Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative

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In the first major critical reading of Italian American narrative literature in two decades, Fred L. Gardaphé presents an interpretive overview of Italian American literary history. Examining works from the turn of the twentieth century to the present, he develops a new perspective—variously historical, philosophical, and cultural—by which American writers of Italian descent can be read, increasing the discursive power of an ethnic literature that has received too little serious critical attention.
Gardaphé draws on Vico’s concept of history, as well as the work of Gramsci, to establish a culture-specific approach to reading Italian American literature. He begins his historical reading with narratives informed by oral traditions, primarily autobiography and autobiographical fiction written by immigrants. From these earliest social–realist narratives, Gardaphé traces the evolution of this literature through tales of “the godfather” and the mafia; the “reinvention of ethnicity” in works by Helen Barolini, Tina DeRosa, and Carole Maso; the move beyond ethnicity in fiction by Don DeLillo and Gilbert Sorrentino; to the short fiction of Mary Caponegro, which points to a new direction in Italian American writing.
The result is both an ethnography of Italian American narrative and a model for reading the signs that mark the “self-fashioning” inherent in literary and cultural production. Italian Signs, American Streets promises to become a landmark in the understanding of literature and culture produced by Italian Americans. It will be of interest not only to students, critics, and scholars of this ethnic experience, but also to those concerned with American literature in general and the place of immigrant and ethnic literatures within that wide framework.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Bursting with energy and insights. Fred Gardaphé has added a powerful and original chapter to the literary history of modern America.”—Frank Lentricchia
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822317395
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 3/28/1996
  • Series: New Americanists Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 241
  • Lexile: 1430L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 9.07 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author

Fred L. Gardaphé is Professor of English at Columbia College, Chicago. He is the editor of Italian American Ways and author of Dagoes Read: Tradition and the Italian American Writer.

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Italian Signs, American Streets

The Evolution of Italian American Narrative

By Fred L. Gardaphé

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-1739-5


Narrative in the Poetic Mode

If the peoples were established by laws, and if among all these peoples the laws were given in verse, and if the first institutions of these peoples were likewise preserved in verse, it necessarily follows that all the first peoples were poets. Giambattista Vico, book 2, "Poetic Wisdom"

The poetic mode of narrative development, rooted in an oral tradition, represents the beginning of the growth of a distinct literary tradition that follows Vico's depiction of the movement from vero narratio, or the poetic stage of cultural development, into the mythic. Vico refers to this period as the Age of Gods, and thus the literature produced during this period reveals strong beliefs in the divine. Vico sees the poets as the "sense" of the human race (110) and the earliest "makers" of human stories or history. I use this meaning of poet-as-maker when I apply the phrase "poetic mode" to Rosa (1970), the as-told-to autobiography of Rosa Cavalleri; to Son of Italy (1924), by Pascal D'Angelo; and to The Soul of an Immigrant (1921), by Constantine Panunzio. These narratives are representative of texts created out of elements of the oral tradition, and they represent some of the earliest Italian American narrative contributions to American culture.

Immigrant Autobiography: From Oral Tradition to Written Word

Immigrant Autobiography, informed by a pre-metropolitan self, witnesses through its very own shock-ridden plot, the birth of the modern self and condition, the American condition par excellence. William Boelhower, Immigrant Autobiography in the United States

Italian Americans are heirs to a rich oral culture, one that once was passed on from generation to generation not by diaries, lettters, short stories, or novels, but by word of mouth. In the villages and towns of Italy, the cantastorie, or "history singers," were (and in many cases still are) the custodians of local tradition. Within the family, children learned by listening, watching, and imitating. Books were not a part of peasant life in southern Italy, nor were they an integral part of Italians' adaptation to American life. In America, Italian oral culture collided with the literary traditions of Anglo-Saxon culture, and for a long time learning how to write (more often than not for the first time) in the language of the adopted country would be synonymous with becoming American. Creating texts through narrative contributed to the re-creation of selves forged out of the elements of Italian and American cultures. Rosa's voice, D'Angelo's text, and Panunzio's figura of the model American each represent key stages in the self-refashioning that occurred through the immigrant experience as it was (re)presented in writing.

