Volume XIII, Number 1, Spring 2017

"The Italian Atlantic" by Ágnes Zsófia Kovács

Ágnes Zsófia Kovács is associate professor at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Her areas of academic interest and teaching include late 19th-century, early 20th-century and contemporary American fiction, versions of literary modernism and postmodernism, popular fiction, multicultural American identity prose, and theories of narrative and of American Studies. Her current research into travel writing involves re-mapping travel texts by Edith Wharton. She has published two books, The Function of the Imagination in the Writings of Henry James (Mellen, 2006) and Literature in Context (Jate Press, 2010) and has co-edited Space, Gender and the Gaze (Cambridge Scholars, 2017). Email: 

In the Name of the Mother: Italian Americans, African Americans, and Modernity from Booker T. Washington to Bruce Springsteen
Samuele F. S. Pardini
Re-Mapping the Transnational, a Dartmouth Series in American Studies
Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2017
ISBN (paperback): 978-1-5126-0019-3
263 pp.


Toni Morrison describes her experience of how an Italian immigrant child sitting next to her in primary school learnt to see color in the US. In half a year, Morrison writes in her essay, the Italian immigrant child learnt that he should not accept help from an African American classmate because he was ‘above’ African American classmates in terms of race. In other words, the Italian child learnt to realize that he was white, not black, and that this quality carried social advantage to him. This realization, Morrison states, was the first step of his assimilation to US society, his “surrender to whiteness” (Morrison). Samuele F. S. Pardini’s book follows a different trajectory than Morrison’s anecdote, as he wishes to renegotiate the traditional rift between these two groups by surveying similarities of race-, gender-, and class-related identity positions occupied by Italian Americans and African Americans in US society.

In the Name of the Mother traces how African Americans have perceived Italian Americans throughout the twentieth century from Booker T. Washington to pop icon Bruce Springsteen’s performance partner Clarence Clemons. The project remaps the supposed antagonism between the two groups and argues that African American representations of Italian Americans have always been tied up with a problem of racial identity that is conceptualized as independent of perceptible color: from an African American perspective, Italian American minority subject positions are seen as racially non-white. In addition, Italian American role models help African American authors and performers forge identity positions that solicit social inclusion and reject modern identity positions that program subjects as self-interested individuals and consumers. Focusing on recurring cultural myths like the Italian mother, Italian Catholicism, and Italian working class criminality, the volume showcases examples of hybrid interactions between the two minority cultures which trigger the formulation of subject positions that subvert established race relations and allow for social inclusion.

In general, the volume offers an answer to the question of what happens when the methodologies of transnational studies are applied to ethnic studies. Typically, a study of Italian Americans would start with their point of arrival in the new country, discussing their settlement, activities, concerns, interactions, and self-representations. The notion of the Italian American diaspora in this sense would be defined as the relocation of a group of people from one culture to another within the framework of nation-state, complete with stories of adaptation to the other culture. From a transnational perspective, however, this story begins before departure, seeing diverse groups of agricultural Sicilians, Neapolitan working class, and North Italian bourgeoisie. From this wider perspective, the story shows that when these people relocate to diverse regions in America, they do not necessarily assimilate equally well. The notion of the Italian American diaspora in this framework would be defined as the relocation of a group of people to new areas that do not necessarily belong to the same nation-state, yet the settlers remain closely tied together by their sense of community created by their shared and preserved language, religion, rituals, and values.

In Pardini’s book, the story of Italian Americans begins in Sicily and is represented from the African American perspective. Moreover, the survey of “Italian American culture” here focuses on individual interactions between Italian Americans and African Americans in various geographical locations beyond the boundaries of the US. There is no evolutionary story of either resistance or assimilation but a rough timeline from the early 20th century till 2006, which marks the last example for the hybrid spaces of interaction between African American and Italian American cultures. Pardini’s book ventures to test how the broad transatlantic notion of diaspora can be used for the study of the cultural space one might call the Italian Atlantic from the perspective of the black Atlantic diaspora.

