Fred L. Gardaphé’s Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative is a milestone in both ethnic studies and Italian American writing. It is remarkable for its use of ethnogenesis as a way of perceiving literary history, its depth of understanding and scholarship in Italian American literature, and its groundbreaking discussion of ethnicity and the assimilated writer. Theoretically sophisticated in its overview of major approaches to ethnic literature and filled with elegant, original formulations, it is a landmark work that will prove seminal for anyone working in contemporary American literature.
The passage from old world to new, from premodern to twentieth-century culture has, in the past, shaped our understanding of novels of immigration into revelations of dislocations in space and time, or recognitions of ethnics and Americans separated by a wall of “otherness.” [End Page 1009] Gardaphé introduces an original, developmental approach that goes beyond such familiar disjunctions to focus on continuities of interaction between America and its immigrants.
Drawing on Giambattista Vico’s cyclical view of history, Gardaphé sees the rise and fall of cultural myths as a continuous process of reinvigorated conception. “Using Vico’s notions of a culture’s three ages—the Age of Gods, the poetic stage; the Age of Heroes, the mythic stage; and the Age of Man, the philosophic stage—we can . . . read the pre-immigrant past as the Age of Gods, the early period of social development as the Age of Heroes, and the postimmigrant experience as the Age of Man and Woman.” The first stresses oral traditions, the second, autobiographical narratives, and the third, “sophisticated and self-reflexive postmodern” narratives. The first sees the originary immigrant narrative of dislocation as catalyst for the latter two, which emphasize ordering that upheaval in a process of mutual assimilation. Such a process discloses a reflexive relationship between culture and character pinpointed by the ethnic signs that survive and flourish in a multicultural context. Gardaphé can therefore read Italian American fiction not only “as products of ethnic writers” but also for “the ethnic signs produced by their American writers.”
Gardaphé asks of Italian American literature: “What are the cultural codes generating culturally specific signs?” For Gardaphé, Italianità consists of cultural expressions or codes governing “lexical units” and behavior: omertà, the code of silence that governs what is spoken or not spoken about in public, and bella figura, the code of “proper” demeanor or “social behavior that governs an individual’s public presence.” Selectivity in discourse and self-fashioning underscores the power of ethnic signs to serve not simply as marks of otherness, but as tools for cultural construction and forces for continuously mediating between margin and mainstream.
Gardaphé analyzes such processes at work in a great variety of texts ranging from Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather to discussions of a remarkable literature by women writers and postmodernists like Don DeLillo. Among many striking insights are those involving what could be called a poetics of reversal, in which Italian cultural codes mediate the excesses of a larger [End Page 1010] society that is itself questioning the nature of the family and its own public institutions.
Gardaphé explores how Mario Puzo’s The Godfather participates “in the construction and the deconstruction of . . . the myth of reverse assimilation.” He writes: “The key to this novel’s success lies in Puzo’s ability to make readers envy and even fear the mystery and the power inside the Italianità that he represents through the Corleone family.” Thus Americans, epitomized by the Don’s lawyer and daughter-in-law, want to adopt the codes of omertà and bella figura expressed in Don Corleone’s consistent preference for social and familial order over profit and gratification. “Tom Hagen and Kay Adams, the Mayflower princess, . . . represent an American desire to be part of a cohesive family,” a need for order in the midst of the burgeoning confusions of postwar life. The fully assimilated come to Don Corleone afflicted by “new world problems” that can be solved in “old world...