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Mussolini and Fascism
The View from America
By John P. Diggins
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1972 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Arcadia and Mulberry Street: Two Italys in the American Mind on the Eve of Fascism
HOW THIS PEOPLE KEPT ANY SPARK OF SWEETNESS AND CHARITY AND HUMANITY ALIVE THROUGH THE BURNINGS AND MASSACRES OF THE MIDDLE AGES AND THROUGH THE WANTON WICKEDNESS OF THE RENAISSANCE, MUST ALWAYS BE A MATTER OF WONDER. AND NOW, IF ONE KNOWS HOW TO LIVE WITH THEM, THEY ARE THE SWEETEST PEOPLE ON EARTH. D7 I EVER COME BACK, MAY I BE BORN ITALIAN. Charles Eliot Norton, 1871
Romantic Pilgrims and the Concept of Italy
Italy is in some ways a concept as much as a country. For nineteenth-century Americans, it was a state of mind as well as a nation-state. Somewhere between the idea and the reality hovered a geographical abstraction that beguiled the imagination. "There are a good many things about this Italy which I do not understand," confessed Mark Twain in 1869. Over a century later Italy still appears a sunny enigma wrapped in the shadow of paradox: A nation steeped in history, a nation left behind by history; a culture rich in art and music, a culture poor in mass education and formal learning; a humane, ebullient, and kind people, an "inferior," indolent, and debauched people; a society ostensibly Catholic and spiritual, a social life unblushingly sensual and epicurean; a government of cool Machiavellian realism, a government of grandiose dreams and disastrous extremism; a country of genius and greatness, a country of tragedy and catastrophe.
These cliché-ridden contradictions serve to remind us that we have yet to unravel the ponderous mystery of Italy which is her enduring essence. Fortunately that is not our task here; it is, rather, to examine the angles of perception in order to ascertain the American image of Italy on the eve of Fascism. The purpose of this chapter is to suggest that much of the American reaction to the rise of Fascism was preconditioned by America's impressions of Italy in the years before World War I. Only by examining in all its ambiguity the constellation of these impressions can one fully understand America's response to Mussolini and his movement.
During the nineteenth century, Americans, insofar as they thought about the subject, entertained at least two distinct images of Italy. For lack of better terms we might call these two images the "romantic" and the "nativist." The romantic picture was conceptualized by travelers and writers who looked upon Italy as a conservatory of all the cultural values of the old world: creative spontaneity, artistic sensibility, moral idealism, and worldly experience. The nativist picture, by contrast, thrust itself upon the American mind with the sudden impact of Italian immigration at the turn of the century. The former image attracted those writers who, like Henry James, longed for richer experience and deeper self-fulfillment; the latter image repelled millions of Americans who, like Woodrow Wilson, feared the contagion of such old-world vices as ignorance, poverty, and oppression. The interplay of these two images goes far toward explaining America's peculiar perspectives on Italian Fascism.
From the earliest colonial times to the present age of jet-set affluence, Italy has remained for Americans one of the most visited countries in the world. Whether searching for salvation in St. Peter's basilica, for aesthetic sophistication among the Florentine cognoscenti, or for the "soft life" along the Via Veneto, Americans have never stopped journeying to the enchanted peninsula. Virgil hailed Italy as the "land of Saturn," and perhaps, as Luigi Barzini has observed, the Saturnian vision holds true for tourists as well as poets. For Saturnalia represents a brief period when everything is permitted, the tables are turned and mans deepest desires can be realized: the old feel rejuvenated, the young defy their elders, the ignorant outwit the learned, the poor command the rich, and the shy seduce the haughty. Perhaps Jefferson was one of the few American pilgrims to keep his head when he forsook the Florentine Maria Cosway for the more earthy romance of observing Italian rice production and architecture. But others succumbed to the vibrations of the heart and the visions of imagination. James Fenimore Cooper delighted in the misty shadows of the Italian landscape and the deep purple-blue colors of the Bay of Naples; Nathaniel Hawthorne found in the arid ruins and cold museums a "remote dreamlike Arcadian charm" which he later captured in symbol and allegory in The Marble Faun; and William Dean Howells discovered a Whitmanesque vitality in the common people which he described in the kaleidoscopic montage, Venetian Life. Henry James, arriving in Rome in 1869, exclaimed: "At last — for the first time, I live! For the first time I know what the picturesque is." Thereupon James used Italy as a setting for one of his most persistent literary themes: the dialectic of American innocence and European experience. Meanwhile others used Italy as a big game reserve where the symbols of artistic taste could be collected for a price. The nineteenth-century leisure class swarmed over the peninsula like cultural scavengers, engaging in what Lewis Mumford was later to term "the pillage of the past."
