Maintaining an Ethnic Self in Western
Massachusetts: The Encounters of 
the Italian-Americans


  James C. Mancuso
February, 2000


Those who would read the literary productions written by the offspring of Italy-to-The-United-States immigrants can first develop a useful perspective by studying the text of Robert Orsi's book, The Madonna of 115th Street (1985). Orsi describes the ways in which the people of the great Italy-to-The USA Avventura attempted to replicate the family/community ambience (the domus, using Orsi's term), that they had left behind in Southern Italy and Sicily. As the immigrants engaged this formidable task, they aspired to accommodating their perspectives on values and practices to those of the surrounding dominant culture. At the same time, they naively held the implicit belief that the practitioners of the dominant culture would accommodate their perspectives so that they could fully assimilate the values and ideologies that guided the behavior of the people of the domus. There are few indications that they understood the intensity of the demand that they should accommodate their perspective so that they could fully assimilate the perspectives of the dominant culture -- that they should develop a system of self construction which replicated the systems which guided the self constructions of the dominant culture. Indeed, a large portion of the immigrants took pride in encouraging their children "to become Americans."

The expectations of the immigrants fractured under the pressures which their offspring experienced as they interacted with the inhabitants of surrounding neighborhoods who expected that the offspring of the immigrants should, indeed, "become Americans." The young people of Italian-American communities were placed in the position of marginal persons (Stonequist, 1961). They had little understanding of the psychological processes involved when they faced subtle and/or direct expectations that they give up the perspectives they had developed in the domus. The young members of the immigrant community frequently rebelled against the values and practices which, their parents believed, had led to the family's dignified and respectful status. At times, the rebels supported their revolt by acquiring a comprehensive disdain for their forebears. A small portion of the immigrants' progeny found ways to formulate a balanced perspective on both the values of the dominant culture and the values which the domus had transmitted. As expected, the literary works of the immigrants' descendants illuminate the personal struggles generated by the requirement that the writers adopt a role worthy of warrant in a world controlled by the scions of the local dominant culture.

The near-contemporaneous, recent appearance of three literary efforts illustratively locate the struggles the offspring of Italian immigrants to venture into the social world of the dominant culture of the picturesque Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. The ensuing essay will contain a set of observations to provide a frame for assessing the three texts which describe the experiences of these "venturers." Thereupon, the three texts will be evaluated. Ultimately, this essay contains observations regarding the dissemination of material which records efforts to come to terms with personal self role development of venturers -- those persons immersed in the contacts in which people categorize their selves and others in terms of ethnic group membership.

The casual visitor to Williamstown, Massachusetts would judge this charming New England setting to be a most unlikely stage for this dramatic cultural confrontation. On closer inspection, the observer would find that this part of The United States provides a superb theater in which the progeny of the immigrants could improvise their personal self-defining roles. Three Italian-American writers recently have realized the appropriateness of using that setting as they have applied their literary skills to comment on the confrontation between the perspectives of the dominant culture and those of the domus.

Williamstown, a classic New England college town, occupies one of the lovely valleys in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. In his novel, Stardust, Parker (1990) aptly notes, "There [is] a high gloss of rustic chic in the Berkshires -- Tanglewood, Stockbridge, Williamstown Theatre Festival . . . " (p. 111). Williamstown represents the epitome of such "rustic chic," and much more. Few college campuses in The USA, for example, attract a student body which would match the "old family" luster emanating from high-status Williams College.

A short distance across a low rise in the terrain, to the east of Williamstown, a traveler enters a different kind of classic New England town. Everything about North Adams would qualify that town as a representative of the skeletons of the once prosperous industrial cities of northeastern United States. Marianna De Marco Torgovnick (1994) says of North Adams (which she does not name), "The nearest [to Williamstown] large town is an ugly twin to the college town, a former mill town as thoroughly working class and ethnic as the college town is upper middle class and WASP" (p. 60). And, being like similar mill towns of the Northeastern region of The USA, the largest ethnic group in North Adams originated in Southern Italy and Sicily. The offspring of managers, professionals, and proprietors who worked in North Adams could escape exposure to this ambience. Williamstown provided the ideal bedroom community for those who could afford the life style of a commuter.

The Italian-American youth of North Adams entered a fantasy world when they served as busboys, waitresses, and janitorial staff in the stylish restaurants and inns that indulged visiting families, like the families of Williams College students and alumni. The offspring of the immigrants could also observe the cultural practices of these old-line families when they worked as contract labor for the builders and landscape gardeners who built, maintained, and groomed the region's luxurious country homes, estates, and entertainment centers. From that vantage point they could study the upper-class families who participated in the summer season's events at venues such as Tanglewood Music Festival, Williamstown Theater Festival, and Berkshire Opera Company. Having been thrust into this world, a representative scion of the North Adams Italian-American families could not avoid the personal strain that would result from attempting to define his/her personal roles in the drama in which they were forced to participate. At the same time, they would be made aware that they could be construed in terms of their membership in an ethnic group - a categorization that frequently allowed simultaneous categorization into a socioeconomic class.

The Venturer in a Land of  Well-Marked Boundaries

Looking for a guide to the Landscape. To proceed, it will be useful first to conjure an image of a pair of North Adams Italian-American young adults -- Carmine and Carmella. Early in their lives Carmine and Carmella would become venturers -- they would enter into a round of social interactions in which it was clear that they were being categorized in terms of ethnic group membership. The children they would have met in their kindergarten, the teachers they would meet in their schools, the librarians they would meet at the library, etc., would find it convenient to classify Carmine and Carmella as Italian-Americans. To where could Carmine and Carmella turn in order to open a useful perspective from which to interpret their personal roles in the drama of cultural confrontation? Parents, school teachers, and popular writers (particularly Italian-American writers) could provide a guide to the development of useful self-defining roles. What would Carmine and Carmella find if they turned to these potential sources of guidance? Would they find that their definition as Italian-American was best represented by the advertisements which show Italian-Americans gobbling mounds of spaghetti? Would they develop the view that the category of persons labeled Italian-American was best represented by the characters portrayed in the steady stream of media presentations of "mafia types?" From where would they learn the features that purportedly marked off members of the ethnic group to which they would be assigned? Which of their behaviors would reveal to others that they could be assigned to the ethnic group Italian-American? From where would they develop a self-role definition from which they could frame and then enact behaviors as they ventured into a world which uses the category Italian-American?

