Myth and the Italy-to-USA Avventura:

Setting - Utica, New York


James C. Mancuso
December, 1999

The writing of this essay resulted from there coming to my attention three books in which the authors provide text that assist in uncovering the myths that circulated in the Italian-American community in Utica, New York. Before presenting my reactions to those three volumes, I attempt to describe the frame which surrounds my reading of these works.

Giambattisa Vico and Analysis of Myth

The scholarly work of a Southern Italian can usefully guide one who reads about the Southern Italian immigrant community in Utica, New York, described by Eugene Nassar (1999), Frank Lentricchia (1999) and Helen Barolini (1979/1999).

Over the last two decades, reflecting a shift in the ways in which scholars think about knowledge, the work of an outstanding Neapolitan scholar has emerged to take its place as a peer to the work of Northern European scholars such as Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, and Locke. Only with the growth of the philosophic trends known as constructivist positions has Giambattista Vico emerged from the shaded areas on the edges of European scholarship. Modern scholars working in the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, and psychology now recognize that Vico laid the foundation for investigating the claim that to understand a society one must look not only on how a person makes a society, but also at how a society makes a person. To accomplish the task of understanding how a society makes a person, Vico proposed, one must look at the myths that the society creates and passes on from generation to generation. A society's myths must be taken as true. A society knows no realities other than those that are expressed in its myths. In essence, said Vico, persons construct reality, and in so doing they create the truths - the social constructions -- on which the society bases its customs and practices. Through myth, the society passes on to succeeding generations its truths and realities - its social constructions - and, therewith, the justification for its customs and practices. The social constructions then become the personal constructions of the society's members, and the society's members then define their selves in terms of those constructions. For example, a society that has available limited resources must set some mores and traditions around the problems of caring for those people who are unable to care for themselves. Myths in which people care for the unfortunate serve the purpose of conveying to the society's members the ways in which they are to construe their selves in relation to the unfortunate. A fable might describe a young man who helps a beggar, and then finds that he has in his possession a magic flute, which, when he plays that flute, incites the heavy hoe to work by itself to till the field. (Calvino, 1980/1956, [108] pp. 393-4). In this way, the society has constructed a reality that guides the members of that society. There is no use, claimed Vico, in attempting to demonstrate that this universal truth exists somewhere in the eternal universe. There is no use attempting to show that persons evolved this truth by careful rational, logical thinking. There is no use in trying to claim that such truths had been revealed directly to special members of the society.

In addition to propounding this then-original social constructivist position, Vico advocated the use of a particular way of analyzing myths. To understand the meaning of a particular society's myths, one must dig around the language used in telling the myth. To do this, Vico warned, one cannot use the "conceits" (the constructions) used by speakers of the language of the analyst. One must understand the constructions associated with the words used in the language of the people who have created and passed on the myths under analysis. In effect, the literary analyst must take on the task of explaining the context surrounding the creation and telling of the myth; and to undertake this task, an analyst must attempt to recreate the constructions associated with the linguistic (and other) symbols used by the myth-making society. For example, a grandmother tells a child who shows his anger by throwing food to the ground and, thereby making it inedible, that it has committed a sin. Her use of the category sin to classify the child's behavior relates the behavior to the approval and disapproval of a deity. The term sin embeds the child's behavior in a vast context of language and constructions that are clarified and supported by myths such as that of person who shares his food with the earth-wandering god, and then is rewarded lavishly for having done so. In turn, an analysis of the construction associated with the term sin must associate that term with the language of the myths of the society that surrounds the grandmother and child.

From the foundation of this brief commentary on myth, reality, and social constructions, I offer my observations about the three books that treat with the society of the Italian-Americans in Utica, New York.

Eugene Nassar's A walk around the block

Nassar's (1999) book provides the most appropriate lead item in the discussion of the texts which treat with Italian-American life in Utica, New York. Nassar not only has has written directly about the interpretation of myth, he also has organized his book so that an interested reader may directly enter into the process of interpretation of myth. He set as the goal of his effort the task of attempting to frame the fables and myths with which he became familiar as he grew up as a member of a Lebanese-American family in an Italian-American neighborhood. As the reader will see in the ensuing discussion, Utica, New York attracted thousands of the emigrants who participated in the Italy-to-The-USA avventura. In that Utica had been a center of commerce for the mid-Mohawk region of New York State, many Lebanese and Syrian men, intent on engaging in trade through the rural regions of the area, chose to connect themselves to commercial houses in Utica - a rail and canal hub. Though Utica, a once thriving city, now suffers the fate of many of the cities of the Northeast USA which have been mercilessly abandoned by the now-international corporations that acquired their basic capital from the labor of the immigrants, in Utica one can still enjoy the presence of the immigrants from the eastern and central Mediterranean region. Nassar, a successful and esteemed literary critic, has chosen to maintain his connections to Utica. He can say, "At age 64, I still live in the house in which I was born, walk the same streets, visit many of the same families, observe and feel the rhythms of birth, growth, maturity, decay and death in the families in the houses, in the gardens outside, and in the neighborhoods. I am also a part of a region, and study and love its mythologies" (p. 41).

Reproductions of paintings by Robert Cimbalo (See Mancuso, 1996a, for more on R. Cimbalo) enhance the literary portions of Nassar's book. Cimbalo, a scion of forebears who took part in The-Italy-to-The-USA avventura, has produced a long series of paintings that add to the creation of the myths that interpret the life of Italian-Americans in Utica. Color reproductions of some of those paintings are printed on the covers of the book. A number of line drawings are appropriately inserted into the written texts.

Nassar dedicated the first chapter of his book to the very topic of interpretation of literary texts. Giambattista Vico would take pride in reading Nassar's clear expression of the ideas expressed in his own 1744 work. "The meanings and values [of a text] are accessible from the contexts to the willing student from whatever culture" (Nassar, 1999, p. 14). "The aesthetic moments [from processing a text] are accessible only through the accurate understanding of the given context" (p. 15). Nassar approvingly cites Wendell Harris; "Interpretation requires reconstruction of the author's intentions through awareness of the author's assumptions" (p. 29).

Nassar would regard a creator of literary text as "One [who] creates an order in which to live in defense against the disorder of reality because one must, because, as Wallace Stevens says, 'It was difficult to sing in the face of the object'." As attuned readers, we must see the author as one who faces the inability to know what "really" goes on in the proximal ecology, but, nevertheless, facing the necessity of defending against disorder. Very much in line with what Vico might say were he rewriting his work today, Nassar says: "The irrepressible desire for stability of values and the impossibility of any philosophic grounding of such values generates in Stevens and in many other modern thinkers a lauding of the imagination which can create the blessed myths, rituals, traditions, codes, within which a society or an individual might flourish" (p. 36)

Nassar's book contains two chapters of criticisms of texts about home and family - texts created by poets and myth makers in order to create a stability in which an "individual might flourish." In discussion of texts about home and family, Nassar seeks, to reconstruct "the author's intentions through awareness of the author's assumptions" (p. 29). The second chapter of his book offers criticisms of texts which our society has chosen to honor as classic texts. The third chapter offers criticisms of texts that participants in Lebanese and Sicilian cultures have regarded as traditional - texts that have been passed on through recitation as well as through writings.

Nassar forthrightly declares his conviction that "great literature, whether that of the folk or of a supreme artist, is the best, the most compete and satisfying, re-creation of precious social context, and also, conversely (and more controversially), that the most enduring values expressed in great literature revolve around the joys of a given region and its culture of family, village, and neighborhood" (p. 42).

Nassar regards our era as a "time of anarchy and bewilderment concerning values, including the values of families and localism" (p. 42). He offers an observation about one of the sources of this anarchy and bewilderment - a point that will reappear at several points in the text below. Nassar notes that many of his friends and colleagues, during the 1950s and 1960s, especially the immediate descendants of recent immigrants, perceived themselves to be vulnerable to loss of hard-won status if they continued to express affinities to the ethnic, family, and neighborhood roots of their identity. His analyses proceed from the position that respected literary works could not counsel one to abandon those affinities.

