Italian-American? American of Italian Origin? the Case of Peter M. Riccio (1898-1990)

Article excerpt

Questions of identity, personal or collective, appear to be more alive than ever in these beginning years of a new Millennium. The bibliography on Italian Americans grows by leaps and bounds and continues to cover aspects of the historical phenomenon and more and more frequently present-day groupings in established organizations and in occasional affiliations of individuals who identify themselves in ethnic rather than national or political terms. The permutations are many and, as new perspectives move to the forefront of attention others beat a comparative retreat. Since the great wave of Italian immigration to the United States several generations have succeeded one another and the evolution of history, being what it is, forgetfulness of earlier stages in the development has also become part of the phenomenon. Some bonds, such as the original linguistic ones, have become loosened, as others, such as the professional ones, atone time almost non-existent, have taken their place. (1)

My research was undertaken in response to the progress of Paolo De Caro's work, in far-away Foggia, on the figure of Irma Brandeis (1905-1990), who entered Montale's poetry in the guise of Clizia. In the Florentine periodical La fortezza (6.2 [1995]) De Caro published (accompanied by his own translation into Italian) an article by Riccio that had appeared in 1932 in the Casa Italiana Bulletin, long overlooked as an important source for the study of intellectual relationships between the United States and Italy in the '30's. Riccio's article now also appears in De Caro's revised edition of Journey to Irma. Una approssimazione all'ispiratrice americana di Eugenio Montale. Part I: Irma un "romanzo" (Foggia: Matteo De Meo Stampatore, 1999).

Riccio's own pieces gathered from his unpublished papers and from occasional publications at Columbia University are here framed by two journalistic reports, the first of which from the Providence Evening Bulletin (1966), the second from Jester of Columbia (1955), each one an outsider's view of his personality. Riccio's writings themselves deal with the experiences of a group of Italian-American youngsters growing up in East Harlem's Little Italy at the tutu of the century and of the years that some of them spent at Columbia College around the time of World War I. Included are also two profiles of himself, written at the time when Riccio became Director of the Casa Italiana (1957-1966).

Under the headline, "Professor of Italian Culture Likes the Life of Woodville--Rare Books, Records and Thoreau's Simple Pleasures," the Providence Evening Bulletin published an item on 18 July 1966, which emphasized the private rather than the public life of Peter M. Riccio, professor of Italian and director of the Casa Italiana at Columbia University. (2) Professor Riccio never made a secret of his Italian-American background and this article invites a second look at a by now almost forgotten individual who could well be counted among the influential Italian Americans whose names have been recalled recently at century's end. (3) Mine is not a testimonial but aims to be a historical apercu, poised between the public record and private reminiscences based on Professor Riccio's own occasional writings, facts and facts remembered, regarding the "trajectory" of a second-generation Italian American whose life spanned the twentieth century and who made his mark not in business or politics but in one of the professions.

The Providence Evening Bulletin caught Professor Riccio upon his retirement, an important turning point in his life. Besides capturing traits of his personality--his generosity, cheerfulness, curiosity about the world, his openness and optimism--the writer of the article, while not losing sight of the main, local-news thrust of his piece, mentions highlights of Riccio's public life: the honors earned, his approach to teaching, his views on the comparative merits of a life of privilege and one of self-making, his student years at Columbia, and finally the acorn from which grew the tree--the 1921 letter, foundation document of the Casa Italiana and its "heart," the Paterno Library. …