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Buried Caesars, and Other Secrets of Italian American Writing

Robert Viscusi

Publication Year: 2006

Robert Viscusi takes a comprehensive look at Italian American writing by exploring the connections between language and culture in Italian American experience and major literary texts. Italian immigrants, Viscusi argues, considered even their English to be a dialect of Italian, and therefore attempted to create an American English fully reflective of their historical, social, and cultural positions. This approach allows us to see Italian American purposes as profoundly situated in relation not only to American language and culture but also to Italian nationalist narratives in literary history as well as linguistic practice. Viscusi also situates Italian American writing within the “eccentric design” of American literature, and uses a multidisciplinary approach to read not only novels and poems, but also houses, maps, processions, videos, and other artifacts as texts.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Series: SUNY series in Italian/American Culture

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ix-xviii

Yet Italian America is indeed shaped by powers that lie deep in darkness. Most of these hidden powers are not criminals, not even persons at all. Rather they are beliefs—lost causes and impossible loyalties. These beliefs, and the conditions of their subsistence, are what give life to the myth of Italian America as an...

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pp. xix-xxii

When I began working on this subject in 1979, little of the institutional discourse that makes a collection of texts into the body of a literature existed. A rising generation of scholars and writers, however, was interested in supplying what was lacking, and this work has been conducted, as it were, in their midst. When a field is forming, the most...

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Introduction: Secrets of Italian American Writing

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pp. 1-24

The problem they acknowledge is the Mafia. They not only acknowledge this problem, but they never stop talking about it. People (I am one of them) who would like official Italian America to spend much more of its money supporting writers and scholars find this obsession with the Mafia frustrating. Its workings are familiar: in a game of...

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1. English as a Dialect of Italian

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pp. 25-38

“We don’t speak Italian,” my mother used to say, “we speak dialect.” Everything we spoke, English included, was a dialect of Italian. We had a clear sense that we did not speak any national language at all. As far as we were concerned, national standard Italian was exactly what Dante had meant it to be when he first proposed it: an imperial...

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2. De vulgari eloquentia: Ordinary Eloquence in Italian America

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pp. 39-58

Dante’s explanation of his language project has a bland self-confidence that is still striking. Finding that no one before him had “treated systematically the doctrines of eloquence in the vernacular” and seeing “that such eloquence [was] needed by almost everyone,” Dante set out to “enhance the speech of vernacular speakers.”¹ It was a difficult, even...

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3. Il caso della casa: Stories of Houses in Italian America

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pp. 59-68

Il caso della casa—“The Case of the House”—suggests a murder mystery, a crime, something formidable and stunning. “Stories of Houses in Italian America” is more relaxed, less formal: perhaps you will read about the seven-bedroom brick colonial that my cousin once owned in Westchester County, New york. The doubled and redoubled titles mean...

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4. Immigrant Ambitions and American Literature

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pp. 69-79

Walt Whitman’s expansionist definition of the United States as the “greatest poem” and “a nation of nations” and “the race of races” has the air of radical democracy that is also radically imperialist.² In the nineteenth century, American literature as an object of desire became as grandiose as everything else to which the national label could be...

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5. The Text in the Dust: Writing Italy across America

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pp. 81-94

Immigrants to America have always confronted, before anything else, the blankness of the place. America has generally struck the settler’s eye as empty and illegible. At the outset America had no map, no connection of its swamps and pampas with any articulated purpose a European could recognize. No kingdoms enfeoffed to the Vicar of Christ. No...

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6. The Semiology of Semen: Questioning the Father

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pp. 95-110

In the year 1939, John Fante was publishing Ask the Dust, his novel about the impossibility of writing a Great Italian American Novel, and in the same year Pietro di Donato was publishing Christ in Concrete, which certainly looked like a contender.

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7. Circles of the Cyclopes: Concentric History

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pp. 111-137

To use immigrant isolation as a center to describe large circumferences in U.S. writing has required strategic thought and a willingness to struggle. Italians living in the English language experienced from the start absence, abandonment, and other effects of systematic isolation. Language encloses an immigrant people within walls made of secrets and...

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8. A Literature Considering Itself: The Allegory of Italian America

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pp. 139-159

A literature may be defined as a combination of what it is and what it thinks it is. Persons interested in Italian American writing have largely concerned themselves with the first half of this definition. Bibliographers, archivists, linguists, chroniclers, and anthologists have been successfully at work, often against very formidable obstacles, for two...

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9. The Italian American Sign

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pp. 161-187

At some time in the past thirty years, the term Italian American writers no longer signified writers—not even, in some cases, scholars of Italian Americana—who could speak, understand, write, or read any of the languages usually called Italian, whether national or local. And the dialectic of dialect moved into a phase where Italian American came to...

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10. The Imperial Sopranos

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pp. 189-217

One fragment of Italian stubbornly attaches itself to even the most assimilated Italian American body: the family name. Many no longer use that name itself, of course. Peter Lazzara’s daughter Bernadette took her father’s first name instead of his last and went into show business as Peters.² Sandra Mottola married Eliot Gilbert after graduating from...


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pp. 219-248


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pp. 249-271

E-ISBN-13: 9780791482421
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791466339
Print-ISBN-10: 0791466337

Page Count: 294
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: SUNY series in Italian/American Culture

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- Italian American authors -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- Italian influences.
  • Italian Americans -- Intellectual life.
  • Italian Americans in literature.
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