A Note on Origin, Methodology and Purpose
James J. Periconi
This project arose because its cultural time had come. My
co-author, Fred Gardaphé, has for about 25 years read deeply,
collected assiduously and taught Italian American literature and culture in
American colleges; I have collected, less seriously until recently, for about
the same period of time and have not taught in this field. In 1995, Fred
published The Italian-American Writer: An Essay and an Annotated Checklist
While it was not the first bibliography of the subject, to be sure (see note 1), the Checklist accomplished something vital that none of the prior ones had: it was and is a highly reliable work, as Fred entered no book he had not possessed and examined personally. As importantly, as the bookseller in me recognized, it was published in an inexpensive and convenient (5”by 8”) format, a handy, easy-to-tote-around reference work for bookshop hunters of a subject that virtually no bookstore classifies into one section as a subject (unlike, say, Jewish, Irish or African-American literature). It also acknowledged frankly the difficulty the academic world had in recognizing the validity of the subject of Italian American literature, and convincingly made out the case for this body of work.
In 1996 my wife and I transformed our increasingly ravenous appetite for buying and reading used and antiquarian books into a little pre-retirement business of buying and selling such books. I thought it might be “interesting,” if somewhat quixotic, to create as one of our specialty areas what I thought, wrongly, was an unknown category of works — Italian Americana. I was ignorant of the movement of which Fred, Robert Viscusi, the President of the Italian American Writers Association, and a few others, were the architects and leaders. My discovery of the Checklist helped me enormously in my book buying for resale (and my collecting); and this has facilitated my learning, and my sharing this knowledge with prospective book buyers at book fairs and in conversation. Fred’s teaching has thereby spread a hundred-fold, and well outside the classroom.
In my book hunting, I found since 1996 a fair number of works not listed in the Checklist (many because Fred had simply never been able to obtain a copy for personal review). I began to see how Italian American writing by third and even fourth and fifth generation Italian American writers has not only persisted but blossomed, against all expectations. As a result, I wondered whether an updated and expanded Checklist might make sense. At the same time, about a year ago, the Italian American Writers Association began to plan for a literary conference on the Italian American Book.
The concept of “The Year of the Italian American Book” was born and took hold in the imaginations of many figures in the field. At that point, this bibliographic project became almost imperative. I consider myself— and this cultural movement — very fortunate to have succeeded in persuading the very busy but very generous Fred Gardaphé to co-author this work with me.
One of the critical decisions of a bibliography like this one1, as with all bibliographies, is the breadth of its embrace. For fiction and poetry2, we have tried to be all-inclusive3: we included any work of imaginative literature published in book form
(irrespective of subject
matter or, indeed, place of publication), written by a permanent or
long standing resident, wherever born (
On fiction and poetry, then, this all-inclusiveness builds on Fred Gardaphé’s exploration, in a second groundbreaking work, published after the Checklist, of the implicit presence in virtually all Italian American writers of Italy and the Great Migration, even where not explicit in the text itself, and of Italian “signs” that can be read intertextually, in a manner of speaking, by the careful reader5. Any study of Italian American literature must include even improbable authors and entries, as long as some discernible connection to common origins and a distinct historical past exists. If anyone needed proof of Fred’s instinctively satisfying thesis, a subsequently published fictional exploration by one of the major American writers (without qualification) of the second half of the twentieth century we are just now leaving, Don DeLillo, in his most recent novel, Underworld (1997), provides it. What was previously implicit about DeLillo is now explicit: that novel resonates with and explores Italian and Italian American themes expansively and deeply, something that he had rarely, and only in short stories about thirty years ago, previously explored.6
That answers the first question, about an apparent (but not
actual) over-inclusiveness. This all-inclusive approach is useful even if
the themes of the novel or poem are not at all explicitly Italian or
related to the immigrant or the assimilative experience. But how to answer
other obvious and reasonable questions: is it useful to be all-inclusive
if the literature — especially
fiction and poetry, to which readers should apply their own literary
standards and tastes — does
not possess at least some minimal literary merit worthy of our continuing
attention? For example, some readers may believe that few detective or
mystery works, or police procedurals, achieve the highest literary standards.
Especially given the great success that Italian American authors discussed
below have found in these particular genres, we reject that standard as elitist.
And, if the work was not published in the
On the literary merit question, our answer is that our primary
goal is to include everything potentially useful within the framework
of our two most important modes of imaginative literature — fiction and poetry — that we are identifying as
Italian American. By “useful,” I mean that it nourishes historical
understanding by others about, as well as-critical self-awareness for the
affected people of, the experience of the Italian diaspora in the North
American continent. (Eventually, a work justifying this book’s title should
include works related to the Italian diaspora in
We believe that judgments of literary merit, moreover, are themselves in part political, and therefore subject to change. To state it bluntly, so long as Italian Americans continue to be dogged in their daily lives by a residual “image” problem (as buffoons or Mafiosi), any judgments of the literary quality of their writing will remain to some
•degree tainted and, thus, tentative or provisional.
