- The Value of Worthless Lives: Writing Italian American Immigrant Autobiographies
Since when do the lives of ordinary, and often uneducated, perhaps even untalented writers become worthy of recognition in a book length analysis? When the author Ilaria Serra takes the time to tease out the social and psychological impetus behind the life stories she unearthed, thus convincing the reader of their significance. Indeed, the first third of the book is based on showing the value of readings that were dismissed by others. For example, she mentions elitist critic Roy Pascal, who sees texts chronicling the lives of average folks leading to worthless stories, since in his view they were impelled by egotism not heroism. Serra discusses and leaves behind postmodern criticism [End Page 305] of autobiography to draw on a range of disciplines, including history, psychology, and sociology, which comment on the trauma immigration causes the newcomer. In this context she sees the autobiography as fulfilling many uses for the individual and society. By recounting their hardships, losses, and growth, mature immigrant authors can derive satisfaction from making sure that others learn of their strength of character. This is not usually motivated by self-aggrandizement, but to indicate that even the life of an ordinary person can require extraordinary fortitude at times. From a societal perspective, their often explicit morality stories can serve to warn fellow immigrants to be careful by telling of those who lost their way in a new, permissive culture and acted against the values of the via vecchia that served countless generations of poorer peasants in Italy.
Serra argues that for the immigrant to write such an autobiography, a new Italian American self was needed—not the Italian self traditionally immersed in the extended family, but with a psyche anchored in an active, individual self. However, this newer self, developed by experience and observation of the individualistic American culture, did not lead to a complete personal transformation. Serra finds that the autobiographies suggest a "Quiet individualism" which "is conducive to a narrative about the self told sottovoce rather than shouted in triumph" (31). This new perspective to some extent cuts across the differences in region, class, and gender represented by her research. The reader of such autobiographies must see them, she reminds us, as records of simple lives with moderate aspirations and pride in often ordinary success, but success not available to them in Italy. We also learn of the "ethos of the survivor" as a dominant theme in the narratives. The trauma of immigration is not only a social psychological disturbance. The move often entailed living in harsh circumstances, working in dangerous trades, exploring uncharted territories with hostile natives, and for women, raising children without medical care or female kin to assist a new mother.
Ilaria Serra's sample has enough depth and scope of this hard-to-find genre to give the reader a taste of the various individuals who put pencil or pen to paper. Her focus on the works of the first generation is justified to the reader, as is her typology of immigrants that gives order to her analysis. In the following chapters the voices of Italian artists and spiritual leaders are heard: poets like Pascal D'Angelo, revolutionaries like Carlo Tresca, and spiritual immigrants like Constantine Panunzio, who became a Methodist Minister, and Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, who came to love and defend Native Americans. In her last chapter, Serra includes those from a higher social class. For some, the lives of physicians, business leaders, and professors may seem more important to preserve than those of the ordinary immigrants, for among [End Page 306] these success stories are names the Americani recognize, like film maker Frank Capra. And many Italian Americans find comfort and status in being able to point to such prominenti, preferring to forget the humble origins and modest achievements of most immigrants.
However, there are many moving accounts by working-class writers and women. Neither group might be expected to leave a written account of their lives...