An Essay/Review of Two Literary Works
Featuring Italian Immigrants and
their Immediate Offspring.

James C. Mancuso
Los Angeles, CA
April, 2004

          Even a cursory exploration aimed at answering the question, “What is the purpose of literature?” will produce a range of opinion responses. A quick search of the internet provides these examples of the efforts to explain the purpose of literature.

          “. . . . the purpose of literature is to correct injustice.”

          “The purpose of literature is the enhancement of life and the propagation of humane values.”

          “The purpose of literature is to make men infinitely adaptable and superior to all the complexities of the future.”

          “Rubinstein quotes Sartre as saying, ‘The purpose of literature is to make man conscious of himself so that he will be responsible for altering himself. To reveal is to change.’"

          Though these responses might seem quite different from each other, it is possible to extract a theme that underlies each of these efforts to delineate the purpose of literature.

          The correction of injustice, the enhancement of life, the propagation of humane values, the achievement of infinite adaptability, and the elevation of self-consciousness all can be achieved, one can say, if the reader of literature is exposed to and can explore novel constructions of objects and events. Thus, it would follow from this proposition that the purpose of literature is to provide readers with a text that will encourage the exploration of new ways of viewing objects and events. By such exploration, a reader can assess the possibility of adopting new values, of using new ways of construing events, and using a newly developed alternative constructions in shaping one’s own life narratives. TRUTH is hard to find, and explorations of the various “local truths” that have been used by other persons can prompt a person to adopt the ways of viewing objects and events (the constructions that can be applied to objects and events) that will prompt an individual to become “infinitely adaptable.” To reveal alternative constructions facilitates self consciousness, and without self consciousness about one’s own constructions an individual cannot acquire humane values of the sort that propels him/her to attempt to correct the conditions that he/she sees as unjust.

          An analyst, using the foregoing propositions about the purpose of literature, who reads text in which the narration focuses on Italian-American issues, characters, and history would approach his/her analysis with the question; “How does this text promote an exploration of the use of novel perspectives concerning Italian-American issues, characters, and history?”

          An analyst might easily explain the ways in which the writing of a “history” fulfills this purpose. Many historians (as do many sociologists and anthropologists) accept the proposition that different cultures, at different times, in different contexts, construe objects and events in different ways. Commentators, as is indicated by the ensuing quotation, regularly credit the Neapolitan philosopher, Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) with the first clear articulation of the utility of this historicist approach,:

Thanks to Giambattista Vico (1984/1744), our view of human history as well as our view of human nature have been enriched and transformed. He believed that the historian must look to the past and understand it in collective and institutional as well as personal (empathetic) terms (thus anticipating much of 19th century historicism). Vico showed that the economic and class structure of society was crucially relevant to the formation of dominant ideologies (clearly anticipating Marx). Lastly, Vico showed that the past should be understood sympathetically -- the historian should not judge the past according to present standards and values. The past ought to be examined in light of its historical context (the "pastness of the past"). (See

          The writings of novelists, dramas, or poetry do not readily yield to such analysis. Writers in these genre do not disrupt their narratives to point out that the actors in their work are using alternative constructions of events, and that the reader should be prepared to recognize the ways in which those constructions might be novel to the reader. In addition, readers approach novels, dramas, and poems with the expectation that they will be entertained. Thus, the writers of novels, dramas, and poems need to create text that serves the double purpose of presenting alternative constructions as well as entertaining the reader. In the course of entertaining the reader, a novelist and dramatist, for example, will have the actors in her/his narrative outline goals and take action on the basis of constructions that the reader might find novel. Overall, the course of the narrative must “pull” the reader along so that he/she will be prompted to continue to process the writer’s text.

