- Visions of the United States: A Note on the Different Styles of Emilio Cecchi and the Americanisti
Between 1937 and 1938 the established essayist and literary critic Emilio Cecchi visited the United States. The purpose of his visit was to send a series of lengthy articles on the country back to Il corriere della sera for weekly publication. In 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, his observations and impressions were published in book-form under the revealing and overtly polemical title of America amara. 1 In all, the book contained fifty-one articles covering a range of subjects of almost encyclopedic extension: Cecchi considered the industrial fabric of the country, the modalities of union organization, American foreign policy, the effects of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the customs of given ethnic minorities, and the condition of the country’s universities and cities. Despite its pretensions to objectivity, however, the book, which was circulated in the years that immediately preceded the disastrous collapse of Fascism, produced a highly subjective and irredeemably negative picture of America in the thirties. Cecchi’s encounter with the social reality, the mass production, and the racial tensions of the new continent served only to reinforce his faith in the superiority of his own cultural identity. Further, in offering a picture of a violent and in many respects a chaotic society he provided the ordered if oppressive regime in Italy with an appropriately unattractive image [End Page 164] of a democratic alternative. In his study America in Modern Italian Literature, Heiney has succinctly and correctly observed: “America amara was so anti-American that it seems unbalanced if not downright dishonest to the reader who examines it in the post-Fascist era.” 2
In common with the majority of Cecchi’s books, America amara is no longer in print. But the text continues to excite critical interest because the notoriously anti-American stance of its author occurred in the politically charged context of Fascism and differed antithetically from the pro-American sentiments of writers such as Pavese or Vittorini. In what follows I do not propose to give an account of the ideological divide separating Cecchi from the so-called Americanisti, since that would require a detailed study of the reasons which allowed some forms of literature to live in peaceful contemporaneity with Fascism while impelling others to seek more covertly hostile modes of expression. Instead, I would like simply to indicate the criticisms that were made by pro-American writers against Cecchi’s mode of composition and to hint at the depth of the stylistic divide separating the prose of America amara from the more innovative textual configurations of the States produced in the years that followed on from the Second World War.
The Americanisti’s View of Cecchi’s Style
In the early 1920s Cecchi had advocated a return to classicism as a reaction against the avant-garde experiments of the early part of the twentieth century. La Ronda, the journal which along with several other writers he had set up in 1919, had discouraged experimentation and promoted instead a form of writing known as the “prosa d’arte”—short, elegantly crafted prose pieces, noticeable for the complexity of their syntactical and phonetic constructions. The “prosa d’arte” that Cecchi wrote in the 1920s and 1930s often showed an apparent closeness to reportage, since it often took the form of the narration of visits to localities or interviews with representative figures. However, it was a characteristic of the “prosa d’arte” that even when it seemed closest to journalistic writing it nevertheless incorporated idiosyncracies of vision, flights of fantasy, and the careful delineation of only selected aspects of reality. But the essential point is that when he travelled to the States in 1937, Cecchi did so not as a journalist eager to give an impartial account of the things that he saw but as an accomplished “prosatore d’arte,” writing in a definite style and within a definite tradition.
To the Americanisti Cecchi’s textual rendering of his visit to the United States seemed: “To be precisely the refined and sterile approach of the old, conservative, and bourgeois culture of...