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MLN 119.1 (2004) 67-83
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From Diaspora to Empire:
Enrico Corradini's Nationalist Novels
In a time when Italians find themselves having to deal with the "problem" of immigrants, it is important to remember other times, when Italy was a "proletarian nation," 1 from which other, more prosperous countries extracted the most indispensable element for the development of their economies: human labor at low cost. The massive exodus of Italian citizens—over 14 millions between 1876 and 1915—(Baily 27) represented a challenge for the newly unified nation, with which the ruling classes tried to deal in different and often contradictory fashions. Liberal economists and politicians at the turn of the century perceived emigration as a precious outlet ("una valvola di sfogo") which helped to keep a healthy balance in the body politic of the nation: emigration was often compared to blood letting, a medical procedure commonly used to discharge the excess of blood which may otherwise upset normal bodily functions. Moreover, Italians abroad contributed considerably to national economy with the money they sent home to their families. Nevertheless, policymakers became increasingly concerned about the absence of a strong sense of "italianità" among emigrants and their children, who did not seem to preserve, while living abroad, a close connection with the motherland. Therefore, one of the challenges for the Italian [End Page 67] government was how to maintain—or in many cases how to create—a sense of Italian national identity in the diasporic communities scattered around the world.
Whereas most European nations were actively pursuing, at the turn of the century, a politics of economic and military expansion, some Italian economists claimed that Italy was carrying out a more humble and peaceful colonization, particularly in Argentina and Brazil, where Italian settlements continued to grow, and emigrants and their children were beginning to play a prominent role in the economic sector. Luigi Einaudi and Francesco Saverio Nitti were among the most outspoken defenders of emigration. They believed that a "new and greater Italy in the Plata region" was beginning to materialize, thanks to the hard work and the inventiveness of Italian migrants. In a very successful book, Il principe mercante (The merchant prince) published in 1900, Einaudi presented the case of an Italian entrepreneur who founded a small economic empire in Argentina, without any help from the Italian government. In Luigi Einaudi's view, "we are showing the world that Italy is able to create a form of colonization more prefect and sophisticated than the Anglo-Saxon model, because while previous colonizations have always been carried out in conjunction with a military domination, Italian colonization has always been peaceful and independent" (Are 20). For Einaudi, who was writing only a few years after Crispi's failed attempt to colonize Abyssinia in 1896, a peaceful expansion through emigration was the only viable alternative to military colonization. However, according to Giuseppe Are, author of an influential study on the subject, La scoperta dell'imperialismo (The discovery of imperialism), the idea of creating a greater Italy in South America was an illusion, bound to be crushed by the reality of the new world order, characterized by the crisis of liberalism and the emergence of imperialism. Are reminds us that even England, the cradle of liberalism, was beginning to adopt a politics of protectionism, both at home and throughout its empire: "instead of the old purely economic conception of the empire, a new imperialism was introduced, which identified itself essentially in territorial expansion and military conquest" (Are 58). He continues arguing that "the cynically demagogic usage of religious arguments had entered the English political debate, previously so civilized" (Are 59).
The myth of a new Italy in South America was openly challenged by Luigi Barzini, in a series of articles written for the Italian daily Corriere della sera, and successively collected in a volume entitled L'Argentina [End Page 68] vista com'è (Argentina as it really is) published in 1902. For Barzini, Italian emigration was a "painful and humiliating experience"(Gentile 360). He reported that Italians in Argentina were encountering...