It is not clear who is responsible: maybe the Mafia, possibly on behalf of Gene Pope the owner of the Progresso Italo-Americano, by Tresca accused of being a "gangster and a racketeer" , or maybe the fascists, or the Communists, namely the Stalinists against whom Tresca had published on the occasion of the harsh controversy over the civil war in Spain.
What are the themes that mainly recur in the literary production of the Italians in America?
Is there something that changes over the years? There is always an obvious autobiographical part. Before the great emigration, immigrants could reach the US only by sailing ships: it was a trip, "from the earth to the moon". In the first volume of Italoamericana I tell about people who made seven times the tour of the world: exceptional resourcefulness and spirit of adventure, an elite emigration made for example of political refugees forming cells of Mazzini's Young Italy.
They tell about themselves, they do engage in proselytism, it is much easier to integrate because they had high culture and they came from a land highly regarded in America. Many of the Founding Fathers knew the Italian language, and all the American iconography comes from the experience of ancient Rome, with the eagle and the Latin motto; besides, America has a strong sympathy for the renaissance wars. When Garibaldi arrived in New York in it was as if the most popular person in the world came into town: he is received with all the honors and refuses to stay in the luxury hotel indicated by the city, humbly preferring Meucci's house in Staten Island: this too adds consideration towards him.
Then, this "falling in love" towards Italy drops significantly when the emigrants begin to come, bringing another kind of Italy. But there is a continuity between the stories pre and the poorer and more dramatic ones of the great emigration. For example, Lorenzo Da Ponte is almost a prototype of the emigrant. He is a great poet in Vienna, with very high profile and reputation, who at 50 years a very advanced age for that period , chased by creditors, goes to America.
And there he has to invent a whole new life: as a revered poet he becomes a shopkeeper in Philadelphia, re-establishing its existence and only after he succeeds in being appointed director of an Italian school in New York and then the beginner of the exportation of classical music in America.
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So there is a path of an intellectual who starts to do manual labor - a very rare thing - and only after starts to do things most prestigious and less poor: anticipating the epic story of all those who laboriously climbed the social American ladder, or allowed that to their children, thanks to manual and very little intellectual jobs. The American social elevator allowed him to go back , something that could not have happened in Italy. The themes of the emigration literature then become "How I built America": those who traveled feel legitimated to tell their stories, because they know they have done something important and courageous There's the memory of their distant country, but also the ability to describe the new world, particularly in the New York theater scene of the early twentieth century, such as in Eduardo Migliaccio - Farfariello in art - that having seen the Neapolitan "macchietta" in Naples has the great intuition to take it to New York, setting it there in the world of the Italian Americans, inventing characters like "ondertecco" the undertaker , or "il cafone" the peasant.
Another very important issue is women, or themes in which America is very different from Italy. There is no country in the world at that moment where women's rights are more ahead than in America. For example, in "The Mysteries of Mulberry Street" there is a paradox: the heart of the story is about an Italian woman married to a criminal, who fled to America.
She emigrates to reach him, but when she comes to New York she realizes how much he is now despicable and compromised with the law. In the meantime, she falls in love with another man, but being married in Italy, where - unlike America — she cannot get a divorce, she cannot fulfill her love dream of love.
In contrast, however, in America there is the death penalty, while not anymore in Italy: Ciambelli here describes how on one aspect a country is more progressive than the other, and how this situation completely changes on another topic. Italians were discriminated, described as criminals and ignorant. They were "revenged" by some artists and athletes, who demonstrated that Italians were able to do something more than hand labors. Were there names in the field of literature that also made them proud of their origin? No, there are no stars of this magnitude that appreciated also by the Americans, in the first generation, which, remember, writes in Italian.
The performing arts are those that begin to give satisfaction with the second generation: indeed Italians Catholics read very few, their religion forbade that to them, unlike - to stay among the emigrants to America - the Jews, where everyone knows how to read and write, differently from the Italians. So among the Italians music and theater are the art forms more easily appreciated.
