John Ciardi's Assimilation??

James C. Mancuso
Delmar, New York
August, 2001

This essay on the ways in which confusions about the process and the concept known asassimilation appear to have affected the life of the esteemed poet, John Ciardi, is totally the responsibility of the author.


In the text of this essay, I will explore the social science concept assimilation, by offering my analysis of how that concept appears to have laced through the life of John Ciardi (1916-1986), the famed and esteemed poet. To launch my analysis, I will open with a long quote from Edward M. Cifelli's 1997 book, John Ciardi: A biography. It will become obvious to the reader of this essay that I have relied heavily on Cifelli's text, and that I am grateful for Cifelli having collected and recorded the data which I have used in my efforts to support the propositions which I attempt to validate.

In a key passage in his book, herewith quoted, Edward Cifelli (1997) reported, "that on 9 September 1983, Ciardi wrote to John Stone [to comment on his reactions after having reviewed] the galleys of Selected Poems. 'I'm a bit surprised,' he wrote, 'at how heavily Italo-American it is. If anyone gets around to reviewing it, I'll hear about that. And it will miss the point that the Italian background was my first pasture, not where I went. So I'll be typed. So be it.' Many of his early poems, of course, plus many of the reminiscences in Lives of X, and a smattering of poems that appeared through the years - displayed a strong pull toward his Italian-American childhood and what is generally called a 'cultural heritage.' But to Ciardi, nationality was secondary to the process of looking inward for self-discovery, which he always believed was a universal experience that every man could share. The outer trappings were particular to the man, but the process of searching into oneself opened the poems to all man - that is, if one could look deeply enough and write compellingly enough. On about 9 September 1983, when he wrote to his friend Vince Clemente about the galleys of Selected Poems, Ciardi repeated his concern over "how Italian it is" but remembered again a story he'd liked to tell about Robert Lowell. In the final analysis, he wrote to Clemente, anyone who noted "how Italian" his new book was would miss the point: "Lowell missed it once. I published in The Atlantic "SPQR, A Letter from Rome," and he wrote to say it was the best Italian-American poem he had read. As if he wrote Am and I wrote It-Am. Well yes and no. About the way Archie MacLeish, blessed great memory, wore a tam with a Scottish clan emblem. Mine was pick shovel rampant, gold on dinner pail ebon. Later it was two martinis on an expense account lunch tab" (p. 438).

Through the remainder of this essay, I will reference sections of this passage, which I take to be a model of the way in which concerns about assimilation threaded through the fabric of Ciardi's life. As I offer my analysis, I vehemently hold to the claim that I mean to show no disrespect for John Ciardi. His prodigious accomplishments, against the immense obstacles that he needed to circumvent, deserve the highest esteem that we can accord to another person.

That esteem is even more deserved if one recognizes that there simply did not exist a useful set of analyses of the psychological adjustments that accompanied a developing person's having been exposed to intense and calculated efforts to have "outsiders" undergo the process that social scientists referenced by the term assimilation. The scholars of the early part of the 20th Century who discussed assimilation occupied themselves with outlining the benefits that everyone would achieve once the "outsiders" had been brought around to "becoming Americans." The scholars and educators were willing to follow prominent educators like Elwood Cubberley (1909) who set out their task: " . . . . to assimilate and amalgamate these people as part of our American race, and to implant in their children as far as can be done, the Anglo-Saxon conception of righteousness, law and order, and to awaken in them a reverence for our democratic institutions and/or those things in our national life which we as a people hold to be of abiding worth (p. 15).

As we think of the scholars who discussed the assimilation of children like John Ciardi, we must hold in mind the power of people like Cubberley and those who supported him and his views. The power that he wielded as Dean of The School of Education at Stanford University is currently reflected in that school's building, which is named for Cubberley. Additionally, one can trace through the extent to which power-holders could control the thinking about important social science topics like assimilation by noting that Cubberley was awarded his doctor's degree at Columbia. Cubberley received his doctor's degree, in 1905. His student and eventual colleague, Henry Suzzallo, earned his degree at Columbia in the same year. Suzzallo had been advancing his career as an educator under the mentorship of Cubberly, but found a more powerful mentor in Nicholas Murray Butler. Butler, dubbed "the intellect of the plutocrats," circled in very high places, such that he was the running mate of William Taft during The USA presidential elections held in 1912. In 1914, when the University of Washington sent a committee to the east to search for a president, Butler nominated Suzzallo for the position, and the board of The University of Washington awarded the presidency to Suzzallo. And, just as Butler could make a career, he could break careers. During World War I, Butler made it clear that he expected the faculty members of Columbia University to concur with his enthusiasm for the entry of The USA into the European War. Butler concurred with the dismissal of faculty members, such as James McKeen Cattell, who did not hold his views. Butler backed the dismissal of Cattell, one of the important founders of American psychology, after Cattell had expressed the opinion that draftees should not be sent overseas. Following this incident and Butler's general concurrence with the treatment given to the famed and influential political scientist, Charles A Beard, by Columbia's board of directors, Beard resigned from the faculty of Columbia in 1917.