To set the scene for his analyses he cites material from the work of Charles H. Cooley (1916), one of the most seminal social scientists of the 20th Century. He cites a passage which can illuminate the discussion that appears later in this essay: ". . . . Human nature is not something existing separately in the individual. . . . It is the nature which is developed and expressed in those simple face to face groups that are somewhat alike in all societies; groups of family . . . and the neighborhood. . . . [A person] does not have it at birth; he cannot acquire it except through fellowship" (Cooley, 1916, p. 29-31). One's self identity - the self-defining narratives which guide a person's enactments - emanate from participating in the story-telling of family and neighborhood!

To illustrate the ways in which Homer's creates the "realities" of family in The Odyssey, Nassar cites a series of passage from that poetic work. He summarizes by declaring that Homer understood love to be ". . . Longing, clearly inclusive of sexual longing, but encompassing longing also and especially for family, home and region" (p. 49). The Odyssey, Nassar prompts one to conclude, "realizes" - makes real - something which it is difficult to sing about. The myth builds for the reader personal constructions by which to perceive the basis for a long, hazardous struggle to return to home and family - a struggle that a wise hero will undertake in order to live out a self-defining narrative constructed on the basis of the use of that "realization." In short, Homer has provided his readers with one very useful way to construe self as one who is "in love."

Nassar then proceeds to analyze other constructions that might be applied when one uses the term love -

He reproduces the final words of Oedipus, from Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus:

Children, this day your father is gone from you.

All that was mine is gone. you shall no longer

Bear the burden of taking care of me -

I know that it was hard, my children. - And yet one word

Frees us all the weight and pain of life:

That word is love. Never shall you have more

From any man than you have had from me.

He reproduces lines from Dante, who, while touring Hell, has encountered Bertrand de Born who carries his own head in his hand. Though Dante had highly respected the work of the Provencal poet, he placed de Born in Hell, for having set

Son against father, father against son,

as Achitophel set Absalom and David;

And since I parted those who should be one

in duty and in love, I bear my brain

Divided from it's source within this trunk

Nassar provides one after another evocative passage from Chaucer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Swift, Smollett, Fielding, Sterne, Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Williams Carlos Williams - each of which has added to the music through which we can shape the realities that frame our attachments to our own special place and to our family.

Fathers, other than myself, have watched his daughters struggle to find their own self-defining narratives, have seen them wounded and stumbling - especially in this world that encourages them to shake off custom and ceremony - and have prayed, as did William Butler Yeats:

May she become a flourishing hidden tree . . .

O may she live like some green laurel

Rooted in one dear perpetual place. . .

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house

Where all's accustomed, ceremonious;

Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,

And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

For those who grew up in a Lebanese-American / Italian-American neighborhood, as did Nassar, his third essay will evoke with special clarity the melodies that accompany custom and ceremony.

Nassar introduced the essay by telling his readers that he never could maintain much of a reading interest in Grimm's fairy tales or the more fantastical of the stories in the Arabian Nights. "I much preferred the humorous stories of my parent's generation concerning the village fool, or lazy man, or corrupt official, or the beautiful girl next door . . . or William Saroyan's Aram on the beautiful white horse" (pp. 114-5).

(To fortify the point that Nassar makes immediately after he briefly referred to Saroyan's story, I note that I read the story of the beautiful white horse 47 years ago. I remember it clearly. When I came across Nassar's brief reference to the story, I immediately found myself immersed in the pleasures that I had experienced when I read that story. Such is the power of Saroyan's music, for me.)

Nassar continued his introduction:

"I know that one finally looks in literature for the values one wants to affirm . . . And that these are the metacritical predilections that one can share only partially with another reader who has come from a different cultural context of values. And yet, having said this, it seems to me there is far more to share in central human values than to separate. . ." (Nassar, p. 115)

In the ensuing portion of the essay, Nassar recounts stories that support a world view that would infrequently earn validation in the modal society of The USA at the turn of the millennium. - stories in which individual marriages are totally dominated by considerations of family strength and honor. Nassar does not recount tales that reference and support this world view among Southern Italians and Sicilians. In her ethnographic study of the culture of Central Sicily, recorded in 1937, Chapman (1971) describes the elaborate rituals surrounding the inter-family arrangement of marriages. My familiarity with Italian-American folk tales is sparse, so that I do not immediately have knowledge of tales that might have supported this "reality." I do know that my mother would regularly incite shock in her granddaughters by telling of how she was informed that she was to marry my father - a recent immigrant from Calabria, then in his early twenties. She told of my father having visited her family one evening. After he left, my grandmother told her, "That is the man you will marry" - this to a powerful 16 year-old (judged to be very physically attractive by her peers) who was beginning to absorb the reality-defining tales of romantic love that circulated in the popular culture of The USA in the 1920s!

Nassar did compare Lebanese-American and Sicilian-American tales "centered on the deepest obligation within the Lebanese family: the respect for parent and grandparents, for age in general, the supreme continuity-link in any social system. . . " (p. 134). He also shows how folk tales provided peasant folk with constructions by which they could understand corrupt government and clerical officials.

Unfortunately, again, Nassar does not compare the Lebanese-American poetry that realized the pains of separation to the Southern Italian/Sicilian songs that fixed the realities of similar experiences. He inserts into his essay a translation of a popular Lebanese folk song in which the emigres thrilled to the "bittersweet pain" of separation:

O you who have lovers!

My lover is gone.

O God! Turn the wind round

And bring my lover back..

The text of the most popular of Southern Italian songs similarly frames that bittersweet pain of separation - not only from a loved one, but also from a stunningly beautiful place!!

Now you say "Good-bye. I'm leaving."

This poor heart of mine is grieving,

Can it be that you've forgotten,

Can it be that love is gone

Do not say farewell,

And leave a heart that's broken.

Come back to Sorrento,

That I might live.

In the final chapter of his book, Nassar returns to the theme of commonality in those culturally supported constructions that elevate to positive status family and place. In a passionate conclusion to his book, he recognizes that there is an obverse side to this positive adulation of family and place - destructive ethnocentrism. He ruefully admits, "The Lebanese, being weak and fragmented, will probably go on being victims, but are quite capable of ferociously killing one another, given the guns and the leeway. Does anyone really doubt this darkness in the human spirit, at least when one is speaking generally about masses or 'herds' of peoples" (p. 168)?

He tries to mitigate the sorrow engendered by the observations of the negative effects of ethnocentrism. He appeals to the position he has established in the first three chapters of his book. He reiterates that every society, through various literary genres, has promoted the reality of the positive status of deep attachment to family, place, and custom. He raises the possibility that everyone should be able to recreate his/her own experiences of this attachment; and, by sympathy, extending that experience of attachment to everyone. "At the very least, the better society will have tolerance for other societies built on other values" (p. 172).

At this point, Nassar's excellent discourse, for me, becomes weakened!

The first problem inherent in Nassar's perspectives on the problem of ethnocentrism occurs when he attempts to use the term darkness in the human spirit. Can one infer, as it is easy to infer, that Nassar regards the human spirit to be something other than the "human nature" that is developed in the communal life of family and local groups? Is he suggesting that the "human spirit" shall be regarded as something different from "human nature?" I would claim that his recourse to the idea of "darkness of the human spirit" contradicts the excellent analysis he has made of the ways in which people incorporate into their own life-guiding narratives the self constructions that will be authorized by their community. If one finds a dark side in "human nature," I would propose, that dark side, too, was supported by the myths and poetry shared in the community. And, I would also propose, that that dark side is supported by the implicit code that is promoted, in one way or another, in myths by which a society tells its members that it is "better" in an absolute and universal way - that its members are, in one way or another, the chosen people; the people who will go to an eternity of bliss if they die fighting for their own codes and values; that an all powerful, interceding deity stands watch to detect deviations from the codes which the society supports; that if the adherents of one or another set of codes were to clear the land of unbelievers their society will be able to survive and prosper.

Unhappily, Nassar has conveniently ignored the myths that support these perspectives. Perhaps Southern Italians and Lebanese have no such myths!!!!  (Giovanni Verga's [1880/2000] Cavelleria Rusticana??)

