A large and growing number of Italian American authors have had success in getting their works published in America. Some of the authors who have written about the Italian American experience are Pietro Di Donato, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Dana Gioia (Executive Director of the National Endowment for the Arts), John Fusco (author of Paradise Salvage) and Daniela Gioseffi (winner of the John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry and The American Book Award).
Poets Sandra (Mortola) Gilbert and Kim Addonizio and Helen Barolini, editor of The Dream Book, a collection of Italian American women’s writings were award winners from Italian Americana (a semi-annual historical and cultural journal devoted to the Italian experience in America). These women have authored many books depicting Italian American women in a new light. Helen Barolini’s work was the first anthology to pay special attention to the interaction of Italian American women with American social activism. Common themes included conflicts between the Italian American and the mainstream American culture and traditional immigrant parents with their American-assimilated children.
Mary Jo Bona (Professor of Italian American Studies & English at Stony Brook University is the author of Claiming A Tradition: Italian American Women Writers, was interested in showing how authors portrayed the many configurations of family relationships: from the early immigrant narratives of the journey to America, through novels that depicted intergenerational conflicts to contemporary works about the struggle of Italian American women to live in nontraditional gender roles.
A growing number of books about the Italian American experience are published each year. Well known authors, such as Don DeLillo, Giannina Braschi, Gilbert Sorrentino, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gay Talese, John Fante, Tina DeRosa, Daniela Gioseffi, Kim Addonizio and Dana Gioia, have broken into mainstream American literature and publishing. Dana Gioia was Poetry Editor of Italian Americana from 1993 to 2003. He initiated an educational series in which featured poets talked about their work. Poet, Michael Palma, continues Dana Gioia’s work, today.
Italian Americans have written not only about the Italian American experience but, also, about the human experience. Mario Puzo’s first novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, was an inspirational account of the immigrant experience, which was widely reviewed as being well written, moving and poetic. The Right Thing to Do, by Josephine Gattuso Hendin, is an elevating novel about an Italian American family and their experiences in a new culture. Contemporary best-selling fiction writers include David Baldacci, Kate DiCamillo, Adriana Trigiani and Lisa Scottoline.
Helen Barolini’s fiction and nonfiction work has created a bridge between the United States, her home, and Italy, her ancestral land. Awarded a writing grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for her first novel, Umbertina, Barolini is also the author of twelve books and many short stories and essays that have been cited in annual editions of Best American Essays. She has received the American Book Award; has been a Resident Fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Lake Como; a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome; an invited writer at Yaddo and the MacDowell colony and a writer in residence at the Mark Twain Quarry Center of Elmira College. Three of her books have appeared in translation in Italy, where she has lectured as an invited American author.
Helen’s maternal grandfather, Angelo Cardamone and his wife, Nicoletta, immigrated from Calabria, Italy to Utica, NY in 1880. Helen Barolini was born and raised in Syracuse, NY and attended local schools. She attended Wells College, graduated magna cum laude from Syracuse University and received a Master’s degree from Columbia University. She was an exchange student at the University of London, where she studied contemporary English literature and then traveled in Europe, writing “Letters from Abroad” for the Syracuse Herald Journal.
Given the intercultural themes of her work linking her American birth and education with her ancestral Italy, Helen Barolini’s writings have been the subject of many student theses both here and abroad. Crossing the Alps, a novel, is Barolini’s newest work. It is a coming of age novel set in post World War II Italy. The Italian edition received praise for its authentic background.
John Ciardi, poet and scholar, did the only English translation of Dante’s, Divine Comedy, that reproduced the Italian poet’s complex rhyme scheme. Ciardi was also a poet in his own right, who authored 60 books, taught at Harvard and Rutgers, hosted a weekly radio commentary on National Public Radio in the 1980’s and was the only American poet to have his own television program (“Accent,” CBS, 1961).
