Introduction: Italianita in 2003: The State of Italian American Literature

By Bona, Mary Jo | MELUS, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Italianita in 2003: The State of Italian American Literature


Bona, Mary Jo, MELUS


We can expect that as long as there is an Italy, as long as there is a memory flavored with Italianita, there will be American writers of Italian descent whose contribution to American letters will add new dimensions to what it means to be American and whose work will require critics able to negotiate the Italian signs found on these American streets.

--Fred Gardaphe, Italian Signs, American Streets

When the 1987 MELUS special issue on Italian American literature first appeared, the field of Italian American criticism was still in its infancy. In that Fall-Winter issue (which actually appeared in 1989), the articles proved to be groundbreaking in two ways. First, few in academia regarded Italian American literature as a category unto itself, with a resonance distinguishing a cultural group that shares a history, a country, a diaspora, and an aesthetically rich response to migration. The articles in that issue illuminated such a resonance. For example, critics writing on Pietro Di Donato's classic proletariat novel, Christ in Concrete, or on third generation writers re-imagining ancestral migrations, formulated hermeneutical responses to literary texts sharing basic features of nineteenth-century Italian history and immigrant readjustment to a hostile America. Second, the critics in the 1987 issue fruitfully presaged the interdisciplinary nature of the field itself, from Italian writers in America who wrote about emigrants to film portrayals of Italian Americans, beginning in the silent era and culminating in the landmark film, The Godfather. Perhaps a third, and equally innovative response to introducing a hitherto invisible body of work is to make useful and striking connections between canonical and unknown works, between "literary" versus "popular" writers, and between nineteenth and twentieth-century texts. (1) Italian American literature lends itself to such comparisons, especially because the development of such a literature occurred during the heaviest influx of immigrants from Italy and Sicily to the United States, eliciting a variety of late nineteenth and twentieth-century responses by both immigrants and native-born Americans. (2)

Despite the fact that few in academia and fewer in the larger arena of letters knew much about Italian American literature, by the 1980s, important critical work was produced. Helen Barolini's 1985 anthology, The Dream Book, had been published by a reputable trade press, and her indispensable introduction provided one of the first sustained critical analyses of literature written by Italian American women. (3) Establishing a list of writers, Barolini began the important process of canonization for Italian American women, following in the footsteps of her critical precursors, Olga Peragallo and Rose Basile Green. (4) An advertisement for a new literary and cultural review on Italian American literature also first appeared in the 1987 MELUS issue. Since 1990, VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, has continued to disseminate information regarding the varied contributions of Italian Americans in creative and critical realms, from diverse fields such as literature, anthropology, film, and sociology, providing a complement for Italian Americana, a cultural and historical review.

Thus the 1980s and 1990s saw a bountiful harvest of third generation creative and critical writers, aware of and writing about the complexities and variable meanings of the binomial nomenclature "Italian American." Gaining a sense of how to approach Italian American writers critically, Fred Gardaphe credits reading the criticism of other minority cultures, especially the work of Henry Louis Gates Jr., who writes: "'W.E.B. DuBois argued that evidence of critical activity is a sign of a tradition's sophistication, since criticism implies an awareness of the process of art itself and is a second-order reflection upon those primary texts that define a tradition and its canon.... All great writers demand great critics'" (qtd. …

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