Most Americans who rejoiced in Italian culture also supported Italy's political causes. In the nineteenth century the political event in Italy that aroused America's intelligentsia was the Risorgimento. Throughout the long and arduous ordeal, the hearts of many Americans went out to the valiant Italians struggling for independence from Austria. Henry Adams praised the bold feats of General Garibaldi, Howells championed the statesman Massimo d'Azeglio, and Margaret Fuller preached the ideals of Mazzini and his republican nationalism. At one time or another, Hawthorne, Cooper, Melville, Longfellow, Tichnor, Emerson, Bryant, Lowell, and Whittier paid tribute in prose or verse to the cause of the Risorgimento. Yet some of the very writers who admired Italy's culture and political ideals could not sustain enduring enthusiasm for Italy itself. To Henry Adams, for example, Italy seemed, upon his first visit, the ultimate attainment which left life with "no richer impressions to give." Several years later, however, Adams maintained that no law of historical progress applied to Rome. "Not even time sequences had value for it," reflected the young historian for whom the timeless land of antiquity offered no clue to the enigma of existence. For Charles Eliot Norton, on the other hand, Italy offered no guidance because it had been blighted by the industrial and political vices of America. "The railroad whistle just behind the church of the Santa Maria Novella," Norton wrote to Chauncey Wright, "sounds precisely as it sounds on the Back Bay or at the Fitchburg station, — and it and the common school are Americanizing the land to a surprising degree. Happy country! Fortunate people! Before long they may hope for their Greeleys, their Beechers, and their Fisks." Mark Twain's disenchantment was even more devastating. Commenting upon the "priest-ridden" social order, the Barnum and Bailey gimmickry of the Colosseum, and the diabolical genius of that "operatic screamer" Lucretia Borgia, he described the country as a "vast museum of magnificence and misery." The irreverent Twain was as critical of pretentious American tourists as he was of pompous Italian guides, and he exasperated both when he remarked that he could not remember who Columbus was and that Venice reminded him of an Arkansas town after a spring flood.
But one reason Americans ignored Twain's advice to see Lake Tahoe instead of Lake Como was that Italy appeared an almost mythopoeic counterimage to America. Italian social customs especially offered an attractive alternative to the increasingly frantic pace of daily life in this country. American visitors observed, for example, that Italians possessed a different attitude toward time. The hours and moments of every day were savored intensely by Italians, who seemed guiltless about "wasting time." Americans soon discovered, however, that freedom from the tyranny of the clock made them uneasy. Unaccustomed to a life without the pressures of time, Americans found the prospect of a life of passive stillness and pure being disturbing. As a result many travelers hurried away from Italy ultimately reassured of the soundness of America's habitual punctuality.
Perhaps Italians remained oblivious to the rush of time because of their historic consciousness. Italy, Henry James noted, is "thick with the sense of history and the taste of time." Here again one sees ambivalence. Americans, imbued with the "sovereignty of the present" (Jefferson), could hold up the mirror of Italy to search for a sense of the past. A people of restless temperament found in Italy a country which possessed a feeling for tradition and permanence. Even the riddle of Rome's decline and fall nervously fascinated many nineteenth-century Americans who looked forward to a brave new world but occasionally glanced backward to ponder the fate of other proud nations. The historian and statesman Theodore Roosevelt, for example, regarded the tragedy of Italian civilization as a case study for modern man. And yet in the end Americans found intolerable Italy's almost morbid obsession with the shadowy afterglows of antiquity. In Italy "the past is too powerful," observed Bayard Taylor. "The ancients did things by doing the business of their own day," wrote William James, "not by gaping at their grandfather's tombs — and the normal man of today will do likewise. Better fifty years of Cambridge, than a cycle of Cathay." Ultimately, the Italians' reverence for history and their tranquil resignation to the flight of time taxed the patience of Americans, with their compulsion to hard work and to "the business of their own day." Italian humanism failed to penetrate the hide of American pragmatism and puritanism.