Ciardi was born in Boston’s Little Italy to immigrant parents from Naples, Italy. After the death of his father from an automobile accident in 1919, he was raised by his mother and his three older sisters, all of whom scrimped and saved until they had enough money to send him to college. In 1921, two years after his father’s death, the family moved to Medford, Massachusetts, where the Ciardi peddled vegetables to the neighbors and attended public school. Ciardi began his higher educational studies at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, but transferred to Tufts University in Boston, where he studied under the poet John Holmes. He received his degree in 1938 and won a scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he obtained his master’s degree the next year and won the first of many awards for his poetry: the prestigious, Hopwood Award in poetry.
Ciardi published his first book of poems, Homeward to America, in 1940, before the war and his next book, Other Skies, focusing on his wartime experiences, was published in 1947. His third book, Live Another Day, came out in 1949. In 1950, Ciardi edited a poetry collection, Mid-Century American Poets, which identified the best poets of his generation.
In 1953, Ciardi joined the English Department at Rutgers University, in order to begin a writing program, but after eight successful years there, he resigned his professorship in 1961 in favor of several other more lucrative careers and to “devote himself full time to literary pursuits”. (When he left Rutgers, he famously quipped that teaching was “planned poverty.”) He was popular enough and interesting enough to warrant a pair of appearances in the early 1960s on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He was the poetry editor of Saturday Review from 1956 to 1972 and wrote the 1959 poetry textbook, How Does A Poem Mean. Ciardi was a “fellow of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences and was a member and former president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He died on Easter Sunday in 1986 of a heart attack.
Don DeLillo, an important contemporary American novelist, wrote Americana, Great Jones Street, White Noise, Libra and Underworld. DeLillo was born on November 20, 1936 and grew up in a working-class Italian Catholic family from Molise, Italy in an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx. Reflecting on his childhood, DeLillo described how he was “…always out in the street. As a little boy I whiled away most of my time pretending to be a baseball announcer on the radio. There were eleven of us in a small house, but the close quarters were never a problem. I didn’t know things any other way. We always spoke English and Italian all mixed up together. My grandmother, who lived in America for fifty years, never learned English.”
DeLillo has described his fiction as being concerned with “living in dangerous times”. In a 2005 interview he declared, “Writers must oppose systems. It’s important to write against power, corporations, the state and the whole system of consumption and of debilitating entertainments. I think writers, by nature, must oppose things, oppose whatever power tries to impose on us.” DeLillo is currently at work on a new novel, his sixteenth, where the main character spends a lot of time watching file footage on a widescreen of images of a disaster. He currently lives near New York City in the suburb of Bronxville.
Pietro di Donato
Pietro di Donato, the son of an Italian immigrant and himself a bricklayer, captured the life and death of his father, who was foreman of a construction crew of Italian immigrants, in his first novel, Christ in Concrete (1939). Di Donato was born April 3, 1911 in West Hoboken, New Jersey (now Union City) to Geremio, a bricklayer, and Annunziata Chinquina. Pietro had seven other siblings. His parents had emigrated from the town of Vasto, in the region of Abruzzo in Italy.
On March 30, 1923, Geremio di Donato died when a building collapsed on him, burying him in concrete. Pietro, who was twelve at the time, left school in the seventh grade to become a construction worker in order to help support his family. His father’s death and his life growing up as an immigrant in West Hoboken were the inspiration for his writings. Though he had little formal education, during a strike, he wandered into a library and discovered French and Russian novels, becoming particularly fond of Émile Zola.
In 1958 di Donato wrote his second novel, a sequel to Christ in Concrete called, This Woman. It continued the story of di Donato’s life following his father’s death. In 1960 a third book in the same tradition called, Three Circles of Light, focused on di Donato’s childhood in the years prior to his father’s death. That same year, di Donato published, The Immigrant Saint: The Life of Mother Cabrini, a fictionalized account of Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first United States citizen canonized. The following year di Donato published, The Penitent, an account of contrition and spiritual rebirth of the man who killed the twelve-year-old Maria Goretti. In 1978 his article on the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro (president of the Christian Democratic Party of Italy), titled “Christ in Plastic”, appeared in Penthouse Magazine and won the Overseas Press Club award. Di Donato later adapted the article into a play, entitled Moro. Di Donato died of bone cancer on January 19, 1992 in Stony Brook, Long Island, with his last unfinished novel, Gospels, unpublished.
