Italian American Men
Since the late 19th-century arrival of millions of immigrants from the Mezzogiorno, American racists have long contrived baroque justifications for why white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are the inheritors of Italian culture, while Italians themselves are not.
Calabria, Sicily, and all the rest belong to Africa. Italy has always occupied a strange position in the wider European consciousness. On a shelf behind them sits a globe. Europe is differentiated from the rest of the world by being an autumnal brown-green, with the exception of two notable regions colored the same hue as Africa—Ireland and Sicily. In Are Italians White? In the rhetoric and thought of the era, Italy was somehow paradoxically the genesis of Europe, while also somehow not European.
As such, Italians were to be simultaneously emulated and admired, while also reviled and mocked. A simultaneous attraction to and disgust at a people configured as overly emotional, overly sexual, overly flashy, overly corrupt, overly sensual, and with a propensity less cerebral than hormonal.
And the criminality. In that picaresque, the eponymous character perambulates through the Europe of the early 16th century, encountering luminaries like Thomas More, Erasmus, Henry Howard, Martin Luther, and Cornelius Agrippa, and witnessing events like the horrific siege at Munster in the Low Countries.
A perfect revenge upon not just the body, but the soul. Nash presents such passion as a ritual of decadent Mediterranean vendetta, simultaneously grotesque and inescapably evocative. From Nash until today there has often been a presumption of vindictive relativist morality on the part of Italians, and it has slurred communities with an assumption of criminality.
I decided not to join the Sons of Italy after I saw how much of their concern was with stereotypes on The Sopranos, which I still regard as among the greatest television dramas of all time. These immigrants had no compunction about working and living alongside African Americans, and often understood themselves to occupy a similar place in society. What is called for is a restitution, or rather a recognition, of an Italian-American literary canon acting as bulwark against both misrepresentations and amnesia.
In this century, the citizens of Rome, Florence, and Milan face different questions than their cousins in Newark, Hartford, or Providence. Yet in the literary arts no equivalent names come up, at least no equivalent names that are thought of as distinctly Italian.
For many of these critics, the Italian-American literary canon was something that already existed, it was merely a question of being able to recognize what exists beyond the stark black and red cover of The Godfather. That Philip Roth is a Jewish author goes without saying, but rarely do we think of the great experimentalist Don DeLillo as an Italian-American author.
A restitution of the Italian-American literary canon would ask what precisely is uniquely Italian about a DeLillo? Where do we locate the Mezzogiorno in the criticism and scholarship of A. A reality quite contrary to the blasphemy of those posters with their stolen Roman images. Also, well except maybe his mind? I teach you let an italian men.
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