English 342:  Italian American Literature

Professor Joseph Conte

Fall 2005

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One cannot examine the nature of Italian American literature and culture without first taking stock of its culture-of-origin.  Like my grandfather’s native town in Sicily, Randazzo, that culture has been accumulating its hoard of artifacts and steeping in its distinctive characteristics for 2500 years—give or take a century—and its contributions have been enormous.  Italian culture has donated to the Western tradition among its most noted works of art and architecture (Brunelleschi, Michelangelo); literature (Dante, Eco); politics (Augustus, Machiavelli); music (Verdi, Respighi); science (Volta, Fermi); film (Rossellini, Fellini); design (Ferrari, la moda Italiana); and, of course, copious food.  But what becomes of such a rich patrimony when it emigrates to a land founded on much cooler, restrained, northern Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture?  How does it fare when transplanted to the North American climate?  Does the disparity between the wealthier, urbanized north of Italy and the poorer, agrarian countryside of the south, from which the preponderance of immigrants to the United States came, beginning in the late nineteenth century, account for differences between an Italian and an Italian American culture?  To what degree have the characteristics of Italian American culture become assimilated into that of the United States?  Do we even think of “Italian American” as an ethnicity any longer?

In order to examine the emigration of Italian culture to these shores, we should first examine one or two classics of modern Italian literature, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, which not only charts Sicily’s transition from aristocratic province to democratic nation but also provides in Don Fabrizio the model of all dons to come.  Leonardo Sciascia, in his political novellas, Sicilian Uncles, explores the bravado and the stubbornness of men who meet the suffering visited upon them by the Allied invasion of Sicily with sardonic wit and the conviction that, after previous invasions by Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Spanish and French Bourbons, the Nazi occupiers and American liberators will also pass into history.

We then will turn to fictional and autobiographical accounts of Italian immigrant culture, including excerpts from Gay Talese’s Unto the Sons, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s Italian Days, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete.  Jerre Mangione treats life in an ethnic enclave in Mount Allegro, set in his native Rochester, NY, where, in order to dispel the association of Sicilians with knife-wielding “dagos,” he declines to join to the pocket-knife carrying Boy Scouts of America.  Following the fatal attraction of Americans to the mystique of organized crime, we’ll examine the deliberate misconstructions of Italian American culture by correlating the famous Indian actor, Iron Eyes Cody (the son of Sicilian emigrants to New Orleans whose real name was Oscar DeCorti), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part I, and the Columbus Day episode of The Sopranos.  Finally, we’ll read three postmodern fictions by Italian American writers who consider all cultural aspects to be artful constructions, including those they’ve inherited:  Carole Maso’s Ghost Dance, Gilbert Sorrentino’s Little Casino, and excerpts from Don DeLillo’s Underworld.

Course requirements include two intermediate length papers and a final research paper that will integrate historical, cultural and critical sources.

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Last revised on Monday, March 28, 2005
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5 Joseph M. Conte.  All Rights Reserved.