The following essays are intended to present to the interested but non-specialized reader some of the significant factors which have contributed to the formation of what is commonly referred to as Italian culture. By choice these are highly selective studies and by necessity they are limited in length. Hence they lack the detailed treatment which would be found in a comprehensive study. Bibliographic references provided will enable the serious reader to undertake further investigation. Taken together these studies will present some important insights into the social and cultural world of the Italians and the translation of that culture into the environment of America.
At the onset I must state my particular historical predispositions as they relate to the study of ethnic groups. The history of a people, like the biography of an individual, is rarely the story of continuous achievement. Except in mythology or hagiography no one is born a hero or a saint, and in the latter case, it is only through superhuman and continuous effort that the state of holiness is achieved, and then for only a few. Collectively the history of a people and their culture also includes those periodic misjudgments, setbacks and disasters which are part of the total story. No nation is composed totally of saints (although Italians have numerically excelled in this respect). To read much of the contemporary literature on ethnicity one gets the impression of an ethnic group as supermen, or at least a race of geniuses. At best this is shoddy history, a type of production which many writers have managed with little effort and even less reflection. Hopefully such an approach will not be evident in this study.
In dealing with Italian culture and the transplanting of that heritage to the new world, I have attempted to avoid this filiopietistic approach; I have tried to recreate men, women, and situations rather than heroes. Not all or even most Italian-Americans are great scientists, athletes, musicians or artists. Yet some have been in the past and certainly many are today. Not all Americans of Italian descent are intimately connected with “organized crime.” But some are, as are members of other ethnic groups, a point usually overlooked by the popular media. Many Italians supported Mussolini during his rise to power, as did many Americans of Italian and non-Italian stock. These are irrefutable facts and as such must be included if the whole story is to be told.
With Italian-American history, as with the history of any other ethnic culture, one must not habitually commit the sin of omission, but should offer instead the virtue of explanation whenever possible. Cultural history can not be written as the steady march of progress and success in Italy as well as in America, resplendent with fantastic heroes and achievements. This kind of narrative, so common in contemporary ethnic literature, reduces history to mythology. It emphasizes the famous and rejects or submerges the infamous and common. It should, rather, combine the two into an honest and objective account. It is simple to explain the successes of man but much more difficult and more valuable to explain his follies as well.
If we learn anything from the past it should be this: all men and their civilizations often achieve greatness despite their failings and shortcomings. When men begin to overlook their past mistakes and create their own artificial and selective histories, they fool no one, least of all themselves. We can not erase nor escape from the past, however unpleasant, however virtuous it may have been. Each event is part of the historical mosaic entitled “culture.” Until all of the pieces are put into place the image remains incomplete. To conclude the metaphor, even the uneven and misshapen stones in the mosaic have a place in the total form and must be included.
The course of human history does at times seem to have the taste of nonsense and chaos about it, of dreams unfulfilled and promises unkept. It is the historian’s task to put these seemingly unrelated and disordered events into some order and attach a meaning to them. The following essays should provide some insights into the peoples of Italy and of that culture which was transported and is cherished by millions of Americans today.