Consider also Nassar's use of the term better society! In the bulk of his discussion Nassar has made it clear that he would not accept a world view from which one can make the claim that a particular feature of a society marks it as a "better society." Convincing philosophic thinking of the last one and one-half centuries has driven thinkers to the conclusion that each culture determines for its own use the constructions by which to categorize all things - those things that are good in that they are good, and those things which are bad, in that they are bad. I judge that Nassar accepts this position as a world view that he would authorize. "The irrepressible desire for stability of values and the impossibility of any philosophic grounding of such values generates . . . a lauding of the imagination which can create the blessed myths, rituals, traditions, codes, within which a society or an individual might flourish" (p. 36). In effect, whatever traditions and codes are developed and supported by the myths of the society must be taken as "the best." Nassar would need to agree with Vico (1744/1994 [149]) that "Vulgar traditions must have had public grounds for truth, by virtue of which they came into being and were preserved by entire people over long periods of time"

But, as Nassar also makes clear, he would strenuously disagree with the claim that this world view must lead to a destructive nihilism. Each individual must develop his/her "human nature" within one or another stable set of codes and values, and the family and the neighborhood provides the most effective means of transmitting and supporting those codes and values. He argues vehemently against the move to a world view from which one comes to a relativist conclusion and then prompts the claim that since all values and codes are human creations that become a part of one's personal construct system, no code can be regarded as particularly positive. Every society and every person in that society has an obligation to settle on a code of values that will guide the self narratives that he/she will enact in his/her social dialogues.

In another place I (Mancuso, 1996b) have tried to locate the source of problems associated with the perpetuation of "reality" myths and the actions that can follow from such myths. The problems, I concluded, arise from in the pervasive belief that one's knowledge is based on an extant reality.

"Having invented the concept of reality, social groups must work out the issues which the concept raises, and there then is constant talk about reality. The elite warn the populace of the dangers of rampant relativism. People, working from a basic motivation to maintain an orderly set of constructions, become threatened by the possibilities of a chaotic world in which one construction is as valid as another. An event which is good must perpetually remain as good, and one most effectively assures such eternal worth through establishing that goodness and the event are really associated!! If 'man is the measure of all things,' -- if that which is good is relative to the valuational decisions of the social group -- then that which is good can tomorrow earn the category of bad!! Worse yet, in the world view of the moral realist, one cannot advocate that we can understand moral decisions only by considering the character of the person making the decision. One must maintain the reality of moral values, otherwise there will develop a chaotic society -- a society in which rules can never be enforced on the basis of an appeal to transcendent justice."

I conclude that the antidote to the insistent recourse to claiming the absolute truth of one's myths will be found in discussions such as that which Nassar has provided. I advocate that such discussions should become commonplace in every society. Every member of every society should be prompted to take a constructivist position, just as most societies promote the perspective, through myth and story-telling, that its codes are based on an ultimate and universal verities. Members of every society should be prompted to work from the perspective that we build our codes and values through absorbing the codes and values of the society's mythmakers. As a constructionist, a person would take the view that we construct the world from the elements of our own mind -- that humans proactively "send out" socially created constructions in order to give shape and meaning to the signal patterns (whatever they are) that affect our nervous systems and cause the perturbations we know as neural firings. As a constructionist one need not engage the problems which arise from attempting "to tell the truth." Instead, a constructionist searches out fitting explanations of how persons determine the fitness of their constructions. How does a person determine that his/her construction fits the signal patterns? More importantly, in that most of us spend most of our lives immersed in the activities of a reference group, we should understand how those reference groups determine the "fitness" (not "truth") of the constructions used by its members.

A very readable book like Eugene Nassar's Walk around the Block must be regarded as a text that will contribute immensely to the effort to reach the goal of creating myths that will support a constructivist position - a position that might replace the debilitating realist positions that have led to so many instances of savage ethnocentrism.

Frank Lentricchia's Music of the Inferno.

Scion of one of Utica's Italian-American families becomes famed literary critic. Makes life change. Turns to different genre. Writes "a confession." Describes elements of Utica's Italian-American community. Exalted literary buffs???. Writer of tomes on obscure British Victorian-era literary figures somehow chosen to review the "confession." Revenge. Dung to the Dirty Harry of Literary Criticism! Prissy Victorian realities. ". . . raw language" and "hairy chest" Reviewer plays on words - "Italian hoodlum act," "'Raging Pasta' image," "the don (get it??) of Duke., etc.

Effete reviewer closed his comment: "The Frank Lentricchia who emerges from The edge of night is not a nice man." Nothing in the review offers any insight into the ways in which the realities of the Italian-American community of Utica shaped the constructions which Lentricchia took to the works that elevated him to The Katherine Everest Gilbert Chair of Literature at Duke University. Nothing in the review alludes to the personal tensions he experienced as he attempted to align the myth-derived realities about work that were passed to him by his father, whose physically fatiguing work as a house painter never earned anything comparable to the salary that Lentricchia earned at "his school." In short nothing in the review would inform the reader that Lentricchia's book contains a provocative analysis of how a person must formulate a new self atop the basic self that he had developed during twenty years of exposure to the myth-borne realities of a marginalized ethnic group. (For an alternative review of Lentricchia's Edge of Night, see Mancuso, 1997)

Literary critic writes two novella. Two for one. Johnny Critelli. Very mod. Replete with complete myths. Tales worth repeating. The knife men. Blood - quarts and quarts of blood. Sex - quarts and quarts of sex. Wild. Macabre farce. Varied literary format. Drama. Stream of consciousness. Interlacing allusions. Image piled on image. Shoelaced references to Italian-American Utica world. Mysterious characters living blooded, seminal, mysterious lives.

Will the frankly creative work of Frank Lentricchia offer a reader the opportunity to uncover the realities of the Italian-American society of Utica, New York? Will Frank Lentricchia be regarded as the myth-maker who has recorded the constructions that guided the lives of the Italy-to-the-USA venturers who settled in Utica, New York. Perhaps someone will eventually make the case for regarding Lentricchia's first books as something other than a forceful, creative escapade - an entertaining record of a very personal exploration of constructions by which a person might attempt to construct the core selves that a man might wish to present to the world.

At some future date someone might decide that Lentricchia's third frankly creative book can serve as a source of elucidation of the myths of the society in which he spent his early life. In the meanwhile, a reader willing to dredge through all that literary experimentation (laced with all that wild sexual and aggressive fantasy), if he/she is familiar with the mythology of Italian-American communities, can enjoy Lentricchia's evocation of the constructions carried by those myths.

In the book, The music of the inferno, Lentricchia again creates a mysterious character, Robert Tagliaferro. Tagliaferro (the name offers the opportunity for almost innumerable illusions) has been "adopted" and reared by an African-American couple living in Utica. Lentricchia devises to have Tagliaferro take the role of Hermes - the bringer of the message - to a select group of the Italian-American community in Utica. By this ploy, Lentricchia has set the stage for establishing an interlaced set of creation myths.

Tagliaferro's personal creation myth provides the binding of the book's narrative. The ploy also allows Lentricchia to outline the myths that guide the conduct of Utica's Italian-Americans as they interact with the newly-arrived members of other ethnic groups - African-American, Hispanics, and Vietnamese.

By having assigned the name Tagliaferro to the main character in his book, Lentricchia can interconnect the wanderings of peoples who originated in Italy not only to the presence of African-Americans in Utica, but also to Africans who were brought to The USA as slaves.

"It is unknown and unknowable, when the beginning was. Or who it was who said, 'I am the beginning. I, Who Am Who I Am, name myself Tagliaferro. For I am Il tagliaferro [the iron cutter], am I not. Now let there forever be Tagliaferros, and let them go forth from this place, bearing my mark and memory.' Like Eden, the site of origination is itself unknown. What we know ar the places to which they trudged, sailed, and rode across the surface of the earth: France, England, Scotland, The American ecology of Virginia, and then the states: North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Texas, Michigan, Wyoming - yes! Wyoming. And what do we call this scattering, this diffusion, this differentiation from intimacy of a single people from a single and bounded place on earth? The splintering into different spelling and different colors of the same? We call it being thrown into the world" (p. 106).