Barbara Grizzuti-Harrison, one of the most well-known contemporary writers, is the author of Italian Days, considered a masterpiece of travel writing, thanks to her acute powers of observation and broad cultural knowledge. She has also written The Islands of Italy, A History and a Memory of Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Astonishing World. Barbara Grizzuti was born in Queens, New York City, on September 14, 1934. Her parents were first-generation Americans and her grandparents were immigrants from Calabria in southern Italy. She later described her childhood as deeply troubled and the turmoil of her childhood would have a strong influence on her writing.
When Harrison was 9, she and her mother became Jehovah’s Witnesses. Harrison’s father and brother did not convert and this caused a rift in the household. As a teenager at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, Harrison fell in love with Arnold Horowitz, an English teacher who was among the first to encourage her writing talent. He apparently returned her feelings and although their relationship remained platonic, they continued to see each other and to correspond until Horowitz’s death in the late 1960s. After graduating from high school, Harrison, who had been forbidden to attend a university, went to live and work at the Watchtower headquarters. However, her friendship with Horowitz scandalised her colleagues and she was asked to leave. The relationship was but one symptom of a growing conflict between Harrison’s faith and her artistic sensibilities, which eventually led to a nervous breakdown.
Harrison became involved with the women’s movement and wrote about feminist themes for various publications. Her first book, Unlearning the Lie: Sexism in School, was published in 1969. Harrison was one of the first contributors to Ms. Magazine. Harrison wrote for many of the leading periodicals of her time, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, The Village Voice, The Nation, Ladies’ Home Journal and Mother Jones Magazine. Among the people she interviewed were Red Barber, Mario Cuomo, Jane Fonda, Gore Vidal, Joan Didion, Francis Ford Coppola, Nadia Comăneci, Alessandra Mussolini and Barbara Bush. Because of her background, Harrison was often asked to write about movements that were perceived to be cults; she described families affected by the Unification Church and the Northeast Kingdom Community Church and reported on the U.S. government’s deadly standoff with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas.
In 1994 Harrison, who had been a heavy smoker for most of her adult life, was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She died on April 24, 2002 in a hospice in Manhattan.
Jerre Mangione (1909-1998) was one of the most celebrated early Italian American writers. His first book, Mount Allegro, (1943) and, later, An Ethnic At Large (1978), explored the evolution of Mangione’s identity from a child of Sicilian immigrants to an American. His last book, La Storia, which he co-authored with Ben Morreale, is a monumental five-century social history of the Italians in America.
Mount Allegro was Mr. Mangione’s first book and its sympathetic portrait of his family and neighbors have made it a classic of ethnic American literature and a must read for anyone interested in the experience of Sicilian immigrants. Mr. Mangione, professor emeritus of American literature at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote 10 more books after Mount Allegro was published in 1943. Most of them dealt in some way with Sicily, Sicilians or the Italian American experience – the experience he lived as a child.
Jerre (Gerlando) Mangione was born in Rochester in 1909, the first of six children born to parents, who emigrated from Sicily at the turn of the century. He grew up in the section of the city now known as Mount Allegro, the fictionalized name he gave the place in his book. His mother, Josephine, had dreams for her children, but they were musical rather than literary. Those dreams were realized through jazz musicians, Chuck and Gap Mangione, the sons of Mr. Mangione’s brother, Frank. But the dreams were nightmares for the young Jerre, who failed at the piano, violin and guitar before his mother finally understood that music was not his forte.
Said to have been a sickly and lonely child, Mr. Mangione spent much of his youth reading – generally on the sly because his mother believed too much reading caused insanity. “The boy would rather read than eat,” she said of him. His favorite book in those years was the dictionary, he once said. He depended on it because his parents, doing their best to preserve their Sicilian heritage, insisted that he and his siblings speak only Italian at home.
