In The Name of The Mother: Italian Americans, African Americans, and Modernity from Booker T. Washington to Bruce Springsteen
(Dartmouth College Press, 2017)
A recent article in the New York Times was titled, “How Italians Became ‘White,’” (Oct. 12, 2019), a seemingly radical idea until you start to dig into the social history of immigration. Many historians, for instance Jennifer Guglielmo in Living the Revolution, have shown how the media and most public institutions of the early 20th century categorized Italians as people of color. For instance, the police provided mugshots of Southern Italian women to the major newspapers of the time, including the New York Times and Life magazine, which framed the women as genetically prone to anger and violence, both creating and fulfilling a host of stereotypes from the association of Sicilians with the mafia to women gone bad to some lurid generalizations about the European and Global South. Whatever your assessment of this hypothesis on identity is, the takeaway is useful, that when we talk about immigrant communities, the long process of assimilation has snuffed out or masked a range of identities, alliances, and the presence of de facto matriarchy.
A new book by Samuele F.S. Pardini takes these considerations as a starting point and begins a journey into 150 years of media to explore the strata of identity, gender, sexuality, and laboring-class experience against the grain of what he calls “white” theory, which he says tends to flatten identity in a technical, generalizing haze. Using his sharpened tools of literary criticism and theory, Pardini works through novels, movies, and music and shows how, in the days before the (still incomplete) assimilation of Italian Americans into “white” culture, a constellation of writers, intellectuals, musicians, and activists in both communities found rewarding interpenetrations of their constructed identities.
All it takes to understand this is to see how mainstream magazines and newspapers such as Life magazine, and more lurid shots as in this image from the 1903 issue of Judge magazine.
Pardini starts right in with unique literary choices. In 1910, Booker T. Washington set out for Europe to seek out the “Man Farthest Down,” the eventual title of his 1912 book. Who, he asked, could be analogous to the black man in post-Reconstruction US? After touring much of Northern Europe, acquainting himself as well as he could with workers in Silesia, Russia, Germany, and Poland, societies in the throes of Industrial Era dumbbell-shaped extremes of wealth and poverty, Washington came upon Napoli and Sicily. He finally found the man “farthest down,” the Sicilian: “[T]he Negro is not the man farthest down. [Even]in the most backward parts of the Southern States of America, even where he has the least education and the least encouragement, [his condition] is comparably better than the condition and opportunities of the agricultural population in Sicily.” But further along in the book, as Pardini shows us, Washington concludes that ultimately, there is someone even further down; the women of Sicily, “are a species of property, live like prisoners in their own villages … live in a sort of mental and moral slavery under the control of their husbands and of the ignorant, and possibly vicious, village priests.”
Pardini questions Washington’s assumptions, as well as his sanguine belief that Sicilian women would benefit greatly from the “liberty” immediately available upon arriving on American shores. Pardini is also alert to Washington’s superficial glance at Sicilian culture, a complex amalgam in which forms of matriarchy play out in ways that are not obvious. One might wonder why Pardini has selected Washington at all, but it is precisely the contradictions within the text that make it so rewarding, especially if we are interested in artefacts of transcultural gaze. For every time Pardini presents Washington’s blind spots, such as his initial view of Sicilians as a “race of brigands,” or his assumption that Southern Italians see themselves as equal to animals because many houses (in a mountainous topography) have stalls on the first floor, he also locates Washington’s well-practiced instinct for the mechanisms of oppression. In his brief visit to Southern Italy, Washington traveled on chugging locomotives, into the hellish sulfur mines which employed abused and battered children, and across the many mountain villages. By the end, Washington concluded that Sicilians of that era were condemned to a bleak, scrabbling serfdom, even if he was not aware of the various causes of that condition: The distant, ethnocentric government of the new republic; the industrial complex that had bypassed the island, the lingering vestiges of feudalism, and the landed descendants of the haughty Bourbon aristocracy—still in power as late as 1860. As a counterpoint to Washington’s elision of women in Sicilian culture, Pardini draws our attention to the film Nuovomondo (2006), which centers the woman as the hub and de facto head of the immigrant family.
We then move on to a classic of Italian American literature, Jerre Mangione’s Mount Allegro, a novel and chronicle about Sicilian immigrants in Rochester, New York. Part of the history of labor in the U.S. is the role of workers from the European South and the Middle East. Industrial towns along the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers, such as Corning, NY, and Camden, NJ, were meccas for Southern Italian male workers. The early glass, paper, and radio/television industries provided a pathway to the middle class for these men and their families. At the same time, currents of subversion, and radicalism were brought into American capitalist life right at its root. Pardini illuminates how Mangione’s Sicilians presented a stout resistance to the economic panacea of surplus by prevailing domestic economies of sharing and service that were a huge threat to the foundational role of individualist consumption in the modern economy. When we read Mangione’s narrative of sharing, reciprocation, barter, and food culture it is a long, long way from marketers’ fixation with the loud, overburdened family table or gaudy, snack-happy street festivals. Sidestepping caricatures of Sicilians as mafia-centric, the ethical codes of Mangione’s Sicilians of Rochester illuminate the resistant nature of that culture, defying condescending offerings, whether in the U.S. or in Italy, where centralized institutions often sought to subdue rather than understand. Honor in Mount Allegro meant offering bed and board to visitors, faith was reserved for saints of localities far from the Roman center, and family meant networks of sharing and information. In this way, honor, faith, and family worked against the grain of paternalistic attempts to reform and educate Sicilians whether here—by way of the tender mercies of schoolteachers, bureaucrats, foremen, and pious aid societies—or there—by way of their bureaucrats and the schoolteachers and priests who touted the benefits of the new Republic of Italy.
