Writers from the Margins and the Canon in the Year 2000: New Beginnings or Business as Usual?

Article excerpt

In few national traditions has the issue of the canon been as crucial as it has for Italian literature. The standard language itself in Italy is defined by reference to three canonical writers of Trecento Tuscany. Literary practice too, beginning in the Cinquecento, has followed the linguistic and stylistic examples of two of these "tre corone." Partly because of powerful, centrifugal forces of cultural and linguistic autonomy at the local level, there has always been a countervailing pressure in Italian cultural exchange toward standardization. During the many centuries of political disunity, moreover, the literary canon served as the principal locus for definitions of Italian identity, a function that, to a lesser extent, it continues to fill today. (1)

In the 1960s and 1970s, when changes began to be made in the canons of other national literatures, Italians began to rethink their literary heritage as well. In Italy, as in many other countries, women authors were identified, rehabilitated, and added to an extended list that determined what Italian literature was. But it was more difficult in Italy to discover excluded "others" than it was in the United States, for example, with its history of slavery, or in the post-colonial lands of the mostly defunct French and British empires. In Italy, a country without a history of either slavery or imperialism on an extensive (or very successful) scale, efforts have been made only recently to identify and rehabilitate the kinds of "others" that in different national literatures had come much earlier to the fore.

This rethinking of the nature of literature and culture in Italy has taken place during a period of enormous social changes. These have included redefinitions of women's positions as cultural producers and increasing perplexity regarding the massive immigration to Italy, a historical source of emigrants to countries throughout the world. Such changes in Italian society have contributed to a revamping of the ways Italians think about themselves and their literary heritage both of today and for tomorrow. Such concerns are evident in a number of books that have appeared in recent years in this country and Italy. Examples include Maria Ornella Marotti's Italian Women Writers from the Renaissance to the Present: Revising the Canon, and Gendering Italian Fiction: Feminist Revisions of Italian History, Hermann Haller's The Other Italy: The Literary Canon in Dialect, and Graziella Parati's Mediterranean Crossroads: Migration Literature in Italy. In the last few years, moreover, several studies by prominent Italian critics and cultural arbiters have addressed questions of the representation of national identity in Italian literature. Examples of work of this sort include Ezio Raimondi's Letteratura e identita nazionale, Alberto Asor Rosa's Genus italicum. Saggi sulla identita letteraria italiana nel corso del tempo, and, from a slightly different perspective, Remo Ceserani's Lo straniero.

One conclusion that can be gleaned from a consideration of these works on literary identity is that the Italian canon, over the years, has always been a remarkably hospitable one, at least in terms of genre (if not gender). Gianfranco Contini's Letteratura dell'Italia unita. 1861-1968--to cite one example of an authoritative, canon-defining survey--begins by anthologizing extracts from the memorialistic and historical writings of Francesco De Sanctis; it continues with passages from scholarly notes and articles by the philologists Graziadio Isaia Ascoli, Costantino Nigra, and Ugo Angelo Canello, going on only later to present more conventionally representative passages of poetry and prose by Carducci and pages from the fiction of Verga, Capuana, Fogazzaro, and De Marchi (3-202). In the same eclectic spirit, toward the beginning of his Genus italicum, Asor Rosa cites Galileo's Dialogo intorno ai due massimi sistemi del mondo as a true "opera letteraria" that during the latter part of the early modern period not only led to the realignment of scientific paradigms but modified literary history as well (6). …