Their parents would have been of scant help. Orsi (1985) draws up a cogent picture of the Italian-immigrants' response to the members of the dominant culture -- Gli Americani. "Those people" were effete and undignified. Gli Americani had little understanding of how to behave in instances of adversity. Above all, they failed to adhere to cherished values regarding family, commitment, sexuality, work, and diet. As such, "those people" served as seducers who would tempt the youngsters like Carmine and Carmella to abandon the roles which the domus would prescribe for them. If Carmine aspired to become like one of "those Williams College students," he would, in effect, aspire to reject "his own." If Carmella nurtured a hope that "one of those Williamstown boys" would offer her attention, her parents would have warned her, "he's only after one thing -- a couple hours of his pleasure." At the same time, the parents of Carmine and Carmella would have a vague, ill-defined awareness that their children would not "get ahead" if they did not "become American."

Carmine and Carmella certainly would not have found a text as popular as was Dreiser's An American tragedy to give them clear direction as they scripted their roles in this world of "rustic chic." They might have encountered the repeated and controversial claim that Italian-Americans had not produced the kinds of literature that could offer a guide to a successful outcome to their efforts to achieve functional self role definitions. Having heard this observation, they might have inquired into the reasons why such literature was not readily available in schools and libraries.. A variety of explanations, of course, could be offered. Carmella might find a commonly expressed, but confabulating, view that the progeny of Italian Americans did not show a propensity to produce literary works. She might also encounter a concomitant, and less controversial, view that the Italian-American community does not support those who do produce literature. Prospective writers who originated in the domus frequently encounter this impression when they receive rejections of proposals for manuscripts, and the writers have no basis for rebutting the evidence gathered in the cash register tapes of bookstores.

Distrust of the guidebooks provided by intellectuals. Before reaching a concluding explanation of why such literature was not readily available, consider the possibility that Carmine had encountered a particularly astute North Adams High School teacher, who recommended that he read Di Donato's Christ in concrete, or Dreiser's An American tragedy. In either, he would find a tale of struggle to counter the exploitation of lower socio-economic persons. He might have empathized with the youthful protagonist of Dreiser's novel, Clyde Griffiths; and might then have inquired about the possibility that a similar novel had been written around an Italian-American protagonist. Had Carmine explained to his parents that he had found Dreiser's or Di Donato's interpretations of the consequences of interclass contact to be applicable to the Williamstown/North Adams scene, they might have registered a reaction expressed by many politically cautious Italian-Americans -- severe disapproval of their son's willingness to accept "radical" doctrine.

The kind of thinking found in these works of Di Donato or Dreiser, Carmine's parents would likely have believed, emanated from communist or socialist doctrine. Carmine's parents would know about "red scares," Palmer raids, and the infamous Sacco/Vanzetti affair. They would know about the dangers confronting an Italian-American who expresses "radical" thought. Additionally, they knew that during each Roman Catholic mass the priest had asked the congregation to pray for the salvation of the people of The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. At the same time, Carmine's parents would need to deal with the contradictions stimulated by their holding of the suspicion that, somehow, such radical thought freely circulated on the campus of prestigious Williams College where the scions of the capitalists were educated to enter the professional and commercial world. Such thought, they believed, would be relatively rare on the campuses of the denominational colleges to which they might send their children.

The Southern Italian immigrants' views were ineluctably embedded in centuries of experiences which had nourished their distrust of intellectuals. The intellectuals who had resisted French, Spanish, and Austrian domination (1266 - 1734) had constantly attracted the attentions of their oppressors' armies, police, torturers, and executioners. To illustrate: about 85 years before the beginning of the great Italian Avventura, Napoleon's forces had arrived in Naples to support the Neapolitan intellectuals who then set up the short-lived Parthenopean Republic. There followed a terrible struggle, directly implicating the peasant classes who were convinced that the French supported public would take away their god and their king. Within a year, the wastrel King of Naples, Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, and his termagant queen, Maria Carolina, returned from their British-protected haven in Palermo. Despite prior guarantees of safe passage for the leaders of the vanquished Parthenopean Republicans, Queen Maria Carolina insisted on revenge. She knew that Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson would use his British fleet to carry out her plans. The queen conveyed her desires to Lord Nelson through a letter she wrote to Nelson's amanta, the Lady Hamilton. The queen wrote, ". . . Note will be taken of . . . the most rabid scribblers." and, "we must make an example of the leading representatives" (quotations appear in Acton, 1956, p. 397). These revolutionaries, after all, had disseminated noteworthy anti-royalist sentiments. They had tried "to force the dignity of man, the evils of despotism and the virtues of republicanism down the throats of the incredulous, mocking lazzaroni" (Acton's phrasing, 1956, p. 368).

The fate of the deposed admiral of the short-lived republic, Francesco Caracciolo, furnished a particularly archetypal example of his captor's enthusiastic attention to the queen's wishes. Here, Admiral Lord Nelson acted with exemplary imperial English efficiency. Within eight hours after his apprehension, Admiral Caracciolo had been tried, found guilty of high treason, hanged aboard the ship he formerly had commanded, and dumped into the Bay of Naples. When Carraciolo's decomposing body reappeared on the surface of The Bay, a gruesome description of the movements of the corpse circulated freely among i lazzaroni of Naples.

King Ferdinand IV continually relied on this kind of royalist help. In 1815, Ferdinand returned to his throne in Naples under the protection of the Austrians, following Napoleon's defeat and the removal of the second French-supported government, headed by Napoleon's brother-in-law, Joachim Murat. Ferdinand survived one after another effort to reduce his absolutist tyranny. In 1821 he called in the Austrian army to suppress the reformers who had forced him to draw up a constitution. Until his death in 1825, he celebrated his success with four more years of cruel vendetta. For another thirty-five years, those Southern Italians who promulgated enlightened perspectives fared no better under the reign of the three other absolutist Bourbon kings. In 1860, Garibaldi's sweep through Sicily ended the 126 year Bourbon occupancy of the throne of The Kingdom of The Two Sicilies. After South Italy and Naples were annexed to the newly-formed Kingdom of Italy, the gates to emigration opened, and the Italy-to-The- USA avventura provided a flood of new Americans.

