Beyond the Godfather

"If it were not for reading," Fred Gardaphéwrites, "I would have become a gangster." Gardaphégrew up in Chicago, in a neighborhood where his Italian heritage tagged him, inevitably, as "mafia boy." It was the 1950s, he continues, "when the only Italians you saw on television were either crooning love songs or singing like canaries in front of televised government investigations." For a while he bought into the stereotype, running the streets with a band of mob-infatuated young cronies. Then he discovered books. He spent the rest of his adolescence holed up in the library.

It wasn't until much later, in graduate school, that Gardaphédiscovered books written by Italian Americans. Again, his life was changed. "The same way that books by Mark Twain, James T. Farrell, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and other American writers had taught me about different worlds," he remembers, "the writings of Italian-American authors taught me different ways of being Italian American." Works by writers as diverse as Pascal D'Angelo, Mari Tomasi, Helen Barolini, and John Ciardi gave him new respect for his culture, and made him ashamed of his earlier ignorance. Gardaphéwas so affected, in fact, that he decided to shift the direction of his academic career.

He met with resistance. At the time, the obscure works of Italian-American writers were not deemed worthy of serious study. So Gardaphéleft academia for a while, working as a journalist while continuing to search out and study these writers on his own. Times change, however. When he came to speak at University Park last spring, Gardaphéhad just accepted a position as professor of Italian-American studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Professor of Italian-American Studies. It's a concept my Italian-American grandmother would never have understood.

My youthful experience was much different than Gardaphé's. I grew up in the suburbs of the early '70s, in a homogeneous setting where I was hardly aware of my Italian-ness, even if my friends did affectionately call me wop. The word had no real meaning—to me or to them—and it held no sting. I was oblivious. The process of assimilation—my grandparents' struggle, and even more my father's—was already complete.

old photo of family  with no one smiling

Except, that is, for the trips to my grandmother's house. My grandma, let it be said, was my professor of Italian-American studies. She was the one who cooked the spezzata of blessed memory; who deep-fried the cagiuni and ladled the rich red giblet gravy into the centers of steaming bowls of golden broth; who introduced me to "the Italian store," where strings of dark salami and globes of mozzarella hung in ripe clusters from the ceiling, and the odor of fresh-cut provolone could pin you to the wall. She was also the one who told the stories—of raising chickens and learning English, of working in the silk mill and (in the case of her father and uncles) the slate quarry, of holiday feasts and the three days they took to prepare.

These tastings of the world she had inhabited teased my imagination, made me hungry for more, but the neighborhood I ached to visit had long since vaporized. There was a glass-strewn parking lot on the spot where my great-grandfather had once opened a shoe-repair shop. I clung to vestiges: the cracked photographs, the cobbler's hammer, the warped board called a spiannatore on which my grandma had rolled out so many Sundays of pasta.

Like the young Gardaphé, I had encountered Mario Puzo's book, The Godfather. But this pulp-romantic epic that so many took (and many still take) as defining Italian-ness had seemed as exotic to me as any Western. For a long time, however, The Godfather was the only book by or about Italian Americans that I came across.

Years later, during graduate school, I had the opportunity to spend a summer in Italy. When I returned, my interest again piqued, I went actively looking for books that would unlock the link between the world I had just experienced for the first time and the one in which I had always lived. By that time, thankfully, Gardaphéand others had begun to make headway, locating novels and stories and poems on the brink of oblivion, creating a context, piecing together a literature and making it available.

And so I was plunged into the works of Constantine Panunzio, Pietro di Donato, John Fante, Jerre Mangione, and others. Each of these authors had something valuable to tell me. Panunzio and di Donato spoke of the grim struggle my grandparents waged to gain an immigrant's toehold; Fante, of the discrimination that drove my great uncle to change his name from Delorenzo to Delawrence. Mangione's bittersweet Mount Allegro made me feel acutely the conflicting pulls between la famiglia and the wider world that shaped and tested my father.

Together, these authors took me past the stereotypes, and the sentimentality that had colored my imaginings. Like Gardaphé, I was surprised—as I should not have been—at the variety, at the different ways of being Italian American.

Last Updated January 01, 1999