Though he was prolific, Mr. Mangione found that getting words down on paper was painful. He said he often found himself doing other chores to avoid his daily 9:30 a.m to 1 p.m. date with the typewriter. “In an effort to avoid writing, one can accomplish almost anything,” he said in an interview. Mr. Mangione, who once said he considered himself an observer of life, rather than a participant, enjoyed consistent success as a novelist and social historian. He won several national fellowships to pursue his writing. The New York Times and other national publications regularly gave his books glowing reviews and his book about the Federal Writers Project was nominated for a National Book Award. Mangione died on August 16, 1998 in Haverford, PA.
Gay Talese (b.1932) is known for his daring pursuit of “unreportable” stories, for his exhaustive research, and for his formally elegant style. He is a prolific writer and one of the founders of the 1960’s style of writing called, “New Journalism,” which incorporates fictional elements (dialogue, scene description and shifting points of view) into news writing. Talese was a reporter for The New York Times between 1956 and 1965, writing about sports and politics. Among his many best-sellers is The Kingdom and the Power, the story of crime boss Joe Bonanno and his son, Bill; Thy Neighbor’s Wife, which examines America’s changing sexual mores and Unto the Sons, an autobiographical book about his Italian heritage.
Gay Talese was born into an Italian-American family in Ocean City, New Jersey, located just south of Atlantic City. His father, Joseph Talese, was a tailor who had immigrated to the United States in 1922 from Maida, a town in the province of Catanzaro in southern Italy. His mother, the former Catherine DePaolo, was a buyer for a Brooklyn department store.
Talese was rejected by dozens of colleges in New Jersey and nearby states but, eventually, he was accepted at the University of Alabama. His selection of a major was, as he described it, “I chose journalism as my college major because that is what I knew,” he recalls, “but I really became a student of history”. It was here that he would begin to employ literary devices more well known in fiction, like establishing the “scene” with minute details in his writing. In his junior year he became the sports editor for the campus newspaper, Crimson-White, and started a column, he dubbed “Sports Gay-zing”.
He later wrote,”Sports is about people who lose and lose and lose. They lose games and then they lose their jobs. It can be very intriguing.” Of the various sports, boxing held the most appeal for Talese, largely because it was about individuals engaged in contests and those individuals were predominately non-whites. He wrote 38 articles about Floyd Patterson alone. Talese’s celebrated Esquire piece about Joe DiMaggio, “The Silent Season of a Hero” – in part a meditation on the transient nature of fame – appeared in 1966. The Library of America selected Talese’s 1970 account of the Charles Manson murders, “Charlie Manson’s Home on the Range”, for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American True Crime. In 2011 he received the Norman Mailer Prize for Distinguished Journalism.
Frances Winwar (1900-1985) a novelist, biographer and translator, was born Francesca Vinciguerra in Taormina, Sicily, the daughter of Domenico Vinciguerra, a singer, and Giovanna Sciglio. Her family arrived in the United States in 1907 and she grew up in New York City. She attended local public schools and studied at Hunter College and Columbia University but never earned a degree. Quickly mastering English and French while retaining complete fluency in Italian, she showed an early taste for literature and began to publish poetry. A literary essay on Giovanni Verga that she published in Freeman in 1923, brought her a job with the New York World as a staff book reviewer. She stayed with the World for two years and was a frequent contributor to such periodicals as the New York Times, the New Republic and the Saturday Review of Literature for years afterward.
Winwar married four times. Sometime shortly after 1920 she was briefly married to the writer, Victor J. Jerome. In 1925 she married Bernard D. N. Grebanier, a professor of English literature at Brooklyn College, with whom she had one son. That marriage ended in divorce and in 1943 Winwar married mystery writer, Richard Wilson Webb. After a third divorce, she married Dr. Francis Lazenby, a classics scholar and librarian of the University of Notre Dame.