The Southern Italians' and Sicilians' distrust of the advice of intellectuals gained new strength as a result of bitter events that followed the 1870 unification of Italy. In reaction to the deplorable economic and social conditions which could not be ameliorated by the policies of the new central government of Italy -- a government clearly oriented toward the more prosperous north of Italy and to the nobility of the south -- the workers of Sicily organized I Fasci. These societies flourished, so that by 1893 350,000 farm and sulfur workers had become Fascisti. In their fervor to gain their ends, the leadership lost control of the Fascisti. The central government took drastic action. Francesco Crispi, a native Sicilian bent on making Italy into a colonial power, was recalled as Italy's prime minister. He sent a fleet and over 30,000 soldiers to the island to back up his policy of martial law. The Fasci groups were declared illegal, and the Fasci leaders were systematically arrested. The courts dragged out the trials of the leaders, and extensive publicity accompanied the issuing of savage sentences. The populace, tens of thousands of whom were disenfranchised on the slightest pretext, had reason to feel deep disillusionment with the "the scribblers" who had triggered the action that had led to this repression. Tens of housands of laboring people reverted to their ancient ideology, "Badi alle cose tuoe," and they bought their tickets for passage to the new world.

In the new world, knowing their status as reluctantly-welcomed alien laborers, the immigrants were constantly reminded of the dangers facing someone who showed facility in giving a radical voice to the strains experienced by those attempting to define their roles in the new world. The Italian immigrant community would have known that the scribbling in Andrea Salseda's underground newsletter had inflamed the kind of anarchistic ideologies expressed by Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco. They would have known that Salseda met his death when his body smashed into the concrete at the end of a fourteen story drop from a window of The USA's Justice Department's New York City offices. Other examples also were available. Carlo Tresca was well known as a very forceful labor leader, and he also made no secret to his socialist orientations. Tresca's mysterious murder, in 1943, was well publicized in Italian-American communities. His still unsolved murder would have given people cause to consider the futility of minding the business of the people in power. And, they certainly would have known what had happened to the eloquent Sacco and Vanzetti.

Inducements to move out of the land of the aliens. Factors, other than a distrust of intellectualism, further dampened the production of texts that the youngsters of immigrant families could use to build self role definitions. Only a very select, fortunate few potential writers encountered an instructor who could guide their search for a satisfying role definition. The schools which the children of the Italian immigrants attended were dominated by the pronouncements of educators like Ellwood Cubberley. Cubberley (1909) first described southern Europeans as "illiterate, docile, lacking in self reliance and initiative, and not possessing the Anglo-Teutonic conceptions of law, order, and government" who "tend to set up here their national manners, customs and observances" (p. 15). He then advised, as follows:

Our task is to break up these groups of settlements, to assimilate and amalgamate these people as part of our American race, and to implant in their children as far as can be done, the Anglo-Saxon conception of righteousness, law and order, and to awaken in them a reverence for our democratic institutions and/or those things in our national life which we as a people hold to be of abiding worth. (Cubberley, 1909, p. 15)

The esteemed outcome of plying this task would result in the kind of declaration which would be made by Henry Suzzallo. In 1921, Suzzallo, who had had an extended, close relationship with Cubberley, was at the height of his remarkable tenure as President of The University of Washington. A highly skilled speaker, he addressed an audience in Victoria, British Columbia. There, this son of ethnic Italian immigrants to California said,

There is not a drop of Anglo-Saxon blood in my veins, but thank God I can choose my spiritual and political ancestry, and I have chosen the Anglo-Saxon ideals for my ancestry. (Reported in the Victoria Times, April 1, 1921).

Leonard Covello, another scholar who grew up in an Italian immigrant family, described the techniques that many educators had used to bring about such startling testimony. "We were becoming Americans by learning to be ashamed of our parents" (Covello, with D'Agostino, 1958, p. 43|.

What would Carmine encounter were he to make his way to a publicly supported college. There he undoubtedly would find that the denizens of the academic world had great faith in the idea of communal action. They viewed the ideology of "tend to your own affairs" as being a very negative feature of the Italian immigrant culture. Thus, it would not have been unusual for a scion of the Italian-American culture to have sat through a sociology course and to have been exposed to academics who readily judged the ideology of Bada alle cose tuoe to be definitively negative. Banfield's book, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (Banfield, 1958) was a staple in social science courses.

Banfield went to the Southern Italian province Potenza to study and to explain the lack of economic progress in one of the villages in that province. As a result of his studies, Banfield coined the term amoral familism, by which to categorize the behavior of the person who adopt the following rule: "Maximize the material, and short-run advantage of the nuclear family; assume that all others will do likewise" (p. 83).

Banfield did write:

The mechanism which produces the ethos of amoral familism is undoubtedly complex, consisting of many elements in a mutually reinforcing relation. The dreadful poverty of the region and a degraded status of those who do manual labor. . . . Are surely of very great importance in forming it; they are structural features, so to speak in the system of causes. (p. 139)

Yet, he could not offer the conclusion that the ideology of Bada alle cose tuoe would represent a very useful moral principle in a region where the contadini had been subjected to centuries-long degradation and poverty.

Assume that Carmine had been assigned to read that book in his sociology course. Would Carmine, struggling to develop workable self role definitions as he interacted with persons who could categorize him as a member of the Italian-American ethnic group, dare to contest Banfield's conclusions about this ideology?

While these elements surrounded aspiring Italian-American writers, why would they labor to produce literature which reflected a reasonably balanced account of the identity struggles of the progeny of the immigrants? How would they write about their personal relationships to a culture transmitted by shame-worthy and "amoral" parents? Moreover, why would a developing Italian-American writer confront the keepers of the perspectives - the "realities" -- of the dominant culture by exploring the reasoned bases of the values and ideologies of the domus? The dominant Irish-American Roman Catholic Church hierarchy had made clear their opprobrium of the Southern Italian versions of religious practices. The professors, critics, reviewers, and producers of the literature of The USA had devoured Freudian psychoanalytic theory and relished every opportunity to demonstrate their ability to get to "the real story" (distorted sexuality??) submerged in every text. Would an Italian-American adolescent want to share with the literary world his grandmother's earthy advice: "Keep it in your pants. In the long run, it will just get you into trouble?" Additionally, any Italian-American who attempted to render a balanced positive/negative view of Italian-American life would need to exert special effort to treat the issue of crime, lest he be accused of denying the validity of the ubiquitous belief that a sizeable number of Italian-American endorse such activity -- or, worse, lest the writer allow the inference that he/she would defend the value systems of the imagined members of "The Mafia."