The origin myth for all the mythical Tagliaferros - those migrating Italians who spread all over North America, attaches to the myth that Robert's black parents have created to explain his origins. Morris and Melvina Reed tell him only that he is not their son, but that they carried him to their home "From someplace else. Why does it matter? You were carried. You're here." The Italian-American couple who admire his skills in the outdoors - hunting, trapping, mushroom picking - exclaim; "More dark? He couldn't be more dark." "The boy, who is ambiguous, and feels his ambiguity, but cannot plumb it, and so regards himself an an inexplicable freak" (p. 4). Robert Tagliaferro suspects, that he is the result of a coupling of a Caucasian and a Black person. In this way, he shares his origins with that mythical representation of frican-American-makes-good-despite- overwhelming-odds, Booker Taliaferro Washington.

At age 18, Robert summarily disappeared from Utica, leaving no clues about the place into which he disappeared. Did Lentricchia consciously emplot Robert Tagliaferro's life to mirror the life of Giambattista Vico, who similarly removed himself from family and friends so that he can prepare himself to become the Hermes of his people. At age 16 Vico left Naples, his family, and his father's bookstore to become the tutor to the children of Marchese Domenico Rocca, who maintained the seat of their fiefdom in the tiny town of Vatolla, in the region of Italy that is now a part of the southern section of the Province of Salerno. Vico spent the next nine years cogitating and studying ways in which to explain the origins of the principles that guided formed societies. Lentricchia's Robert Tagliaferro spent forty years working and living in a New York City bookstore, cogitating and studying on the formation of the societies and subsocieties inhabiting the city of Utica. Each, Tagliaferro and Vico, returned to their home communities to interpret for the inhabitants of those communities the nature of the social organizations in those communities - just as Frank Lentricchia returned - figuratively - to Utica after his long absence to offer his perspective on the nature of the social organizations of that city.

Robert Tagliaferro becomes the medium through which Lentricchia explores and transmutes a series of the myths of Utica's Italian-American community. The forum for Robert's tale-telling, itself, represents a mythic feature of Italian-American communities - the impromptu social club. In Lentricchia's novel, A group of men meet regularly in the cellar of one of the district's restaurants. There, this coterie of varied characters exchange reminisces, insults, and gossip, while consuming quantities of classic foods sometimes prepared by one of more of the confraternity.

Every society must create origin myths. Through Robert, Lentricchia tells of the first of Utica's Italian immigrants; a family who prospered as a result of their having inserted themselves into the commerce associated with the Erie Canal. Lentricchia explores with particular intensity two elements of the origin myth which stands as a salient reality among the Italian immigrants. He portrays a man - Alessandro Lucca - of immense physical strength, immense diligence and immense generosity. Lucca did not charge rent to newly arrived immigrants with whom he shared his living quarters. When he died he willed his home/tavern to one of his boarders.

Reading Lentricchia's record of that myth, I recall my cousin proudly showing me about the vintage home that he had purchased and restored to perfection. He explained to me the ways in which he and his compari had modernized the bay window that opened out on to the front porch. He concluded his description, "They don't make compari anymore." The myth of the generous compari has disappeared into the suburbs, buried under golf courses and expensive expanses of hyper-green lawns!

A second feature of the origin myths in Italian-American communities is embodied in the character to whom Lucca had willed his tavern - Primo Cesso. Cesso was well-remembered by his descendants, for he verbalized a construction which defined many of the heroes of Italian-American myths. "I never took a vacation, because all you do is waste time."

My personal imagery, as I read of Primo Cesso as the embodiment of prodigious dedication to work, was easily associated with the constructions underlying the myths that Lentricchia found to be in use by many Italian-Americans as they attempt to understand their relationships to African-Americans. Lentricchia uses a very unsympathetic central character, Sebastian Spina, to articulate those myths.

Lentricchia quotes Spina, "The arrogance [of these people] is tremendous. They're above everybody. Except us. This is the bone in their throat. Us. [Pause]. Us. [Pause]. So they're taking the final racial step. They're saying they have to have equality with the Italian-Americans and then they'll be free at last, thank God almighty, to quote that cunthound they idolize. But I ask you, my friend, how can they be equal? How? . . . They're black, black, black" (p. 45). On such demagoguery Spina hoped to become mayor of Utica.

Reading the version of racist-powered myth which Lentricchia allows Spina to articulate reminded me of similar myth and countermyth that I heard from a sociology professor who decried the obstinacy of the racial and cultural myths used by Italian-American students to define relationships with African-Americans. The professor complained that despite the data which the students had surveyed, they continued to fall back on the myths like that in which Primo Cesso embodied the construction of vacations as a waste of time. "Our parents and grandparents came to this country with nothing - no education, no financial resources, unable to speak the English language - and they worked hard, saved their money, educated their children, and now enjoy the benefits of their ideology." I suggested to the professor that the students who descended from the Italy-to-the-USA immigrants might be reminded that their forebears had had two thousand years of practice at endorsing the ideology badi i cosi tuoi - mind to your own things. The professor, I was surprised to learn, had attempted to promulgate a countermyth that would be more acceptable to many academic colleagues. "Oh no, they need to know that the Italian-Americans took control of the labor unions and kept the African-Americans from the opportunities that had been available to Italian-Americans when they arrived in the industrial centers." Lentricchia did not have any of his characters recite this countermyth. Much of his text makes it clear that the major industries that fueled the economy of Utica when the Italian immigrants arrived had abandoned the city to seek opportunities for growth and profits that were available in other places and other climates. In Utica, there are now few opportunities to control!

I must give attention to Lentricchia's exploration of two other myths that circulate in Italian-American communities. He elaborates, at great length, on the myths circulated by some commentaters (academic types???) around the obliterating of the history of the great Italy-to-the-USA avventura. Lentricchia embeds the myth in reports of a rash of destruction of street signs. The street signs, it may be said, have left behind markers of the history of the original settlers and promoters of a once prosperous Utica - Bleeker, Rutger, Blandina. Little effort would be required to destroy street signs that marked the history of the Italian presence in Utica, for only one short street bore an Italian name.

"The hospitals and parks never bore our names, and never will. We'll be remembered as the people who added the genre of Mediterranean color to American history in its classic phase, and can be identified now only on Columbus day, as those who wear buttons saying Kiss Me, I'm Italian" (p. 136).

In short, Utica's Italian-Americans have been turned into buffoon-like characters who show their appreciation for the history of their forebears by engaging in vapid efforts to relate themselves to that history. Can such characters adopt and promulgate a myth that encapsulates concerns about the obliteration of the history of the Italy-to-the-USA avventura? Is this a myth that will circulate only among a small group of detached scholars who seek ratification of their self-definitions as recorders of historic events??

Lentricchia cannot avoid attention to a second kind of core Italian-American myth. Anyone who has discussed the history of Utica will have heard sardonic reference to the estimates of the number of bodies that are buried in secret hiding places in that city. No one who writes about life in that city can avoid the use of the "M word." However, one who brings standard expectations about Italian-American life and the ubiquity of "The Mafia" to his/her reading of The music of the inferno will wonder about the paucity of references to mafia myths. Lentricchia does develop one character - named Paternoster (Our Father), but ironically nicknamed Our Mother - who apparently acquired his financial resources through psuedo-legal activity. In a neat literary maneuver, Lentricchia recalls the most famous of all mafia myths when he quotes the epigraph of Mario Puzo's fortune-acquiring tale: "Behind every great fortune there is a crime." This quote appears as the members of the impromptu social club discuss the ways in which the "first families" - the Schuylers, the Livingstons, the Bleekers, the van Rensselaers - of the Hudson/Mohawk region of New York manipulated and speculated on the vast tracts of land that were available to those who had access to the power that protected their fortune-acquiring activity.

