Fred L. Gardaphe. Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative

Article excerpt

This indispensable interpretation of Italian American narrative literature can fruitfully be used in many ethnic and cultural programs. It is a study distinguished by familiarity with vernacular Italian American culture, as well as consciousness of the losses as well as gains in education in the dominant WASP culture. Trying to reconcile the difference between what Antonio Gramsci called the organic intellectual and the assimilated intellectual, Gardaphe has adopted "a culture-specific criticism that is sensitive to both Italian and American cultures."

The author "grew up in a little Italy in which not even the contagiously sick were left alone. ... The only books that entered my home were those we smuggled in from public institutions." Nevertheless he became a book reader. At the end of a college and graduate school education limited to "American" writers, Gardaphe wrote a doctoral dissertation proving there was an Italian American literature beyond mafia stories. In this book that evolved from the dissertation, his aim is to lessen the ignorance of those his grandfather called "merdicans," as well to lessen the ignorance "of those the merdicans used to call guineas and wops."

Following Vico, Gardaphe's premise is that Anglo-American literature has reached its "period of decadence," whose "exhaustion" needs the vitality of literature of ethnic outsiders. He tracks the stages of the three generations that it has taken for Italian/American literature to become wine: the early mythic mode wherein immigrants idealized figures usually grandparents; rebellion against both Italian and American cultures that produced a "hybrid Italian American culture;" assimilation and its discontents marked by the recovery "or reinvention" of ethnicity; and contemporary "breaking and entering the canon." He notes the collision between the oral traditions of peasants who arrived in the United States and the WASP culture's hegemonic uses of literacy, the chasm between the two cultures felt by first immigrants ("in Italy there used to be more miracles"), and the postmodern strategies of Italian/American authors who use WASP protagonists to convey Italian values, a strategy Gardaphe brilliantly recognizes as the strategy of our peasant forebears for millennia, "creating a masquerade" so that Italianita can enter the mainstream without detection. …