Book Preface

The Italian-American HeritageBack

The Italian American Heritage:
a Companion to Literature and Arts


"Making a Point of It"
by George J. Leonard
Series Editor in Chief

The Italian American Heritage: a Companion to Literature and Arts and a parallel volume, Asian Pacific American Heritage: a Companion to Literature and Arts (which will appear almost simultaneously) are the first in what we hope will become a series, depending on the demand for these two. Native American and Latino volumes are complete and being edited.

As the Italian American articles were forwarded to me, the non-Italian series editor, by this volume's Editor, Pellegrino d'Acierno, Professor of Comparative literature and Director of the Program in Italian Studies, Hofstra University, I began to see something take shape greater than our original plans. D'Acierno had assembled a Who's Who of Italian American humanistic scholarship. Over the course of seven years, they had slowly created a joint statement of unprecedented scale, in which we all rose to consciousness of a special moment in American cultural history: the Italian American Renaissance, one might call it. By the 1970s, Italian American men were pouring out of the nation's universities, graduate schools, law schools, medical schools, soon to be followed by Italian American women. (See Helen Barolini's article, p. 193.) By the 1980s, people with names like Ferraro and Cuomo were, respectively, the first woman candidate for Vice President from a major political party, and the frontrunner for the Presidential nomination. This was remarked on, as something that had been unthinkable even twenty years earlier. But simultaneously-- and this is just as a for instance-- if American film had once been, as Neil Gabler has argued, piloted by Jewish studio chiefs, by the late 1970s, Hollywood was dominated by Scorcese, Coppola, De Niro, Travolta, Stallone, De Palma (and lately, Tarantino). Italian Americans similarly redefined other arts (like Madonna and Bruce Springsteen in rock music, Sinatra in pop music, Robert Venturi in Post Modern architecture). What's more, from Madonna's erotic Mediterranean Catholicism to Springsteen's New Jersey dragracer-chic to Venturi's appeal that we "learn from Las Vegas," the most Sinatra-esque cityscape in the country, there seemed a strong ethnic component to their art.

Not until this volume's articles were massed together did anyone, even the authors, become aware of the extent of this phenomenon. An odd silence masked the event. During the Italian ascent, "multiculturalism" was unfashionable (it is highly controversial even now). Italians did not publicize what this book shows were important debts to what would have then been considered a "foreign" tradition. Take Frank Sinatra's account of his personal breakthrough on p. 423: "It occurred to me that maybe the world didn't need another Crosby. What I finally hit upon was the bel canto Italian school of singing, without making a point of it." Here we see Sinatra acknowledging he found his style by drawing on his ethnic tradition, and we see in the words he instantly adds-- "without making a point of it"-- how cautious even the ultraconfident Sinatra could be about that. Pellegrino d' Acierno confronts this very typical anxiety at length in his essay on "La Cultura Negata"-- the "denied culture." One may have succeeded by drawing deeply on some part of one's Italian-ness-- on being the boy from Jersey or the girl from Brooklyn, by loving Las Vegas and its arias of architecture-- but one did so quietly, "without making a point of it." This book then, makes a point of it: uncovering those great debts without which one cannot fully understand these artists or their art, dealing with their denial, with "la cultura negata," and probably, creating a good deal of anxiety on the road to pride.

The Italian American Renaissance forecasts similar renaissances for the ethnicities in the volumes to follow. For that reason it seems not only good luck to begin here,(good fengshui, in fact) but philosophically useful. The Italian story can be seen as a transition between those of the ethnicities who arrived in great numbers before World War One, and those of the ethnicities whose numbers climbed after the 1965 about-face of America's immigration laws. This vast account of how the Italians did it, will preface and frame our accounts of how other groups are doing it.The Asian Pacific American volume is the logical sequel.

The Multicultural Curriculum: An Historic Moment in American Education Pellegrino D'Aciernor will specifically introduce this volume in the essay follwoing this one. Let me, then, talk about the larger picture: the new American multicultural curriculum, one of the greatest challenges American education has ever faced. IN the next few years reference librarians will be besieged by people seeking answers to new questions-- besieged not only by students in the new mutlicultural courses but by instructors attempting to teach multiculturalism for the first time.

Why are the gangsters in Martin Scorcese's GoodFellas entirely different from the poetic gangsters in Francis Ford Coppola's equally classic Godfather trilogy? What exactly does "Godfather" ("compari") mean in Italian American culture? How is a student to learn? Turn, in this book, to Pellegrino D'Aceirno's explication of the Godfather's first scene (pp. 575 - 576). Puzo, Coppola, and Brando have packed the scene with significance, with inseder references to codes of honor and social hierarchies and taboos. How I wish I'd known all that when I saw the film! But where was it written before now?