          Italian-American characters as vehicles for presentation of novel constructions. Writers, usually Italian-Americans, have produced a stream of novel, dramas, and poems that focus on the actions of Italians, Italian emigrants, and the offspring of Italians and Italian immigrants. By doing so, they concretize the constructions (ways of viewing events and objects) that are used by the characters in their texts. In many cases, the reader assumes, often by designs of the writer, that the character can stand as a prototype of a larger culture-bearing society known, for example, as Italian-American or Italian-Canadian, etc. In that way, the reader assumes that he/she has gained access to the constructions that people acquire during their psychological development within the confines of a primary family that carries the cultural elements of the larger culture-bearing society. In that way, a reader assumes that the actors portrayed in the text can stand as “typical” representatives of “types” that develop in the Italian-influenced society. The reader assumes that if he/she can “look at” objects and events using the constructions of objects and events that guide the actor in the literary creation, he can engage in “co-subjective” constructions of events and objects under discussion.

Two Novels In which the Central Characters are Italian Emigrants

 or Offspring of Italian Emigrants

          Two recently-published novels can be analyzed in terms of their success in prompting readers to explore the constructions used by Italian emigrants or offspring of Italian emigrants.

In his novel, In the garden of Papa Santuzzu, Tony Ardizzone (1999) has provided readers with narratives that describe the actions of a large cast of characters who have emigrated or have descended from persons who have emigrated from Sicily. In his novel, Where she has gone, Nino Ricci (1998) has provided his readers with narratives that describe the actions of a cast of characters who have emigrated or have descended from persons who have emigrated from the region of Molise, in South Central Italy.

          Ardizzone’s In the garden of Papa Santuzzu. Ardizzone skillfully prompts readers to take the perspectives that guided the actions of seven siblings; the children of Papa Santuzzu Girgenti and his wife, Adrianna.

          Ardizzone recounts the tales of how each of the children of Santuzzu and Adrianna participated in the Italy-to-The-USA avventura. As did many of the Sicilian and Southern Italian people who occupied the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic hierarchy, Santuzzu and Adrianna produced an abundance of offspring – seven children: Carla, Gaetanu, Luigi, Salvatore, Rosaria, Livicedda, and Assunta.

           And, as did many over productive families in the southern end of Italy, the Girgenti family solved their family’s economic problems by joining millions of their emigrating co-nationals.

          As Ardizzone shaped the stories of each of family’s emigrants, he conveys a cornucopia of the detail about the ideologies and beliefs that derive from the Sicilian family’s constructions (ways of viewing) the objects and events of their lives: the place of work in their lives, the familial obligations of the family’s members, the ways of cultivating plants, the place of food and cuisine in the daily and festive lives of the community and family, the managing of sexual attraction, the process of courting and marrying, the honoring of selected saints, the framing of relationships with persons who hold power.

          To organize his grand epic, Ardizzone recounts, in separate chapters, the narrative of each of the seven Girgenti siblings.

          After an introductory chapter that summarizes the family’s emigration, Gaetanu’s tale premiers the overall narrative. In the introductory chapter, Ardizzone frames Gaetanu’s departure within the mythology of La America that infiltrated the Sicilian countryside, at the turn of the XIXth and XXth centuries.

          “Papa Santuzzu dreamed of something he’d heard in the village. This dream was about a wonderful, faraway land.”

          “The marvelous new land was called La Merica” (p. 8)

          After evoking the images that enticed the emigrants to move to this mythic land,, Ardizzone sets out the other branches of the dilemma.

           “For a parent, there are few pains worse than to see a child wanting. Papa Santuzzu knew that his children were hardly better off than Gabriella [his donkey]. Said simply, they were slaves” (p. 9).

          Then the family faces the deep pain of the parents as they order their son to leave. Anyone who has experienced the partings of Southern Italian family will grasp the meanings which Papa Santuzzu, Adrianna, and Gaetanu placed on the scene that Ardizzone describes:

          “The next morning Gaetannu made ready to depart. He kissed Papa Santuzzu for the last time. He kissed Mamma Adrianna for the last time” (p. 11).