Few writers were able to walk the tightrope over which Mario Puzo (1969) has traveled. Few writers developed the particular writing skills that allowed them to portray leaders of organized crime as committed and loyal members of the domus who simultaneously performed as skilled negotiators while managing multi-million dollar criminal enterprises by the use of grotesque violence. Few writers took the bold step of attempting to demonstrate that one could be ascribed the features of members of the Italian-American ethnic group - family loyalty, love of food and music, violence - and yet achieve the most vaunted of American values - financial power and control.

Other writers who had originated in the domus, of which Gay Talese would be the most prototypical exemplar. did discover a traversable route to success in the literary world. They could show that they accepted the standard processes by which one was categorized as a member of the Italian-American ethnic group, and then make it clear that they not only agreed with that process, but that they were fortunate and strong enough to have molded their self into a more acceptable type. Indeed, Talese became an "expert" on Italian-American literature by gaining access to the op-ed page of The New York Times to proclaim his thesis. Noting that he could gain ready agreement that Italian-Americans followed the ideology of bada alle cose tuoe, he laid the claim that Italian-Americans did not write because to do so would be to bare the secrets of the domus - to reveal to the world the things of the family. This claim, of course, played nicely into the mythology of silence among the inner circles of crime syndicates, often known as Cosa Nostra - Things of Ours. And, it was assumed that Talese knew a great deal about crime families, since he had written a heavy volume about Italian-American crime figures, Honor thy father. Further, Talese could proudly take credit for having risen above this kind of amoral familialism, for shortly before he was given a platform from which to propound insights which affirmed negative, stereotypical categorizing of Italian-Americans, he had recently published an equally heavy volume -- Unto the sons - which purports to reveal his family secrets.

The Western Massachusetts Setting: Italian-Americans
Write Guides for Italian-American Venturers

Having raised these considerations, let us return to the specific dilemmas that might confront Carmine and Carmella as venturers (person who interact in a social context in which they and others categorize self and each other as members of an ethnic group ). To what sources might today's Carmine and Carmella turn in order to build a perceptual frame within which to regard the interactions they would have with others who could use the category ethnic group and its subordinate categories, e. g. Italian-American ethnic group. From where would they learn a perspective which would allow them to operate effectively in the kind of social contexts that would occur regularly in the area around North Adams and Williamstown, Massachusetts? What would they find if they turned to three recent literary efforts which have brought into focus contact between venturers? Three writers recently described the interactions of venturers in the Berkshire area. George Cuomo (1992) used that region as the setting for his eighth novel, Trial by Water. Marianna De Marco Torgovnick (1994) published a collection of essays, Crossing Ocean Parkway: Readings by an Italian-American Daughter. One piece describes Torgovnick's experiences as a young assistant professor at Williams College. A third relevant literary event occurred when Williamstown Theatre Festival produced MACS: A Macaroni Requiem, by David Simpatico (1996). Would a study of this literature written by Italian-Americans direct Carmine and Carmella to a reasoned view of their roles in a drama of cultural contact like that playing out in the ambience of Williamstown/North Adams communities?

George Cuomo. George Cuomo's seventh and eighth novels reflect his direct contact with working class Italian immigrant culture. Cuomo's father's parents had immigrated from Italy to The USA, and lived in the Greater New York City neighborhood in which the novelist developed. He used the home and the neighborhood of his childhood as the model for setting of his seventh novel, Family Honor. Family Honor is the first of Cuomo's books which conveys an autobiographical flavor. In writing about the family of the novel's protagonist, Vinnie Sirola, Cuomo does portray Sirola's Italian-American father as worthy of respect and sympathy. However, descriptions of other members of Sirola's paternal relatives strongly suggest that the author had been exposed to the kind of instruction which encouraged him to regard his forebears as shameful. Cuomo repeatedly supplied text describing the Sirola grandmother and her offspring as unlettered, distrustful, anti-intellectual, and ridden by superstition, jealousy, and greed. Furthermore, this reader of this 591 page novel had difficulty recalling one single account of a pleasant event that occurred during interactions of the Italian immigrant family surrounding Sirola: not even the consumption of a tasty slice of pizza!

Family Honor presents in saga form the history of labor organizing activity in The United States of America, using Sirola as a heroic mover and shaker in that movement. As such, he is presented as a largely admirable character. Cuomo clearly intends to leave the reader with the impression that Sirola's hard-headed idealism developed out of his association with his unrealistically idealistic father and his mother's relatively cultured Germanic parents. Yet, Cuomo gives few clues about the origins of the idealism and social thought that inspired Sirola's father. Nothing can explain how such idealism might have flourished in the uncouth Sirola family that Cuomo describes. Nor is there any suggestion that that family is a part of a domus having the characteristics of those which Orsi describes.

The narrative line of Cuomo's Trial by Water elicits a more positive reaction to the Italian-American family of the protagonist, Florian Rubio. Cuomo presents Rubio as an ex-resident of The Bronx, ex-factory worker, ex-contractor, ex-husband, and sexual knight transplanted to the Williamstown-like town, Trent. There Rubio achieved high-level financial and social success through exercising an astute knowledge of the relationships of terrain and site development. His local esteem, in tandem with his sexual successes, even earns him admission to the board of directors of the "Trent Theater Festival." Yet, Rubio shows great respect for his parents, who are described persons who embody the most positive attributes of persons who can be classed as members of the Italian-American ethnic group. Thus, Cuomo deftly portrays a person who had accommodated his original perspectives so that he can assimilate the value perspectives of the dominant culture (rigorous physical exercise in a gymnasium, commercial wizardry, financial success, and support of artistic endeavors) while still being able to understand and appreciate the perspectives of parents who valued the traditions of the culture in which he had developed as a child.

