Re-Inventing Sicily in Italian American Writing and Film

By Gardaphe, Fred | MELUS, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Re-Inventing Sicily in Italian American Writing and Film


Gardaphe, Fred, MELUS


   The history of Sicily is one of defeats: defeats of reason,
   defeats of reasonable men.... From that however comes skepticism,
   that is not, in effect, the acceptance of defeat, but a margin of
   security, of elasticity, through which the defeat, already
   expected, already rationalized, does not become definitive and
   mortal. Skepticism is healthy though.
   It is the best antidote to fanaticism. (6)

   Leonardo Sciascia
   Sicily as a Metaphor

Sicily, the setting for many famous myths such as those we know from Homer's The Odyssey, has proven to be equally fertile soil for the mythology of Italian Americans. With a literary tradition that goes back more than a thousand years, it would only be a matter of time before emigrants from Sicily, the Italian region that sent more emigrants than any other to the United States, would affect American literature. The offspring of Sicilian immigrants have created an eruption of writing that testifies to the power that the island has on the artists it creates. Through contemporary Sicilian American historians, memoirists, fiction writers, poets, and culinary aesthetes, Sicily is insured of passing along more to American culture than the mafia and St. Joseph tables. This look at the use of Sicily in the works of a few Italian American writers and filmmakers focuses on how Sicily serves as the source of non- or even anti-American elements that help shape characters' identities. Sicily also serves as a source from which writers can create artistic antidotes to what they perceive as socio-cultural ills spawned in and by the United States. American writers go to Sicily, actually or through their imagination, in search of what they cannot find in the United States. The result is a rewriting of Sicily and the United States into something uniquely Sicilian American.

The dean of Sicilian American writers, Jerre Mangione, was an American-born son of Sicilian immigrants. Mangione grew up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood of Rochester, New York. His memoir, Mount Allegro, which has remained in print most of the years since its first appearance in 1943, is the first of four non-fictional books written by Mangione that deal with Sicilian and Sicilian American culture. In each book Sicily represents an "old world" that affects his development, from Sicilian, to American, and eventually to Sicilian American. The books are Mount Allegro (1943), Reunion in Sicily (1950), A Passion for Sicilians (1968), and An Ethnic At Large (1978). Mangione's life and writing, in many respects, are attempts to escape Sicilian notions of "destino." He tells us that his relatives' lives are governed by traditions and myths. Mangione writes that "destino," a barrier that keeps his relatives from becoming Americans, contained "strong elements of fatalism" that were "ingrained in the Sicilian soul by centuries of poverty and oppression.... In their minds, 'Destino,' the willingness to resign oneself to misfortune, was the key to survival; to refuse to believe that an almighty force predetermined the fate of all people was to court disaster" (Ethnic 32). Mangione can overcome this barrier only by leaving his relatives. Throughout Mount Allegro we get the sense that the narrator is documenting the decline of a people, the end of an era, an era that becomes history the moment the narrator separates himself from his immigrant relatives. In fact, Mangione can only write this book after he has left his home. As Mangione tells us in Contemporary Novelists, "the experiences that became the substance of Mount Allegro accentuated for me the sharp contrast between the philosophical values of the old world and those of the new. It also succeeded in casting me in the role of outsider who, belonging to neither world, tries to create his own world by writing" (571).

Mangione's role of the outsider causes a submerging of the self in his non-fictional writings. This insertion of the narrator as an invisible protagonist/observer, according to Ben Morreale, is a typical characteristic of control practiced by many Sicilian writers:

   Coming from an island that had been the crossroads of armies bent
   on world domination for centuries, having insecurities that some
   have translated into a psychological paura storica, or history of
   fear, the Sicilian has learned not to reveal himself. … 

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