I am quite happy to read a book about Italian-American life that offers a balanced perspective on mafia myths. I was disappointed, when I reached the end of this book, at Lentricchia's failure to turn his wit on to the use of the mafia myth in Italian-American societies. How does he view the reaction of Utica's Italian-American restaurateurs to the incessant media portrayals of "mafia" activity? How does he view the use of the mafia myth by those Italian-Americans who put on their cars bumpers stickers declaring, "Mafia Staff Car - Don't Touch?" How does he view Italian-Americans who, when being introduced to someone, make fumbling efforts to have their new acquaintances understand that no member of their family had occupied the role of "mafia soldier?"

I continue to be puzzled about one aspect of all of Lentricchia's writings, even after reading The music of the inferno, which is less sex-infused than are his previous two frankly creative works. I cannot understand his frequent insertion of passages describing outlandish sexual events!  When I come across those passages I have an image of Lentricchia having kept a notebook in which he records wild sexual images that he has conjured. As he writes, he then accesses that stock of recorded images to locate those images that he can insert somewhere into his text. I regard those passages as strained and lacking purpose.

Are those passages honest efforts to convey to readers a perspective on sexuality from which the reader will profit? Are these episodes mythic encapsulations of useful constructions of sexuality? Are these episodes an in-your-face attack on the prudish orientations that Lentricchia senses to be prevalent among readers? Perhaps he inserts those passages to illustrate ironically a position that parallels Primo Cesso's view of vacations! "I rarely engage in sex, because ultimately it is a waste of time. No matter how you do it, sex is something to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon, when you can't work comfortably in the garden." Perhaps he writes these passages to placate those readers who believe, having been propagandized by media moguls, pseudo-psychotherapists, and toothpaste manufacturers, that one has not formed a suitable self identity until he/she has achieved the ultimate thrills associated with sexual activity - whatever those might be and however those might be achieved!!!

As I read The music of the inferno, though I became impatient with needing to do so, I tried to let those sex-infused passages slip by. I found it much more pleasing to expend my cognitive activity on calling up associations to the flow of Lentricchia's poetic recording of the myths of the Italian-American community of Utica. I know of no other writing that records such myths in so stimulating a fashion. I hope that Frank Lentricchia has not expended either his store of such myths or his ability to incorporate those myths into very readable text.

Helen Barolini's Umbertina.

Helen Barolini (nee Mollica) first published Umbertina (Barolini, 1999/1979) in 1979. The book has been well received, especially among those interested in women's writings; and Umbertina has been reissued by Feminist Press. Barolini has established a deservedly solid reputation as a writer who has focused on the lives of women connected to the Italy-to-The-USA avventura (Barolini, 1985).

Anyone who also reads Barolini's (1999) Chiaroscuro: Essays in Identity will discover that many of the events she described in the novel Umbertina can be taken as autobiographical. In the book Umbertina, Barolini's descriptions of the city of "Cato," allow one to conclude that she is describing Utica, New York.  Barolini uses "Cato" as the setting for the actions of the family of her primary protagonist, Umbertina Longobardi (nee Nenci). Barolini's mother originated in an  Italian-American immigrant family in Utica.

Reading Umbertina, I tried to assess the possibility that this book would contribute to the myths that might grow out of the Italy-to-The-USA avventura. The book centers around the life courses of three women: Umbertina, Marguerite - her granddaughter, and Tina - Marguerite's eldest child, named for her great grandmother, Umbertina.

Barolini's description of the life of Umbertina chronicles a classic contadina-to-capitalist tale. According to the tale, Umbertina started her life in Castagna - a typical mountain town in the "instep" of the Italian boot. Barolini aptly describes the misery of life in that town during the years of the mass emigration. She paints a convincing word picture of the serf-like existence of the landless peasants. whose conditions had changed little following the unification of the peninsula under a constitutional monarchy. She tells of how Carlo Nenci "worked one piece of the large holding belonging to Baron Mancuso di Valerba, which meant that he paid the baron in labor and produce for the privilege of turning that gentleman's idle land into profit. (I hereby disclaim any connection to such barons. The Mancusos never held noble titles, and always have been proud of having been peasants in Calabria since the time that our forebears threw rocks at the incoming Greek ships, while shouting, "We don't want no damned Greeks in our neighborhood!").

A series of events leads to Umbertina's marriage to Serafino Longobardi. Serafino has returned from a six year stay in The USA, where he had accumulated enough capital to buy a piece of land from the speculators who had purchased many of the large landholdings of the "nobility." After facing the inevitable failure of their agricultural venture, Serafino and Umbertina made the decision to emigrate to the USA.

Barolini credibly recounts the story of their journey from small landholders struggling to pay off their land in the village of Castagna to their occupation of a grand mansion, maintained by the income from a hugely successful produce and importing business. For those who have not read similar stories, Barolini's account can serve as a valid prototype for accounts of the ways in which thousands of participants in the Italy-to-The-USA avventura established their families' affluence. Such stories represent the foundation of the oft-repeated claim, "They came with nothing, there were illiterate, they didn't even speak English, they worked incessantly, and they made it without help from outside sources."

Such stories reiterate and strengthen the standard myth of the avventura.

And, Barolini deserves credit for focusing on the women who took part in the avventura.

As I read this account of the life of Umbertina, I repeatedly thought of my grandmother. She came to The USA, as best as I could calculate, in 1906, at the age of 23. She left the tiny mountain village of Eremiti, in southern part of the Province of Salerno - a region known as The Cilento. Angelina was already married, by proxy, to a man she had never met. Her husband, Antonio, had been in Lattimer Mines, Pennsylvania working in the coal mines. (For an account of the conditions of the coal mines of Lattimer Mines, see Novak [1978].) Their life as immigrants supported by the income of one coal miner also is the stuff of myth. Then, in 1933, at age 52, Antonio died of stomach cancer. Angelina was left with six children ranging in age from 23 to 3. Fortunately, the family had been established in the home that Antonio had built. Their property consisted of a very large section of ground, the house, and a barber shop. Angelina's eldest son had opened the barber shop. Thus, under the circumstances, he could assume many of the duties of the male head of house. Angelina - illiterate and barely able to keep track of the numbers involved in finances of the family - used every device at her disposal to steer the family through the depression. The vast, simple knowledge of biology allowed her to manage the work needed to maintain a large garden, goats, chickens, rabbits, and pigeons. The food in her household would deserve the praise of the most discriminating gourmet. Three of her sons served in wars in the military of The USA. Each of her children established themselves in skilled work and in small businesses.

When Angelina's heroic life ended, few people who knew her well could create for her the commemorative monument she deserved. Indeed, not even the priest - whose life and aspirations had been well supported by Angelina's family - offered not one word of homage to Angelina as he ritualistically conducted the grand funeral mass that the family had arranged.

Barolini's account of Umbertina's story should easily serve as the myth that suitably chronicles the role of women in the avventura. I have had no hesitation about recommending that part of Barolini's book to my daughters. Umbertina and my grandmother, Angelina, deserve to be commemorated. Anyone who has known a grandmother comparable to these two women must extend gratitude to Barolini for her having so ably written that commemoration.

As one reads Barolini's celebration of Umbertina, he/she can add zest to the reading by asking:: Which myths had Umbertina incorporated into her construction system to give stability and order to the chaos that she confronted continually during her constantly evolving life? Tales depicting the barons, and specifically Baron Mancuso, would have given her guides to her self enactments in relation to "high-placed" people. The contadini might kiss his hand when they encountered the baron's overweight body on the streets of the village (on the few occasions that he might visit), but they told humorous stories about the good fortune that attended their being forced to give a large share of their produce to his fattore - thus assuring that they would remain lean and agile, while the baron would over consume the bounty of their labor and become obese and gouty.