One could expect, then, that the faculty of Teacher's College and the faculty of other units of Columbia University would define, elaborate, and promulgate the benefits of assimilation. And, the influence of the pronouncements emanating from Teacher's College spread throughout The United States to shape the education practices aimed at millions of the offspring of immigrants. Similarly, one could expect that a person like John Ciardi, who attended elementary and high school during the 1920's and 1930's, was given little opportunity to construct a context into which he could weave his experiences and the resulting personal psychological effects of the assimilation project that power holders had put into effect.

Uncovering the Elements of Italian-American
Influence in Ciardi's Work

Consider that Ciardi said that he was "a bit surprised at [the] heavily Italo-American." character of his poetry. Ciardi had spent a 67-year lifetime building a huge intellect. He had written thousands of pages of text by the time that he said that he was surprised that so much of the best of his previous writing was "heavily Italo-American." How can one account for this? Obviously, he had written many many poems that clearly reflected his Italian-American background. Why would he have been a bit surprised, upon having reviewed the galleys of the book that he had helped to assemble, at the Italo-American flavor of much of the material that he had selected to represent his life work?

I would propose that Ciardi's surprise can be explained by juxtaposing two of the very revealing phrases in the text, above, drawn from Cifelli's 1997 book: (1) "the Italian background was my first pasture, not where I went;" and (2) "Mine was pick shovel rampant, gold on dinner pail ebon. Later it was two martinis on an expense account lunch tab" (p. 438). Cifelli suggests that "to Ciardi, 'nationality' was secondary to the process of looking inward for self-discovery." I would say that Ciardi's surprise derived from his having failed to follow carefully the threads in the dense fabric of his complex mind. He had not acquired the conceptual tools with which to view closely his Italian-American cultural heritage and where it had figured into his life as he had attempted to substitute the "two martinis on an expense account lunch tab" for "the pick and shovel rampant."

If Ciardi had looked inward for self-discovery - I propose - he did not have the framework through which he could see the remnants of the aliments that he ingested while browsing in his "first pasture." Those remnants could not have been blotted out by dozens of martinis!!! They were there, and as I read Ciardi's poems, particularly the moving and evocative poems he published in the volume entitled Lives of X, I see the concepts, constructions, ideas, frameworks, values, and self-definitions that resulted from his having been exposed to an immigrant Italian-American family.

From where came Ciardi's intense commitment to liberal political ideologies? Joseph Heller and Ralph Ellison, like John Ciardi, were "outsiders." Joseph Heller (1961) and Ralph Ellison (1953), like John Ciardi (1971, pp. 17-28), published extremely personal and moving stories that reflected their liberal social ideologies. In addition, Ciardi alienated significant power holders of The USA by his youthful support of the Loyalist government of Spain, which was being put out of office by fascist-supported Francisco Franco. Later in his life, Ciardi also became a first-line supporter of Henry Wallace, frequently offering his oratory skills to enlisting support for Wallace's presidential campaign. Ciardi's eloquent expressions of his ideologies earned him (1) one of the most dangerous positions in World War II - a post on a gunnery crew of a B-29 bomber, and (2) constant harrassment by The USA Federal Bureau of Investigation and (3) a place on a list of "radicals" issued by The US House of Representatives Internal Security Committee - sharing "honors" with Mohammad Ali, H. Rap Brown, William Kunstler, Jerry Rubin, and others of similar notoriety.

Did Ciardi's experiences with the dominant society of Medford, Massachusetts alert him to the injustices that the power holders could exercise with impunity? What was the effect of his finding, at age six, that "Omniscience had changed my name! I was John Sea-YARD-i - and not even allowed to argue" (Ciardi, 1971, p. 29). Cifelli tells of Ciardi recalling his having been "a little alienated from the society" of Medford and his having felt "some alienation from friends" (quoted in Cifelli, p. 13). Did his Italian-American relatives discuss the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and execution? The legal maneuvers to save those politically left-wing immigrant Italians from execution stretched over the period from 1920 to 1927. Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death near Medford, when Ciardi was eleven years old. Did his mother, Concetta, ever talk about the Italian-American women that had participated in The Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, four years before Ciardi was born. Did she ever discuss the ways in which The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company had used its access to high-paid legal counsel to attempt to thwart her claim that her husband, Antonio, had been killed while traveling to attend a function that could be regarded as a business function that had been arranged for the agents and employees of Metropolitan? What Italian-American conceptions of the role of a father influenced Concetta so that "The weekly checks came to represent for Concetta a direct contact with Antonio, not the insurance company" (Cifelli, p. 9). Did she manage to weave those conceptions into the psychological system of the young John; thereby preparing him to see injustices perpetuated by maintaining social inequities.

