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Feeling Italian

The Art of Ethnicity in America

Thomas Ferraro

Publication Year: 2005

2006 American Book Award, presented by the Before Columbus Foundation

Southern Italian emigration to the United States peaked a full century ago—;descendents are now fourth and fifth generation, dispersed from their old industrial neighborhoods, professionalized, and fully integrated into the “melting pot.” Surely the social historians are right: Italian Americans are fading into the twilight of their ethnicity. So, why is the American imagination enthralled by The Sopranos, and other portraits of Italian-ness?

Italian American identity, now a mix of history and fantasy, flesh-and-bone people and all-too-familiar caricature, still has something to teach us, including why each of us, as citizens of the U.S. twentieth century and its persisting cultures, are to some extent already Italian. Contending that the media has become the primary vehicle of Italian sensibilities, Ferraro explores a series of books, movies, paintings, and records in ten dramatic vignettes. Featured cultural artifacts run the gamut, from the paintings of Joseph Stella and the music of Frank Sinatra to The Godfather’s enduring popularity and Madonna’s Italian background. In a prose style as vivid as his subjects, Ferraro fashions a sardonic love song to the art and iconography of Italian America.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xv

The ideas in Feeling Italian are unorthodox, even heretical; its materials, often controversial; its modes of expression and address, experimental. Although written in a white heat, this book took more than a decade to germinate. Along the way, I have learned a great deal from those who have not shared my enthusiasm ...

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Introduction: Feeling Italian

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pp. 1-8

One would think, on the face of it, that the Italian Americans whose ancestors came to the United States en masse a full century ago must be coming to the end of their social and cultural distinctiveness. Blue-collar foundations that were once taken for granted have finally waned; the fourth and fifth generations are dispersing ...

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1. Honor: Friday Bloody Friday

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pp. 9-27

The southern Italian peasants who came to the United States during the Great Migration (1880–1917), first as sojourners, later as settlers, to help build and run the industrial cities, were the proudest of peoples. Having suffered for centuries at the hands of the landowners and the governmental authorities and the Church, ...

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2. City: New York Delirious

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pp. 28-50

Milan is just like New York, only there aren’t so many Italians.” The assumption underlying this common quip is that New York is one of the most Italian places on earth, yet it was built and settled not by the urban peoples of Italy’s advanced north but by contadini—the rural peasants from the impoverished, essentially ...

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3. Job: Close to the Flesh and Smell and Joy of Them

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pp. 51-71

Once upon a time in America, the swarms of hard-hatted, bronzed men in cheap clothing with dark unruly hair carrying lunch-buckets, comfortably convivial with one another while fiercely devoted—from all signs—to family, too earthy and hardbitten it would seem for belief in God, never mind organized religion, ...

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4. Mother: The Madonnas of Tenth Avenue

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pp. 72-89

Pietro di Donato’s short story “Christ in Concrete” has proven valuable on several accounts: its aesthetic strength as a linguistic and narrative experiment, the fascinating contradictory history of its reception, but above all because it provides special insight into the working men of the first generation, what di Donato himself ...

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5. Song: A Punch in Everyman’s Kisser

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pp. 90-106

The “long” American 1950s—the postwar period running from Harry S Truman’s dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan in 1945 to John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and the subsequent passage of civil rights and immigration-reform legislation in 1964—was the first great watershed for Italians in the United States, ...

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6. Crime: La Cosa Nostra Americana

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pp. 107-127

In the late 1960s, as disenchantment with U.S. involvement in Vietnam was escalating and domestic protest from various sectors was turning increasingly violent, when white ethnics were thought of as thick-necked hardhats and militarized cops who beat up scraggly or braless college kids, a long-suffering serious writer of ...

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7. Romance: Only a Paper Moon?

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pp. 128-142

By the late 1980s, the third and fourth generations of Italian America were coming into their own, with precious little memory of either Italy or immigration. Despite the pull of multicultural chic, individuals of Italian ancestry were taking spouses and life partners from outside the heritage, residing increasingly wherever ...

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8. Diva: Our Lady the Dominatrix of Pop

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pp. 143-161

By 1985, the sex-gender nexus, never far from the American mind, had become a hot-button issue. To most U.S. women, already taking civil rights advocacy for granted, feminist utopian thought had begun to feel like a choice between nutty-crunchy lesbian separatism or outgunning the preppie boys at Morgan Stanley, which put them ..

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9. Skin: Giancarlo and the Border Patrol

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pp. 162-180

To their corporate shame, Italian Americans figured prominently in two of the New York City hate crimes of the 1980s, crimes so closely tied to the patrolling of informal community borders that the fatal incidents are now known simply by the names of the respective neighborhoods: ...

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10. Table: Cine Cucina

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pp. 181-197

At the turn of the century, even the progressivists closed their eyes and held their noses when approaching the food shops in Little Italy, and my grandmother, born in 1901, used to recall endless childhood taunting, where antipathies of one order or another would invariably turn into food insults: “Go eat worms!” they told her, ...

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Conclusion: The Art of Ethnicity in America

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pp. 198-208

Italian immigration to the United States peaked in 1907. Almost a century later, a band of Northeasterners led by David Chase (n


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pp. 209-234

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Narrative bibliography

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pp. 235-248

I was once asked by an undergraduate enrolled in an Italian cooking class with me, what was the best Italian restaurant in town? Without hesitation, I answered, “China One” (a local Chinese restaurant). The student asking the question thought I was being facetious, but I wasn’t kidding: the Italians I know would seek out ...


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pp. 249-255

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About the author

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pp. 256

Thomas J. Ferraro, Associate Professor of English at Duke University, is an aficionado of the American Romantic tradition: Emily Dickinson, Edward Hopper, the Marx Brothers, and Nina Simone. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780814728390
E-ISBN-10: 0814728391
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814727300
Print-ISBN-10: 0814727301

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2005

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Italian Americans -- Ethnic identity.
  • Ethnicity -- United States.
  • Italian Americans -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Civilization -- Italian influences.
  • United States -- Ethnic relations.
  • Italian Americans -- Intellectual life.
  • American literature -- Italian American authors.
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