          Thus, Ardizzone begins the account of the emigration of the seven offspring of Papa Santuzzu and Mamma Adrianna. There follows a series of chapters, each dedicated to the narration of each of the seven siblings. Ardizzone intersperses the stories of partners of some of the siblings among the stories of each of the siblings

          The chapter describing Gaetanu’s tale characterizes the thrust of Ardizzone’s literary effort. Ardizzone frames the story as a first person narration by Gaetanu Girgenti. The core of the story centers around the working conditions encountered by immigrants to the northeast of The USA. To begin, Gaetanu learned of the operations of the padrone system – the labor contractors who helped the unschooled emigrants, and who, in return, extracted a hefty profit for their services. As Gaetanu recites the history of his emigration he interjects the story of the famed Bread and Roses Strike that, in 1912, brought the International Workers of the World to the attention of the broader populace of The USA. During the recitation Gaetanu names two Italian-Americans who became central figures in the strike, Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti. In that way, Ardizzone lays out the concepts of labor unity, led by talented organizers, one (Giovannitti) who himself was an immigrant from Italy.

          In telling the tale of Luigi, the second son, Ardizzone gives central space to introducing his readers to the concepts of social organization that induced young Sicilian men of the period to join the bandit gangs that emerged on the island. Speaking in the first person, the woman who would become the wife of Luigi lays out the relationships between the contadini, the owners of the huge tracts of land, and the overseers that the landowners sent to direct their affairs .

          The advance members of family (Luigi and Gaetanu and their wives) having settled in The USA, sent Salvatore instructions pertaining to the remaining siblings – Rosaria, Livicedda, and Assunta. He was to escort them and Papa Santuzzu to join the siblings already settled in The USA.

          In telling of Papa Santuzzu’s refusal to accompany the last party of siblings to The USA, Ardizzone elaborates on themes of family obligation and responsibility. Papa Santuzzu insisted that he could not foresee adjusting to life in The USA, and vehemently claimed that he could happily live out his life among the almost life-like memories of the people who had played central roles in his life – the people who inhabited the garden of Papa Santuzzu.

          As Ardizzone draws up Salvatore’s recitation of the narrative of his marriage to Rosa Dolci, he introduces his readers to concepts about the signorial rights of the baron who owned the land on which they worked. Ardizzone introduced his readers to a complex set of concepts as he created Assunta’s narration of her adventures in Chicago, to where she had moved with Salvatore, his wife, Rosa, Carla, Carla’s husband (the baker Gerlando Cavaduzzo), and the twin sisters. Assunta, having passed herself off as a research assistant to a botanist at a university, eventually was confronted by a dean of the university. Through describing that confrontation, Ardizzone introduces his readers to the concepts that underlay the theories of eugenics that social scientists had liberally used to explain the inferiority of the Southern Italians and Sicilians.

          Thus, in this sweeping epic, Ardizzone introduces his readers to a very wide variety of the the concepts that were used by the people of the avventura – the great turn of the 19th/20th century migration from Southern Italy to the western hemisphere. A reader of this book will have had ample opportunity to construe all kinds of events and objects in ways that the cast of characters he describes would have construed those events and object.

          Nino Ricci’s Where she has gone. Nino Ricci, using a very different literary form, also conveys to his readers the kinds of concepts that commonly have guided the actions of the people who took part in the Italy-to-Canada avventura.

          Overall, it is possible to categorize Ricci’s novel, Where she has gone as an account of a young man’s severe identity crisis. The main protagonist of his novel, Victor, is portrayed as a young man who has returned to Toronto from a tour of duty as a teacher in a country in Africa. He has enrolled in a Master’s Degree program at the university that he had left when he launched into his work in Africa.

          Ricci deftly introduces Victor and two other main characters in the novel: his half sister, Rita, and a young woman, Elena, with whom Rita has shared a major portion of her life.

          Rita was born to Victor’s mother, who had become pregnant while her husband, Victor’s father, had been in Canada working to accumulate the funds that would allow him to bring his wife to a new life in Canada. Their mother had delivered Rita while on the ship, in passage to Canada. Following the delivery, their mother died as a result of complications of the birth.

