Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 122-123
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Rebels and Mafiosi:
Death in a Sicilian Landscape
Rebels and Mafiosi: Death in a Sicilian Landscape. By James Fentress (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2000) 297 pp. $29.95
Since its "discovery" by the Italian government in the early 1860s, the Sicilian mafia has fueled more than one kind of industry. Plays, novels and films, scholarly dissertations, and popular histories about the mafia have all met with a degree of commercial and/or academic success. The public, it seems, is attracted by the image of a violent, powerful, and secretive organization and by what it appears to explain—the atavistic tendencies of the Sicilian character; the excessive reliance on private, especially family, ties; and the prevalence of political corruption and economic backwardness.
One problem with Fentress' approach to the mafia is that in his attempt to challenge such popular perceptions, he is also captivated by them. His analysis of the mafia in Sicily locates its origins in the political struggles of the nineteenth century—specifically, in the failure of the Sicilian revolutionary tradition and its gradual replacement by what Fentress describes as the local "dangerous classes" (that is, the mafia). Fentress argues, in short, that "an association between the revolution and the mafia really did exist" (149), and that the mafia must be seen as the product of failed political change rather than the expression of a desire to maintain the structures of traditional society. Yet he uses a series of clichés, misconceptions, and well-worn narratives to support his argument. For example, all Sicilians, according to Fentress, see the mafioso as "the true-born son of the Sicilian nation who had taken up arms against the foreign oppressor" (6), and he argues that, in general, Sicilians can be divided into those who supported "baronial rule" and those who did not (17). These assumptions are problematic since they perpetuate perceptions of Sicilian society that now seem difficult to sustain in the light of recent scholarly research.
There is a tension in this book between the parameters of academic inquiry and the demands of commercial publishing. In its claim to reveal "the truth" about the nineteenth-century mafia, Rebels and Mafiosi is similar to Peter Robb's sensationalist, and hugely successful, study of the postwar mafia, Midnight in Sicily (New York, 1999). But Fentress' lengthy historical descriptions of the 1820 revolution in Sicily (21-35), of Conte Carmillo Bensodi Cavour and Piedmont (71-79), and of Giuseppe Garibaldi's actions (95-123) mean that Rebels and Mafiosi lacks the immediate sense of place and personality that makes Robb's book such a good read. At the same time, the theoretical framework used by Fentress is ill-defined. He fails properly to explain what he means by revolution or to refer to the huge scholarly literature on the subject.
Fentress' claim that the origins of the mafia lie in criminality is hardly startling. His discussion of the "dangerous classes" assumes that they existed; the possibility that a "dangerous class" can be "imagined" or "invented" from above to rationalize elite fears or justify popular repression is never acknowledged. Fentress' use of sources is also patchy. He relies heavily on Trevelyan (1909), but never mentions the newer [End Page 122] innovative works on the mafia by Lupo (1993) and Gambetta (1993). 1 His discussion of northern Italian attitudes to Sicily would have benefited greatly from reference to both Moe's (2001) and Dickie's (1999) analyses of how images of the Italian South were constructed during the 1860s and after. 2 Finally, Rebels and Mafiosi is riddled with minor, but irritating, errors. For instance, the prefect of Palermo in 1865 was from Umbria not Piedmont (1); Palermo's Teatro Massimo was closed in the 1970s not the 1960s (and has now been re-opened) (9); it is doubtful that Garibaldi actually said "Here we make Italy or die!" at Calatafimi in 1860 (100); and his denunciation of Cavour in the Italian parliament took place in April 1861, not 1862 (Cavour died in June...