Did Italian-American concepts of fatherhood influence Ciardi's self-definitions? If one is looking for the aliments absorbed into Ciardi's psychological system during the time that he grazed in Italian-American pastures, he/she would have no trouble seeing Ciardi's construction of a father role as a bolus which Ciardi repeatedly chewed and rechewed. During the time of Ciardi's self explorations, mainstream scholars of psychology and sociology offered misleading and shabby theories about father-son relationships. During the period of Ciardi's early development and young manhood, the psychoanalytic thought that dominated psychological discussion would provide a jazzy framework in which one might discuss the psychological effects of that boy losing his father when the boy was three years old. The story would involve sex, jealousy, murder, castration, revenge, and so on. The resulting gory stories would poorly suffice as a prototype of any confused father's confused self-as-father stories. Whether or not an expensive course of Freudian or neo-Freudian psychoanalysis would have or could have lifted the confusion remains a mystery, despite over 100 years of debate.

Fortunately, a behavior analyst attempting to build a framework by which to explain John Ciardi's repeated expressions of his ruminations about his father role can gain collegial support for a theory based on the ways in which a person thinks about fatherhood as he builds his self definitions. Essentially, a role theorist would build explanations of the ways a man behaves as a father from the basic proposition that a man, in each every day enactment of his role as father, assembles a personal, self-defining idea (construction) that he uses to guide his enactment. If that enactment does not achieve the approval of others, the man, generally, will experience a reaction that he will regard as unpleasant.

A source of what I see to be Ciardi's problems as a father derive from his having been exposed "second hand" to the complex, traditional Italian immigrant definition of the role of father. Ciardi's father was killed in an automobile accident when Ciardi was three years old. Thereafter his mother, Concetta, played the role of Italian widow-mother. She lavishly mourned for the loss of her idealized husband, and constantly presented her idealization and sorrow to John. Her deceased husband, Carminantonio, had proved his right to be idealized. During his 37 years he had emigrated from a tiny town east of Naples, had made his way to Boston, had studied English and bookkeeping to become proficient enough to hold a position as agent for The Metropolitan Insurance Company, and had demonstrated his leadership in the Italian immigrant community. Concetta's idealization reached a level at which an observer might say that she had cut herself off from a need to test the validity of that idealization. Cifelli tells us that

" . . . a macabre and psychologically disturbing aspect to the [weekly] payments from [Metropolitan Insurance Company] soon developed. The weekly checks came to represent for Concetta a direct contact from Antonio, not the insurance company. The illiterate woman wove the reality of the check into a myth of survival, and she lovingly forced her sense of Antonio's presence on her son, who from age three to eleven was made to believe that his father had not abandoned him after all, that he was somehow still with him as evidenced by the weekly check. . . . He was a real presence who sent his family ten dollars each and every week, like a dutiful and loving husband and father" (Cifelli, pp. 9-10).

Dutiful, loving, committed (even from the grave), totally responsible provider (even though dead) - these were the key elements of the definition of fatherhood that Concetta fed into young John as he pastured in the Italian-American ambiance of his childhood. Even if John's indoctrination into this version of the father role had not been intensified by the conditions that exaggerated Concetta's idealization of Carminantonio, a young male in an Italian immigrant household, during the time of John's youth, would have had repeated exposure to the expectation that he should aspire to the ability to fill the Southern Italian version of ideal father. John, as his frequent reminisces of his mother's mourning and ruminations indicate, had a special dose of such indoctrination.

We can imagine that, above all, Concetta had intended to convey to John the images of the son according obligatory respect to his father. The myths, paintings, and mosaics that repeatedly appear in Italian literature and art remind the ideal son of the ideal relation of a son to his father. Like Shem, who covered Noah's drunken and shameful nakedness, the son was expected to demonstrate respect despite his father's occasional failings. Like Aeneas, who carried his debilitated father on his back to escape from burning Troy, the son was to value his father above all his other possessions.

Ciardi stated that he had left the Italian-influenced pasture in which he had spent his youth. Was the conception of fatherhood that he had acquired there, nevertheless, woven into his psychological system to influence the on-the-spot scripts he created to guide his enactments of his father role. One could say that he became obsessed with providing his family with the weekly checks, but they needed to be far larger than the ten dollar checks that were sent weekly to Concetta. Even before leaving the security of an academic position, in 1958, Ciardi had referred to himself as "practically The Capitalist of Po Biz" (Cifelli, p. 259). After he had left his academic position, in 1961, at age 45, Ciardi spent long periods of time away from home, dashing from one lecture to another and from one obligation to another. This major transition into full time "Po[oetry] Biz" occurred when his three children were about 9, 8, and 7 respectively. Cifelli wrote, "Ciardi was setting his table very well, but in his absence the children became increasingly difficult for Judith [his wife] to manage, for she was a single parent for at least three months every year and was not cut out to be a disciplinarian" (p. 68). "Ciardi, who never had a father at home during his own childhood to model himself after, measured success as a parent largely in dollars and cents terms, although he was a physical presence - loving, sarcastic, and demanding" (p. 68).

