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Feeling Italian

Feeling Italian: The Art of Ethnicity in America

Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 256
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    Feeling Italian
    Book Description:

    2006 American Book Award, presented by the Before Columbus FoundationSouthern Italian emigration to the United States peaked a full century ago - ;descendents are now fourth and fifth generation, dispersed from their old industrial neighborhoods, professionalized, and fully integrated into the melting pot. Surely the social historians are right: Italian Americans are fading into the twilight of their ethnicity. So, why is the American imagination enthralled by The Sopranos, and other portraits of Italian-ness? Italian American identity, now a mix of history and fantasy, flesh-and-bone people and all-too-familiar caricature, still has something to teach us, including why each of us, as citizens of the U.S. twentieth century and its persisting cultures, are to some extent already Italian. Contending that the media has become the primary vehicle of Italian sensibilities, Ferraro explores a series of books, movies, paintings, and records in ten dramatic vignettes. Featured cultural artifacts run the gamut, from the paintings of Joseph Stella and the music of Frank Sinatra to The Godfather's enduring popularity and Madonna's Italian background. In a prose style as vivid as his subjects, Ferraro fashions a sardonic love song to the art and iconography of Italian America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2863-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Introduction: Feeling Italian
    (pp. 1-8)

    One would think, on the face of it, that the Italian Americans whose ancestors came to the United States en masse a full century ago must be coming to the end of their social and cultural distinctiveness. Blue-collar foundations that were once taken for granted have finally waned; the fourth and fifth generations are dispersing into the suburbs and across the country; and long-cultivated bloodlines are being diluted by intermarriage and alternative arrangements, with lovely results. We also know that the cultural baton and ethical highground have been passed to immigrants of color, that the Internet enables the incessant reinvention...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Honor: Friday Bloody Friday
    (pp. 9-27)

    The southern Italian peasants who came to the United States during the Great Migration (1880–1917), first as sojourners, later as settlers, to help build and run the industrial cities, were the proudest of peoples. Having suffered for centuries at the hands of the landowners and the governmental authorities and the Church, the weather and the gods, they had long before established distinctive ways of making do and of making sense: the mother-centered order of the family for all practical intents and purposes, the Virgin for the expression of hope and the renewal of courage, the cult of Honor for...

  6. CHAPTER 2 City: New York Delirious
    (pp. 28-50)

    “Milan is just like New York, only there aren’t so many Italians.” The assumption underlying this common quip is that New York is one of the most Italian places on earth, yet it was built and settled not by the urban peoples of Italy’s advanced north but bycontadini—the rural peasants from the impoverished, essentially medieval hill towns south and east of Naples. What happened? How did Italian peasants, conservative by their own tradition, come to solovethe American city—Greater Metropolitan New York and its industrial satellites most of all—that they remain to this day hugely...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Job: Close to the Flesh and Smell and Joy of Them
    (pp. 51-71)

    Once upon a time in America, the swarms of hard-hatted, bronzed men in cheap clothing with dark unruly hair carrying lunch-buckets, comfortably convivial with one another while fiercely devoted—from all signs—to family, too earthy and hard-bitten it would seem for belief in God, never mind organized religion, yet sporting unmistakable crucifixes, garrulous even in public in a language more liquid than English but rougher than school-taught Romance tongues, doing all the construction work, skilled and unskilled, were not South Mexican, not Central American as they are now, but Southern Italian and Sicilian: guineas, wops, and dagos. This is...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Mother: The Madonnas of Tenth Avenue
    (pp. 72-89)

    Pietro di Donato’s short story “Christ in Concrete” has proven valuable on several accounts: its aesthetic strength as a linguistic and narrative experiment, the fascinating contradictory history of its reception, but above all because it provides special insight into the working men of the first generation, what di Donato himself characterized as anuntoldstory that would have gone, he felt, unheard, if he hadn’t brought himself to tell it. In this chapter I turn to what is, in effect, the central story of settlement and transformation, the other side of the gender coin, a compulsivelyretoldstory, a story...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Song: A Punch in Everyman’s Kisser
    (pp. 90-106)