American commentary on Italian society was also characterized by ambivalence. The Italians dedication to his family and village, his intense sense of paese, was viewed as a commendable effort to promote social morality and personal character. Similarly, the highly structured class system fascinated many Americans. For although nineteenth-century travelers believed in an open, fluid society, these visitors were men of wealth and leisure who experienced a lack of deference in egalitarian America. Thus as they looked upon Italy's complex social order, they rejected its rigid caste barriers but respected its distinct class lines. These mixed feelings, however, betrayed more than a concern for social position. At bottom they indicated that American travelers were basically repelled by the Italians as people. Although Americans responded to their own image of the Italian national character, supposedly all festiveness and spontaneity, the people themselves presented a sorry spectacle. Backward and illiterate, incessantly noisy and incorrigibly indolent, sometimes deceitful and thievish, the masses offered a collective picture of squalor that incensed the American moral conscience. George Bancroft found the people "so corrupt, the nation so cowardly, dishonest and degenerate" that the word of an Italian was "of less weight than straw"; and Theodore Roosevelt, writing from Sorrento, exclaimed: "But the people! Praise heaven for America: — even with the aldermen and the anarchists." Americans attributed the wretchedness to the dead hand of history, to Italy's ancient institutions, particularly to the Roman Catholic Church. With its empty ritual and sterile dogma, Catholicism had stunted the Italians' moral character, leaving them with a false sense of spiritual security and no sense of social responsibility. In the American mind, Romanism was the great burden of Italian history.
Yet when all is said, the idea of Italy, if not Italy itself, continued to cast an almost magic spell over the American imagination. For within the romantic vision there resided a tension between objective fact and subjective feeling, between reality and desire. Nowhere was the ambivalence of the image revealed more eloquently than in Hawthorne's reflections upon leaving Rome:
When we have once known Rome, and left her where she lies, like a long decaying corpse, retaining a trace of the noble shape it was, but with accumulated dust and fungous growth overspreading all its more admirable features — left her in utter weariness, no doubt, of her narrow, crooked intricate streets so uncomfortably paved with little squares of lava that to tread over them is a penitential pilgrimage, so indescribably ugly, moreover, so alley-like, into which the sun never falls, and where a chill wind forces its deadly breath into our lungs — left her, tired of the sight of those immense seven-storied, yellow-washed hovels, or call them palaces, where all that is dreary in domestic life seems magnified and multiplied, and weary of climbing those staircases, which ascend from a ground floor of cookshops, cobblers' stalls, stables, and regiments of cavalry, to a middle region of princes, cardinals, and ambassadors, and an upper tier of artists, just beneath the unattainable sky — left her, worn out with shivering at the cheerless and smoking fireside by day, and feasting with our own substance the ravenous little populace of a Roman bed at night — left her, sick at heart of Italian trickery which has uprooted whatever faith in man's integrity had endured till now, and sick at stomach of sour bread, sour wine, rancid butter, and bad cookery, needlessly bestowed on evil meats — left her, disgusted with the pretense of holiness and the reality of nastiness, each equally omnipresent — left her, half lifeless from the languid atmosphere, the vital principle of which has been used up long ago, or corrupted by myriads of slaughters — left her, crushed down in spirit with the desolation of her ruin, and the hopelessness of her future — left her, in short, hating her with all our might, and adding our individual curse to the infinite anathema which her old crimes have unmistakably brought down — when we have left Rome in such a mood as this we are astonished by the discovery, by and by, that our heart strings have mysteriously attached themselves to the Eternal City and are drawing us thitherward again, as if it were more familiar, more intimately our home, than even the spot where we were born.
As Hawthorne's quixotic lines suggest, there were really two Italys in the American mind. One was conceptual, the other existential; one a diffuse image of some hopeful ideal, a humanistic fantasy born of the frustration of all that seemed to be lacking in America; the other, a concrete and particular Italy discovered by direct experience, a corporeal reality of unabashed decadence and pungent confusions, a country whose people were suffocating under the dust and dirt of their tragic history. It is to this latter view — the nativist image — that we must now turn, for it was this darker outlook that came more and more to characterize the American attitude toward Italy at the end of the nineteenth century.
American Nativism and Italian Immigration
The nativist content in America's image of Italy, subtly latent in the romantic picture, emerged in full with the deluge of Italian immigrants in the late nineteenth century. One of the greatest migrations in history had taken place, as millions of eastern and southern Europeans spilled down the sluice-ways of decrepit ships seeking to find in America what had been lost in Europe. Thus, for the first time the great majority of Americans came face to face with the Italian. And it was the southern Italian and Sicilian they encountered on the streets of New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. It was the Italian of swarthy complexion and unsavory mien, the unwashed creature from the Mezzogiorno. The startling impact of these alien contadini (peasants) helped bring about perhaps the first crisis of confidence in America since the Civil War.
Excerpted from Mussolini and Fascism by John P. Diggins. Copyright © 1972 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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