From all indications, Ciardi might well have convinced himself that he had been enacting the role of dutiful, loving father who set his table well. Unfortunately, his children did not model themselves after Shem or Aeneas. Instead, his older son, Jonnel, construed his father in these terms: his "temper and Italian padrone syndrome were always there" (Cifelli, p. 268). Further, Jonnel "convinced his younger brother that their father, who went on so many business trips and came back rich, was actually a mob hit man" (p. 269).

Cifelli summarized Jonnel's withholding of respect in this succinct statement: "Jonnel, fueled by his generation's rejection of the older generation's 'illegal' and 'immoral' war in Vietnam, resisted at home and elsewhere the concept of automatic respect for one's parents and elders" (p. 268).

Could Ciardi have nurtured his children's respect by pointing out to them that he, at one time, had invested time and energy into attempting to counter the older generation's illegality and immorality? Unfortunately, he appears to have attempted to leave behind much of his commitments to direct action to promote the welfare of exploited have-nots. In commenting on his anti-fascist activity during the Spanish civil war he ridiculed his actions, "I fired off endless poems, signed every zany petition the loonies brought me, and even imagined that I was in some way shooting down Stukas" (Cifelli, p. 47). His efforts to dissociate himself from Henry Wallace, after he had poured so much energy into Wallace's campaign, signified that he later regretted also that part of his youthful and enthusiastic efforts to undo what he had seen as the immorality of his elders.

If one does not receive validation for an enactment of a role that he/she has created as a self definition of his/her place in a social interaction, he/she may follow one of two broad courses of action. A person can redefine the failed role and then construct a revision of the self-guiding role. Or, a person can discredit or remove the source of the invalidation. The latter course of action seems to have been the course of choice followed by Ciardi, who could rely on his mastery of words and images to create sarcastic, belittling, and devastating responses to anyone who invalidated one or another of his definitions of the objects and events around him - particularly to anyone who invalidated his definitions of his self.

Ciardi would have enjoyed his last years much more if he had indeed left behind all those psychological elements that had gone into the building of his role of ideal father. Instead, he agonized interminably over his children's inability to find, make a commitment to, and pursue satisfying life goals - and, ultimately, to accord him respect. He dipped deeply into his "nest egg" in his efforts to have his son, Benn, forego drug use and undertake to manage a business that seemed to have promise of thriving. "He has done me out of heavy money - I'ld guess $150,000 dollars - on his junk trip and back, but he is back, and damn all else" (quoted in Cifelli, p. 456). He complained about his daughter's continuing to live, at half rental, in one of the properties that he owned and would rather have sold for a profit. Apparently, all those late life efforts failed to bring him the respect that provides validation for a father's enactment of a suitable father role.

As he did when he faced the younger poets who declined to support his views of poetry, he harangued and demeaned his children, whom he construed as representatives of the irresponsible "measly generation" who produced the "young, socially activated poets, in many of whom I seem to find the assumption that the one prerequisite for poetry is the excitation of one's own ignorance" (quoted in Cifelli, p. 434) - the new coterie of poets who had dethroned "the capitalist of Po-biz." His son, Jonnel, recounted dinner-time scenes: His father "would declare something - not just say it, but declare it - and that was it. He would sit there at the dinner table and observe his unworthy children, then he would make piercing comments" (Cifelli, p. 269). If he was not accorded esteem from those with whom he presented his self as father/authority figure, he would turn on his exceptional verbal talents in an attempt to humiliate his dialogue partners into silence! In 1985, when he was 69 years old, shortly before his death, Ciardi attended a conference at which his colleagues construed his behavior toward students and other participants as intolerant, cruel, indefensibly harsh, personally antagonistic, abusive, and irascible. Shortly thereafter he died, having been frustrated in his efforts to gain validation for his enactments of the father role that his mother had fed into his psychological system, during his childhood and youth in an Italian-American ambiance.