Narratives in the poetic mode are strongly connected to the oral traditions of Italian preindustrial culture. Familiarity with distinctive characteristics of these narratives will help us to identify these texts as bridges between the primary oral culture and the newly literate culture. In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong identifies a number of elements found in oral and literate cultures. Of these, "the heroic tradition of primary oral culture and of early literate culture with massive oral residue, relates to the agonistic lifestyle. Oral memory works with heavy characters and the bizarre" (49). All three narratives under discussion in this chapter contain rich examples of such characters. From wizards and witches to bosses and "big brothers," these characters represent the powers that influence each narrator's world-view. The sentence structure of oral stories, Ong tells us, is characteristically simple. These simple sentences accumulate information rather than imbedding it in complex sentences filled with dependent clauses. Such a structure facilitates recall, a necessity in cultures that rely on human memory for information storage and transmission. This characteristic is more obvious in the as-told-to narrative of Rosa Cavalleri, but it is also found in a lesser degree in the more literary autobiographies of D'Angelo and Panunzio.

Other identifying characteristics of a primary oral culture recognizable in these texts are the use of repetition and the use of present tense—techniques that live storytellers often employ to create a sense of things happening right before the listeners' eyes. Ong also tells us that "oral cultures tend to use concepts in situational, operational frames of reference that are minimally abstract in the sense that they remain close to the living human lifeworld" (Orality and Literacy, 49). This predominance of the concrete over the abstract is more obvious in Rosa's narrative, but again, it also appears to a lesser degree in the narratives of D'Angelo and Panunzio. All three narratives contain a rich sampling of these elements while they also provide the materials out of which we can begin to fashion the origins of an Italian American culture.

The Signifying Donkey: From Voice to Text to Figura

Signifyin(g), in other words, is synonymous with figuration. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey

Most of the Italians who immigrated to America between 1880 and 1920 came from a peasant culture based on oral traditions. Books were not among the possessions they carried along in the move to America. In Italy, literacy was a tool used by those in power to exercise and protect their power over others. The Italian institutions of church and state controlled access to this power by controlling access to literacy. It is no wonder, then, that the majority of Italians who immigrated to America were illiterate people who had had no power to control their lives in Italy. In essence, they were considered subhuman by those who held power over them. 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 Italy. Ignazio Buttitta's poem from the early 1920s, "Lu sceccu," or "The Ass," is a prime example. In the poem, here translated from the Sicilian into English by Justin Vitiello, Buttitta uses the donkey as a metaphor for the peasant:

    The Donkey

    The wretch drags the chain
    and the dumb donkey bears it,
    harnessed from dusk till dawn
    to the mill, back and forth —
    a thrashing is the rule
    as the boss strides the rump.

    Bray, the bridle will slash,
    paw, the spurs will grind,
    tote wheat, but straw
    and chaff is what you eat.
    Such is the lot of the wretch
    under the whip and rein,
    his neck, under the yoke,
    groomed with a curry comb

    and trampled by the procession
    of kings, nobles, prelates
    drawing blood from the eyes
    of the poor, blind and sick.
    Ecce "the family of man"—
    evil is the wretch's lot.

This is precisely the way of life that many of those who immigrated to the United States were hoping to change. While immigration was the first step in gaining greater control over one's life, the acquisition of literacy in America would become a way of maintaining and increasing that control. Acquiring the ability to signify the immigrant experience would become the key to shifting from the powerlessness of an oral culture ruled by destiny to a written culture in which one could exercise greater control over one's life. This transition, however, did not happen cleanly or completely in the life of every immigrant. The texts created by the three narrators under consideration here fluctuate between the oral and literate styles just as they fluctuate between identification with Italian and American cultures. Rosa is consistently much more closely tied to oral traditions than Son of Italy, and The Soul of an Immigrant is even less connected to the oral than the other two. Together, however, these three narratives represent a foundation on which a distinct Italian American literary tradition can be built.