    The “long” American 1950s—the postwar period running from Harry S Truman’s dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan in 1945 to John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and the subsequent passage of civil rights and immigration-reform legislation in 1964—was the first great watershed for Italians in the United States, when they finally achieved their American dreams of no more hunger and much more dignity. In 1942 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took Italians off the “suspect aliens” list and shut down the relocation operations.¹ Conspicuous in numbers and valor during World War II, the Italian Americans breathed a collective...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Crime: La Cosa Nostra Americana
    (pp. 107-127)

    In the late 1960s, as disenchantment with U.S. involvement in Vietnam was escalating and domestic protest from various sectors was turning increasingly violent, when white ethnics were thought of as thick-necked hardhats and militarized cops who beat up scraggly or braless college kids, a long-suffering serious writer of fiction published his first mass-market novel, and the country’s understanding of itself and the role of ethnic difference within it hasn’t been the same since. That writer was, of course, Mario Puzo; the novel—a mob-thriller-as-family-romance, narrated in an insider’s voice—wasThe Godfather. Puzo’s calculated act of intuitive genius became, in...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Romance: Only a Paper Moon?
    (pp. 128-142)

    By the late 1980s, the third and fourth generations of Italian America were coming into their own, with precious little memory of either Italy or immigration. Despite the pull of multicultural chic, individuals of Italian ancestry were taking spouses and life partners from outside the heritage, residing increasingly wherever the postindustrial service sector took them, venturing well beyond even the outer circles of the original industrial settlement in order to secure their places, at last, in the professional-managerial class. Observers both inside and outside the academy, both the many convinced that the old European ethnicities were on the waneand...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Diva: Our Lady the Dominatrix of Pop
    (pp. 143-161)

    By 1985, the sex-gender nexus, never far from the American mind, had become a hot-button issue. To most U.S. women, already taking civil rights advocacy for granted, feminist utopian thought had begun to feel like a choice between nutty-crunchy lesbian separatism or outgunning the preppie boys at Morgan Stanley, which put them between a rock (antiporn crusaders Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon) and a hard place (Anita Bryant and give-me-back-the-TV-1950s Right). The long-standing expression of commonplace wonder—don’t you feminists like men?—was turning into, don’t you even like yourselves? In 1986, as the news broke on the disease targeting...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Skin: Giancarlo and the Border Patrol
    (pp. 162-180)

    To their corporate shame, Italian Americans figured prominently in two of the New York City hate crimes of the 1980s, crimes so closely tied to the patrolling of informal community borders that the fatal incidents are now known simply by the names of the respective neighborhoods: Howard Beach and Bensonhurst.

    On the night of December 20, 1986, a posse of young toughs in their late teens—the boy wielding the bat was Jon Lester, but eight of the other eleven had conspicuously Italian surnames—chased down four black men, beat them with fists and bashed them with the baseball bat...

  14. CHAPTER 10 Table: Cine Cucina
    (pp. 181-197)

    At the turn of the century, even the progressivists closed their eyes and held their noses when approaching the food shops in Little Italy, and my grandmother, born in 1901, used to recall endless childhood taunting, where antipathies of one order or another would invariably turn into food insults: “Go eat worms!” they told her, meaning spaghetti. Into the early 1980s my favorite provisions store in New Haven, Connecticut (barrels of dried beans, oodles of different kinds of small pasta for soup, and extra-dry ginger ale) was so embedded in the old Oak Street neighborhood it went without a sign!...

  15. Conclusion: The Art of Ethnicity in America
    (pp. 198-208)

    Italian immigration to the United States peaked in 1907. Almost a century later, a band of Northeasterners led by David Chase (né Cesare) took the American imagination by storm with a black comedy about the Jersey mob entitledThe Sopranos. The trailers made the TV show sound like the same old formula—gangsters once again—but when the episodes actually hit, genre benders with ferocious self-knowing and sardonic grace, they put everything out there (from TV and the movies to serious fiction and literary theory) to shame. The first year ofThe Sopranosplayed less like a television series than...

  16. NOTES
    (pp. 209-234)
    (pp. 235-248)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 249-255)
    (pp. 256-256)