          A key paragraph, in the second chapter of the book gathers together many of the strands that provide the thrust of the narrative:

          “There was also the codicil to his [their father, who had committed suicide] will that I hadn’t told her about, his wish that I use my inheritance to help provide for her if she should need me to. He had neither fathered Rita nor been a father to her, had never really forgiven her for the betrayal she was the product of; but he’d carried the guilt of her to the grave. I ought to have brought the matter up now and made an end of it” (p. 4).

          Ricci’s well worked narrative describes the aimlessness that marked Victor’s return to Canada and his efforts to resume his studies. Victor’s efforts to find a useful guiding direction becomes highly complicated by his having made a severe breech of family trust by an action involving his half sister.

          As indicated in the above paragraph, Victor’s father had not properly enacted the role of father in his relationships with Rita. Though their father could not completely abrogate responsibility for the daughter of his wife, his treatment of the girl led to the intercession of a social service agency who placed Rita into the home of a family that also had adopted Elena. Their father’s guilt apparently led to his having laid a heavy charge on Victor. His father had,. essentially, asked Victor to act as a channel through which some fatherly obligations to Rita might be honored. Victor’s breech of the charge, then, added a deep dimension to Victor’s efforts to develop a mature self identity.

          Through describing the complex patterns of behavior and behavior expectations centering around the role of the father in Southern Italian families, Ricci could interlace his narrative with explications of the constructions embedded in that role. As Ricci describes Victor, it is quite clear that the young man has not developed the psychological system that would allow him to achieve a mature self identity through enacting a solid father role.

          Eventually, Victor’s efforts to develop a mature and satisfying identity led him to return to Italy, after an interval of twenty years since he had departed, with his then-pregnant mother, from the small town in Molise. He seems to have been driven by a vague desire to reveal the identity of the person with whom his mother had violated the traditional role of Southern Italian wife by having engaged in the tryst that led to her pregnancy.

          The venture proved unsatisfactory. Among other revelations, Victor determined that he could not build an identity on the base of his family’s history of connections to the people of the small town where he had spent his first years with his mother. Indeed, reactions to his mother’s long ago failure to meet traditional expectations still played a part in his relationships with remnants of his family.

          At the end of the novel, Victor’s efforts to put an end to the turmoil of his search for an identity allow him to reach a half reasonable resolution, despite his having failed to develop a clear version of a satisfying life narrative.

          The core of the novel, of course, centers on a set of constructions that were crucial to the lives of many of the participants in l’avventura. The husband of a family travels to the place, in Canada, to which the family is to emigrate, leaving behind a wife and, in many cases, children. Will the wife and the husband find solace for their loneliness by seeking intimate relationships with another person? If the marriage bond does not forestall such extra-marital intimacy, how is the breech to be construed and repaired by all the principals involved in the incident? Ricci creates a situation in which such a breech becomes a core of the novel. The seriousness with which the principals must approach the Southern Italian views of the meaning of marriage permeates the entire novel. Victor, struggling with his own breech of trust, relative to his half sister, travels to Italy, haphazardly pursuing the possibility that if he understands his mother’s breech, he will somehow find surcease from his own guilt.

          In conversations with his sister and others with whom Victor had associated during his earlier life, Ricci can draw out Southern Italian perspectives on other important objects and events.

          Ricci describes one conversation between Victor and an older man who recalled the priest in the town in Molise where Victor had spent his earliest years. In that conversation he deftly interjects an observation on the Southern propensity to assign nicknames to persons:

“You must have known the priest there, old Zappa-la-vigna [hoe the vineyard], what was his name” (p. 82)

          Ricci incisively explores the ways in which Italy-to-Canada immigrants reacted to persons who made the decision to return to their native towns in Italy. Observing the ritual partings on the days before the returnee left his place in Canada, Ricci comments:

          “It has always struck me how little joy there had seemed to be in these events, as if a return were a matter of grave risk or threat or as if it were a sort of judgment against those who remained behind, a source of quiet humiliation” (p. 162).

