The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Monday, April 15, 2002  


There is a thoughtful essay in today's Christian Science Monitor about the enduring stereotype of Italian-Americans as moronic, criminal thugs.

Fred Misurella, a professor at East Stroudsburg University, tells of a friend who wrote a novel about working-class Italian-Americans. An editor in New York loved the book but lamented that it lacked sufficient "Blood and guts." The book was published instead as a series of essays in small literary magazines.

"Editors," writes Misurella, "influenced by Hollywood, popular taste, or their own bias, expect goons in action in Italian-American stories. The writer with a thoughtful, literary turn of mind is unlikely to find a sympathetic audience among them."

The phenomenon is nothing new, Misurella points out: "Early modernist writers, from Henry James and E.M. Forster through Arthur Miller, portray Italians and Italian-Americans as violent, primitive, and, if educated, devious. For these writers Italians and Italian-Americans represent animal vitality, but they are clearly shown as brutal, morally stunted, or pathetic remnants of a fallen civilization."

And it continues: "In TV shows, advertisements, children's cartoons, and even some university programs emphasizing cultural diversity, that bias persists despite the Italian-American intellectual foundation on the grandeur of Dante, the stateliness of Virgil, the experimentation of Pirandello, and the metaphysical complexity of Petrarch and the Troubadours. Italian-Americans are consistently portrayed as either loud or stupidly laconic. Yet their life has evolved from a thoughtful, realistic literary tradition whose strength (Boccaccio, Primo Levi, and Italo Calvino) derives from humor and intellectual analysis."

Important works by Italian-American authors are unknown, ignored. "Why have they been overlooked?" Misurella asks. We think he has it just about right when he answers, "Not because of bias against them as Italian-Americans, but because of blindness to the literary and commercial value of Italian-American subject matter that doesn't feature violence."

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