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The Value of Worthless Lives

Writing Italian American Immigrant Autobiographies

Ilaria Serra

Publication Year: 2007

The writer Giuseppe Prezzolini said that Italian immigrants left behind tears and sweat but not words,making their lives in America mostly in silence, their memories private and stories untold.In this innovative portrait of the Italian-American experience, these lives are no longer hidden. Ilaria Serra offers the first comprehensive study of a largely ignored legacy-the autobiographies written by immigrants.Here she looks closely at fifty-eight representative works written during the high tide of Italian migration.Scouring archives, discovering diaries, and memoirs in private houses and forgotten drawers, Serra recovers the voices of the first generation-bootblacks and poets, film directors and farmers, miners, anarchists, andseamstresses-compelled to tell their stories. Mostly unpublished, often thickly accented, these tales of ordinary men and women are explored in nuanced detail, organized to reflect how they illuminate the realities ofwork, survival, identity, and change.Moving between history and literature, Serra presents each as the imaginative record of a self in the making and the collective story of the journey to selfhood that is the heart of the immigrant experience.

Published by: Fordham University Press


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Title Page

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p. v

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pp. 1-7

Nello is buried on a Tuscan cliff that looks toward the tiny island of Giglio, which he left as a young boy in order to emigrate to America. Nello’s attachment to his homeland was so strong that he even named his daughter Elba, after the much larger neighboring island. ...

Part I

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Autobiography: The Literary Genre of Immigration

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pp. 11-46

If a novel lays out an imagined immigration, and poetry offers us a distilled and rarefied immigration, autobiographies provide us with the most real and sincere account of the process and effects of immigration that we could have. Letters also contribute an important voice...

Part II

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The Working-Class Writer

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pp. 49-89

Most of the autobiographies reviewed in this section are characterized by how central work is to the immigrant’s life. Often the person chose to migrate out of the desire to find or change jobs. Indeed, ‘‘work’’ is an American value that these immigrants have internalized; for most American...

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Immigrant Artists

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pp. 90-103

These Italian immigrants came to America to pursue an artistic dream; but they remain ‘‘immigrant workers’’ at heart. They strongly maintain the ethos of the artisan, with its mixture of manual labor and creativity, more than pretenses of artistic genius. They tell their stories in the quiet...

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The Spiritual Immigrant

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pp. 104-115

Of the next five autobiographies, three are of men for whom years of work gave birth to a new man—a man of God, a convert to spiritual faith. Luigi Turco, Constantine Panunzio, and Antonio Arrighi came to America as immigrant boys. They were not satisfied with the material enrichment...

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Immigrant Women

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pp. 116-131

It is rare to find women’s voices among immigrant autobiographies. In the early years, there were fewer female than male immigrants, although the proportion increased steadily over the century, comprising a third of the total immigrants in the 1830s but more than half of the total after 1930s.1 ...

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Toward Success

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pp. 132-154

The writers of the autobiographies in this last chapter have achieved success as doctors, professors, or business people, so they belong to a different social class than the rest of our immigrant autobiographers. All share the work ethic that defined our earlier groups of Italian immigrants...

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pp. 155-156

We have now witnessed in these pages proof of the reversal of Giuseppe Prezzolini’s 1963 conclusions about Italian immigrant autobiography—his claim, which we read earlier, that the immigrants didn’t want to remember their past, how they left no written word, how ‘‘Immigration...


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pp. 157-213


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pp. 215-228


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pp. 229-234

E-ISBN-13: 9780823248612
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823226788
Print-ISBN-10: 0823226786

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 301382722
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Value of Worthless Lives

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Subject Headings

  • Autobiography.
  • Immigrants -- United States -- Biography -- Authorship.
  • Women -- United States -- Biography -- Authorship.
  • Italians -- United States -- Biography -- Authorship.
  • Italian Americans -- Biography -- Authorship.
  • Working class -- United States -- Biography -- Authorship.
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