          By having Victor witness a Good Friday procession in Toronto’s Little Itally, Ricci can introduce readers to the Italian traditions of the enactment of the passion of Christ.

          “Next to me I saw a girl of sixteen or so make a sign of the cross as he [the actor playing the role of Christ] approached, and was moved by this depth of belief in someone so young” (p. 78).

          However one might react to Ricci’s entire work, he/she must appreciate the skill with which Ricci interjects these kinds of descriptions of the ways that his Italian-Canadians (and the people in Molise) use their personal constructions to react to objects and events in their daily round of activities.

          As one reads this text he/she regularly comes across neat analyses of the perceptions of his cast of characters, such as that given in the following passage:

          “On our final approach [to Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport], the plan swung around to follow the shoreline. The beach there was doted with bits of colour, red, and yellow and blue, from hundreds of beach umbrellas lined up in orderly rows in the still of early morning like mock soldiers awaiting some humorous war with the sea. The umbrellas made it seem like we were arriving in a permanent holiday country, a place that had never known hardship or work, as if those of us who had fled there years before had been fooled somehow, had been packed off on our grim ocean voyages while behind us the bands played and the streamers waved in the wind.” (pp. 165-166).

          How easy it is to return to the native homes of emigrant Italian forebears to relish the weather, the food, the art, the architecture, the conviviality, and all the other attractions of modern Italy; while blanking out the pain of their having departed under the coercion of la miseria!

“Hooking” the Reader to Engage the Text

          It is easy to support the claim that Ardizzone and Ricci have created literary works that lead a reader to explore psychological perspectives used by Southern Italians and the immediate offspring of those who emigrated from Southern Italy. Obviously, these authors attempted to create literary works, rather than sociological treatises aimed at readers who would consciously undertake the task of analyzing the culturally shared constructions of the people of South Italy.

          Nevertheless, Ricci and Ardizzone needed to incorporate “hooks” into their text. They needed to use devices that would prompt a reader to continue to engage their text.

          Also obviously, Ricci and Ardizzone can use the standard device of tantalizing a reader to anticipate the possible outcomes of the actions of the protagonists of their narrative sequences. They cannot, however, count on the motivational power of that device, as could a writer who creates a mystery novel.

          Ricci and Ardizzone, then, create a “hook” into the reader’s consciousness, with Ricci creating a hook that is more like that that a mystery writer would create.

          The main protagonist of Ricci’s work is portrayed as a young man undergoing a severe identity crisis. The crisis is exacerbated by the major breech of the trust that his father had handed to him. Ricci deftly describes the intense guilt, without incessantly pointing to that guilt in order to direct the reader, that Victor feels after he almost innocently has breeched his father’s instructions about his obligations to his half-sister.

          A reader cannot avoid anticipating the possible outcomes of Victor’s struggle. How will Victor resolve his experience of guilt, and how will that affect his overall effort to achieve satisfactory, mature self definitions?

          Additionally, Ricci does use variations of the mystery writer’s hook. Will Victor discover the identity of the biological father of his half-sister, Rita? Will that discovery help him to understand his mother’s breech of Southern Italian conventions regarding marriage bonds? Will Victor discover a positive value in his relationship to the attractive young woman who occupies one of the houses that neighbors on to the property that his grandfather had willed to him?

          Ardizzone does not use enticing variants of the mystery writer’s hook. His narratives are presented in first person form, as was Ricci’s, but his narratives are more straightforward accounts.

          Ardizzone does use a “hook” that is now a standard in modern literary works. He readily has his narrators elaborate their tales by use of evocations of “magical realism.” A reader will suddenly find that he/she is reading a description of an event that could not gain the validation of a significant share of readers. The tales are colorful and attention-provoking, so that a reader can enjoy absorbing the flow of events and the constructions that are used by the actors in these ancillary tales.