It has taken three generations and more than one hundred years of Italian presence in America to produce a literature that can be called Italian American. The number of autobiographies produced in this literature is few in comparison with the number produced by other major ethnic groups. The paucity of self-reflective written works can be attributed to a number of causes: distrust of the written word, (an Italian proverb warns: Pensa motto, parla poco, e scrivi meno [Think a lot, speak little, and write even less]); the immigrant's distrust of social and educational institutions, which represent the ruling classes; and parents' failure to encourage children to pursue literary careers because the family needed the money each child could earn as soon as he or she was old enough to be employed. In spite of the low priority given to writing by Italian Americans on the whole, however, a number of authors have emerged to document the Italian American experience and create a literary tradition out of a strong oral tradition. In this respect, Italian American writers have much in common with writers from American Indian, Mexican American, and African American traditions. The strong storytelling traditions in Italian American oral culture are filled with tales that explain the reasons for traditional rituals and provide information about how to live one's life. These tales also enable us to examine the evolution of the Italian American's self-concept and its progression into the public discourse.

"The conscious awareness of the singularity of each individual life is the late product of a specific civilization," writes Georges Gusdorf in his essay "Conditions and Limits of Autobiography." "Throughout most of human history, the individual does not oppose himself to all others; he does not feel himself to exist outside of others, and still less against others, but very much with others in an interdependent existence that asserts its rhythms in the community" (29). The body of available literature on Italian oral traditions supports Gusdorf's observations. Telling the story of self in public was not part of any public cultural tradition south of Rome (the region from which more than 80 percent of the Italians who immigrated to America came). This point is supported by a number of studies of the traditions of Italian storytelling.

In Italian Folktales in America: The Verbal Art of an Immigrant Woman, Elizabeth Mathias and Richard Raspa present an in-depth look at what happened when a traditional tale teller, Clementina Tedesco, trained by a master storyteller in her native village of Faller in northern Italy, immigrated to America in 1930. Mathias and Raspa note that Tedesco's repertoire expanded from traditional märchen and legends representing an Italian communal experience to include personal, factual accounts of her immigration experience: "What emerged with Clementina in the new setting was a different way of communicating with others, still artistic, still startling in its power to evoke life, but no longer a part of a traditional art" (60). In the Italian oral tradition, the self is suppressed; it was not used as a source for storytelling in the communal settings of Italy, where one function of such stories was to create a temporary respite from the harsh realities of everyday peasant life. In his book about Tuscan oral traditions, Folklore by the Fireside, Alessandro Falassi cites a proverb that reveals a second function of traditional storytelling: La novella non è bella se non cè lagiuntarella (The story isn't good if it doesn't have its moral [37]). Traditional stories served both to entertain and to inform the young, while reminding the old of traditions that had endured over the years. Personal experience was kept to oneself.

Southern Italian culture is replete with aphorisms and proverbs that advise against revealing information that can be used against the self or the family: A chi dici il tuo secreto, doni la tua liherta (To whom you tell a secret, you give your freedom); Di il fatto tuo, e lasciafar il fatto tuo (Tell everyone your business and the devil will do it); Odi, vedi, e taci se vuoi viver in pace (Listen, watch, and keep quiet if you wish to live in peace). This tendency to keep to oneself has often been misinterpreted by other American groups, who see this characteristic silence, or omertá, as un-American. Mathias and Raspa suggest that this behavior changes through immigration. Once the Italian storyteller is uprooted, a sense of self begins to emerge as the dominant material for storytelling. This idea is echoed in Italian-American Folklore, a recent work on Italian American folklore by Frances Malpezzi and William M. Clements: "The storytelling that flowered among Italian Americans involved their own experiences and those of their family members who had gone through adventures which, though not as magical as the events that befell the heroes of the marchen and the protagonists of supernatural legends, involved just as much peril and had the advantage of immediacy and obvious relevance to those in the audience" (153). But even as storytellers shift toward recalling more personal stories, they continue to exercise caution concerning what can or cannot be communicated. Rosa, for example, changes the names of the people she talks about for fear that she might harm them or that they might be able to harm her or members of her family. And D'Angelo and Panunzio rarely include surnames of those who either helped or harmed them. In the immigrant experience we can locate the sources of an autobiographical tradition that pits Italian culture against American culture, creating a tension that guides the narrative. This tension emerges in the overriding theme of immigrant narratives, the flight to a better world or a promised land.