Not only the student but also the instructor will be coming to ask the librarian for help. Multiculturalism is so new that few of us were eudcated to teach it. People who quite likely took their degree in Chaucer or Dickens will be asked to explain a reference to Festa di San Gennaro.

If the student reading Madame Bovary is puzzled by a reference to Joan of Arc or to a "viscount," he or she can turn to Sir Paul Harvey's classic Oxford Companion to French Literature. But no such help exists for the studnet facing ethnic American literature and arts. If, in this volume, we had written out 27 articles about 27 different authors, composers, architects, we would have had to include, over and over, the same introductory explanations about l'ordine della famiglia, campanilismo, wedding buste, onore, the Mafia, the system of compartatico (or comparaggio--"godparentage").

Instead, we wrote long articles on the topics that would unlock for the reader the greatest number of authors and artists now and for years to come. There are topics such as "On Being an Italian America," "Italian Catholic in my Bones-- A Conversation with Camille Paglia," :"Italian American Feste," "The Contradictions of Italian American Identity: An Anthropologist's Personal View," "Bread and Wine in Italian American Folk Culture." We have created a series of tool kits.

We have, to be sure, articles onthe most-taught authors, and in all cases by great experts on them. If we consider Italian American gender roles, we have Frank Lentricchia on being an Italian American man and Camille Pagilia on Italian American womanhood. "Italian American Women Writiers," is by Helen Barolino, the Dean of that field, and it is 73 pages long. We have Robert Viscusi writing on "Italian American Literary History from the Discovery of America," Fred L. Gardaphe on "Italian American Novelists."

This is a crisis. Not only have we mandated multicultural courses, but even the old courses are being given multicultural additions. A college course on romanticism now, to be modern, try to include ethnic American authors. The anthologies are adding them as rapidly as they can.

Across the nation, school administrations and Presidential commissions have been telling teachers "do it" without telling them how they were to do it or even exactlywhat they were to do. Students, encountering literature and art from each other's ethnic cultures, have needed special help. Yet few people now teaching were educated to give the help needed.

Our book is aimed at a new audience-- the new multicultural classroom. This volume supprts those students, instructors, and librarians facing this great change in the American canon.

When I first taught ethnic studies, I had to photocopy for my classes because there was no reference work to which I could send my kind of students. I emphasize "my kind of students." Ethnic studies--itself so new--was being taught, and is still generally taught, by experts teaching insiders. The professors trained in ethnic studies were almost always people from the ethnicity whose works they were teaching. As it turned out, they were usually speaking to classrooms filled with the students primarily from the same ethnicity. There was a lot that didn't need to be explained. The artist's weltanschauung was partly shared, or at least easily entered. Work, teacher, and class drew from a common store of experiences.

Instead of experts teaching insiders, the new mandated "multicultural" courses, however, will be taught primarily by first-timers teaching outsiders. The majority of professors will be people outside the ethnicity whose works they are teaching; speaking to classrooms filled with outsiders like themselves. I found myself in that situation in 1986, when---fresh from working with Los Angeles' Asian American community--- I redirected some existing courses toward "multiculturalism."

Furthermore, many ethnic authors shuttle their action back and forth between two locales with which the new teacher will probably be unfamiliar. Think of Puzo's and Copploa's Godfather trilogy. Not only will teacher and student find themselves coping with unfamiliar parts of American experience, but with Old Country Italian Customs customs and experiences as well. The teacher will discover that the student, who watching the film on TV, permissively ignored everything he did not undersatnd, is in a less forgiving mood when seated in a classroom. IF you dare to stand in front of that classroom, you are Supposed To Know, and no one very much cares that you did your doctorate on Hawthorne.

There is serious peril here. John Dewey used to warn that the students are "always learning something" in class, but not necessarily what you wanted. They may be learning "math is boring" or "unlike me, boys do not have to raise their hands to speak." The new multicultural courses, taught by neophytes to outsiders, could wind up teaching them "even the teacher can't figure out these people," "nobody in class could guess why these people do these things," "I can't related to people like this."

Excellent critical works exist, but the assume the older ethnic studies situation in which experts address insiders. The essaus are more often arguments than information. They are not enough help for first-timers bravely trying to teach outsiders.