Pardini next tackles, in an extraordinary chapter called “Structures of Invisible Blackness,” the interplay of otherness between Italian American and African American writers. In James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Richard Bruce Nugent’s Gentleman Jigger, Pardini finds that the homosexual relationships therein go far beyond subversive boundary crossing; Baldwin and Johnson unearth in the Italian figure of the young, dark Italian gangster a multiplicity of otherness: the illegality of their calling, the dissonance of their sexuality against the mainstream overlay of the masculinist “tough guy,” and the ways in which their “blackness” is socially constructed. In the working-class novel, Blood on the Forge, yet another parallel layer of experience is added, that of fellow industrial (exploited) workmen. All of this, of course, plays in the background of racial animus and violence between groups of working people, which stained the high industrial period, but that makes these literary moments all the more necessary to study.
Chapter four returns to what has become almost a ritual, the attempt to explain the fame and success of The Godfather novel and movies. Despite the way Puzo has been enlisted in the masculinization of Italian American culture, it is still rewarding to examine these works. Pardini does a superlative job of framing the first Godfather as a subversion of certain capitalist ideals, and the second as an epic of assimilation. Vito Corleone is very explicit, as is Puzo behind him, that he is a replacement for the welfare state, a crucial rewriting of the Al Capone tale. The growth of the mafia during the 1930s may well have been the side effect of Prohibition. However, Puzo is posing the attractions of a libertarian vision of local, even tribal, loyalty and self-sufficiency against Roosevelt’s nanny-state mechanisms, keeping in mind the generational distrust of government brought over from Southern Italy. Pardini finds that Michael Corleone’s version of donhood in Godfather II is a form of “passing,” as the new don’s more efficient, more centralized, less neighborhoody, and more professionally financed organization is indistinguishable from a modern corporation in all but the legality of its activities, if that. Once again, Pardini directs us to indispensable counterpoints in more contemporary works. These themes are taken up with great nuance by Don Delillo and Frank Lentricchia. For instance, in Underworld, Delillo mines for the dregs of extant uniqueness and authenticity even as it is literally being disposed of in the sanitation business, which provides the backdrop of the novel. Pardini demonstrates that we need a Delillo, at the very least because he refuses to let authenticity die.
In the next chapter, Pardini returns to the eponymous theme of the book, the figure of women in Italian American culture, in particular the Maria figure. He examines her appearance in the songs of Bruce Springsteen and in a number of novels, novels in the Italian American tradition that have all but disappeared from view even after the extended periods of curricular opening in the university. When do we read the extraordinary chronicles of labor and of matriarchy that were being produced throughout the first half of the 20th century? What happened to Christ in Concrete, The Fortunate Pilgrim, Umbertina, Maria, or Who Can Buy the Stars? Pardini offers compelling hypotheses for why, apart from college Italian courses, these books have all but disappeared from mainstream literary dialogue.
Speaking of mothers, it is good to be reminded of the de facto matriarch in the survival and success of early immigrant communities (another reason to read The Fortunate Pilgrim before, or instead of, The Godfather). As a number of social historians have documented, the Italian immigrant family kept constant connections with the homeland. Usually, male members of the family crisscrossed the Atlantic either to work back home or bring back money. Male members of the family might also travel out to worksites in other parts of North America, such as in the coal mines or railroads, or docks along the East Coast and in New Orleans. The mother would remain behind, working steadily, taking in piecework from manufacturers, raising the children, creating and maintaining a network of neighborhood relationships which were crucial in crisis moments, while keeping up a steady correspondence by letter. Those dark stuffy tenements in the photos of Jacob Riis or Lewis Hine might have been hovels but they were also national and transatlantic headquarters of extended families. My great aunt, for instance, in her 90s, can tell you the whereabouts, marital status, and current health of any of our nearly 200 cousins and other relatives across three continents. And that’s before she walks over to her computer. For her, a smartphone is not a lifeline; it’s pure synergy.
The final chapter further explores the interpenetration of African American and Italian American partnerships, looking at Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra as well as Bruce Springsteen and his longtime saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Pardini presents a number of surprising and complex statements from these matchups, unearthing Sinatra’s often forgotten writings on diversity, and arguing for a closer look at the subversive strands in Davis and Springsteen, a fitting conclusion to a study that is rich, comprehensive, and courageously argued.