Umbertina surely heard tales that characterized the representatives of the recently formed constitutional monarchy that was installed after the heroic Garibaldi swept through Calabria - tales of the ladro governo that collected taxes on the poor man's mule while refraining from taxing the carriage horses of the rich. And certainly, she heard many tales of the ways in which the deity demanded obedience and wreaked vengeance on those who did not obey - especially on women. She heard tales that described those that emigrated, and surely built constructions that would account for the differences between those who failed in the adventure and those who succeeded. It would be difficult to imagine that Umbertina had not heard the tale of the lavish reward given to a person who obeys unflinchingly the commands of the deity - a tale recorded by Italo Calvino (1980/1956, [138] pp. 482-484) as one of the folk tales that had originated in Calabria. Without doubt Umbertina heard one after another account of the ways in which Mary, the mother of Jesus, honored women who filled the role of fierce protector of and selfless provider for her children. (See Orsi, 1982 for an account of the relationship between Southern Italian women and Mary.) And, one who has read Nassar's recording of the myths and tales that he heard in the Italian immigrant community in Utica, would guess that Umbertina would have heard tales that framed the codes and traditions that guided child-rearing and relationships to parents. Otherwise, how would she have managed to regulate and guide her children in ways that would have prompted them to cooperate as she and Serafino built the family's fortunes.

I am not sure, however, about how my daughters should read the remainder of the book, Umbertina.

A myth, obviously, can serve as a cautionary tale. As a reader, I assume, Barolini must leave to me the task of imposing my own interpretation on her writings. I cannot read her text as if I "know" her intent. After having found no difficulty in imposing my interpretation on her account of Umbertina's life, I constantly experienced difficulty in imposing a personal interpretation on to her account of the lives of Marguerite and Tina.

Of course, I could have no difficulty in reading those accounts as a chronicle of the struggles of a person who seeks a personal identity in the presence of an "ethnotyping" society. Both Marguerite and Tina confronted the task of developing a self identity that would be "authorized" by the different reference groups with which they were thrown into contact. Marguerite's parents, the children of immigrants, enjoyed the benefits of having become financially successful. In Marguerite's view "They were completely into the American way of progress: college fraternities, Rotary Club, country clubs, Ladies' Home Journal" (Barolini, 1999/1979, p. 153) Her family constantly provided those "benefits" that they assumed their children should appreciate; and expected, in return, expressions of gratitude. "Marguerite hated that about them - the constant figuring of returns. But she also loved them and needed them, and it hurt her to see the gulf widening" (p. 154).

In effect, Marguerite participated in her parents' troubled effort to cut themselves off from the culture that passed on the myths that had guided them, under the tutelage of people like Umbertina, to their material success. They could no longer pass on to Marguerite the myths that circulated In the Italian neighborhoods. Instead, they attempted to convince her that the Italian immigrant culture was to be disdained. From the portrayal of Marguerite's parents. one can surmise that they could not assess the impact of the myths that were being passed on to Marguerite at the local movie theater - Shirley Temple, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire; "the mushy love stories." Marguerite's cousins "believed what the movies showed them: Real American lives were effortlessly happy ones" (p. 151). Marguerite, whose parents had inadvertently exposed her to their own conflicts about their cultural location, found that those movies "only reinforced the odd quality of her own life" (p. 151). In her home, one was expected to prove that he/she was not Italian, but American, by disdaining Italian-Americans and by being relentlessly serious. "Italians are not serious people, her father would say" Apparently having forgotten many of the myths of his childhood, the kinds of myths that Lentricchia and Nassar found to be available in the Italian immigrant community of Utica, Marguerite's father would ask her to focus on "Italians [who] were buffoons, anarchists, and gangsters, womanizers" (p. 150).

At school, where she was thrown into associations with the daughters of "the top Irish families" (p. 152), Marguerite demonstrated sullenness and withdrawal; "while her brothers changed from dark skinny kids into tall, athletic, handsome boys full of masculine confidence" (p. 152). In addition to the role confusion that accompanies any person's transition from childhood to adulthood, Marguerite continued to face the confusions generated by her attempt to deal with the ethnotyping that entered into the social transactions in the community in which she was reared as well as the confusions generated by her distrust of the materialistic values that her parents had fully accepted. At college she was "the only Italian name" (p. 310) among women who were aspiring to be writers or doctors or go into the foreign service" (p. 310). "Whoever told me I could do any of that?" Marguerite had written into her diary.

Marguerite's efforts to establish an authentic self identity led her to an extended visit to Italy, where she met and married a man older than she by many years. The marriage, however, did not relieve Marguerite of problems of gaining authorization of her self identity. Alberto Morosini circulated in a heady world of Italian literati. If Americans, according to Marguerite's standards, dedicated their lives to foolish pursuit of material signs of success, the elitistic literary world of Italy boiled with intrigue, pettiness, and self-serving vanity. Marguerite could not be satisfied by the role of "Alberto Morosini's wife."

From the marriage of Alberto and Marguerite came the third female protagonist in the chronicle of Umbertina and her descendants. Tina Morosini, like her mother, faced exaggerated problems of developing a self-defining identity. As the great-granddaughter of a Calabrian contadina who had succeeded in earning the role of successful American capitalist, Tina also needed to enact the role of the daughter of a successful poet who originated in an ancient Venetian family. In addition, Alberto's career developed in ways that allowed the family to spend extended periods in The USA, so that Tina became well-acquainted with her mother's family in Gloversville, New York. Eventually, Tina's efforts to realize her career aspirations as a part of her efforts to gain authorization for her self identity put her back completely into the social world of the academy in The USA. She undertook to complete an advanced degree in New York City. There, of course, she needed to work out a resolution of issues facing the ethnotyping tendencies of the surrounding society - great-granddaughter of peasant Calabrese or daughter of well-schooled mother and noted Italian intellect???

The narratives of Marguerite and Tina, whose connections to the Italy-to-The-USA avventura played a crucial part in their efforts to develop an authentic self-identity, surely provide the stuff of myth. As I have indicated, I could not settle easily on a perspective which I could honestly apply to the text that Barolini had produced. Certainly, I could read this text as a tale that dramatically highlights the problems of persons who struggle to gain a self identity that would be authorized by surrounding significant persons. Marguerite needed to develop a self-identity that she could use as she encountered the cross-curents of evaluations conducted by her family, by the nuns at the high school which she attended, by the old line families in the town in which she grew up, by her college classmates, by those of her relatives who had retained their "Italianness," by the elitist Italians who surrounded her and Alberto, and on and on. Tina needed to develop a self identity that would be authorized by her parents, her Italian-American relatives, her peers in the various academic institutions that she attended, and so on. Their positions as female scions of Italy-to-The-USA immigrants certainly increased the intensity of their efforts at self authorization. And, Barolini effectively portrays that intensity.

The problems I had as I tried to impose a unifying perspective on to Barolini's text arose, I believe, from my inability to decide whether her description of the struggles of these two women should or should not be treated as irony. Should a reader regard the descriptions as ironic, or should one simply treat them as straightforward narrative? If a reader would treat the text as a text replete with ironies, then the narratives would best be perceived as a cautionary tale. I would want the narratives to be treated as a cautionary tale - a tale whose teller had infused the story with one after another irony. As I read the text, I construed the author as describing Marguerite and Tina engaging in one after another confusion-based activity that would have the aim of gaining external authorization of enactments of their self identity. The conclusions to which Barolini brings the episodes, however, demonstrate that those repeated efforts consistently led to disastrous outcomes.

And, as I read this text I constantly recalled Lentricchia's having deeply infused his writings with efforts to locate sexuality on some kind of meaning-rendering dimensions. I construed many of Barolini's descriptions of Marguerite and Tina's sexual activity as ironic passages.

In a small section of the book Barolini describes Marguerite's youthful ruminations about sex:

"Love and sex - she had often thought of them. Love and sex; the two were separate though perhaps not equal, as in well-meaning segregation; they were non-meeting, ever-propinquitous parallel lines which, to infinity, would never join. Sex was an insistent mechanism that pulsated through her and filled her with the mystery of its senseless imperative. It was also her ID card. If love were unattainable, there was always sex; and if it meant she got less, it also meant that she'd be asked for less, be less hurt" (p. 158)

No confusion there; insofar as considerations about the relationships between sex and love! Barolini has Marguerite using the sexual mythology of her era. ". . . sex is an insistent mechanism," "imperative??" A reader can assume that the alluring constructions underlying Sigmund Freud's mythmaking had permeated the prevalent "truisms' that circulated among those considered sophisticated and emancipated. Certainly, the cultural context of the era of Marguerite's youth would have convinced young women of the insistence of sex and the necessity of buying sterilizing toothpastes and fragrant douche preparations. Knowing the intellectual ambience of the colleges and universities during the period that Barolini has Marguerite attending college, one can quite confidently assume that the Freudian myths had completely suffused the psychology, sociology, anthropology, and literature departments which passed on to Marguerite the construction of "sex as an insistent mechanism."

