Italian-American Literature and Working-Class Culture

By Gardaphe, Fred | Annali d'Italianistica, Annual 2014 | Go to article overview

Italian-American Literature and Working-Class Culture


Gardaphe, Fred, Annali d'Italianistica


Introduction

Italian-American writers, from the times of mass migration until today, have never fared well as a group in terms of widespread recognition for contributions to American literature. The reason is not due to a lack of talent; rather, it is a lack of critical attention to their works. The advance of ethnic studies movements of the 1980s and following decades did little to change this situation as Italian-American writers were rarely included in important multicultural anthologies and subsequently have remained off the academic radar of high school and college courses. One would think that with the recent advancement of working-class studies, their time to shine might have finally arrived since most of the writers have come from working-class backgrounds. But a quick glance at the major texts in the field shows that once again, with the exception of John Fante (born 1909; died 1983), American writers of Italian descent have been left out of consideration. (1)

In earlier articles I have discussed the role that class consciousness plays in the creation and interpretation of Italian-American literature. (2) Here, instead, I will present a number of writers whose work is essential to the study of ethnic and working-class cultures in the United States, with the hope that attention to their writings might bring about a greater awareness of the power that literature has to illuminate a culture.

In a time when cultural differences are exploited more than similarities are explored, when the idea of working-class unity is clouded by the competition for leisure time and credit card possibilities, it is hard even to imagine that there was a period when what happened to the working class mattered to intellectuals. But these days, as more and more intellectuals are reclaiming their working-class backgrounds, it is important to remember the cultural work done by those early immigrant intellectuals who dedicated their lives to raising and empowering working-class consciousness. If we begin to frame the questions of literary inquiry differently than they have been asked in the past, that is, focusing on social class instead of ethnicity, we will gain a better understanding of the importance of examining the many contributions of American writers of Italian descent.

One of the earliest, and most overlooked, American writers of Italian descent whose work concentrated on class struggles was Luigi Fraina (born 1892, died 1953), who later changed his name to Lewis Corey. Since the early 1900s, Fraina focused his efforts on social, economic, and political analysis, and was one of the earliest writers to publish Marxist literary criticism in the United States. (3) His life work represents the preoccupation of radical immigrant intellectuals with the obstacles they encountered in adapting to life in the United States. Fraina's life story is important for an understanding of American social history. The young boy's experience of selling newspapers in the city's slums turned him into a hungry reader of fiction, poetry, and social science. At the age of seventeen Fraina published his first essay, "Shelley, the Atheist Poet," in The Truth Seeker. The essay sets the tone for his adventure on the road to freedom from the constraints of traditional institutions such as the Church. Fraina's path took him through such movements as the Socialist Party, the International Workers of the World movement, and the Socialist Labor Party led by Daniel DeLeon. As a writer, a spokesperson, and an activist, Fraina impacted all of these movements at critical times in their development, without turning to his Catholic upbringing in order to connect to his readers as many other writers would do.

Christ in Conceit

The familiar image of Christ is used by a number of early writers to draw attention to the plight of the American worker of Italian descent. Through a poetic relationship of simple symbolism their work elevates the common worker to the status of a deity; in essence such representation becomes a way of dignifying the workers' plight and the sacrifices they made to improve the lives of their families and descendants. …

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