Academic journal article MELUS

Sicilian Folk Narrative versus Sicilian-American Literature: Mangione's "Mount Allegro." (Jerre Mangione) (Varieties of Ethnic Criticism)

Academic journal article MELUS

Sicilian Folk Narrative versus Sicilian-American Literature: Mangione's "Mount Allegro." (Jerre Mangione) (Varieties of Ethnic Criticism)

Article excerpt

Considered by some critics to be a classic of Italian-American literature, Jerre Mangione's Mount Allegro has been praised for its "folkloric popular humus,... [its] social voice celebrating its own subaltern condition..., [its] cultural patrimony of ... Sicilian immigrants [that] rests on oral telling, the authority of the speakers, legend, fable,... the commonsense wisdom of their popular ethnic culture"--i.e., its "poetics, of the art of storytelling" (Boelhower 205-06). But, while Vladimir Propp's interpretation of folklore as a unique form of poetic creation with its own structural and linguistic principles seems valid in theory with regard to many indigenous and ethnic people's narrative techniques (145-52), in the case of Mangione, I maintain that Propp's view does not apply. To substantiate my point, I will focus first on what I see as genuinely ethnic in Sicilian storytelling by analyzing selections from a corpus of oral histories I collected several years ago in the Sicilian peasant/fishing village of Trappeto, not far from Mangione's place of origin, Agrigento.(1) Locating Trappetese narratives in Kellogg's and Scholes's context of "an amalgam of myth, legend and folktale" ("Plot" 288), I will interpret the forms and contents of my primary sources in Wole Soyinka's terms of "aesthetic artifacts and utilitarian products..., the cohering expression of intellectual life..., modalities of existence" (111). Lastly, I intend to illustrate how Mangione does not artistically substantiate his own claim that he embodies the ethnic soul of the Sicilian Way.(2)

John Berger provides insight into the mytho-poetic vision characteristic of people like the Trappetese in their search for a modus vivendi et creandi:

In all preindustrial societies people have believed that living is a way of

living a story. In this story one is always the protagonist and occasionally

the teller, but the inventor of the story, the designer of the plot, is

elsewhere. People who believe this, and who lead the story of their life

in this way, are often natural storytellers (1981, vii-viii). Seeing their lives as stories, or myths, raconteurs like my Trappetese informants grasp the significance of their particular experiences as real/symbolic journeys of life on which they assume identity as archetypes "designed elsewhere."

The Trappetese have not, to date, been haunted by the Western dichotomy delineated by Eric Sjoqvist and accepted by Mangione even when his relatives' tales enthrall him: "For the modern critic there exists a clear--cut border line between history and legend. The former is the reliable, orderly and controllable narration of the events of the past, while the latter is the fruit of creative and poetic imagination" (2). Embodying that Sicilian "folk epic spirit" perceived by Carlo Levi on the island (Vitiello 1988, 13), the Trappetese storytellers who performed their sagas of emigration for me in 1988 substantiate Italo Calvino's claim: "Folktales are true ... as explanations/revelations of life conceived by the people who live them and it" (15, my translation). Unlike Western worshippers of written idols and pure objectivity, Sicilian raconteurs are rooted in the radical beginnings of folk narrative art, wherefrom the homo narrans, or myth-teller, emerged aeons before the homo sapiens imposed the categories on knowledge that dichotomized myth and history.(3) Even when they are not narrating the conventional kinds of orally transmitted stories idenitified by Sjoqvist as "the speculative myths created in order to explain ... phenomena..., the folk tales of the traditional type..., (and) the heroic legend" (2), the Trappetese blend these genres into their own oral histories of emigration and return to their roots as narrative motifs and moral exampla with epistemological validity. Translating "knowing into telling," these natural storytellers employ telling as a creative, often poetic act of knowing. …

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