The conceptual framework the volume relies on is centered on Paul Gilroy’s idea of the black Atlantic and black modernity. For Gilroy, the black Atlantic is a cultural and political space that exists beyond the geographical boundaries of the nation-state. The black Atlantic has been formed by the experience of the African slave trade and the plantation slavery system in the Caribbean and the Americas. Gilroy stresses the diversity of the appropriations and that the African legacy is severed from its origins in diverse ways, reflecting its contact with other cultures. Therefore, for Gilroy, the task is to point out not the survival of African cultural elements but the forms in which they have mutated, mixed, and become hybrid. Gilroy’s notion of the black Atlantic not only opens up a new area of study of diasporas beyond the boundaries of the nation-state, but also provides a new view of modernity and of the modern subject. He claims that transatlantic slavery provided money, the economic basis for the emergence of capitalism, which in turn produced its modern world view and modern subject positions. He also claims that the first experience of the displaced modern subject belonged to the black slave who was forced to leave his home and relocate. Gilroy makes you see the black Atlantic experience largely invisible so far and points it out as centrally important in the formation of modernity. What is more, Gilroy’s transnational view of diasporic subjectivity carries an additional ethical dimension. He points out similarities that characterize the diaspora experience, and thereby tries to heal rifts between the black and the Jewish diasporas.

Pardini’s project to present the so far invisible story of the interrelations of the African American and Italian American communities has four main features in common with Gilroy’s project. Firstly, Pardini relies on a broad transnational concept of diaspora when he thinks about Italian Americans. Secondly, he focuses on hybrid interactions between cultures in his account of diverse cultural representations of the diaspora experience. Thirdly, he connects his accounts to an alternative view of modernity in America, which subverts racial, gender, and class stereotypes of modern America. Last but not least, Pardini carries out his analyses with the hope of healing the rift between the African American and the Italian American diasporas, taking an ethical stand in pursuing his venture.

Chapter 1 compares Booker T. Washington’s observations of Southern Italy and Southern Italian women in The Man Farthest Down (1911) and in Emanuele Crialese’s film titled Nouvomondo (Golden Door, 2006). Washington links Southern Italy to Africa and Southern Italian women to black slaves in pre-Civil War America. He reinscribes his experience of Southern Italy in his view of immigration to the US; and he sees immigration as the liberating force of modernity that can solve the social problems of Southern Italians. In turn, Crialese’s film subverts this notion of immigration in his depiction of the dilemma of values immigration entails. Chapter 2 analyzes Jerre Mangione’s memoir Mount Allegro (1943) as the meeting point of ancient Mediterranean democratic traditions, immigrant life, and blackness. Pardini argues that the memoir represents the incompatibility of whiteness and immigrant life in the US. The political economy of immigrant life is based on cooperation, primacy of the public space, and recognition of the other over the white logic of monetary profit. Chapter 3 surveys how a group of African American male writers—James Weldon Johnson, Richard Bruce Nugent, Sterling Brown, William Attaway, Willard Motley, and James Baldwin—use representations of Italian immigrants to negotiate social normativity during the Jim Crow era. These writers invest in the depiction of Italian American men to show blackness as not solely a color-based issue, thus challenging formulaic representations of African Americans. Chapter 4 traces variations of the gangster character in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part 2 (1974), Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), and Frank Lentriccia’s The Music of the Inferno (1999). The archetypal Italian gangster refuses to play by the capitalist rules in the first decades of the 20th century, and so his figure is reinvented to decompose the success story of assimilation which, according to Pardini, is the historical unfolding of modernity in the US. Chapter 5 focuses on a number of Italian American female characters called Maria in literary works who represent the trajectory of girl-woman-mother. The Maria character reconstructs personal relations that show the personal histories of immigrant struggles and adopts the Mediterranean sense of the interconnectedness and communal quality of men and women in the US context. Chapter 6 looks at two specific biracial performing partnerships in pop music: Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. for one, and Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons for the other. The chapter studies how body language triggers mutual imaginative engagement that subverts race relations.