Cuomo performs an adept twist on the issue of conflict that arises in the contact between Italian-Americans and the surrounding dominant culture. Florian Rubio's son, Brian, becomes involved in a rowdy dockside tussle with a group of students from the town of Medway (North Adams?), the industrial town neighboring Trent (Williamstown?). Two Medway youths drown when they are trapped in an auto that is propelled into a lake while engaged in a ramming contest with a vehicle being used by Brian. Thus, the youth who faces the machinery of the criminal justice system is the scion of an outsider family that has been partially, and somewhat grudgingly, incorporated into the dominant social group. By this device Cuomo can explore the complicated relationships between the inhabitants of Medway and the inhabitants of upscale Trent. By describing the precursors to the tragic incident, the conditions of the persons involved in the incident, the strategies of the prosecutor and the defending lawyers, the trial itself, and the consequences of the trial, Cuomo succeeds in presenting the fine details of ways in which venturers interact.

By having provided the details of this narrative, Cuomo also has provided Carmine and Carmella with ample opportunity to engage in alternative identities. A young Italian-American would have little difficulty identifying with a person like Florian Rubio. In the novel, Rubio has built a commodious home into which he has moved his father and mother, who are clearly characterized as keepers of the tradition of the domus. These keepers of the family hearth live in the home of a son who has edged into the upper circles of local power. As contrast, Cuomo describes the visits which Florian's father, Salvatore, makes to "the Polecat Bar and Grill, smack in the middle of all those Medway factories . . . patronized mostly by IE retirees, [a place that] had been Salvatore's spiritual home ever since he'd discovered it soon after moving up from the Bronx" (p. 103). Cuomo can give overt voice to the discomfort which the scions of Trent's established families experience as they face Rubio's consistent successes; and, conversely, he can specify Rubio's satisfaction as he "rubs it in." Cuomo regularly describes pleasures of the tables prepared by Florian's mother, Lucille. In this setting, Cuomo can easily interject commentary which highlights the two cultures' views on marital fidelity, sexuality, efforts to regulate youth, the maintenance of self sufficiency, and so forth. Concurrently, he can describe Salvatore's subtle reactions to, as well as his comments on, his tensions in dealing with Florian's upscale friends. In contrast to his description of the Italian-American family in his earlier novel, Cuomo describes with great warmth the sincere and caring support which the extended Rubio family offered to Florian and to Brian. He deftly communicates the ways in which Florian's associates respond to Salvatore's impressive garden, to Lucille's culinary skills, and to Salvatore's inexhaustible loyalty to Lucille after she suffers an incapacitating stroke. Throughout, Florian proceeds self-assuredly; always showing respect for his parent's expression of their values, trying to placate his mother's tension over Brian's violation of her central values; and making every effort to assure his parents that their positive values earn the respect of the outer community.

In Trial by Water Cuomo tracks the intense personal journeys of the cast of characters and weaves an engrossing tale that illuminates the universally experienced strain occurring during the meetings of persons reared at the interface of two diverse cultures. Cuomo digs deeply into his understanding of cultural contact -- a knowledge undoubtedly enriched by his own experiences -- and frames that understanding into a well-told story that allows a reader to elaborate his/her consciousness of similar events. Considering the skill he demonstrates in handling these issues in Trial by Water, one must regret that Cuomo had worked his way through six novels before turning his narrative skill toward this kind of exploration.

In Cuomo's two novels featuring Italian-American protagonists, he signifies to the literati that he knows about, but that he does not endorse, the positive value which the domus places on the restraint of sexuality. Cuomo takes every opportunity to affirm that his protagonists fully satisfy the most ardent psychoanalyst's expectations. He formulaically leads Sirola and Rubio into demonstrations of their constant longing for, high skill in, and frequent participation in "glorious sex." In Family Honor he devotes page after page to clinical reports of Sirola's attempts to master the finest technology for manipulating his penis as he copulates. No one can doubt that Cuomo strives to show agreement with the current, popular adulation of sexuality; and that if Sirola and Rubio's grandmothers had advised restraint, that advice has been rejected.

In illuminating the relationships of the domus to the outer culture, Cuomo deserves very special plaudits on a most important count. Though Vinnie Sirola operates in the rough, tough world of labor politics, Cuomo does not portray Italian-Americans making "offers that can't be refused," nor does he write of hoods with Brooklyn accents causing opposing labor leaders to disappear into the swamp lands of upper New Jersey. In Trial by Water, one finds no allusion to the mystical, fabled world of organized crime.

Marianna De Marco Torgovnick. Whereas Cuomo, writing as a novelist from an Italian-American background, does not give specific indications of the personal effects of his venturing into a world in which he can be categorized as a member of the Italian-American ethnic group, Marianna De Marco Torgovnick, as an essayist, fully records her reactions. In her volume of collected essays, Crossing Ocean Parkway (Torgovnick, 1994), she skillfully reports her experiences as a member of the faculty of The College -- an institution one can easily recognize as Williams College, located in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

The overriding identity which Torgovnick shaped as a result of her cultural conflict is neatly expressed in the title of her volume of essays. As a female offspring of an Italian-American family in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, she yearned to cross Ocean Parkway. That crossing would mean "freedom -- to experiment, to grow, to change" (p. 11). That crossing would mean separation from the "Italian-Americans in Bensonhurst [who] are notable for their cohesiveness and provinciality; the slightest pressure turns those qualities into prejudice and racism" (p. 7). She would move to a neighborhood where she would have no need to suspect that a travel agency could be a mafia front! By marrying a Jewish man she would avoid excessive exposure to the "typical Italian American male pattern," the mastery of which she ascribes to Camille Paglia: "she's tough, she's brusque, and when someone challenges or annoys her, she tries to intimidate by flying into a raving, potentially violent rage" (p. 104). Torgovnick aspired to the intellectual orientation of the Jewish-Americans with whom she had become acquainted. She knew that academic superiority awaited her, for, she told her father, "I have sneaked a peek at my files and know that my IQ is genius level" (p. 14). By evaluating her experiences in a multi-cultural ambience in which the attributes of particular ethnic groups were treated as fixed and "real," she had concluded that "Italian-Americans did not value girls and especially girls who were good at the kinds of things I liked -- reading, thinking, and writing" (p. 25). Eventually, she says, "I recognized destiny: the Jewish man was a passport out of Bensonhurst. When I married, I of course did marry a Jewish man, who gave me my freedom, and very important, helped remove me from the expectations of Bensonhurst" (p. 15). A person who could be categorized as a Jewish man, of course, embodied identifying attributes that, as everyone "knows," differ from those of an Italian-American man.

