Truth behind the fiction of Italian-Americans

A few years ago, a friend submitted a novel about working-class Italian-Americans to a New York publisher and found an Italian-American editor there who loved it.

But alas, the novel, though very good, was never published. Not "enough blood and guts," a more senior editor said.

After no other house accepted the book, my friend broke it into stories and published them in literary magazines.

I tell this story because it relates to a major problem facing Italian-American writers. Editors, 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.

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.

In the end, Edward Gibbon's 18th-century classic "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," which reveals great love for empire but disdain for the multicultured Italy of its day, may be a more fundamental part of American bias against Italians and Italian-Americans than "Scarface," "The Godfather," or "The Sopranos." Call this the trickle-down effect of social prejudice in literature and entertainment.

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.

Italian-American writers have continued that powerful tradition, at times with Italian-American subjects, at others with purely American themes, as with Don Delillo and Richard Russo, whose novel "Empire Falls," evoking Gibbon but not Italy, won this year's Pulitzer Prize in literature, the first for an Italian-American.

While most readers have heard of Mr. Delillo and Mr. Russo, few will know Helen Barolini, the dean of Italian-American writers, whose "Umbertina," a novel, "Chiaroscuro," a book of essays, and "More Italian Hours," a recent collection of stories, form a triptych of Italian-American culture evolving through the 20th century.

Writers on Italian-American themes are important, too. Joseph Papaleo has published two novels and a story collection. Daniela Gioseffi, a visionary poet with a voice unlike any writer since Dylan Thomas, is also a novelist, story writer, and anthologist. Robert Viscusi's Canadian-published novel "Astoria" won an American Book Award in 1996.

Why have they been overlooked? 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.

In "More Italian Hours and Other Stories" Helen Barolini has gathered 15 elegant stories about Italians and Italian-Americans balancing on the delicate wire connecting their two worlds. Without sweat or the gunshots my friend's editor hankered for, Ms. Barolini portrays a class of professionals who earn a living with their minds rather than their backs, recognizing their commitment to the future while thinking of themselves as one with grandparents who escaped poverty.

Such illumination fills Barolini's writing and that of other Italian-American writers who mine their ethnic past. They substitute insight for physical action, illustrating Henry James's comment in "The Art of Fiction": "Try to be one of the people upon whom nothing is lost" – advice from a master that the New York editor and other readers ought to heed.

• Fred Misurella teaches writing and literature at East Stroudsburg University.

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