In America the immigrant had to learn a new system of codifying cultural signifiers, one that often conflicted with the immigrant's previous way of interpreting life. The resulting conflicts are obvious in the turn-of-the-century language encounters between Italian-speaking immigrants and the English-speaking Americans. Arrival in America also required the immigrant to develop a new sense of self in the context of the larger society. The experience of leaving the old country and arriving in the new is the primary subject of such early narratives as Constantine Panunzio's Soul of an Immigrant and Pascal D'Angelo's Son of Italy, and autobiographies narrated to those who could write English such as Rosa, the Life of an Italian Immigrant. Panunzio's autobiography contains two stories of conversions, both of which relate to his Americanization. The first is his conversion from Roman Catholicism to "American" religion (Protestantism), the second from Italian to American citizenship. His use of selections from English and American poetry to introduce each chapter provides evidence that he has come to understand and accept "the genius of the Anglo-Saxon mind and character of the soul of America" (Soul of an Immigrant, vii).

D'Angelo's story of his rise from illiterate, "hunger-artist" immigrant to citizen of literary America (through winning a national poetry contest) can be read as a version of the American success story modeled after Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography. D'Angelo's Son of Italy, like many African American slave narratives, is introduced by an established American, who functions as both authenticator and model reader. In D'Angelo's case the American is Carl Van Doren, former editor of the Nation, the magazine that awarded D'Angelo first prize in its 1922 poetry contest. Both Panunzio's and D'Angelo's autobiographies may have been subjected to editing; both authors apologize to their readers for their inadequacy with the English language. Indeed, we can assume that each experienced a great deal of editorial control in preparing his work. Soul of an Immigrant and Son of Italy are among the earliest Italian American autobiographies; they also represent the insertion of Italian contents into the more traditional American autobiographical forms of the conversion and success story.

Another dominant subject in immigrant autobiographies is the detailed descriptions of the incredibly difficult work the authors had to perform in order to survive. Like the figure of the donkey in Italian folklore, these peasants were "beasts of burden" until they were transformed into people by achieving the ability to signify their experiences in a language that Americans could understand. And while this signification rarely occurred in writing, the following three examples represent three distinct stages in the evolution of the Italian American narrative from its origins in oral tradition.

Rosa: The Voice of the Emergent Self

One of the strongest Italian American immigrant narratives is the story of Rosa Cavalleri as told to Marie Hall Ets, a social worker who met Rosa at the Chicago Commons, a settlement house for poor immigrants, in 1918. The illegitimate daughter of a famous Italian actress whose name she refuses to reveal, Rosa was abandoned at birth and spent her early years in a Catholic orphanage before being placed into a foster home. Rosa documents a young girl's life in an impoverished northern Italian village and her forced immigration to America to join her husband (a marriage arranged by her foster mother, who would not allow Rosa to marry the man to whom Rosa had earlier declared her love). The bulk of Rosa's narrative deals with her life in Italy; only the last ninety pages relate her experiences in the United States.


Excerpted from Italian Signs, American Streets by Fred L. Gardaphé. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


One: Narrative in the Poetic Mode,
Two: The Early Mythic Mode: From Autobiography to Autobiographical Fiction,
Three: The Middle Mythic Mode: Godfathers as Heroes, Variations on a Figure,
Four: The Later Mythic Mode: Reinventing Ethnicity through the Grandmother Figure,
Five: Narrative in the Philosophic Mode,
Works Cited,

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