This removal from Bensonhurst, however, plunged her into the expectations of a segment of the surrounding population who were regarded as members of the dominant culture. While in Williamstown, she and her husband experienced the deep tragedy of the death of their three-month-old child, who succumbed following major surgery to correct a birth defect. Perhaps the ritual reaction to tragedy practiced in Italian-American communities, so thoroughly described by Orsi (1985), had appeared primitive and naive to someone bent on escaping Bensonhurst. But: "the college town can be a difficult place to have misfortune or to be unhappy. As if in a grand Calvinist scheme, good fortune seems to confirm merit; bad fortune seems to suggest something else, from which people avert their eyes, politely" (p. 64). After the infant's death, the Torgovnicks received few social invitations until after the birth of a second child.

Torgovnick understood fully that the members of The College's community -- the keepers and purveyors of the locally esteemed cultural perspectives -- had marginalized her and several other members of non-dominant cultural groups. When she asked someone about why she and several other persons regarded as members of non-dominant ethnic groups were often mistakenly identified for each other, she was informed that each of the women were of darker coloring and were "exotic" looking -- features which readily allowed their categorization as members of outgroups. When she applied for tenure she did so knowing that "the College went out of its way to make it clear who would fit and who would not" (pp. 68-9), and that, "For some there was an almost systematic 'Other-izing" that was at least partly ethnic" (p. 69). Having been granted a prestigious fellowship mollified her reaction when she was informed of the decision about her tenure application. She departed from The College. Her resolution of the situation: Once again, escape!!

From Torgovnick's perspective, she could conclude that the ambience of The College exuded "entitlement, and complacency, insularity, and aversion to rocking the boat" (p. 62). This construction of the atmosphere of The College sounds much like the construction she had placed on Bensonhurst -- cohesiveness, provinciality, prejudice, and racism. The College's prejudiced community, in contrast to the Bensonhurst community, had the power to couple its rejection of Torgovnick with impediments to her academic career. To her good fortune, Torgovnick had developed the kinds of skills, knowledge, and academic respectability to once again allow "escape" from a prejudiced community.

Torgovnick's book now appears on many reading lists in courses and seminars devoted to explorations of the workings of multicultural societies. Assume that Carmine and Carmella enroll in one of those courses and read these collected essays. What will they learn about how a person might shape his/her self presentations when he/she detects that he/she is being regarded as a member of an "exotic" ethnic group by a member of the most esteemed cultural (ethnic) group in a community like Williamstown? They can learn, of course, that one should develop credibility in his/her career community; devise a way to escape from the necessity of interacting with persons who readily categorize self and others into "inferior" and "superior" ethnic groups; and then go on to write articles describing the assumedly negative aspects of benighted categorizors. By following this course of action, people in ethnic enclaves such as Bensonhurst and Williamstown might be shamed into agreeing with the sophisticated writer's negative evaluation of their orientations, so that the next set of Carmines and Carmellas will enter a world more conducive to relieving the strains of culture contact!!

By reading all the essays in Torgovnick's book, they also might learn that the category systems used by the dominant group to classify Italian-Americans deserve to survive! Torgovnick's testimony and strong negative valuing of the Italian-American domus might lend special credibility to those category systems! She did, after all, tell of her suffering through the consequences of the conduct of the members of community of her youth! She, nevertheless, bravely crossed Ocean Parkway and ultimately did earn a professorship on the faculty of one of the most prestigious universities of in the country. Why question the authenticity of Torgovnick's descriptions the attributes that can be assigned to members of the Italian-American community (e. g., disdain of intellectual women, violent raging, etc.)? Those descriptions, after all, confirm the category systems that guided the people of The College who had marginalized her -- an Italian-American daughter. Why shouldn't Carmella conclude, after reading Torgovnick's essays, that her parents deserve shame as much as do the people of The College's community -- that her parents also should suffer the opprobrium owed to a well-earned reputation that had been assigned through careful observation of their identifying features?

Perhaps, on the other hand, the course instructor who recommends Torgovnick's book also would arrange experiences which would prompt the students to discover an alternative formula. Carmella and Carmine surely should be able to develop an understanding of the basis of the reactions of those with whom they share the stage. Perhaps, among other achievements, they could develop a perspective which would encourage them to exercise a measured appreciation of, rather than a shame of their forebears. Perhaps they would learn to override simplistic categorization processes and to present that appreciation to their dialogue partners as they formulate their personal roles. Perhaps their instructor will replicate the learning environment that was created by the teachers of Angelo Pellegrini -- another essayist who originated in an Italian-American family.

Pellegrini (1986) reports that by the time he had completed high school, he had discovered the rich heritage which had been the source of Italian-American immigrant culture. When he developed the literary skills to do so, he wrote convincing texts to demonstrate the high value of working class Italian immigrant culture to the dominant culture by which he was surrounded. Moreover, he went on to explore and to appreciate the full, rich foundation of the cultural context enjoyed by even the unschooled contadini who left Italy to populate the Bensonhursts and North Adamses of The United States. As he built his outstanding career as a professor of English at The University of Washington, he could bring to his lectures and writings his extensive knowledge of Italian luminaries like Bocaccio, Poliziano, Croce, and Pirandello. In sum, he asked the surrounding dominant culture to accommodate their perspectives so that they assimilate some of the values of his cultural group. Ultimately, his earthy, yet ideologically grounded, essays and lectures, filled with instructions of how to enjoy the day-to-day pleasures savored by Italian peasants transplanted to a bountiful land, helped to turn the city of Seattle into a cosmopolitan and consciously inclusive community.

