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Godfather and American Culture, The

How the Corleones Became "Our Gang"

Chris Messenger

Publication Year: 2002

Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is an American pop phenomenon whose driving force is reflected not only in book sales and cable television movie marathons but also in such related works as the hit television series The Sopranos. In The Godfather and American Culture, Chris Messenger offers an important and comprehensive study of this classic work of popular fiction and its hold on the American imagination. As Messenger shows, the Corleones have indeed become “our gang,” and we see our family business in America reflected in them. Examining The Godfather and its many incarnations within a variety of texts and contexts, Messenger also addresses Puzo’s inconsistent affiliation with his Italian heritage, his denial of the multiethnic literary subject, and his decades-long struggle for respect as a writer in contemporary America. The study ultimately offers a way of looking at the much-maligned genre of popular or bestselling fiction itself. By placing both the novel and films within a number of revealing critical situations, Messenger addresses the continuing problem of how we talk about elite and popular fiction in America—and what we mean when we take sides.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Series: SUNY series in Italian/American Culture


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Title Page, Copyright

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p. v

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p. vii

The Godfather has been with us in America for a long time, and my interest has been germinating for what seems like decades as well. Puzo’s and Coppola’s texts have been important to my teaching about popular narrative at the University of Illinois at Chicago for fifteen years. I’ve taught The Godfather in many contexts in literature courses to everyone ...

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pp. 1-16

Several years ago I became captivated by two scenes in The Godfather, which both fascinated and repelled me. The first is the deathbed scene between Vito Corleone and his dying consigliere Genco Abbandando on Connie Corleone’s wedding day; the narrative voice concludes, “as if the Don could truly snatch the life of Genco Abbandando back from that ...

Part I. Popular Fiction Criticism and American Careers

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pp. 17-18

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Chapter One. Popular Fiction:Taste, Sentiment, and the Culture of Criticism

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pp. 19-50

What training and praxis inform both the way I frame my questions and the evidence I choose to examine? I want to chart the inevitable questions and false starts that face the literary critic when confronting a work of such massive popularity as The Godfather with the goal of beginning to outline my rationale for a particular set of readings at a number of sites. The largest questions about these issues ...

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Chapter Two: Mario Puzo: An American Writer’s Career

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pp. 51-84

With the publication of The Godfather in 1969, Mario Puzo became the greatest multiethnic literary success in an American literary climate that had only begun to register such seismic changes in its critical mapping. He, however, took little solace in that achievement. Puzo’s career pre- and post-Godfather is revealing, both for what he writes and for what he doesn’t, for the insights his earlier and later novels ...

Part II. Reading The Godfather: Critical Strategies and Theoretical Models

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pp. 85-86

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Chapter Three: Bakhtin and Puzo: Authority as the Family Business

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pp. 87-106

After The Godfather nominally changed everything in his writing life, Puzo considered his elite failure and his popular multiethnic blockbuster success with bemused resignation. In his essays, he played the unassimilated ethnic son and the unassimilated unsuccessful novelist, as he moved rhetorically from margin to margin. But in the character of the ...

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Chapter Four: The Godfather and the Ethnic Ensemble

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pp. 107-148

The Bakhtinian speech act analysis of key conversations in The Godfather conducted in chapter 3 attempts to bring forth the principles of authority on which the Corleone verbal empire is founded. In the pronouncements and answering words of family members and outsiders, The Godfather charts a course in which the family triumphs in violence over its ...

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Chapter Five: Barthes and Puzo:The Authority of the Signifier

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pp. 149-170

To describe how power and authority are negotiated through Italianita in The Godfather is not to sanction the text’s immorality and violence just because it is more colorful or dramatic when analyzed through ethnic markers. To relax into that satisfaction would ultimately be an insult to the richness of Italian American culture or any ethnic ...

Part III. Positioning The Godfather in American Narrative Study

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pp. 171-172

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Chapter Six. The Godfather and Melodrama: Authorizing the Corleones as American Heroes

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pp. 173-208

Chapters 3 through 5 were centered on ways to read The Godfather critically according to tenets extant in contemporary theory. By reading key scenes and characters through dialogics, the ethnic ensemble, and the politics of signification, I attempted to show how Puzo worked through issues in his fiction, not always toward greater clarification and deepening meaning ...

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Chapter Seven. The Corleones as “Our Gang”: The Godfather Interrogated by Doctorow’s Ragtime

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pp. 209-228

The completed struggle for survival and legitimacy in any historical novel must take on the character of destiny in the reader’s consciousness and in the historical present. One way to contextualize and contest Puzo’s picture of the Corleone hegemony in The Godfather is by way of contrast with another historical novel, E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975), ...

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Chapter Eight. The American Inadvertent Epic: The Godfather Copied

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pp. 229-252

If there is reason to contrast a best-selling novel such as The Godfather with an elite text such as Ragtime, then surely the novel should be displayed against other best sellers of comparable scope as well. Is there a transhistorical, genre-busting popular category that might contain Puzo’s novel? Leslie Fiedler, long the bad boy of American literary critical paradigm ...

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Chapter Nine. The Godfather Sung by The Sopranos

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pp. 253-290

When a depressed Tony Soprano is prodded by his psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, to open up about his father and describe the family dynamics at home during his childhood, he tells her, “My mother wore him down to a nub. . . . He was a squeakin’ little gerbil when he died” (Sopranos 1, 1). Such an admission announces we’re not in The Godfather anymore ...

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pp. 291-298

Mario Puzo died in July 1999 after The Sopranos’ first season on HBO. What he felt about the series, if anything, has not been reported. Although the current of energy in the mob narrative had been out of his control for decades, having passed into the hands of other writers, screenwriters, and directors, Puzo himself never ceased to wonder at that success ...


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pp. 299-316

Works Cited

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pp. 317-326


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pp. 327-344

E-ISBN-13: 9780791488706
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791453575
Print-ISBN-10: 079145357X

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2002

Series Title: SUNY series in Italian/American Culture
Series Editor Byline: Fred L. Gardaphe See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 53047177
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Godfather and American Culture, The

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Subject Headings

  • Puzo, Mario, 1920-1999. Godfather.
  • Mafia in literature.
  • Italian Americans in literature.
  • Criminals in literature.
  • Families in literature.
  • Corleone family (Fictitious characters).
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