Unless You Read it as if You Were

Reading a Mystery, You Won't Get it.

A review of:
Marianna De Marco Torgovnick,
Crossing Ocean Parkway/Readings by an
Italian American Daughter, 1994, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.

Reviewed by:
James C. Mancuso
Professor Emeritus of Psychology
University at Albany; Albany, NY; 12222

Professor Torgovnick, born Marianna De Marco, holds a professorship in English at Duke University. Crossing Ocean Parkway/Readings by an Italian American Daughter, published in 1994 by University of Chicago Press, contains an introduction and nine essays. I deduce that four of these essays had been published originally in scholar's journals. The remaining five, I am left to assume, were written for inclusion in this book.

       Map of Part of Brooklyn
       Bensonhurst lies west of Ocean Parkway

Marianna De Marco's book, Crossing Ocean Parkway (See map of Ocean Parkway in Brooklyin, NY) presented this reader with a series of riddles. Repeatedly, Professor Torgovnick laid out information which left me totally baffled. Indeed, my puzzlement often reached a level which I found to be extremely agitating. I didn't scream or shout aloud, but I often ran to my wife to read passages to her; following my reading with the exclamation, "Where has Professor Torgovnick been? Where is she going?" This state of continual bafflement persisted throughout my reading of all of the book's 174 pages of major text.

As I read, I quickly concluded that this book -- which looks for all the world like a book of social and literary commentary -- actually was written in the form of a mystery novel. The author kept laying out riddles which drive the reader deeper and deeper into perplexity. Yet, like a good mystery novel writer, she dropped little hints of the solution to the grand mystery. I decided that before the end of the book, Professor Torgovnick would give us the summarizing solution to the puzzles.

And, sure enough, there it was!!! The last two sentences of the book allowed me to resolve all the puzzles which I found embedded in the book.

I will delay giving you the solution of the mystery. Let me first outline some of the puzzles, while I describe some of the book's contents.

Right off, when one turns to the title page of the book he/she sees two separate phrases: (1) Crossing Ocean Parkway, and (2) Readings by an Italian American daughter. The second phrase is not marked off by a colon, to suggest that the second phrase should be taken as a subtitle to the first phrase. Why did the author and publisher use this gimmick? Was this an effort to place a number of important key-words into what might have been a title? Did they wish to attract readers who knew something about Brooklyn and about Ocean Parkway? Those key words would, obviously, attract readers with a Jewish-American background who would somehow recognize that Ocean Parkway was one center of Brooklyn's Jewish-American life. But this book is about crossing Ocean Parkway, not about living there. And further, the other phrase tells us that the readings in this book are by an Italian-American daughter. Ah, more key words -- Italian American and daughter. Possible solution to the title puzzle: The author wants to tell us that this book is about an Italian-American leaving some part of Brooklyn by crossing Ocean Parkway. No! It is about an Italian-American daughter crossing Ocean Parkway. Why so focused? Wouldn't her message appeal to Italian-American sons?

The enigmas of the title phrases expand as the reader absorbs Professor Torgovnick's first essay, On being white, female, and born in Bensonhurst. Professor Torgovnick tries to explain the killing of a black youth (Yousef Hawkins??) on the streets of Bensonhurst. As she proceeds she concludes, "The crudely protective men, expecting to see a black arriving at the girl's house and overreacting; the rebellious girl dating the outsider boy; the black dead as a sacrifice to the feelings of 'the neighborhood'" (p. 6). Professor Torgovnick "understood" (p. 6) the situation. "Italian-Americans in Bensonhurst are notable for their cohesiveness and provinciality; the slightest pressure turns those qualities into prejudice and racism" (p. 7). A reader finishing that essay readily could have been sympathetic had the book been entitled Escaping Bensonhurst.

More puzzlement: A highly educated professor of literature observing the provinciality of Italian-Americans might offer some clarification of the functions of that provinciality. This professor's explanation adds to the evidence that one should escape from Bensonhurst with the utmost alacrity. "The provinciality results from the Italian Americans' devotion to jealous distinctions and discriminations" (p. 7). Further, "Bensonhurst is a neighborhood dedicated to believing that its values are the only values; it tends toward certain forms of inertia" (p. 7).

Professor Torgovnick chronicles other negative features of Bensonhurst -- "the antipodes of the intellectual life I sought" (pp. 9-10). "Getting out of Bensonhurst meant freedom -- to experiment, to grow, to change. It also meant knowledge in some grand, abstract way" (p. 11). It was in Bensonhurst that a guidance counselor attempted to steer the young Professor Torgovnick (then Marianna De Marco) into the secretarial track in high school, into which all the Italian-American daughters "should" enroll: This, despite her outstanding early school record and test scores. Worse, Professor De Marco saw her mother as an ally to the counselor.