The last essay in Torgovnick's book suggests that she will go on to produce texts that will contain insights such as those which have informed Pellegrini's writings. In that essay, Torgovnick describes her reactions to attending her father's funeral in Bensonhurst. There she found "there was something else taking shape as I contrasted the neighborhood's reaction to my father's illness with the college town where I had last experienced grief: there was no embarrassment here, no shunning. Some of the aloofness and reserve I had cultivated towards the neighbors began to change. I was grateful for their help, willing to listen politely to their stories in exchange, giving the ritual kisses and hugs sincerely" (p. 168). Having reported that reconstruction of the commonly held perspectives of members of the community in which she was reared and of her role definitions she could confess that, "All my life I have defined myself by rebellion against Bensonhurst. But the grounds for rebellion are running out" (p. 174).

David Simpatico. Another literary work affecting the cross-culture contacts in the Berkshire area -- a play, written by David Simpatico, that bears the ugly title MACS (A Macaroni Requiem) -- had its premier presentation at The Williamstown Theatre Festival. If Carmine and Carmella had journeyed over Massachusetts Route 2 to join the characteristically upscale Festival audience, they would have seen the portrayal of a family of barely-literate, inconsiderate, and slovenly semi-barbarians who consistently uttered streams of obscene words within the 60-100 decibel range.

The plot of the play reveals the influence of Edward Albee's Who's afraid of Virginia Wolfe and Albert Innaurato's Gemini. Simpatico sets the action within the frame of an extended family that has gathered to partake of Simpatico's distinctly personal version of a traditional Italian-American Sunday dinner. (The Theatre actually reeked of over-cooked garlic!!) Like Albee's play, Simpatico's piece dramatizes a mysterious death in the family. It takes off on the theme of the father being in total denial about the death of one son, who was killed during a set of circumstances that had been stupidly orchestrated by Tonsi, another son, whom Simpatico portrayed as a total oaf. The lines which Simpatico has written for Dominic, the sensitive son [like the sensitive son in Gemini?], prepare the audience to expect that he will bring the father out of his denial, so that the rest of the family may proceed to grieve. The construction of grieving which is reflected in the dialogues in this play, while couched in contemporary jargon, are based on constructions which were familiar to Paul of Tarsus when he studied Plato 2000 years ago. Nevertheless, as Simpatico tries to advise the audience of Dominic's superiority to the semi-barbarians with whom he shares the domicile, he gives him speeches which embody a series of the current platitudes about grief and grieving. Dominic pronounces the conventional wisdom which follows from construing grief as a dynamic, fluid entity that is accumulated as a natural reaction to particular events, e. g., a death in the family. The father, named Tony (of course!), must be brought to recognize and to admit his grief state before he can spill out this "emotional" substance. Tony must eschew denial, Dominic plaintively tells his mother, so that the family can properly grieve and then proceed with their lives.

After a rigmarole of contrived family interaction that plays out this psychobabble, the father is brought to admit the son's death. The family ostensibly, intensely, and properly grieves! Life and Loving, the audience may believe, will resume. However, the ensuing dialogue offers little sign that the family members will address each other more courteously.

If Carmine and Carmella would have remained in the audience following the premier production to hear the discussion between the playwright and the devotees of The Festival, they would have heard Simpatico aver that his own family had been the model for the family that he had portrayed. They would have heard many members of the audience complimenting Simpatico for his own sensitivity, as reflected in his "masterful" representation of this "typical" Italian-American family. Carmine and Carmella also would have heard Simpatico jocularly dismiss members of the audience who protested that their own lifetime experiences with thousands of Italian-American families had never brought them into contact with a family that behaved as crudely and inconsiderately as did the family portrayed in MACS.

Perhaps Carmine and Carmella would have wondered why the author had determined to use an Italian-American family as the vehicle for presenting his fatuous perspectives on grief and grieving. Some cogitation might have led Carmine and Carmella to conclude that David Simpatico had aimed his play at all the prejudicial expectations and stereotypes which the Williamstown audience would bring to the theater as they tried to categorize members of the Italian-American ethnic group. A play about emotionality in a Swedish-American family, for example, just wouldn't do! No one attributes volatile emotionality to persons who could be categorized as members of the Swedish-American ethnic group. It would be impossible to lure a Williamstown Theatre audience into believing that members of the Swedish-American ethnic group would scream at and demean each other; gather for traditional Sunday dinners featuring parodies of pasta that reeks of garlic (as did the stage pasta), and volubly reflect their emotional status in their interactions. Above all, by tapping into their category system, Simpatico could lead most of the audience to believe that a sensitive son -- particularly if that son paints pictures and makes passes at the sister's fiancé -- would incur the wrath and disdain of his Italian-American father.

Perhaps someone would suggest to Carmine and Carmella that David Simpatico had learned to regard his family as shameful. Carmine and Carmella also might be able to conclude, from reading Mr. Simpatico's biography in the playbill, that the playwright has disconnected from some of the central values of the domus. Just as another writer would allow inferences about his commitments to the values of the domus by announcing that he is married and the father of three teen-aged children, Simpatico allows the readers of his biography to infer commitments that would be negatively valued in the Italian-American domus. The biography in the playbill, for example, tells us that "David lives with his lover, best friend and editor-in-chief, Robert Strickstein." Such information forewarns those in audience who also are members of the domus that Simpatico and his play's sensitive artist are unlikely to live out some of the core values of the domus: heterosexual monogamy and the creation of children who carry on the names of grandparents. It is easy to conclude that like the sensitive son-as-protagonist in the play, David Simpatico is the sensitive antagonist to the Italian-American domus represented in the stereotypic images presented to The Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Carmine might gain further understanding of the nature of such culture confrontations were he to inquire about the decisions to stage Simpatico's script. Interviews with persons associated with The Williamstown Theatre Festival indicate that no Italian-Americans, other than Simpatico, provided input about how Italian-Americans might react to the play. One prominent North Adams Italian-American woman, who has been closely associated with The Festival and with the nearby Clark Institute of Art, indicated that no one had approached her to request her assessment of Simpatico's drama. She stated that the family in the play did not represent, in any way, families with whom she has been acquainted. There are no Italian-Americans on the board of The Festival. When asked why this is the case, the informant responded that there would be little reason to assure such representation. That informant indicated, however, that the board considered it important to have an Afro-American on the panel, in order to satisfy funding agencies. Who made the decision to choose this play for staging? The person who ultimately directed the staging had been a friend of both Simpatico and a previous producer of The Festival. The Festival's staff made the production decision on "artistic grounds."