And Barolini nicely shows Marguerite's willingness to regard sex as a substitute for a clearcut authorization of one's self identity.... If love (authorization of self) is unattainable, then validation of one's sexual attractiveness and performance (without expectation of gaining authorization of self) will temporarily suffice. In short, if a person has nothing better to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon, a session of cross stimulation can be entertainment enough.

If one were to take Marguerite's ruminations as her manifesto on sex, then one would need to regard much of the ensuing text as ironic. Barolini, as astute author, describes escapades in which Marguerite enters into intense relationships that appear to have no other purpose than to engage in sex that somehow would force together the "non-meeting, ever-propinquitous parallel lines which, to infinity, would never join" - that is to force together love and sexual frolic. Barolini shows the irony of Marguerite deviating from her manifesto and, thereby, engaging in self-destructive behavior!

Apparently, a reader must assume, Barolini never intended to demonstrate that Marguerite had communicated her sexual manifesto to her daughter, Tina. Tina appears to join regularly sexual engagements and authorization of self identity. Reading the description of Tina's developing a relationship with Jason, the man that Tina would eventually pledge to marry, the reader is told; "That night, for the first time, they slept together and made love . . . " (p. 327). A passage in the description of Tina's wild, impulsive flight across Calabria with a seductive character she had met tells of Tina vividly recalling "Ferrucio's making love to her as the bed creaked and groaned with his thrusts. And her inflamed response" (p. 376). No dalliance on a rainy Sunday afternoon there - "making love" to the cacophony of a creaking bed!!

Though Marguerite's and Tina's sexual activity seems constantly to become intermeshed with their search for self identity, Barolini's text offers little to highlight the ironies that can be read in the descriptions of their sexual escapades. I wonder if readers would try to place the sexual activity of these two women into the context of the protagonists' search for valid identities. As the tales unfold, my own perspective led me to believe that in their struggle they fall back on creating anticipatory self constructions that are available to just about everyone in the world - an easy-to-assume identity that is available not only to the denizens of a rarified intellectual ambience, but also to the inhabitants of the walled-in world of compulsive watchers of soap operas. Whatever world the enacter of the self constructed role of sexual object occupies, he/she can apply the euphemistic term "love" to his/her sexual activity. People who would believe that their lives parallel that of Marguerite can decorate their euphemisms with the mumbo-jumbo of pseudopsychological interpretations of sexual activity. The watcher of soap operas may assume that "if the rich people tell each other how great they 'make love,' then I can get someone to tell me I am great by 'making love'!!" [I once had a secretary tell me about a rape by saying, "He made love to her!!"]

One particular episode involving Tina's sexual escapades appears to me to be rich with irony. Barolini describes a scene in which Tina observes and briefly interacts with an Italian-American tourist couple. The scene is beautifully set to alert the reader to the irony of the following passages, but I think that the irony is too deeply embedded in the text to allow the casual reader to enjoy the ironic humor of that scenario. At one table in the piazza we have an extremely well schooled young woman (Tina), awaiting a rendezvous with a woman with whom she is going to consult about what someone might regard as "the final solution" to the bit of protoplasm (the result of irresponsible sex??) currently attached to her uterus. At another table we have a touring couple of Italian-Americans. The well-schooled young lady "dislikes" these tourists - people who, through circumstances over which they had little control, had been robbed of their opportunity to maintain contact with any part of the culture of their immigrant forebears. Tina "blushes for [them] and their pathetic words" (p. 315). She "gasps" at having unpacked their use of a word the tourist used when he tried to give the name of the city from which his father had emigrated - "Fudge" for "Foggia. When asked if she spoke a "different dialect" Tina "corrected primly" saying, "I speak Italian" (p. 315), "knowing that it would not have any effect. Italian-American tourists all felt they spoke Italian no matter what wretched sound they came out with." Indeed, the reader would need to agree that Tina is obligated to feel "like Peter" for attempting to wipe out her mother's Calabrian ancestry, as she attempted to assert snobbishly the superiority of the "language of the doges" over "a pastiche from ignorant main recesses" (which, as far as the reader knows, she has never heard!!)

How will that text be read by people who would identify themselves as belonging to the same category as do the tourists - as people who have been financially successful to the extent that they can finance a trip to Italy in an attempt to make some connections - as people who, so far as they are concerned, are making the best effort possible to retain some ties to their forebears? Will a young woman attempting to gain insights into the history of her Italy-to-The-USA immigrant forebears see the irony in the tourists being judged negatively for ignorance which was imposed on them by the merciless efforts to force them to "assimilate" to American culture - the irony in their being judged by a well-schooled person who had not developed a knowledge system from which she could anticipate the problems that would arise from recreational sex substituting for love?

Perhaps a reader will be pointed toward perceiving the irony when he/she reads the finale of the Tina/tourist scene. A reader might note that the person who rescues the young woman from those "deficienti" (p. 316) is the person with whom she will launch into the eventually ill-starred efforts to connect to her great grandmother by visiting the town from which her forebear had originated. Additionally, the reader might remember this scene when he/she reaches the end of the book and is informed that Tina becomes engaged to her savior - a scion of a 2000 percent old-line American family, Jason Jowers. I especially would want Italian American readers to see irony in the recounting of the events of Tina's hapless journey to Castagna. The well-schooled young woman and her newfound companion, Jason Jowers, take off on her "journey of discovery." They arrive and settle into Staffa (is Staffa a pseudonym for Maratea??)

A special scene depicting a great irony has the well-schooled young woman searching for something to read. She apparently wanted to take some time off from being "very close, by day and by night, in companionship and in love" (p. 358) with her newfound validator. Her search for reading matter puts her into contact with a conte - a descendant of the one of those people who literally owned contadini such as was her great grandmother. The count offers the young woman access to his library.

"Aha," might say the reader as he/she is seduced into the setup for the ironic twists that are to follow: "Tina is going to read something about the history of Calabria. She's going to become acquainted with the conditions that pre-existed her great grandmother's departure from that region. She's going to prepare herself to understand what she is to find in Castagna - the town of her great grandmother's origin. The young woman will become the protege of a sophisticated northern Italian who has located in the grim south of Italy, intent on lifting the veils of ignorance hung by people who shared his noble status, the employees of the church, and the other rulers of pre-emigrant Southern Italy who had followed a policy based on the assumption that enlightenment only leads to dissatisfaction and rebellion!!"

The irony becomes elaborated! Instead, the count entices Tina and Jason into contact with an elitist coterie of dilettantes, in whose presence he mouths a disdaining speech about Italian-Americans, which puts the young woman into a state of ill ease and forces her into a half-hearted defense of Italian-Americans.

Then the irony of the description of Tina's quest becomes even more apparent as the reader proceeds: The reader will see that Tina's search for books leads her into another episode of irresponsible sex; into an escapade that fully dooms any intention to gain an understanding of the only woman (her great grandmother, Umbertina) among her known forebears who "positioned herself for survival;" a woman for whom "success had followed on its own" (p. 390) once that positioning had been effected..

She impulsively departed the count's home with a fast-talking adventurer - Ferruccio. The adventurer, described as a sociologist - someone who might be expected to offer insights into the culture by which they were surrounded - turns out to be a callous entrepreneur who deals in antiques (a nice piece of symbolism!!). Instead of prompting her to develop insights into her heritage, the sociologist leads her to less demanding diversions ("to walk on the beach . . . , swim, eat, nap, make love" [p. 378]). The sociologist does not prompt the young woman to understand why the dried out hills of Calabria had been denuded of trees and why the vaunted forests of Bruttium have never been replaced? He does nothing to inform Tina of the history of the societies that developed to produce the conditions that drove Umbertina Longobardi to participate in the avventura as she did.

