Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890–1940, by Marcella Bencivenni
a Brief Sidebar about The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism, edited by Philip Cannistraro and Gerald Meyer
Italian Immigrant Radical Culture,
published by NYU Press (2011).
What a terrific book! I stumbled across it at the Mulberry Street Library. Besides being a concise overview focused on the culture of Italian-American radicalism from the beginning of the era of mass Italian immigration to the U.S. up until WWII, it’s a heroic act of research, reconstruction, and reclamation on the part of its author, Marcella Bencivenni.
Bencivenni first provides a general background on Italian radical movements in the U.S., then a sort of collective profile of the sovversivi—a group, far from united, that takes in anarchists, socialists, syndicalists, and later communists and anti-fascists—and then focuses successive chapters on the radical press, the stage, and literary radicals. The final two chapters discuss the all but forgotten poet Arturo Giovannitti and a political cartoonist who was unknown to me, Fort Velona. Many other intriguing sovversivi, from revolutionaries to littérateurs (and sometimes both) were also barely known to me until I read about them here, among them the Abruzzese poet Virgilia D’Andrea.
Indeed, Italian Immigrant Radical Culture touches on many people who could be said to have fallen into relative oblivion—at least in the mainstream—while also being an excellent corrective to the annoyingly tenacious notion of Italian-Americans always tilting conservative. In Bencivenni’s own words, “In part I wrote this book to rescue these untold stories from historical oblivion, and challenge the highly generalized view of Italian immigrants as a compact block of conservative, apathetic and apolitical peasants.” Bencivenni’s book is in a way a continuation and distillation of ideas put forth in the rich, overflowing essay collection The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism, edited by Philip Cannistraro and Gerald Meyer—a book that’s the wellspring for so much Italian-American radical history. These books are like catnip to me.
There are some revelations in Bencivenni’s study that I don’t think I’ve seen elsewhere. One is the evidence that, as early as the late 19th century, anti-colonialist critiques of Columbus’ “discovery” of America had been formulated and discussed in the Italian-language press. As Bencivenni writes: “In a bold article published in 1892, Il Grido degli Oppressi, for example, labeled Christopher Columbus ‘a pirate and adventurer,’ arguing that, far from being ‘Italy’s great glory,’ his discovery of America marked the beginning of Europe’s ‘colonial politics,’ launching ‘a series of terrible massacres and usurpations against the native people and the Africans.’” What an enlightened analysis for the time—I was amazed to read this. Bencivenni also adds up the evidence and gives us the depressing news (certainly supported by studies of individual anarchists and radicals I’ve read elsewhere) that so many of these otherwise informed men of the left were also the most wretched misogynists: “For all their talk about emancipation and equality, when it came to gender it is fairly obvious that the sovversivi regarded politics as a male, public sphere and family as a female, private sphere. They were also notoriously known as womanizers.” And later, in the chapter that looks at the radical stage: “Radical Italian men, in particular, seemed incapable of truly questioning male authority, even as they advocated gender equality.”
Another revelation, this one on the positive side, was the sheer number of Italian-language radical papers that were published back in the day. There were not only the short-lived Il Grido degli Oppressi and Carlo Tresca’s Il Martello but, among many others, the anarcho-syndicalist La Questione Sociale, “the major organ of Italian revolutionary socialism” Il Proletario, Luigi Galleani’s Cronaca Sovversiva and its successor L’Adunata dei Refratti—which, incredibly, lasted until 1971, remaining “a powerful, if lonely, voice of anarchist protest.” Perhaps nothing shows both the decline of Italian-American radicalism, and the degree of the population’s assimilation into the American mainstream, quite so much as the gradual extinction of the Italian-language radical press.
The wonderful old banner of Cronaca Sovversiva.
Thrilled to discover that the Library of Congress
has made available for download what looks to be
Bencivenni’s study also contains plenty of random, fascinating, micro-level New York City history stuff. One example among many: in 1908, when the Catholic Church was cracking down on purveyors of “anti-clerical literature,” one of the booksellers arrested was the owner of S.F. Vanni over on West 12th Street. That store, which first opened in 1884, persisted into this century, and I remember years back (in the ’90s?) poking around inside of it, and being mystified by the dusty crumblingness of it, and its almost Miss Havisham–like level of spooky neglect. What was going on? Much later I learned that Dr. Olga Ragusa, the formidable Italian studies icon (and author of the ubiquitous and personally indispensible, if not exactly pleasurable Essential Italian Grammar, published by Dover), owned the building and lived upstairs. After a brief and heartening moment in 2015 when the Centro Primo Levi revived the store, sadly, it closed again, for good. It is now a gallery specializing in super-fancy French design.
La Voce di New York about Dr. Ragusa and
a terrific short video with Centro Primo Levi’s
Alessandro Cassin about S.F. Vanni’s brief revival,
or here for a related article from the New Yorker.
Meanwhile, John Pucciatti’s Spaghetti House, some blocks over on East 12th Street, which apparently took out ads in the radical press calling itself “the favorite meeting place of free thinkers of all nationalities” is of course still in operation. Today it’s called John’s of 12th Street, and I’d say one would be hard-pressed to find any vestiges of that radical history there, though the pasta remains reliably old-school. Here’s an interview from 2013 on EV Grieve with the John’s then-owner, with some great brief anecdotes about the old East Village.
What I’ve written here is a very glancing appreciation that can’t begin to do justice to the level of scholarship and dedication shown in Marcella Bencivenni’s book. I can only reiterate what a welcome addition to radical history studies Italian Immigrant Radical Culture is—and hope that it will, in turn, beget more of its kind.
Go here for a brief, informative review by Paul Buhle
of The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism (2003).
And for those who haven’t read The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism, it’s a treasure. Among the essays in it that spoke to me most were Mary Jo Bona’s generous and insightful “Rooted to Family: Italian American Women’s Radical Novels” (which discusses, among other writers, Carole Maso, always an inspiration to me), Edvige Giunta’s powerful “Where They Came From: Italian American Women Writers as Public Intellectuals,” Gil Fagiani’s essay on Mario Savio, Donna R. Gabaccia’s conclusion, and Nunzio Pernicone’s “War among the Italian Anarchists: The Galleanisti’s Campaign against Carlo Tresca.” Dr. Pernicone’s essay begins: “A cursory history of the Italian American Left might easily promote the impression that immigrant radicals … spent more time and energy squabbling amongst themselves than they did fighting the ruling class.” I can certainly hear his singularly erudite and exasperated voice in these words—as well as hearing the echo of this idea in the many factional quarrels that play out today, too often, among what I’ll imprecisely call the American left.
In her book, Bencivenni cites Pernicone as a mentor and, indeed, she gives him the last word: “The Italian American Left failed to reproduce itself,” she quotes him as writing, “and with its demise ‘a unique breed of dreamers and rebels also passed into extinction.’” Such melancholy truth to these words. I briefly had the pleasure of knowing Nunzio by email, and what a delight he was. An engaged person, full of opinions, humor, and heart; and also a scholar always ready to help. Dr. Pernicone died in 2013, another dreamer who passed into extinction, but his work lives on, as does the work of so many dreamers whom Bencivenni pays homage to in her admirable book.
The much-missed Dr. Nunzio Pernicone
in the 2006 documentary, Sacco and Vanzetti.