What would serve as Ciardi's rewards for his having assimilated? Anyone who had spent his childhood and youth in an Italian-American household must succumb to the nostalgia that overcomes him/her as he/she drifts into the imagery evoked while reading Ciardi's poem Feasts - a poem that appeared in the collection of somewhat autobiographical poems under the title Lives of X. In that poem, Ciardi (1971) poured out, in his eloquent phrases, the imagery that fixed the psychological system by which he would know the truths of his life: his sensitivity to and his resentment of the inequities of the social system of the Boston area, his sympathy with his mother's intense grief over the loss of her idealized husband, his awe at the respect accorded to his deceased father by those who held him in sacred memory, his admiration of a friend of his uncle known as Sputasangue (spit blood) on account of his use of that term to urge on the sweating cemetery laborers under his supervision, his sanctioning of the skillful guile worked by Sputasangue as he effectively arranged to lead early morning hunting parties intent on filling the Sunday pot with some of the pheasants that inhabited the cemetery of the rich, his joy at descending into Uncle Alec's aromatic wine cellar, his comfort at surveying the family's cellar full of the makings of savory dishes, fond memories of his mother and aunt harvesting dandelions and mushrooms from the fields that surrounded their home, his repulsion at the stink of the henhouse from which he gathered eggs, his satisfaction at visiting the gardens and farms from which the family harvested the bounty on which they feasted, his fascination with the dialect language spoken by the friends and family, the love and respect he showered on his aged uncle . . . .

Food was the flaming altar of the house.

All Hunger's tribesmen praise God as a feast,

fear him as a famine, live as they can between. (Ciardi, 1971, p. 40)

The poem ends with a phrase evocative of Ciardi's claim, made when he was 67 years of age, that two martinis on an expense account tab had replaced the pick and shovel on his clan emblem.

I diet in suburbias past the dead

on checkbook lo-cal, or, a jet away,

pick at my sirloin among signing angels

who skip potatoes for a third martini. (p. 41)

Obviously, when he published Feasts at age 55, there still remained in Ciardi's psychological system (and on his emblem), the images, concepts, and values with which he filled that evocative poem. Some of the elements in some of the slots in those images might have been replaced. Bourbon and gin had been substituted for Uncle Alec's best home-made wine. The dandelion greens had disappeared from the plates from which he consumed his cholesterol-laced, oversized steaks. The self-sufficiency expressed through visiting Uncle Albert's twenty acres to load down their auto with the bounty that they harvested had been replaced by the checks that Ciardi harvested as he raced around the country to attend conferences and give lectures. Swinging golf clubs replaced,

jackhammering for the Gas Co - or for diPietro

who subcontracted for the Gas Co's sweat. (Ciardi, 1971, p. 78)

Suburban lawns then filled the spaces that might have been occupied by a garden modeled after Concetta's garden. By 1971, Ciardi played gin rummy at elite country clubs, not at the kinds of Italian-American social clubs where his father had gained esteem and respect. His poetry, nevertheless, revealed that the core of his psychological system had remained intact - "heavily Italo-American."

The Results of Having Struck the Dubious Bargain

Ciardi had strenuously asserted that he had left behind his Italian-American pastureland. He had assimilated the scholars' assimilation story. He wanted to be counted as an American poet who acted as esteemed American poets should act. He wanted to be regarded as "the Capitalist of Po-biz."

To become "the Capitalist of Po-biz," of course, Ciardi needed to demonstrate that he had mastered the skills required to have his poetry accepted for publication and that he could bring a special vision to the analysis of the contemporary literature of his era.

Nothing less than immense talent and dedication could allow the scion of a working class, Italian immigrant family to demonstrate that he deserved to be regarded as a member of the literary elite of The USA. Cifelli tells, in detail, of how Ciardi - without the resources and amenities that his upper-class college peers enjoyed - impressed his professors at Tufts University. Following the advice of the professors who had assumed the role of his mentors, Ciardi took every opportunity to produce poetry and to expose his work to competent, critical judges.

For someone in Ciardi's financial position, the academic world offered the most appropriate position from which to build a career in the literary world. After a solidly successful completion of his master's degree at University of Michigan, and the successful publication of his first book of poetry, Ciardi took a position at the University of Kansas City. Ciardi had been recommended for the position at UKC by the esteemed poet, Louis Untermeyer. Untermeyer also was responsible for introducing Ciardi to the famed Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, held on a campus of Vermont's Middlebury College.

Ciardi's drive to build a solid publishing record while he struggled to maintain himself as a college teacher was interrupted by his tour of military duty in the Air Corps.. From May, 1942 to October, 1945, he attended flight school, was refused an officer's commission, and served as an aircraft gunnery specialist. During his service years, he continued to write and publish poetry. In 1946, his fame established, Ciardi was offered and took a position at Harvard University, . During his Harvard years he accomplished what few literature professors accomplish: He made money from his poetry writing. A most significant step in his career occurred when he was offered and accepted a position as poetry staff member at The Bread Loaf Writer's Conference. He was appointed as editor of reviews and publishing ventures, his opinions about poetry became a touchstone in literary circles, and he traveled the country to fulfill an amazing lecture schedule. In 1953 he left Harvard and joined the faculty of Rutgers University. He was appointed director of the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in 1955. He became the poetry editor of Saturday Review. He translated Dante's Divine Comedy, etc., etc. - all the while writing and publishing his own poetry. Cifelli wrote of Ciardi's status in 1959, when Ciardi was 43 years old:

