Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940

Overview

Maligned by modern media and often stereotyped, Italian Americans possess a vibrant, if largely forgotten, radical past. In Italian Immigrant Radical Culture, Marcella Bencivenni delves into the history of the sovversivi, a transnational generation of social rebels, and offers a fascinating portrait of their political struggle as well as their milieu, beliefs, and artistic creativity in the United States.

As early as 1882, the sovversivi founded a socialist club in Brooklyn. ...

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Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940

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Overview

Maligned by modern media and often stereotyped, Italian Americans possess a vibrant, if largely forgotten, radical past. In Italian Immigrant Radical Culture, Marcella Bencivenni delves into the history of the sovversivi, a transnational generation of social rebels, and offers a fascinating portrait of their political struggle as well as their milieu, beliefs, and artistic creativity in the United States.

As early as 1882, the sovversivi founded a socialist club in Brooklyn. Radical organizations then multiplied and spread across the country, from large urban cities to smaller industrial mining areas. By 1900, thirty official Italian sections of the Socialist Party along the East Coast and countless independent anarchist and revolutionary circles sprang up throughout the nation. Forming their own alternative press, institutions, and working class organizations, these groups created a vigorous movement and counterculture that constituted a significant part of the American Left until World War II.

Italian Immigrant Radical Culture compellingly documents the wide spectrum of this oppositional culture and examines the many cultural and artistic forms it took, from newspapers to literature and poetry to theater and visual art. As the first cultural history of Italian American activism, it provides a richer understanding of the Italian immigrant experience while also deepening historical perceptions of radical politics and culture.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Italian Immigrant Radical Culture not only makes an important contribution to the history of the Italian-American left but, more broadly, reminds us of the importance of the cultural and literary dimension of radical politics in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century.” -Fraser Ottanelli,Professor of History, University of South Florida

“A welcome introduction to the poorly understood immigrant sovversivi, whose ideological commitments to revolution and emancipation as often found expression in poetry, theater, and the arts as on the picket line and in the radical press.”-Donna Gabaccia,University of Minnesota

“Utilizing a broad spectrum of materials from Italian archives and American repositories, Bencivenni penetrates deeply into a hitherto unexplored dimension of the lost world of Italian immigrant radicalism--its culture. With acute insight and intellectual sophistication, she provides a superb analysis of radical working-class poetry, drama, and art, together with vivid biographical portraits of principal contributors, both men and women, and their struggles against capitalist exploitation and fascist domination. Her book is a must for any scholar or general reader drawn to these fascinating subjects.” -Nunzio Pernicone,author of Italian Anarchism, 1864-1892

"Anyone interested in the topic will benefit from Bencivenni's deep understanding of her subject, her exhaustive research, and her clear organization and writing."-R.J. Goldstein,Choice

"Bencivenni has written an impressive book that nicely complements existing studies on Italian immigrants. It deserves a wide audience."-Mike Rosenow,H-Net Reviews

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814791035
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 5/9/2011
  • Pages: 287
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Marcella Bencivenni is Assistant Professor of History at Hostos Community College (CUNY).

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1 Italian American Radicalism: Old World Roots, New World Developments 7

2 The Sovversivi and Their Cultural World 37

3 A Literary Class War: The Italian American Radical Press 67

4 Politics and Leisure: The Italian American Radical Stage 99

5 Italian American Literary Radicalism 129

6 Arturo Giovannitti: Poet and Prophet of Labor 155

7 Allegories of Anti-Fascism: The Radical Cartoons of Fort Velona 187

Conclusion 221

Notes 225

Glossary of Frequently Used Italian Terms 269

Index 271

About the Author 279

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  • Posted May 4, 2012

    Review of Marcella Bencivenni's "Italian Immigrant Radical

    Review of Marcella Bencivenni's "Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940."

    Ernest Ialongo

    Bencivenni’s book uncovers the radical culture of America’s early Italian immigrants, and challenges the notion that Italian Americans are inherently a conservative group. It does so through prodigious archival research and a deep analysis of the cultural production of these Italian American radicals. Just as importantly, Bencivenni places Italian American radical culture within the broader context of political and cultural developments in Italy first, which formed the political sensibility and artistry of these radicals, and then in America where these radicals flourished.

    This global analysis of Italian American radical culture is evident throughout the book, from the università popolare to the cartoons of Fort Velona. In the former, Bencivenni notes the rise of these informal schools to politicize the working classes in Great Britain, then their spread through Europe and Italy, and finally their emergence in America. In the latter she notes the development of the cartoon as a means of social and political satire in early modern Italy, then its explosion as a means of political and social protest in Europe and the United States in the 19th century, and finally the cartoon’s mobilization by Italian American radicals to disseminate their particular message.

    Another strong characteristic of this book is its careful nature in drawing conclusions about the influence of Italian American radical culture on the wider Italian American community. For instance, Bencivenni admits that it is impossible to determine how many people attended a political lecture, but deduces from the press that large crowds did consistently attend these events, and thus they must have had some staying power. Moreover, she notes that “We will never know how many workers read or understood Giovannitti’s verses, but Giovannitti’s great reputation among the workers suggests that they nonetheless found his poetry moving and powerful.” (180)

    A further strength of this book is its analysis of the transmission of ideas. Bencivenni notes throughout her book that most of the Italian American immigrants were poorly educated, and many were illiterate. In order to penetrate their political ambivalence and learned subordination to the elites and the Church, Bencivenni shows how the visual nature of the radicals’ plays and cartoons and the simple didactic nature of their short stories conveyed the themes the radicals wished to spread: a critique of capitalism and its exploitation of the poor, socialism as an alternative, the role of the Church in keeping the masses submissive, and the role of the prominenti as the chief exploiters of their co-nationals. The radicals’ anti Fascist message, and the collusion of the US government, Church, and prominenti in Fascism’s success, was also effectively delivered in this method of simple and direct communication.

    Finally, I found most compelling Bencivenni’s investigation of the complexity of Italian American radical culture. Although it was steeped in the egalitarian, internationalist, and anti-clerical traditions of global socialism, Bencivenni notes that these Italian American radicals could not escape their Italian heritage, and thus their message to their co-nationals was quite complex. Though committed to egalitarianism, Bencivenni notes that the male radicals could not in real life bring themselves to support the complete equality of women. Though committed to internationalism, the radicals’ message was rooted in a pride for their Italian heritage. Finally, though anti clerical, much of their work was laced with religious imagery, or tied to Biblical stories, often with Jesus Christ remade as a modern revolutionary. Bencivenni does well to explore how much this complexity was a product of the Italian American radicals’ background, and how much this was purposefully done to speak directly to the masses in a language and with sentiments they would find familiar.

    This book is a welcome addition to the expanding list of works dealing with Italian American radicalism, and will no doubt remain a foundational work in the field for years to come.

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