Unlike Torgovnick, Simpatico gives no indication that he will ever choose to contribute to a measured appreciation for Italian-American culture. After seeing MACS one would consider it safe to predict that he will continue to cry out the deficiencies of the Italian-American domus by affirming the validity of the stereotypic representations which have been used repeatedly to convince the offspring of Italian-American immigrants to look upon their forebears as shameful. As such, his work can do little to diminish the strains which Carmine and Carmella will experience when they venture out of their North Adams community to interact with the practicioners of "rustic chic" who inhabit the Berkshire communities.

Who Determines which Images of
Italian-American shall be Presented.

In the end, those concerned about the kinds of images which youth like Carmine and Carmella can access as they interact with people who categorize their selves and others as members of ethnic groups. What images can such venturers access as they attempt to build identities that conform to their constructions of the ethnic group into which they might be classified? Like other venturers who seek to establish their identity in a multicultural environment they have good reason to raise and seek answers to more universal questions. Who decides which images are recorded and given wide distribution? Which attributes shall be sorted out as the attributes which are to be used to place a person into a particular ethnic group category? To what extent do those involved with the production and criticism of image-setting literary works assess their quality by comparing them to the stereotypic constructions of the ethnic group being portrayed. Did the publishers of Torgovnick's book, for example, seek editorial comment from scholars who have earned their scholarly status while maintaining a balanced view of the Italian-American domus? Did the producers of Simpatico's drama consult with members of the North Adam's Italian-American community to solicit their reaction to the portrayal of the dysfunctional family shown on Williamstown Theatre Festival's Other Stage? Did the board of directors of The Festival search out the professional level members of the Berkshire area to find Italian-Americans who would serve as members of the board of directors of The Festival? Were they satisfied that Simpatico's work was "authentic" because the characters portrayed could easily be fitted into their category member of the Italian-American ethnic group.

Before his untimely death, A. (Angelo) Bartlett Giamatti wrote, "Without a tradition, millennia long, of a culture whose apogee was a scholar/official class and whose base was a unifying, written language, like the Chinese; without a history of dispersion whose agonies were solved by an ancient sacred language and by religious texts and commentaries, like the Jews, the mass of Italian immigrants respected education but had little of it; they knew work and trusted it" (Giamatti, 1986, p. 23). Assuming these observations to be valid, one readily understands the general inaccessibility of Italian-American writings which have offered a balanced view of the great Italy-to-The-United-States Avventura. That inaccessibility is particularly apparent as one attempts to search out literary works which might be regarded as artistic, rather than expository. That contemporary writers of the stature of Frank Lentricchia, George Cuomo, Marianna Torgovnick, and Fred Gardaphé undertake to lay out such representations, over one hundred years after the first waves of the Avventurieri arrived, reveals the character of the Italian-American commitment to producing and supporting such works. One must conclude that the need for such work survives. Fortunately, vigorous Italian-Americans have engaged the task of assuring that the control of the flow of such work allows a fair portrayal of their dignified, diligent, and challenged forebears. Carmine and Carmella, one can hope, will have the opportunity to study balanced characterizations as they work toward developing their identities relative to their ethnic backgrounds.

Bill Tonelli (1994) might find a bright side to the loss of an Italian-American identity among other Americans who bear his surname. "And if there's a trade-off, it's our job to accept it like adults -- if we have to live with a little anomie, a little alienation, a little isolation, loneliness, existential anxiety, rootlessness, then fine" (p. 254). Future aliens, including those aliens who constantly emerge within existing cultures, might take comfort from accepting Tonelli's upbeat claim that a general positive state has resulted from this mass Italian-American effort to show that they can assimilate the perspectives of the dominant culture of The USA. They might be seduced into endorsing Tonelli's hope that when ethnic differences fade away "the world will get some peace and quiet" (p. 254). This hope, of course, depends, in good part, on how easily people can be convinced that someone can find a way to demonstrate the absolute truths of particular perspectives - how willingly "aliens" will accept the validity of such truth claims. The truly amazing part of the story of the descendants of the Italian immigrants has been the peacefulness with which they have accepted the demands that they assimilate the broader culture of The USA. An understanding of that amazing history requires an understanding of the personal stories of pain that might have festered as George Cuomo worked his way toward writing Trial by water; and which lay behind the blatant pleas for validation which infuse the writings of Marianna De Marco Torgovnick and David Simpatico. Further, we need to develop an understanding of how the imagery produced by these writers might have influenced Carmine and Carmella to adopt self role definitions that would allow them to convince others that they should not be categorized as a member of the Italian-American ethnic group.


Acton, Harold (1956). The Bourbons of Naples (1734-1825), London: Methuen.

Banfield, E. C. (1958). The moral basis of a backward society. New York: Free Press.

Covello, Leonard (with Guido D'Agostino) (1958). The heart is the teacher. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Cubberley, Ellwood P. (1913). Changing conceptions of education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Cuomo, George (1983). Family Honor. New York: Doubleday.

Cuomo, George (1993). Trial by water. New York: Random House

Di Donato, P. (1939). Christ in concrete. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Giamatti, A. Bartlett (1987). Commentary. In A. Shoener (Editor), The Italian Americans. New York: Macmillan.

Orsi, Robert A. (1986). The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Parker, Robert B. (1190). Stardust. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.

Puzo, Mario (1969). The Godfather. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.

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

Simpatico, David (1996) MACS: A macaroni requiem. Williamstown, MA: A play produced on the Williamstown Theatre Festival's Other Stage.

Stonequist, E. V. (1937). The marginal man: A study in personality and culture conflict. New York: Russell & Russell.

Talese, Gay (1971). Honor thy father. New York: Nelson, Foster, & Scott.

Talese, Gay (1992). Unto the Sons. New York: Knopf.

Tonelli, Bill (1994 ). The amazing story of the Tonelli family in America. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

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.


       Anyone interested in obtaining a printed copy of this essay may change the print size by going to the view menu, and then instructing the program to print the text. It would be advisable to set the printer to print in black ink.  

. 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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