She saw a route out of this neighborhood. "After a while, I recognized destiny: the Jewish man was a passport out of Bensonhurst" (p. 15). But, she also perceived that, "The Jewish-Italian marriage is a common enough catastrophe in Bensonhurst . . ." (p. 15).

Then there's The Mafia -- that pervasive Italian-American organization which inhabits the dreams of all Americans to whom the media feeds a daily dose of Mafia lore. Professor Torgovnick, in dealing with a Bensonhurst travel agency operated by employees who clearly revealed their provincialism by not knowing how to ticket her to that seat of intellectualism, the state of the golden research triangles, North Carolina. Somehow this prompts her to question if the agency might be a Mafia front!!! Indeed, the very first words of this book's main text are, "The Mafia" -- two words which publishers repeatedly seek to have injected into any work written by or about Italian-Americans.

By the time of her adolescent years: "I had convinced myself already that Italian Americans did not value girls and especially girls who were good at the kinds of things I liked -- reading, thinking, and writing. In my private mythology, I was despised by my family as unfeminine and unseemly" (p. 25).

Further mystery: Why would her Italian-American neighborhood have been so different from mine on this matter of loving and valuing girls? Everybody loved Aunt Carmella. And, Comare Nicolina's daughter, who later became Aunt Mary, must have been loved and valued by the people who gave her and used her nickname, Divina. Surely, my grandfather, who married my grandmother without her having ever met him, loved and honored her in ways that would make her the envy of any woman.

Note, however, that in this passage Professor Torgovnick gives us a clue to the grand mystery. I'ld like to make sure you noted that clue. The clue is found in the words, "in my private mythology." From there she goes on to say that these beliefs about the Italian-American valuing of women represented what "literary critics call an enabling fiction" (25). Perhaps these critics might better call such beliefs dis-abling fictions!!! I judge that it would be particularly appropriate to see this fiction as having been disabling in Professor Torgovnick's case.

While on the matter of intellectualism, let us consider another set of puzzles to be found in the book.

Take my word for it that any reader will agree that Professor Torgovnick regards her intellectual orientation to be one of her most valuable self defining features. As the previous quotations suggest, she freely makes the claim that she found little support for this orientation in her home neighborhood. In the second essay in her book, Crossing Ocean Parkway, she goes to great lengths to give exuberant praise for having elaborated the joys of intellectualism by having associated with people who came from a Jewish-American background. Mystery: How, for example, did she gain the smarts which allowed her to be identified as a child who could be allowed to skip a grade in primary school? Could her family, despite their not valuing girls who showed intellectual skills, have mistakenly and inadvertently promoted those skills? Who had introduced her to the process of borrowing books from the library by the time she was in first grade (p. 76)?

Further mystery: Why does her writing give no evidence that she gained access to the rich intellectual history of Italian culture? Did the scions of Jewish-American culture, whom she chose as inspiring mentors, never prompt her to explore that culture? My review of the contents of her book directs me to Professor Torgovnick's mention of only two members of that great tradition -- Dante and Saint Francis of Assisi. Despite her claim that her scholarly endeavors have given her special expertise on the matter of how people adopt and elaborate their personal self roles, she never mentions the Nobel Prize winning Italian dramatist, Luigi Pirandello. Has any commentator surmounted Pirandello's superb exploration of selfhood -- Six characters in search of an author, Enrico IV, Thus it is if thus you wish it?

More mystery: In the reading entitled The College Way, Ms Torgovnick, with touching clarity, recounts the trials and tribulations of an outsider -- an Italian-American woman -- attempting to establish herself in the social world of a small town whose economic and social life is dominated by a highly prestigious, old family, New England college. [I have no trouble identifying the town as Williamstown, MA., and the college as Williams.] In this section, and at many other places in the book, she shows considerable insights into the ways in which social groups pronounce the unacceptability of outsiders.

Throughout the book I was puzzled by the author's failure to explore the ways in which disdaining of Italian-Americans might have led her to focus on ways of escaping from Bensonhurst. She humorously tells of having concocted fantasies in which she was "Penny -- [the] amiable, blond, ponytailed sidekick" (p. 25) of Sky King's television adventurers. Would that fantasy have flourished had she had the opportunity to view an Italian-American family that differed from those shown on The Fonz, or in The Godfather series? Surely, theorists have aptly elaborated the concept of identification with the aggressor. In the book's eighth essay, The politics of we, the author clearly shows her understanding of how the members of an out-group try to become a part of the more acceptable "we." "But the inclusive 'we' also enacts a politics of repression, in which those who identify with it must surrender crucial aspects of themselves" (p. 143).