          Further, anyone who is familiar with Italian folk tales, particularly the tales passed through generations of Southern Italians, will recognize that Ardizzone has threaded many elements of those tales through his narratives. In that way, a reader can be induced to consider the possibility that the narrator of the overall account of his/her immigration might actually have interpreted many of his experiences using the kinds of constructions that are embedded in those folk tales.

          This hook might create problems relative to inducing readers to explore the constructions used by Southern Italians and Sicilians. Some of the sequences are outlandish to the extreme; and, particularly in one account, the imagery created by the application of the constructions used by the narrator could prove to be quite offensive to a reader. If a reader would follow the narratives, taking the most tolerant position possible regarding the constructions used by members of other cultures, he/she still would need to wrestle with the matter of determining if Ardizzone means to have him/her believe that the actors in his narrative do use the constructions described in his “magical reaslism” passages. In other terms, the reader of Ardizzone’s work will, I believe, regularly pose the question, “Do these people believe that this event actually happened in this way?” Once committed to the use of “magical realism” as a mode a writer cannot stand back and declare, “I am now writing as a magical realist,” for to do that would violate the tensions that are deliberately created by elevating the “magical” constructions to a level of acceptable logicality.

          In the final analysis, a critic might admire the originality and creativeness of Ardizzone’s “hook,” and might further agree that the text of In the garden of Papa Santuzzu effectively achieves the goal of a literary work, as I outlined that goal in the introductory section of this essay: “ . . . . the purpose of literature is to provide readers with a text that will encourage the exploration of new ways of viewing objects and events.”

          Ardizzone’s connecting some of the significant events and trends in the history of The USA – for example, labor strife and the eugenics movement – to the lives of individual immigrants will introduce readers to events that the immigrants needed to understand, whether they could do so directly or not. Though the immigrants might not have been able to articulate the constructions that would allow them to deal effectively with those events, they were forced to respond to the social institutions and processes that were guided by the systems of “knowing” that were used by the power holders of the established broader society. For example, whether or not they could bring to bear useful constructions to understand the propositions promulgated by the eugenicists, they and their children would have been subjected to treatment guided by those propositions. A reader who processes Ardizzone’s text, if he has not already been encouraged to do so, will be prompted to explore the constructions of race, inheritance, genes, and so forth, that underlay those propositions.

          Ricci, using an approach that Ardizzone also used, skillfully weaves the constructions used by Italian immigrants and their offspring into the flow of his narrative. Ricci articulates those constructions as he describes the ruminations of the protagonists, as he describes their history, their social interactions, and their observations of ongoing events.

          If a reader intends to use a text as a vehicle toward achieving the goal of exploring the perspectives concerning Italian emigrants and their offspring he/she would be equally rewarded by reading either Ricci’s Where she has gone or Ardizzone’s In the garden of Papa Santuzzu.. Both works must be judged as valuable contribution to the body of work that allows readers to explore the ways in which the Italian immigrants to the northern North America understood their world and themselves.

          Of course, as a critic one does not have the privilege of determining the objectives of a writer. Nor can a critic dictate what a reader shall expect of a literary work. As a critic, however, one can indicate his/her expectations regarding a literary work, and can assess a work in terms of whether or not a work meets those expectations.


Ardizzone, Tony. (1999). In the garden of Papa Santuzzi. New York: Picador USA.

Ricci, Nino. (1998). Where she has gone. New York: Picador USA.

Vico, Giambattista (1984/1744). Principles of New Science of Giambattista Vico Concerning the Common Nature of Nations. In T. G. Bergin and M. H. Fisch (eds) The new science of Giambattista Vico. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University press. (First pulished in Italian, 1744. Translators and editors, T. B. Bergin and M. H. Fisch.)

This essay was developed by the essay's author, in order to make available material that will develop an appreciation and understanding of The Italy-to-USA Avventura. The writers of this essay and other text found on this world wide web site claim sole responsibility for the content of their productions.


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. The author, Jim Mancuso died on June 10th, 2005. We maintain this site in memory of all the things that he did for us.

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