. . . He reveled in his material wealth as well as in his prominence in the world of poetry. He had earned his position by dedicating himself to his craft and following one achievement after another until he stood among the country's literary elite. He was understandably proud of all he had accomplished and the money he had earned by age forty-three, and he enjoyed flaunting it - loud and often. Psychologically this may have been nothing more to him than a way of expressing what he deemed his success as a father. (p. 240)

Ciardi was very aware of his having shown the kind of competence that allowed him to "crash the gates" (Christopher, 1989). I can easily view Ciardi as a prototypical example of a person who had originated in an Italian-American family during the first quarter of the 20th, had struck the dubious bargain, and had clambered up the steep ladder of ambition to claim the "rewards" that should accrue from his having carried out his part of the bargain. Nevertheless, by age 67 he expressed concern about having failed to convince his co-citizens that his Italian-American background had been left behind. He was concerned that they would read his poems to discover the heavy Italo-American quality of his work - that he would be "typed;" but "So be it." He had berated Robert Lowell for having said that one of Ciardi's poems "was the best Italian-American poem he had read. As if he wrote Am and I wrote It-am" Being referenced as an Italian-American poet offended Ciardi, Cifelli suggests, because to Ciardi "the process of searching into oneself opened [his] poems to all men - that is, if one could look deeply enough and write compellingly enough" (Cifelli, p. 438). I prompt the proposition that Ciardi, having lacked the conceptual tools to do so, had been diverted from looking deeply enough by his acceptance of the concept assimilation that had been purveyed by those scholars and educators of the early 20th Century who labored to assure that the millions of immigrant children in their schools would become good Americans.

Consider the rewards of the dubious bargain that Ciardi had signed. Did cholesterol laden steaks help to ruin his vascular system? The exercise of swinging golf clubs did not allow for the expenditure of the number of calories that he had once used up by swinging a pick, and he constantly struggled to evade obesity. His poetry had gone out of vogue and his resentful irascibility had alienated him from his peers as surely as his Italian cultural practices had alienated him from the Irish children of Medford who regarded him as "not only a Dago but a sissy" (Cifelli, p. 21). His children viewed him as a dogmatic Italian padrone, and had played with the possibility that he was a mob hit man. Shortly before his death, his strained financial situation led him to write a letter to a lawyer "in which he threatened legal action if he was not supplied with proof for tax purposes that he had lost money in an 'investment' in [his sons failed business venture] rather than in a 'gift' to his son" (Cifelli, p. 476).

I am suggesting that had Ciardi acquired the conceptual tools to look deeply enough into his struggle to assimilate, he would have recognized that he had allowed the educators and social scientists to tempt him into a bad contract. He would have understood that in his struggle to achieve success in the incestuous literary world of The USA of his young manhood, he had substituted bourbon for home-made wine, but he had not succeeded at the near-impossible task of erasing the myriad, tightly-connected, childhood-acquired constructs that he used to build the definitions of his self and other objects and events in his world. Most significantly, he might have fathomed the way in which the members of the dominant society had dangled before him the promise of societally-approved "rewards" and otherwise had induced him to believe that he had been a willing and able assimilator. He might, as did Angelo Pellegrini (1984, 1986), have decided that he had no need to claim that he had left the Italian-American pastureland.

Had Ciardi's thinking about assimilation been guided by the work of George Herbert Mead (1934) rather than the work of sociologists and educators who promoted "Assimilation, American style" (Salins, 1997), Ciardi might have recognized the childhood origins and continuing presence of his sharp division of his surrounding society into the unfeeling, demeaning "haves" who routinely exploited the other category of humans in our society, the "have nots." He might have seen that his version of the have not/have distinction emerged during the time when the Italian-American boy confronted the Irish lads who had entrenched themselves into the middle class of Medford and who, therefore, deemed themselves privileged to cast intolerant glances at the "strange and outlandish" Ciardi family that had moved into their community. He might have seen that that version of the have not/have distinction grew out of his efforts to understand the ways in which he and his family had been received in Saint Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, in Medford: "If I have blanked out some instances of priestly kindness, my mind returns to many instances in which the priest of Medford's Irish Trinity seemed to be inflexible, arrogantly self assured, domineering, and generally suspicious of Italian boys" (quoted in Cifelli, pp. 14-15).

Had Ciardi had the tools to have done so, he might have discovered that his construction alien/assimilated and the dubious bargain to which he was being led, had attended his efforts to establish his position in the heart of Mr. D., a scout leader in the Medford's Congregational Church. Ciardi once declared, "I adored him. If God gave me grace, I would make myself as much like him as my faults would permit. He was my perfect man" (Cifelli, p. 25). Cifelli says of Mr. D., ". . . . Mr D. appears to have been very conventional, habitually preaching the values [Values endorsed by the Protestant, White, Anglo-Saxon congregants of the church???] and offering on a regular basis all the homely virtues of Scouting" (p. 25, material in brackets interjected by JCM).