In short, we think an expanding and thoughtful reexamination by all sorts of readers of the merit of many of the works included in this bibliography, prompted at least in part by the existence of this work, may lead to a more positive evaluation of their literary merit. (On a parallel track, central to IAWA’s mission has been that a more positive evaluation of the literary merit of Italian American writing might contribute to a greater understanding and respect for the Italian American experience among Americans generally, and thereby improve the political context in which major publishers review manuscripts submitted by Italian Americans.) Many serious readers of Italian American literature (like those of African-American literature in the past) have good reason to believe that at least a handful, or several handfuls or more, of these works — many of which have unhappily and undeservedly long been out of print - merit renewed attention by the present and future generations of American readers. In this dawn of the electronic age of publishing, it has recently been claimed and we can see clearly in the near future an age when books need no longer ever go “out of print,” virtually all works ever published can be reissued or reprinted at a reasonable cost, and entry barriers to publication, in the first instance, will drop. The prospect is an exciting one: previously published but unjustly neglected works will be rediscovered, and new works will face fewer obstacles to their availability to a large audience.
Finally, there is the question of why we have not limited titles
included to works published only in the
What can we hope this bibliography might do for our understanding of the publication history of Italian American literature, historically and in the present? After all, that is a major aspect of, indeed, the very context in which it was prepared, IAWA’s declared “Year of the Italian American Book.” What does this bibliography tell us, if anything, about the place of Italian American literature in American literary and publishing history? And what, if anything, is different now from, say, the pre-World War II era?
Because of the nature of a database program, we can look at these works, individually and collectively, in many different ways. This provides rich research and analytical possibilities. As published here, this bibliography simply lists, under each genre, books by alphabetical order, employing the conventional order (last, first name of author; title; place of publication; publisher; year). But in the Excel program we used, a researcher can instantly alphabetize by publisher (first order) and then by year of publication (second order), and immediately find the answers to the question, for example, “How many such works, or how many different Italian American writers, did The Viking Press [or any other publisher] publish?” either generally, or in a particular decade, dividing the inquiry, say, according to pre- or post- World War II.
Among publishers, as elsewhere, there has traditionally been a general consensus about who the “quality” publishing houses are or have been.9 To ask the more pointed question, how have Italian American writers fared in those prestigious houses?
There have been a number of novels published by prestigious houses like Random House (28 novels by 13 different authors) and Scribner’s (25 novels by 9 authors); and of poetry by a much smaller publisher, W. W. Norton (8 works by 4 authors). An examination by scholars should yield clues to the question of why certain publishers published Italian American works broadly, or which promoted particular writers. Doubleday’s 58 novels (by 24 writers) is a particularly impressive number. Much of that is attributable to blockbuster sales of the works of a few authors — e.g., most of the 16 works of poetry for the prestigious New Directions are, Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso; whereas though Paul Gallico and Evan Hunter, in the case of Doubleday, were big sellers, one can argue that they broke down barriers for other writers (22 besides those two).
On another issue, organizing by place of publication (first
order) and then by publisher (second order), as another example, the student
of the subject can quickly determine the answer to the question, “How many
Italian-name publishers have there been in
Are there certain genres where Italian Americans seem to be completely integrated into the American literary experience? What are they and when? Two stand out. First, in mystery or detective works, including police procedurals, Italian American writers are both numerous — Evan Hunter, Bill Pronzini, and more recently Lia Matera and Camilla Crespi — and their contributions noteworthy. And in a completely unrelated realm, experimental poetry after World War II is an area where Italian American contributions have been numerous and their quality outstanding. From Diane di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Paul Vangelisti, John Giorno and Gregory Corso among the beats and their generation, to Paul Violi and Joe Ceravolo among the New York poets, and less classifiable though important Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Gerard Malanga, John Brandi, Daniella Gioseffi and others, few would dispute that Italian Americans are completely integrated into the contemporary poetic literary scene.
Finally, what if anything does the locus of publication tell us,
especially given the inclusion here of a substantial number of books
It is one of the deep satisfactions to Italian Americanists here, at the same time, that we are living in an era when Italians are themselves paying attention to and showing respect for not merely generally popular American writers, already true for most of the second half of the 20th century for non-Italian American writers like Hemingway. But that interest has extended to at least some of the most important and interesting Italian American writers, such as Pietro Di Donato, John Fante, Helen Barolini, Robert Viscusi and Don DeLillo, some of the works of all of whom have now been translated into Italian. A three-day conference in Rome reflecting this emerging interest in Italian American literature follows shortly after IAWA’s October, 2000 conference on the Italian American Book. Italian intellectuals had, concurrently with the development of this interest, also found a new respect for the literature and dying languages of their own — our own — diverse dialects, one imagines, out of fear of losing something important in themselves.