As if that were not difficult enought, the new multicultural courses are generally taught by exposing students to literature or arts, ableit with reference to the political, sociological, and historical contexts of the works.

There are some reference works, such as the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, that address the needs of social scientists and historians. For years, however, I looked for regerence works organized to help my liberal arts students comprehend ethnic literature and arts.

Books meant to help people reading novels, watching films, or confronting artworks must include much different information than books meant simply for social scientists. Indeed, standard referenced works can lead the humanities student seriously astray. Imagine a student from another country trying to learn about American Easter from, logically enough, fine books such as the New Dictionary of Theology or the Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary . "The solemn celebration of Christ's resurrection, which begins on Holy Saturday night and includes the blessing of the paschal candle . . . ." Wouldn't the student conclude that Easter in America was a "solemn" and awesome time? How then, to decipher literary references to the Easter Bunny, or Easter bonnets, or kids coloring eggs for Easter baskets, not to mention Irving Berlin's Easter Parade (A Jew writing famous songs about Easter?) . "Solemn celebration of Christ's resurrection" would be---if taken by itself---actually an obstacle to understanding American Easter's music, literature, and films.

I asked our contributoirs always to remember that humanists needed not only more information, but different information, than social scientists. Even when the subject matter of the essays overlaps topics in social science references. the content and emphasis will be quite different.

Special Features

Our authors have sought to make this volume as useful as possible by offering help on a variety of levels.


Each section contains articles which are popularly written, accessible even to high school students.

FOR INSTRUCTORS NEW TO MULTICULTURAL STUDIES Many articles are aimed at the person at the front of the classroom who is trying to teach a multicultural course for the first time-- a person who, given America's demographics, is probably not an Italian American.


Each section contains articles by unique authorities in their field, articles so original or so definitive, that experts will be grateful to have them.

The articles address women's contributions in detail. They analyze not only books but drama and films, not only painting but cuisine and textile arts. The articles are written in varying genres, for sometimes a first person memoir can humanize and personalize a cultural custom better than a work of formal scholarship.

Since we assume that this is one of the first books people are using in what will be a continuing self-education in the new American canon, we encouraged all our authors to add, when appropriate, an annotated Further Reading section at the end of their articles, or to incorporate such advice clearly within the work. We have also added an appendix providing a detailed chronology detailing useful statistics of the Italian American experience.

Each article makes a special effort to build the user's cultural vocabulary. We encouraged the authors to define as many terms and concepts as possible in their writing. This volume establishes a lexicon of key terms that inform the Italian American linguistic universe. Alphabetized in a separate Cultural Lexicon, these terms appear in the chapters in bold type.

Notice too, that we speak here of Arts, plural. Many ethnic cultures, and the women in them, practiced arts that were, until recently, dismissed as "crafts."

Connection between this book and current events

Ethnic studies frequently involves politics, and hot politics at that. It makes for fascinating classes, classes students look forward to, classes in which people who never talk at all suddenly argue points as if their lives depended on it; classes in which silent awkward immigrant newcomers are suddenly turned to as experts, and listened to with respect; classes in which friendships form across racial and ethnic bounds. No bones about it, it's dangerous to teach classes that excite students that much. But people who rely on these volumes can lead those classes with confidence.

The first obstacle to multiculturalism is that most of us weren't educated to teach it, and information has been hard to come by. The second obstacle is that the topic is so politicized, we wonder if we even dare teach it, even if we are of the ethnicity we are teaching! When teaching a newer canon means having to undertake a second education anyway, who could blame people for deciding it's just not worth it?

Our book overcomes these obstacles by giving a reference work constructed according to a rigorous methodology. All the authors are not only renowned in their specialties, most are from the ethnic group being written about, and absolutely everyone was nominated by or worked under the direct editorship of distinguished advisory editors from that ethnicity.

Furthermore, all authors worked with novel and unique freedom. You cannot just talk about multiculturalism, you have to do multiculturalism. For that reason I refused to impose a "house style" on the authors, aside from a few agreements about typography. You cannot create a book celebrating diverisity by pouring their essays into the old prose melting pot.

I do not by any means wish to imply that only scholars from an ethnicity can write about its art. Each perspective has value and validity. However, I do claim that, by having leading scholars of a particular ethnicity supervise, we produced a portrait of what they think their emerging canon is, and what topics they think need to be understood. We have all thereby gained something historically valuable.

I hope the wealth of information in this volume will newly encourage people to break out from the old canon, to dare to teach exciting new works, to dare discuss in class the most controversial, and important, topics in America today.