Had Ciardi had the tools that would have allowed him to do so, he would have discerned that there were insidious motives behind the ways in which the term nationality had been used by power holders to make distinctions among the ethnic groups by which he was surrounded during his youth. Conflating "national" identity to "cultural" identity and then asking a child to name his "nationality" clearly signaled to the child that he/she was an outsider, and that he had yet to be defined as a person who could claim "nationality" in The USA. Perhaps Ciardi would have seen the remnants of this kind of construction of his self in the judgments of others that his poems were "Italian-American" and not strictly "American." In the early 1940's, the FBI, that ultimate guardian of Americanism, had described him as "a stocky fellow with Italian violence, so that he could be stubborn at times" (Cifelli, p. 64). The FBI also was willing to conclude, after investigating, that "there is no indication of Nazi connections, the character of this case is being made to reflect Italian sympathies, rather than German" (Cifelli, p. 73). Would some of the inhabitants of the upper levels of the literary world have made the same kinds of fuzzy associations about his "Americanism/Italianism" if they could judge that Ciardi had not fully assimilated - that he remained "heavily Italian?" Would they be inclined to believe that by detecting Ciardi's "nationalistic" tendencies they would uncover a Gabriele D'Annunzio trying to disguise himself as an American poet?

Had Ciardi had the conceptual tools to have done so, he might have explored, to our benefit, the implications of his own judgement (and that of one of his most severe critics) that he had produced some of his best poetry when he dealt with themes that reflected his Italian-American background. Ciardi might have worked through the contradictions involved by contrasting that judgment against his concern about reviewers judging his poetry to be "heavily Italo-American." Had he done so, he might have concluded that he was writing valid poetry to express valid and useful views of the world. He might have fully explored the themes with which he began the poem A Five-Year Step. In that 1971 poem, he described a scene from a college classroom discussion of the practice of numerology during the middle ages. Ciardi's instructor had called him short for having made a claim that he "knew" about the practices of numerology "by having been raised inside them, but couldn't prove it" (Ciardi, 1971, p. 70). In the third stanza of A Five-Year Step, Ciardi published his memory of his concern over his classmates' reactions to his claim that he knew about numerology because;

. . . . . . . . . . . . . I was born there

Or else I was born beforehand to where they came. (p. 70)

And if it was half a flourish for sweet style's sake -

not for a class of dolts to titter at

though they had to have their titter, and let them have it -

it still was half as true as I was born.

Maybe half as true as anyone is born,

and with no Renaissance to follow. (p. 70)

Were these same concerns about a tittering group of peers apparent in his 1983 concerns about reviewers drawing attention to the "heavily Italo-Italian" aspects of his poetry - "So, I'll be typed. So be it." to the reviewers. - "though they had to have their titter, and let them have it" to his college classmates!! Several stanzas into the poem, he returned to the matter of the source of his knowledge of numerology, and wrote lines that reveal that he could have easily followed his thinking to reach and to share with his readers profound insights about the characteristics of the elements of the personal knowledge system that he had acquired in the Italian-American ambiance of his youth.

I didn't know then my dreams were from a mountain

where every town defended its own Virgin

just as the Greeks had left her in a cave.

But I could tell St. Patrick was none of mine,

though at St. Joe's his feast day waved more flags

than God broke out for Easter and Christmas together.

What kept him from pushing toward the full elaboration of and the sharing of his insights into the sources of his dreams? Did he worry about the literary world discovering that his dreams originated in the mountain towns of Southern Italy, where each town's populace, for its own social reasons, venerated its own version of a holy virgin - La Madonna della Monte, La Madonna del Carmine, La Madonna del Rosario di Pompei, Saint Lucy, Saint Rosalia (who also was left in a cave). etc.? Did he worry that his literary peers would titter if, after working through his insights, he had turned to writing poetry that would have celebrated the utility and validity of the dreams that had originated in Southern Italian and Sicilian mountain towns? Why was he unable to declare that literary peers who might deem him "heavily Italo-American" were "none of mine?" Why did he not accept the critical judgment that some of his most notable poems were those in which he recounted his Italian-American background, and then go on to produce works that would have given insight into the origins and social utility of such dreams, as did Barolini (1988), Pellegrini (1986, 1984), and Gambino, (1974)?

