, in has epilogue discussion of the Mary Caponegro’s work, has pointed to what may in fact be the basis of an Italian American cultural renaissance. He writes:
“The short stories of Mary Caponegro represent the effects of advanced assimilation on the contemporary American writer of Italian descent…Caponegro's writing, not surprisingly, contains few signs of Italianità…she did not grow up in an Italian American urban ghetto. Her education at
There is, what I judge, significant evidence that Americans of Italian descent who have no living memory of the immigrant culture are increasingly traveling to