And so, ironically, the well-schooled young woman who is shamed by the possibility of being categorized as an ignorant, unsophisticated, crude, Italian-American, goes to the town of her grandmother's origin, ignorant of the possible answers to the questions that she raises when she arrives in that town - "And what was the use of her pursuing Umbertina?" "What had she in common with the impoverished hovels of this place . . . With the isolation and the backwardness" (p. 384). Ironically, Tina could only conclude that, "She was now a product of education. There was no return" (p. 384).

Will readers see the great irony in Tina being unable to resolve satisfactorily her ambivalences, despite the opportunities which were fed to her on the proverbial silver spoon? Will the reader understand how she had wasted the opportunity and the time that she might have used to build a framework of constructions by which to understand how she connected to that place - to build an awareness of exploitation, resolve, commitment, hard work, and love that was passed through the generations between Umbertina and herself - the chain of values that made possible her exposure to a mind-altering world view that should have given her the potential to appreciate and to value the chain by which she was connected to that place. There is no way that the reader, without seeing these ironies, will be able to see how Tina's self-identity might have been enhanced had she been guided to perceive the ways in which she did have something in common with the "hovels, isolation, and backwardness" that she encountered in Castagna.

A reader would need to have turned off all of his/her processing facilities were he/she to fail to detect irony as he/she puts together the text on the facing pages 312 and 313. On page 312 Tina and Marguerite's other daughter, Louise, discover the last entry in Marguerite's diaries. In the entry, Marguerite agonizes over having discovered that she is pregnant. The inseminating male was Massimo, the last of Marguerite's many "lovers." Tina and Louise speculate on the emotional upheaval that Marguerite might have experienced as she had made a mad dash over the mountains from Rome to Ancona, where she shared her discovery with Massimo, who she fully expected would turn her away. Did he turn her away?  Were her emotion-life upheavals involved in the automobile crash in which Marguerite was killed as she was driving back to Rome? Could the crash have been deliberately executed?

As Tina and Louise speculate on the answers to these questions, Tina reveals her belief that she too is pregnant as a result of her "love-making" with the dilettante with whom she was living before she left New York to return to her father and sister in Rome.  (Further irony: According to Tina's tale, Tina's grandparents -- Marguerite's parents -- had objected to this liaison. Marguerite had countered their objection by noting that, "Tina was well of an age to make her decisions, that she was a graduate student at Columbia" (p. 287), etc.)

Then, on the following page, page 312, one reads a description of Tina's encounter the Italian-American tourists - an encounter which occurred when she had gone to Piazza Navona to meet the woman who would help her to arrange an abortion - the woman who would sell the jewelry that Marguerite had left to Tina and Louise in order to obtain the money to pay to have her pregnancy terminated.

The book concludes with an account of an episode that I perceive to be laden with irony. Tina is described as arranging a focus for the "positioning to come, between her and Jason" (p. 424). She plants a rosemary bush on the Cape Cod property of the Jowers family, on the assumption that "wherever one of Umbertina's clan descends there also will be a rosemary planted, for where it grows the women of the house are its strength" (p. 423).

I see irony in the description of Tina's search for identity ending at the point where she becomes engaged to marry a scion of a family that has inhabited Cape Cod since the 1670s. Through her engagement to Jason Jowers, Tina reaches the end of her wild dash over the landscape of many alternative identities, a landscape which (as described) never contained a well-educated, sophisticated scion of an immigrant American family who could harmonize with Tina's ethnic backgrounds. Jason, of course, expressed his tolerance for diversity by agreeing that Tina would keep her Italian name - Morosini - a name that would connect her to an ancient seagoing Venetian family through her acclaimed father. At the same time, of course, under that name she would travel in circles where it was known that she was the wife of an ancient seagoing New England family. Could anyone desire. a self definition that was more solidly grounded, in terms of achieving social authorization?

A reader who persists in believing that an astute reader will search for and find symbols - hidden, overt, intentional, or unconsciously inserted - in a literary work will have an opportunity to exercise his/her skill as he/she reads an episode in which Jason Jowers tells Tina a family myth.

Jason's grandfather, as a young lad, had helped in the rescue of some sailors from a wrecked Italian ship, Castagna - a ship bearing the same name as the town from which Tina's great grandmother had emigrated. The ship had run aground off Cape Cod during heavy seas created by a February storm. Some of the sailors managed to lash themselves to the rigging. Jason's father, being the lightest of the rescuers, was sent to the ship from shore, on a light line that had been shot on to the ship. There he chopped free some of the sailors who had frozen to the rigging, saving their lives.

Barolini describes the scene following the recounting of the story in these words:

"But why was the ship called Castagna, of all things," [asked Tina].

. . . . . ". . . its just serendipity - just something, as I told you, to connect you and me."

"What a story, Jason," [Tina] repeated, and as she looked at him she thought, In terms of men, a Jowers man was the perfect aesthetic."

That night, for the first time, they slept together and made love . . . " (p. 357).

Will readers of Barolini's Umbertina leave their reading of the volume with the perception that Tina was a cool, love-making, sexy, good-looking, drug-using, academically credentialed, liberated woman - descendent of a nobody from Castagna - who deserved to rescued by a well-connected "Jowers man," who will "bring her to a dear perpetual place . . . where all's accustomed, ceremonious?"

Will readers of Barolini's book close the volume and cogitate the commitment; the sacrifice; the struggle; the distress of adapting a primary, culturally-transmitted self identity to meet the demands of unwelcoming power-holders; and the familial love that carried her forebears and her through Castagna, New York's Little Italy, Utica, Gloversville, Rome (Italy), and Cape Cod. Will readers cogitate on the ways that her forebears provided Tina with the opportunities to build a foundation from which she could be positioned to take the opportunities connected to admittance to a social circle within which her self identity would rarely fail to gain authorization?

Will the narratives recounted in Umbertina allow readers to reveal the myths that prompted the development of the self-defining narratives that guided the women in the Italy-to-The-USA avventura?

Can narratives such as those recounted in Helen Barolini's Umbertina eventually contribute to proving the inaccuracy of the prediction made by Lentricchia's protagonist: Italian-Americans will be remembered only on Columbus day when the descendants of the adventurers wear buttons which say, "Kiss me. I'm Italian."


Barolini, Helen. (1999). Umbertina. New York: Seaview, 1979. Reissued: Umbertina. New York: Feminist Press.

Barolini, Helen. (1999). Chiaroscuro: Essays in identity. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press,

Barolini, Helen, (ed.). (1985). The dream book, an anthology of writings by Italian American women. New York: Schocken Books.

Calvino, Italo. (1956/1980) Italian folk tales. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. (First published in Italian, 1956. Translator: George Martin.)

Chapman, Charlotte. Milocca-A Sicilian Village. Cambridge: Schenkman, 1971.

Cooley, Charles H.  On self and social organization. (Edited and with an introduction by Hans-Joachim Schubert. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Lentricchia, Frank. (1999). The music of The Inferno. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Lentricchia, Frank. (1996). Johnny Critelli and The knife men. New York: Scribner.

Lentricchia, Frank. (1994). Edge of night. New York: Random House.

Mancuso, James (1997). Review of Frank Lentricchia's Edge of Night. URL Address:

Mancuso, James. (1996a). Italy's Art in The United States: Tracing the Immigrants' Influence in the Upstate New York Region. URL Address:

Mancuso, James (1996b). The Concept of Reality and its Control. URL Address:

Nassar, Eugene. A Walk around the Block. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999.

Novak, Michael (1978). The guns of Lattimer. New York: Basic Books.
Orsi, Robert. (1988) The madonna of 115th street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

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.)

Verga, Giovanni. (1880/2000). Cavalleria Rusticana, in Cavalleria Rusticana and other stories. G. H. McWilliam (Ed. and Translator). New York: Penguin Classics.

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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