As we shall see, it is possible that Professor Torgovnick, as she wrote about Italian-Americans, might have done her writing while under the influence of another concept which can be used to explain the ways in which in-groups disdain out-groups. It is possible that in her writing she was attempting to show that the out-group from which she originated was being disdained as a consequence of a "well-earned reputation."

A mystery connected to the one last noted: If Professor Torgovnick identifies herself and is identified by others as a feminist writer, what accounts for her freedom in using politically incorrect phrases as freely as she does? What branch of the feminist movement allows her to get away with politically incorrect rhetoric? This mystery is doubled when we observe her strenuous efforts to endorse the use of some of the cherished shibboleths of correct usages.

Consider the contents of the book's sixth essay; The Paglia Principle, where Professor Torgovnick lends her credentials as an Italian-American to giving il bastone to Camille Paglia -- the feminist-bashing darling of certain right-wing types. Professor Torgovnick wants to convince us that she is "not aware of harboring any prejudices against lesbians or bisexuals; to me these are private matters and options as good as any other" (p. 104). In the fifth of her book's essays, Dr. Doolittle, the author discusses the basis of the popularity of the Dr. Doolittle series. She works through the problems which were created by the racist content of the earlier editions of this series, and of recent editorial deletions and changes which attempt to eradicate currently unacceptable text. After recommending that there be no further changes, she comments: "Views of other cultures as childish or irrational continue to be a standard feature of media coverage and popular lore. It is perhaps just as well that parents and children have the chance to discuss sneering attitudes early, . . . " (p. 82).

Nicely said . . . Professor Torgovnick has been around the current literary scene and knows that one should be careful about recording a "sneering attitude" toward other cultures. But that only heightens the mystery of why she frequently uses politically incorrect statements. Consider other examples of her writing. In the essay on Paglia she pursues the hypothesis that Paglia -- owing to her experiences in a putative anti-feminine Italian-American culture -- had developed hate for femininity and for her own body. Paglia shows her identification with the Italian-American male. "Paglia has mastered typical Italian American male patterns: she's tough, she's brusque, and when someone challenges or annoys her, she tries to intimidate by flying into a potentially violent rage" (p. 104). Wow!!! "Typical Italian-American males!!!" Right out of a Martin Scorcese movie!!! Just imagine what would happen if a writer used the term gay, or African-American, or Jewish-American male, in a sentence that used similar negative descriptive terms.

In another place she notes a sign on the church which she attended as a child which for her "sums up the ethos of neighborhoods like Bensonhurst" (p. 5). The sign said, "Each year, this church saves this neighborhood one million dollars in taxes." It was a sign for which she and her husband would look, and then "laugh at the crass level of its pitch, its utter lack of attention to things spiritual. But we also understand exactly the values it represents" (p. 5). Professor Torgovnick and her husband thought that they understood exactly (her emphasis) what those values represent -- but unlike the values of gays, lesbians, black people, etc., those values are the legitimate targets of her ridicule. Did they understand that sign? Was it possible that the people who posted that sign were not aiming it at the church's parishioners -- that the sign was aimed at those who oppose giving publicly financed services to the children of parochial schools?

So we still have a mystery: Why does Professor Torgovnick readily use politically incorrect language in talking about those who share Italian-American culture?

One last mystery: Did Professor Torgovnick determine that her Italian-American cultural ambience gave her nothing that was of positive value? In a tone that could be taken as mocking, she comments on her brother's efforts, during a time when her father was hospitalized, to drive a long trip in order to deliver her and her mother to the hospital, located fifteen minutes from her mother's home. " . . . he is being the fine Italian American son" (p. 15). [Another puzzle, would her brother also have mastered the behaviors she references as "typical Italian American male patterns?"] In another place we can't be sure of whether she endorses the women of Bensonhurst who "check the fruit carefully, piece by piece, and bargain with the dealer [at the produce stand] . . . letting him, know that the vegetables, this time, are up not up to snuff" (p. 4). In other circumstances we can be sure about her values. As she sings the praises of one of her mentors, she tells us that in his apartment, one always found that, "The food was . . . delicious, with the freshest possible vegetables"(p. 26). I wonder if her mentor also remonstrated with the vendors when he found that their veggies were not up to snuff.

In this connection, she reveals a deep positive feeling for "nature humanized, brought into the home, accessible in symbolic form at a glance" (p. 89). The text which surrounds this phrase deepens the riddle of whether she had determined that her Italian-American background had instilled in her any positive values. On the page on which this phrase appears, Professor Torgovnick tells a poignant tale of how she had been transfixed by a toy pig, which appeared for a time in a neighborhood candy store window: "It symbolizes solidarity with the natural world" (p. 89). On the previous page she affirms her attraction to animals. The affirmation follows Professor Torgovnick's homage to Saint Francis of Assisi, who "could compose and sing a song of joy to nature" (p. 88). In this same section she pushes the riddle: "The source of the attraction remains, and probably must remain, misty" (p. 89).

