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New York Times Review of Italoamericana

28th July 2014

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Bookshelf
By SAM ROBERTS

Not enough time and too much bulk might have prevented Mayor Bill de Blasio from taking his copy of “Italoamericana: The Literature of the Great Migration, 1880-1943” (Fordham University Press) with him on vacation to Italy. (For wimps, there is a Kindle edition.)

Even if you’re not Italian, summer would be an ideal time to repeatedly dip into this kaleidoscopic, thousand-page anthology of memoirs, poetry, political commentary and newspaper excerpts, only now translated into English after being published in Italian in 2005.

Edited by Francesco Durante, an Italian journalist (he describes New York as the most densely populated Italian city after Naples) and faithfully executed by a team of translators, the selections recall what Robert Viscusi, editor of the American edition, describes as “a century of displacement and universal loss.”

Included are an interview with Al (“Public service is my motto”) Capone and an eyewitness account of an Italian immigrant shining a black man’s shoes, “a duet that reawakened in me an entire symphony of pity and bitterness,” a repulsed Italian visitor wrote home.

The collection is not encyclopedic. Nor is it all incandescent literature. Rather, as Mr. Viscusi writes, it represents “the dawn of legible memory for the English-speaking people who now call themselves Italian-Americans” — the point at which “they abandoned the Italian language as their primary means of verbal expression.”

Recounting first-generation immigrant life in “the American colony,” the selections don’t shy away from scabrous subjects, like prejudice, exploitation of women, criminal conduct or radicalism.

And they shed light on a question posed two decades ago by Gay Talese: “Where are the Italian-American writers?”

The scribes introduced in “Italoamericana” migrated from a nation itself only a few decades old. Many were from a region, Mr. Talese wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1993, that for thousands of years had been conquered and reconquered, producing “an implicit history of caution” and “a people united in the fear of being found out.”

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