Pardini’s book illustrates both the new trajectories and the limitations that a transatlantic approach to ethnic studies implies. On the one hand, the book remains theoretically reflexive and inclusive, methodologically self-conscious, and diverse in its choice of material. It opens up a view to a new story of Italian American working class identity politics with an eye to issues of race and gender. The volume offers examples for identity positions that provide a new view of modernity: a view that does not dovetail with the traditional view of modernity as the total sum of productivity, individuality, and consumption but rather presents a modernity where social inclusiveness and a shared sense of community are still possible. Moreover, the volume offers lucid and persuasive analyses of a wide array of material from diverse contexts and genres.

On the other hand, the widening of the study area necessitates arbitrary selections of particular examples and results in either too particular or too general conclusions. Having said that, I would like to add that the actual scope of the study has not been widened to the extent it would have been possible theoretically. Pardini adopts a broad transnational notion of diaspora studies for the “Italian American” “minority,” but the “African American” diaspora remains to be represented in its narrow sense, within the national boundaries, excluding, for instance, a Caribbean African voice as part of the reporting perspective. However, this observation is not intended as a piece of criticism but rather as an observation, as it signals the formidable shift in both the subject and the scope that the transnational approach brings about in the former area of ethnic studies.

At the end of the day, the book pushes the reader to imagine similar formidable changes in other subject areas of American Studies. Faced with the example of ethnic studies, questions like ‘What happens to the study of American history in a transatlantic context?’ pop up. What happens to US literary studies if approached in a transnational context is a question that has been discussed for over a decade now (Elliott 8, Fluck et al. 3), resulting in the general idea that “[a]s the transnational becomes more central to American Studies, we’ll pay increasing attention to the historical roots of multidirectional flows of people, ideas, and goods, and the social, political, linguistic, cultural, and economic crossroads generated in the process” (Fishkin 22). However, if it seems challenging to imagine the actual effects of the transnational turn presented in the form of a monograph, Pardini’s book provides us with an excellent example.

Why do we not follow suit and imagine an actual analogous case? For instance, a transnational study of Edith Wharton would concentrate on her ‘argument with America’ not so much from the perspective of women’s roles (Ammons) or that of her sad alienation from the US (Lubbock) but rather from the perspective of the possibilities relocating to Europe carried for her as an expatriate female author. Such a transnational study of Edith Wharton would be written from the perspective of her interest in other cultures: her years in Rome and Paris, her readings in French and German along with what she read in English, or her travels outside the US. A study of her novelistic production would be extended to the study of other genres like drama and poetry (Rattray), travel writing, and essays on culture and literary theory, her written work with adaptations of her texts: a formidable but fascinating task.


Works cited

  • Ammons, Elizabeth. 1980. Edith Wharton’s Argument with America. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Elliott, Emory. 2007. “Diversity in the United States and Abroad: What Does It Mean When American Studies Is Transnational?”American Quarterly 59, 1: 1-22.
  • Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. 2005. “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies: Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, November 12, 2004” American Quarterly 57, 1: 17-57.
  • Fluck, Winfried, Stefan Brandt and Ingrid Thaler. 2007. “Introduction: The Challenges of Transnational American Studies.” REAL: Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 23: 1-7.
  • Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Lubbock, Percy. 1947. The Portrait of Edith Wharton. New York: D. Appleton.
  • Morrison, Toni. 1993. “On the Back of Blacks” Time. December 2, 1993. Web. Accessed: September 18, 2017. Available: http://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Morrison-On-the-Backs-of-Blacks.pdf
  • Rattray, Laura. 2017. “Edith Wharton’s Genre Crossings.” Conference presentation. Border Crossings. Translation, Migration & Gender in the Americas, the Transatlantic & the Transpacific. July 6, 2017, Bordeaux. Available: https://ssaww2017.sciencesconf.org/browse/speaker?authorid=471609