So the transition to a new interest in and respect for the
literature of the disapora in
1: The other book-length
bibliographies on which we have drawn are cited in this work, and include
Olga Peragallo’s Italian American Authors and Their Contribution to
American Literature, Rose Basile Green’s The Ita1ian~ American Novel
and Ferdinando P. Alfonsi’s, Dictionary of Italian-American Poets. Raffaele
Cocchi’s “Selected Bibliography of Italian American Poetry” in Italian
Americana, Vol. X, No. 2, Spring/Summer 1992, for poetry; and Serafino
Porcara’s bibliography of the novel in Italian Americana, Vol XII, No.
1, Fall/Winter 1993 are shorter works that have been very useful. The
Italian American Heritage: A Companion to Literature, Pellegrino D’Acierno,
Editor (New York: Garland Publishing,1999) and The Italian American
Experience: An Encyclopedia, Salvatore J. LaGumina, et al., Editors (
the most astonishing treasure trove of materials one that enlarges our
understanding of the subject enormously because it includes works not to be
found in any other bibliographies or much studied, if at all, by Italian
Americanists —we found in a preview copy of Italo-Americana. Letteratura e
storia degli italiani negli Stati Uniti (Milano: A. Mondadori Ed., 2001),
compited by Francesco Durante, the Italian bibliographer, editor, translator
and all-around man of letters among Italian Americanists. He has generously
permitted us, prior to publication of his own work, to draw freety on his
anthology of Italian American literary works, and the related bibliography.
Mt Durante has labored in many libraries in
authors note that for some works, we could not find copies with which to
complete information about publication date or publisher, but we included
them nevertheless where there was some reliability about the information.
The reader will easily find omissions in criticism, general history, social
and cultural history, even those concerning Italian America, and little if
any mention of works of these genres not bearing on Italian America; and a
complete absence of works on other than literary or historical topics,
including many (such as science and cookbooks) in which the Italian American
contribution after World War II seems on a par with or greater than that of
any other group. Omissions are especially typical in, though not exclusive
to, works by Italian American scholars, for example, on non-Italian American
individuals or subjects, except where the work dates from the 19th century,
or something else interesting about the publishing history or relevance to
Italian themes, in the case of those works (especially
3. Even here, we must add a caveat: for “privately printed” works, as for publishers known to be “vanity presses,” such as Vantage Press, particularly where we have not possessed, even briefly, a physical copy of the work, our concern has been to be more illustrative than authoritatively complete. We took for cues, in this respect, those occasions where the frequency of publication (e.g., two or three works per year) suggests the likely slightness of the work. And on the issue of whether a work from a previously published bibliography would be included if neither of us had a copy in hand, we betieve there is a high degree of reliability: inclusion of all or virtually all entries from Gardaphé (1995), Cocchi and Durante result from their examination of physical copies of the works, and virtually all of the others, especially fiction, derive from physical copies that Fred Gardaphé or I examined, or works that publishers included as “previously published7 by the author. The only nagging question remains about some of the works of poetry, those whose only source of information was the questionnaire that Professor Alfonsi sent out to the authors in question. For at least a small handful, some puffery may be assumed (e.g., what was claimed to be a “book” was really an eight-page chapbook or broadside).
4. We have rejected limitations placed by other bibliographers of this same subject, who have limited works included by time period, for example, only to writers who began writing prior to World War II works, on the theory that the “pull” of the mother country for immigrants after a generation or two is so weak as to be meaningless. Some critics, like the estimable Dana Gioia, believed ethnic literature would “disappear” with the falling away of poverty, religious intensity and other factors, but history refutes that view. Instead, as did the editors of the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, at vii, as to a definition of ethnicity, we must conclude as to a definition of a bibliography of the Italian American book, that it must remain “flexible and pragmatic” due to the “fluid and situational nature of ethnicity.”
5. Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996).
7. For an excellent general essay on this subject,
see Jason Epstein, “The Rattle of Pebbles,” The New York Review of Books (
8. We pick this cut-off because, to use a much-quoted statistic, for all Italian Americans in the 1940 United States census, English was the first language of only 750,000 of them; and as has often, and truty, been noted, this is not a terribly large base from which a literature could be expected to develop.
9. Of course, with the agglomeration of publishing houses, in which Random House (including Vintage), Alfred A. Knopf, Doubleday and others are all owned by Bertlesman of Germany; Viking, Penguin, Putnam and Dutton are owned by Longmans, Pearson, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. owns Harper Collins, William Morrow, Simon & Schuster and Scribner, this inquiry may mean less in the future than it did in the past.
10. Italo-Americana. Letteratura e storia degli italiani negli Stati Uniti. Milano: A. Mondadori Ed., February 2001 (expected).