Winwar was best known for a series of romanticized biographies of nineteenth-century English literary figures and their followers, beginning with Poor Splendid Wings: The Rossettis and Their Circle (1933), an account that included Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Charles Algernon Swinburne and William Morris. Two years later she published The Romantic Rebels, another composite biography, in which she sensitively, though not always accurately, portrayed John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. Farewell the Banner (1938) relates the complex relationships of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy. The fourth of her group biographies was Oscar Wilde and the Yellow ‘Nineties, describing the scandal surrounding its leader.
In The Life of the Heart (1945) she focused on a single writer rather than a group or a movement, but her novelized biography of George Sand included vivid portraits of Frédéric Chopin, Gustave Flaubert and Louis Napoléon, as well. Other fictionalized biographies, such as American Giant: Walt Whitman and His Times (1941) and Haunted Palace (1959), a life of Edgar Allan Poe, met with popular success, even when the critics were less than enthusiastic, as did her juvenile histories, Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo (1953) and Queen Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada (1954). Listed as “romantic novels,” these novel-biographies were sometimes criticized as falling short of rigid historical completeness, but all were thoroughly researched and offered vivid portraits of their subjects.
She was an outspoken opponent of Italian Fascism, the only Italian American besides Pietro di Donato to speak at the Second American Writers Congress in 1937, where her paper “Literature under Fascism” vehemently condemned Fascist repression and its effects on literature in the country of her birth. She died on July 24, 1985, at her home in New York City.
All the authors in this post have Italian roots from southern Italy. Here are a few traditional Italian American recipes in their honor.
Seafood Marinara With Linguine
- 1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes
- 12 oz tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 3 garlic cloves minced
- 1 14.5 oz can low sodium chicken broth
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- 1 tablespoons fresh basil chopped or 2 teaspoons dried basil leaves, crushed
- 1 teaspoon fresh oregano chopped or 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves, crushed
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 8 oz shrimp fresh or frozen, peeled and deveined
- 8 oz scallops fresh or frozen
- 1 lb linguine cooked, drained and kept warm
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic; cook for 2 minutes.
Add tomatoes, chicken broth, tomato paste, wine, basil, oregano and salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low; simmer for 10 minutes.
Heat remaining oil in small skillet over high heat. Add shrimp and scallops; cook for 3 to 4 minutes or until shrimp turn pink and scallops are opaque.
Add to sauce. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes.
Serve over pasta.
Sausage and Mushroom Calzone
- 2 cups homemade of store bought pizza sauce
- 12 oz sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
- 1 cup mushrooms sliced
- 1 lb pizza dough
- 1 -1/2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
- 1 tablespoon parmesan cheese grated
Cook sausage and mushrooms in a large skillet until no longer pink; drain off fat in the pan. Stir in one cup of pizza sauce.
Roll dough on lightly floured surface to a 12-inch circle. Place on greased cookie sheet or pizza pan. Spoon sausage mixture over half the dough to within 1/2 inch of edge.
Sprinkle with mozzarella.
Moisten edges of dough with water. Fold dough in half over filling. Seal by pressing with the tines of a fork. Cut slits in the top of the dough.
Brush with water and sprinkle with Parmesan.
Bake at 375°F. for 25 minutes or until golden. Heat remaining pizza sauce and serve with the calzone.
- 4 cups vegetable oil
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 1 cup whole-milk ricotta
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
- Special equipment: a deep-fat thermometer
Heat 1 1/2 inches oil in a large wide heavy saucepan until it registers 370°F.
Meanwhile, whisk together flour, baking powder, zest and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a bowl.
Whisk together ricotta, eggs, granulated sugar and vanilla in another bowl, then whisk in flour mixture.
Working in batches, gently drop level tablespoons of batter into the hot oil and fry, turning occasionally, until golden, about 3 minutes per batch.
Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.
Dust generously with confectioners sugar.
- The Changing Face of Italian-American Food and Wine (acevola.blogspot.com)
- Dive Into Dante (bonesparkblog.wordpress.com)