Oral History, Oral Culture, and Italian Americans

By van Buren, Ann | Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore, Fall-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Oral History, Oral Culture, and Italian Americans


van Buren, Ann, Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore


Oral History, Oral Culture, and Italian Americans edited by Luisa. Del Giudice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 288 pages, introduction by the editor, bibliographical information after each chapter, appendix, $89.00, hardcover.

There are many ways to tell a story, and as editor, Luisa Del Giudice looks at oral history as an angle of convergence in her collection of essays, Oral History, Oral Culture, and Italian Americans." Selected from the 2005 Annual Conference of the American Italian Historical Association (AIHA), the essays in the book convey Italian American stories from both historical and cultural perspectives. The volume is prefaced with gracious thanks to its 15 contributors and presents an overview of their experiences in academia, community, and the public sector and their pursuits toward a greater understanding of Italian American history, ethnography, and folk tradition. It continues with 251 pages of essays by artists, musicians, cultural anthropologists, and scholars of history and literature. The varied stories come together in a fascinating picture of the cultural practices of this unique, yet varied, ethnic group as Italians have migrated to live in the United States. Extensive bibliographies at the end of each essay are helpful for those who would like to dig more deeply or follow each author's trajectory of research. A thorough index also makes this more possible. For scholars and lay people interested in pursuing the roots of a culture that has, for the most part, been modernized, the book is accessible and authentic. Most of the essays maintain the storytelling voice that they present in their subjects, and some are so personal and direct that, to an Italian American, they may seem like a visit with family. To those in the field, the essays may seem like a visit with a family of folklorists. Many of the authors will be familiar names to those who know today's standard-bearers of Italian American folklore and tradition.

The collection of essays is divided into three sections, beginning with the introduction, by Del Giudice, an independent folklorist and founder-director of the Italian Oral History Institute, a California nonprofit educational organization, which was established in 1994 and dissolved in 2007. Del Giudice defends oral culture and oral history, in recognition that the majority of immigrants during the mass migration from the late nineteenth century to the immediate post-World War II periods were illiterate. Peasants and laborers who brought their religious and folk traditions to the United States settled in tightly knit communities where they re-created the culture of their lives back home. Even as the rural villages of their homeland emptied out as a result of this emigration, Italian immigrants encapsulated their regional cultures and dialects in the neighborhoods they made in America in an effort to create a home away from home. This collection represents a few of the remaining stories of those who remember what life was like for new immigrants and for those who remained in Italy before and during World War II. It also addresses the synthesis of culture that occurred, post migration.

Part II of the book deals with oral history. It includes five articles by Alessandro Portelli, Ernesto R. Milani, Marie Saccomando Coppola, Sefano Luconi, and B. Amore. Portelli, Milani, and Saccomando focus closely on the way the medium reflects the message. Using the voice of a storyteller, Portelli recounts the conflicting accounts gathered from survivors of the massacre at the Fosse Ardeatine in Rome. The author argues that, unlike written histories, which are static, oral histories may change as people are influenced by the popular press and other people's telling of an event. Through dramatic and riveting examples, he shows how "mis-memory," or remembering a story as it was heard, whether the telling of it was true or not, becomes fact, or at least the dominant narrative.

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