Professor Torgovnick, who fails to mention any of what I take to be the meaningful modern personality theorists, does talk about Freud and Jung when she discusses the significance of "slasher stories" [In the book's third essay]. I would suspect, having read Freud or not, that she has heard about the concept of repression. If so, why is she not forced to reconsider her declaration that the source of her attraction to animals probably must remain misty. Does nothing in her consciousness direct her to see that in many, many, many Italian-American homes there is a statue of Saint Francis, the joyful protector of animals: that the statue, like the adorable pig, represents "nature humanized, . . . brought into the home." More, as a common practice, Italian-American children would take their pets to their church for blessings on the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, October 4. And she might have mentioned that Assisi is a city in Italy.

And Freud would have had a field day with all of this in connection with Professor Torgovnick's story of the pig, particularly if he had read her introduction to the book. "Pigs were the mainstay of farm [in Italy] life and [my mother] describes tending the family pig each year . . . 'I liked the pigs when I fed them,' she says wryly, 'and I liked the pigs all year round when I ate them'" (p. ix). Freud was not bashful when it came to claiming that he could solve riddles. He would have found a way to explain why the source of Professor Torgovnick's attraction to the pig "must remain misty."

I do hope that readers will be as stimulated as was I by the riddles and puzzles of this book. And, I also hope that they will read it all the way to the very end. A reader must read carefully, right up to the last two sentences in order to know what is going on in this text. Those last two sentences clear up all of the book's mysteries!

In her last essay, Crossing Back, Professor Torgovnick provides a very moving account, very different in tone from the contents of the previous eight essays, of the evaluations of her family and of Bensonhurst. The essay presents reflections on the death and funeral of her father. She ends the essay;

When a relative dies, you must cross from one state to another. All my life I have defined myself by rebellion against Bensonhurst. But the grounds for rebellion are running out. (p. 174)

Professor Torgovnick uncovers and declares her "enabling fiction" (p. 25). The solution to the book's many puzzles fall into place. She has written in order to prove to the world, particularly to her feminist colleagues, that she had a good case for carrying out her rebellion. That explains the title: The putatively despised daughter of her fantasy Italian-American family had a message for her enchained sisters.

From the viewpoint which guided her writing of this last essay, her family was not really disdaining of her intellectual orientation. In fact, they promoted it -- particularly her father. When he had time off, even though her mother was working and did not accompany them, he would take her "to out-of the way museums . . . to zoos . . . to Wall Street . . . To Radio City Music Hall . . . to see movies and stage shows . . . He also introduced me to the world of reading . . . He would pass along the newspaper . . . and sometimes paperbacks he got from friends . . . the autobiography of Althea Gibson" (p. 161). He called her a "Philadelphia lawyer" (p. 166) when she said something clever. "He was proud of my bookishness and sensitivity" (p. 165). In her post funeral analysis she concludes that, "[My mother] was smart and strong, the kind of woman who could have been a CEO in a different life" (p. 167).

And there were other positive values permeating the life of her family and in the neighborhood. "So [my father] was not devaluing females; he was valuing them in the way he knew best. In fact my father loved his female relatives intensely. He adored his mother" (p. 164). "[My father] was a family man, devoted to custom because in his experience custom was what kept families going. People had children because people loved children and took care of them; nothing was more basic than that to my father" (p. 164). In Bensonhurst, people became familiar with sickness and death by valuing the tradition of visiting the sick and attending funerals. Her father had always been faithful to that tradition, and, "Now people returned the 'respect' he had shown" (p. 167). And, in her father's case, they did it lavishly. She eventually found the Italian funeral to be something other than "creepy" (p. 171).

With these solutions to her life's mysteries behind her, we look forward to Professor Torgovnick going on to use her literary skills to offer us more detailed solutions to the puzzles raised for her readers. We hope, for example, she will thoroughly explain why her mother [and people like my mother] -- smart Italian-American women -- were not presented the opportunities to move into the world in which they could have become CEOs? We hope that she will go on to demonstrate that there would be as much, perhaps more, reason to regard her father as the typical Italian-American male as there is to thus regard the characters in a Scorcese movie. She might also try to tell us why she missed the opportunity to learn to enjoy her connections to the immense intellectual achievements of people who shared her family's cultural background. Above all, as a gift to the literature of social commentary, and especially to members of out-groups, we hope that she will undertake to explain why she, as a co-outsider, chose to rebel in the way that she did rebel.

[Originally presented at the Friends of the Albany Public Library Review Series, April 18, 1995]

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. Nevertheless, 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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