Had Ciardi had the conceptual tools to have done so, he might have found, when he looked deeply into his self, the remnants of the skills, attitudes, values, and practices that he had acquired as he had helped his mother maintain her garden. He, like Angelo Pellegrini (1984), might have dismayed his suburban neighbors by turning a section of his lawn into a garden, complete with tomato stakes and bean poles. The exercise and the produce of his garden might have brought about a reduction of his cholesterol, might have helped to alleviate his vascular problems, might have readjusted the imbalances in his insulin production and diminished the severity of his diabetes, and might have given him and his children a common set of valued and shared activities.

Had Ciardi had the tools, when he tried to look deeply into himself, he might have understood the inexplicable feelings that he had experienced during his contacts with the people of Italy. He might have understood why he felt "oddly at home" among the people of Venice, despite walking differently, not sharing their language, wearing different clothes, and not quite understanding how they thought. Unfortunately, he could only take recourse to the gummy concepts that had been inculcated into his conceptual system during his youth, and declared, "By blood, this was my tribe" (Cifelli, p. 156) - as though something in his genetically-transmitted blood chemistry, rather than the Italian-American elements of his knowledge system, could explain his feeling "oddly at home." He was, nonetheless, on to something when he said, "I had no sooner arrived there [Venice] than I found within myself a sense that I recognized the emotional patterns of the Italians" (Cifelli, p. 156). Perhaps he watched, on one of Venice's vaporetti, as I did, a grandfather playing a guessing game with his little grandchild. The child was to guess which of the things in the passing scene the grandfather had selected for attention. Perhaps Ciardi felt the same emotional burst when he heard the child, as I did, exclaim gleefully, "I guessed it, I guessed it," when his grandfather told him that he had correctly guessed the object on which the grandfather had focused. Perhaps Ciardi had recognized and found such interactions as valid enactments of a satisfying grandfather role. Perhaps Ciardi had had the experience of having had a Venetian shopkeeper listen to his explanations of what he was seeking, and then exclaiming, "Ah, Neapolitano? Vero?" - of the shopkeeper having recognized in Ciardi's rudimentary Italian the cadences and pronunciations of his mother's dialect That is, Ciardi could find that the psychological structures that had been buried deeply into his knowledge system during his childhood successfully framed what he saw and experienced as he mingled with the Venetians. The aliments that he had ingested during his days on the Italian-American pastureland had not disappeared, despite his fervent prayers to become a replica of Mr. D.

Would that Ciardi had had the tools to follow the intricate threads of his psychological system that laced through a letter that he had written, in 1964, when he was aged 46. Cifelli (1997) quotes at length from a letter that Ciardi wrote to Maria Alessandra Fantonti:

You are especially right in your recognition of the fact that I am not Italian in my moods and sources. Even my command of the language is inadequate. Yet, oddly, I always and instantly have the sense of understanding the feelings of the Italian, especially of the contadino [peasant]. Or not oddly, really, they are the feelings, the attitudes, the preconceptions I have always known in my parents and relatives. I have often felt sad, in fact, at the thought that my daughter and my sons can never know those feelings ( quoted in Cifelli, p. 326).

What a contribution he would have made to the understanding of "culture crossing," of his own life, and of the life of his children had he been able to write extensively about how his family-acquired preconceptions continued to force their way into the mental scripts he authored to frame his self and other objects and events. He was almost there when he spoke of having known of those feelings, attitudes and preconceptions in his parents and relatives. Unfortunately, he somehow avoided recognizing that those same feelings, attitudes, and preconceptions had been implanted into his own psychological system.

But, had John Ciardi recognized that those same feelings, attitudes, and preconceptions had been implanted into and continuously found their way out of his own psychological system and into his self role definitions, he would have recognized also that he had not succeeded in becoming a replica of that idealized representative of the dominant society - Mr. D., the Congregational Church's scoutmaster. Giovanni Ciardi would have recognized that the process of assimilation did not work in the ways that the social scientists of his time expected assimilation to work.


Barolini, H. (1988). Festa: Recipes and recollections of Italian holidays. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Christopher, R. C. (1989). Crashing the gates: The de-WASPing of America's power elite. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Ciardi, J. A. (1971). Lives of X. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Cifelli, E. M. (1997). John Ciardi: A biography. Fayetteville, AR: The University of Arkansas Press.

Cubberley, E. (1909). Changing Conceptions of Education. Boston: Houghton Muffling.

Ellison, R. (1953). Invisible man London: Gollancz.

Gambino, R. (1974). Blood of My Blood. New York: Anchor Books, 1975.

Heller, J. (1961). Catch-22. New York, Simon and Schuster.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self & society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Pellegrini, A. (1986). American dream: An immigrant's quest. San Francisco: North Point Press.

Pellegrini, A. (1984). The unprejudiced palate. New York: Lyons & Burford (First published in 1948).

Salins, P. D. (1997). Assimilation, American style. New York: Basic Books.

This essay was developed as a part of the effort of The Albany (NY) Area Lodge of The Sons of Italy 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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