Beyond "Pizza" and "Nonna"! or, What's Bad about Italian/American Criticism? Further Directions for Italian/American Cultural Studies (1)

By Tamburri, Anthony Julian | MELUS, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Beyond "Pizza" and "Nonna"! or, What's Bad about Italian/American Criticism? Further Directions for Italian/American Cultural Studies (1)


Tamburri, Anthony Julian, MELUS


Now that my title has attracted your attention, I need to confess that the goal of this essay is not to discuss "pizza" or "nonna"; rather, I wish to go beyond some of the traditional and, I would underscore, comforting signs of Italian Americana and call attention to that which we may not always wish to recognize: that is, critical discourse on Italian/American cultural productions, which does not necessarily advance the cause, whoever's cause it may be. If anything, then, these two comforting nouns appear in my title as two signs/interpretants, as Charles Sanders Peirce would label them, (2) that signify greatly both within and beyond the greater Italian/American community. That is, food and family are great themes ubiquitous in Italian/American cultural productions, and rightfully so, I would submit.

To be sure, Helen Barolini tells us that her "first memory of [Italy] is gastronomic," a "kind of transcendental exaltation" equal to "that solemn moment of First Communion." (3) Be it the spaghetti and coffee dinner in Little Caesar or the meals prepared that have become [in]famous from such films as Coppola's The Godfather or Scorsese's Italianamerican and Goodfellas, some of these menus and recipes have in fact become objects of desire. (4) Family, in turn, is equally ubiquitous and cannot be ignored as a one of the major themes of creative Italian America. Again, I would briefly reference The Godfather, Italianamerican, as well as True Love and Betsy's Wedding. So, while I shall not discuss these two Italian/American signs par excellence, I should underscore that regardless of my choice to silence them in this specific venue, I do not intend to signal in any sense at all that we should eschew these signs in our work as either critics or creative writers. Anzi, to borrow from the "old country"!

As readers of texts, then, I would suggest that we engage in more than what seems to have occurred until about a decade or so ago. That is, while I do not want to underscore a Clemenzean practice of something like "leave the thematics and grab the theory," I do believe that as a community we have come late to theoretical issues as part of our analytical arsenal; this is especially true if we are to presume to construct and to articulate a discourse that is supposed to travel beyond the confines of Italian America. The costs are simply too high.

In his preface to Franco Mulas's Studies on Italian-American Literature, Fred L. Gardaphe tells us that the "criticism of Italian American literature is not so much a new field, as it is unknown" (vii). (5) This sentence was published in 1992 and, in some cases, is equally relevant today. In the past few years we have seen the publication of essays and books on Italian/American literature that continue to exhibit lacunae of various sorts. There are those who ignore, or are ignorant of, what has preceded them; those who misrepresent what they read; those who re-write what others have already written; and those who eschew--what is today in the twenty-first century a sine qua non--theoretical issues of literary criticism. (6) Indeed, many might say that much of this is nothing new in the general history of literary criticism. But when that literary critical voice is still young and in need of discoursing externally, as is the situation with Italian/American criticism, it is even more incumbent upon the critic to be aware of his/her surroundings.

When I opened Pellegrino D' Acierno's The Italian American Heritage: A Companion to Literature and Arts for the first time, I was surprised by the prefatory words offered up by the series' editor. In his "Preface" to the volume, subtitled "Making a Point of It," George J. Leonard, editor in chief, tells us:

   Not until this volume's articles were massed together did anyone,
   even the authors, become aware of this phenomenon ["a strong
   ethnic component to their art," as he states in closing his
   previous paragraph]. … 

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