- “Our Brother Dante”Dantesque Reappropriations in Italian America
There is something to be said about the presence of Dante in Italian-American letters and culture. And just saying that “something,” saying that it is there and it is worthy of a critical discourse, might prove to fulfill a significant part of the overall meaning of Dante among Americans of Italian descent. In fact, Dante’s position within Italian America is so obvious, and even in some way so predictable, that it is quite simply not very much considered. It is as if it is so taken for granted—especially by educated people and scholars—that it goes unnoticed, which is a telltale paradox. This unconscious strategy of effacement seems an introjection of the much wider removal experienced by Italian Americans both in the United States and in Italy. It functions—Dante’s removal, or bracketing—as a homeopathic remedy that stimulates and readies the larger Italian-American social body for its comfortable marginality. But this is made possible by the fact that Dante as a whole—his texts, his figura, the aura of his authority—has had a long history in North America, to the point that, as a cultural pawnbroker, he has acquired a quasi-Italian-American status. Identifying with Dante implies legitimizing the history and existence of an Italian-American culture, and providing its experience with a radical narrative of searching and foundation, which is liable to be used both as an existential compass and as a shared, collective patrimony.
A sign (yet another) of Dante’s inexhaustible depth, but also of the pliability of Italian-American culture, is the fact that the allegorical journey and the towering stature of the poet could and can be adapted to totally different historical conditions, forging a somewhat plausible dialogue between fiction and reality, between a God quest and a harsh economic pull. Dante and his encyclopedia are [End Page 69] reinterpreted by an “exiled” people on the move—diverse, divided among themselves, inquisitive, dissatisfied, and driven by a concomitant need for consent with the surrounding American society and its many social and ethnic components. Dante’s dreams, which structure the ascent to Purgatory, also authorize the immigrants’ dreams, their social and quite real Purgatory. The poet’s centrality is the blueprint for a new, hard-won, unprecedented individualism.
To a certain extent, what there is of Dante amounts to debris. Accordingly, I will make reference mostly to his literary traces. But traces and debris are not due to the antiquity of our sources; rather, they constitute the byproduct of a huge ritualistic banquet, so to speak, where the veritable roots of Italian culture have been served, appropriated, metabolized. It would be imprecise, though, to consider the Italian-American Dante as the transatlantic counterpart of Dante-as-we-know-him in Italian popular culture, as a cannibalization of Dante in the Little Italies and beyond, developed in the peculiar context of American Dante studies and of Dante’s constant American fortune; the Italian-American Dante always retained a distinct Italian-American character. Far from being mere leftovers, this debris, instead, points to the larger, coherent picture of a dignified, self-adjusting civilization. Its relevance resides precisely in the echo that it is capable of producing, all the more when it eschews a strict scholarly circulation, and makes a connection with the intense, real-life immigrants’ experience. An expression such as “the Italian-American Dante” acquires, thus, its proper meaning, anachronism notwithstanding.
Da Ponte and the Promptings of the Dante Club
Dante acquired a proper Italian-American dimension slowly, his first appearances something of a footnote to the literary militancy of the glorious and legendary Dante Club. It might be an overstatement to extol the scholarly virtues of Pietro Bachi, Pietro D’Alessandro, Luigi Monti, and Vincenzo Botta, wayward representatives of the Risorgimento between Boston and New York from the 1820s well into the next century. It is a well-known fact that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, while working on the first complete American translation of the Commedia (1865–67), was teaching at Harvard to students instructed in the subtleties of Dante’s volgare by Pietro [End Page...