The first author in chronological order that can be mentioned is Frank Capra, who wrote in Italian newspaper dedicated to our emigrants. A superstar is Rudolph Valentino, who publishes a book of poetry in English, but obviously cinema is why he was famous. The first real success came with Pascal D'Angelo, an immigrant who came from Sulmona where he was a pastor. Once he abandoned Abruzzi and his sheep, walking around with an English vocabulary in his pocket and forcing himself every night to learn some new words in his new language, in the mid 20's he won a national poetry contest and published a book in English called "Son of Italy".
He died poor a little later, but at that moment he became a national case, the first to surge to general public attention. Did the several Italian American newspapers have a big role in promoting these matters? For the first generation, the Italian periodical press was fundamental. The novels of Bernardino Ciambelli, but also many poems and other documents, were published in the first instance in the newspapers, divided into episodes.
It is a great source of information, unfortunately difficult to access because the collections are incomplete, as I said the paper is extremely fragile, and because it is not online nor digitalized; there is microfilmed material, but it is not complete and it is spread between various locations such as Minneapolis, Boston, New York, Florence and others.
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Besides, Italy has never bothered to exploit this literary production: on the contrary, it has always been said that great things made by the Italian Americans are only to be found in industry, manual things, but not in literature. Instead, compared to the Italian literary production of the time, which was built by intellectual elite enough away from everyday life, in these Italian American documents there is life, concrete and real: the suffering, the experiences of a dramatic and exciting phenomenon as the emigration. Snubbing them as has been done, considering them of little quality, it was not particularly wise.
The Little Italies were on one hand a ghetto, because they allowed to keep on speaking Italian, or even the dialect, because there was no need to learn English; on the other hand, however, they were also the places of aggregation where the new Italy was getting created, where the emigrants were integrated with each other by turning from Calabrian or Sicilian or Neapolitan to Italians, before to become Americans.
If you had to name the most important Italian American writers of the twentieth century, what are the names that come to your mind? Richard Russo won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago. There is Philip Lamantia, there is Mario Puzo. And of course there's John Fante. We believe that, here in Italy, the knowledge of the Italian experience in America over the decades unfortunately remains still marginal.
Could their literature have a key role in this endevour? There are really very few cases of publication in Italy of something from the Italian American writers of the first generation. One in particular, Paul Pallavicini, was published: he was a man from northern Italy who emigrated to California, in what was then known as the model colony, where the Italians were better integrated because they were not gathered and pressed-up in big cities, but many of them worked in agriculture or in the vineyards.
Later, the second and third generations have often produced works that told the experience of the first generation. These second and third generations are responsible to tell these stories, finally published, both in America and in Italy. Even cinema has done this: think about the Godfather saga. At the end of the '60s, an era full of antifamiliar claims, Puzo wrote a book in which the family is the center of everything.
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No matter if is a crime family, it however refers to an Italian epic that holds everything together and still manages to save this fundamental cell of society. Le sue opere costituiscono il lavoro definitivo con riferimento alla produzione letteraria, sconosciuta prima dei suoi libri, dei nostri connazionali che andarono in America, prima e dopo la grande emigrazione. Ce ne parla brevemente? Io ho iniziato ad occuparmi di questi temi grazie a John Fante.
I miei libri su questo argomento sono i due volumi di Italoamericana, la raccolta uscita per Mondadori col primo volume nel , che tratta della letteratura dei nostri emigrati in America dal al , e col secondo volume nel , coprendo il periodo che va dal al Dopo la mia ricerca i titoli diventarono Quali sono i temi che principalmente ricorrono nella produzione letteraria degli italiani in America?
Un altro tema molto presente sono le donne. Lei emigra per raggiungerlo, ma quando arriva a New York si rende conto di quanto lui sia ormai spregevole e compromesso con la giustizia. Ci furono nella letteratura nomi che parimenti li resero orgogliosi della loro provenienza? Per la prima generazione la stampa periodica italiana fu fondamentale. I romanzi di Bernardino Ciambelli, ma anche tante poesie e altri testi, venivano pubblicati in prima battuta sui giornali, a puntate.
Anche dal punto di vista della letteratura, le Little Italies ebbero una grande importanza …. Richard Russo ha vinto il premio pulitzer pochi anni fa.
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