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By the Breath of Their Mouths

Narratives of Resistance in Italian America

Mary Jo Bona

Publication Year: 2010

Examines the liberating power of speech and its influence on generations of Italian American writers. In By the Breath of Their Mouths, Mary Jo Bona examines the oral uses of language and the liberating power of speech in Italian American writing, as well as its influences on generations of assimilated Italian American writers. Probing and wide-ranging, Bona’s analysis reveals the lasting importance of storytelling and folk narrative, their impact on ethnic, working-class, and women’s literatures, and their shaping importance in multiethnic literature. Drawing on a wide range of material from several genres, including oral biographies, fiction, film, poetry, and memoir, and grounded in recent theories of narrative and autobiography, postcolonial theory, and critical multiculturalism, By the Breath of Their Mouths is must reading for students in Italian American studies in particular and ethnic studies and multiethnic literature more generally.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Series: SUNY series in Italian/American Culture

By the Breath of Their Mouths

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By the Breath of Their Mouths

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xi

In the mid-1980s when I began my foray into the literature of Italian America, it felt like walking into the barren spaces of the great Northwest, despite the fact that most of the narratives were urban-centered, cluttered, and noisy. Yet, as Gretel Ehrlich has so eloquently written of the solace of open spaces, I felt a peaceful coming-home among works that were largely unknown in the literary academy...

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pp. 1-10

U.S. writers of Italian America give the lie to the idea represented by the code of omert

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1: Justice/Giustizia Private Justice and the Folkloric Community in the World of Italian Americans

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pp. 11-38

In marked contrast to mainstream conceptions of justice, Italian American writers have conceptualized justice in their works through a folkloric view of the world, which includes storytelling, ritualized gatherings, and proverbial beliefs. Institutions of business, official forms of Catholicism, the legal system represented by the police force, and the public school are modified in distinct ways by the cultural behaviors enacted in Italian American families...

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2: Faith/Fede Plenty to Confess Women and (Italian) American Catholicism

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pp. 39-72

Capitalizing only two words in her entire poem, “Italian” and “St. Anthony,” Elaine Romaine semantically diminishes the power of Irish domination and the conventional ritual of the Catholic sacrament of communion in her poem “you were always irish, god.” Romaine’s description of the annual festa also illustrates its association with patriarchy as only male figures (most likely Italian)...

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3: Story/Racconto Una chiacchierata nel passato Rosa and Marie of Rosa: The Life of an Italian Immigrant

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pp. 73-94

A long time ago, two womenmet and talked for thirteen years. From 1918 to 1931, a middle-aged Italian woman named Rosa Cassettari shared stories with a young widow named Marie Hall Ets. A cleaning lady for over forty years at the Chicago Commons Settlement House, Rosa’s status as a custodian did not prevent her from pursuing her art of storytelling...

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4: Land/Terra Village People in Guido D’Agostino’s Novels with Joanne Ruvoli

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pp. 95-118

Guido D’Agostino believes in the land. The four novels he published within a twelve-year period (1940–1952) reflect an agrarian idealism nurtured in homeland Italy but sewn in new-world America. D’Agostino seems to be implicitly remarking on the U.S. industrial marketplace that hired and exploited immigrant Italians,who lived in cities...

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5: History Singer/Cantastorie Vernacular Voices in Paule Marshall’s and Tina De Rosa’s Kunstlerromane

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pp. 119-140

For writers who locate their characters in urban enclaves, guaranteeing them long-term security is undercut by rapid changes in the marketplace and themobility that allows some to move away from old neighborhoods. Urban working-class families, subject to assimilative desires, sometimes managed to purchase a home, further testimonial to American-borne values of acquisition and individualism...

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6: Precursor/Precursore Mother’s Tongue Italian American Daughters and Female Precursors

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pp. 141-174

While Italian American male and female authors share many of the same cultural and literary concerns, including their incorporation of oral, folk, and family traditions within literary writing that reveals hard-core skepticism toward institutional authorities and reverence toward nontraditional forms of worship, a gulf often separates them in their responses to genealogical and literary precursors...

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7: Death/Morte What They Talk About When They Talk About Death

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pp. 175-209

That Italian Americans die in literature is as important as how they die. Authors of Italian America are likely to agree with Maurice Blanchot, who says that when we speak, we “are leaning on a tomb” (55). Italian American writers frequently portray experiences of death, inconsolable grief, and accompanying mourning rituals, especially in the early part of the twentieth century...

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8: Revival/Risorgimento Stories Continue Shaping U.S. Italian American Writing

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pp. 211-234

REVIVAL, ITALIAN AMERICAN STYLE From the voices of justice to the voices of mortality, Italian Americans have adapted folk materials from their ancestors’ paesi to create artful narratives that resist oppressions of silence, overlaying them with individual and communal uses of voice...


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pp. 235-266


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pp. 267-286


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pp. 287-302

E-ISBN-13: 9781438429977
E-ISBN-10: 1438429975
Print-ISBN-13: 9781438429953
Print-ISBN-10: 1438429959

Page Count: 314
Publication Year: 2010

Edition: 1
Series Title: SUNY series in Italian/American Culture

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Subject Headings

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