The Boston Italians by Stephen Puleo

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The Boston Italians

by Stephen Puleo

A Book Review by Greg Stock

March 2009

Stephen Puleo’s book, The Boston Italians, written in 2007, traces major events in the rich history of Italian immigrants in Boston from the latter part of the nineteenth century through recent years. As a grandchild of Italian immigrants in Boston himself, the author clearly approaches his task thoroughly from both a historical and personal perspective. While likely too specific for the general reader, Puleo’s book does a fairly good job of tracing major events and experiences of Boston’s large Italian immigrant population in a chronological fashion while using as a backdrop the well-documented career of an influential Italian newspaper-language newspaper editor and publisher, as well as recollections and documentation of his own family’s experiences as Italian immigrants in Boston.

The author spends the first several chapters of his thirty-four chapter work setting the stage for the reader by illustrating the importance and legacy of late nineteenth century Boston political figure George Scigliano, one of the first successful local politicians to represent the Italian community. By telling Scigliano’s story, the author also points out, both directly and indirectly, the social and political environment and issues that Italian immigrants faced during the early years of their settlement in Boston. As an early legislator and leader from the Italian community, Scigliano was deeply involved with struggles that early Italian immigrants faced. While his early death at age thirty-three left a definite void in the Boston political scene and, particularly, in the growing Italian community, Scigliano’s career was important and demonstrated the slowly growing political power of the Boston’s Italian population. Scigliano’s death also allowed the author to introduce one of Scigliano’s allies, James Donnaruma, an individual who would play an extremely important role for Italian Americans for the next half-century until his own death. Donnaruma’s fight to preserve the memory of his political ally and fellow Italian would further advance him as a leader in the Italian community in the Boston area. As the publisher and editor of the growing Italian-language newspaper, La Gazzetta (today’s Boston’s Post-Gazette), Donnaruma pushed for public recognition for Scigliano by renaming Boston’s North Square after him. While the battle was eventually lost due to political and racial concerns, Donnaruma’s fight did accomplish two things. In addition to making him the influential leader of the Italian community within Boston, it also brought Italian immigrants together to fight for a political for the first time. This unity was essential to future political, social, and economic successes.

In the second section of his book, Puleo does a concise, but also thorough job of explaining why the Italians chose to leave their homeland for the United States. I found it interesting that the Italian government actually encouraged emigration originally, but later reversed its position (too little, too late) when such large numbers of people (particularly, young men) were leaving. Since many of the immigrants were either returning after they had made more money or sending money home to the Old Country from the New, the Italian government was perfectly happy to let the emigrants leave at a rapid rate. Only when the return of both people and money slowed, did the Italian government realize that they had much to lose as a nation. The author accurately illustrates some of the major motivating factors that led so many to leave, namely poverty, natural disasters, and disease.

The next major section of the book specifically discusses the Italian immigrant experience in Boston. While Puleo focuses solely on one ethnic group in one geographic area, I am fairly confident that many of the experiences described in the book are similar to and could be applied toward other ethnic groups in other locales as well. During this section of the book, Puleo also incorporates the experiences of his own family members, a recurring theme for the remainder of the book. I think that this does help to add a more personal element to the story of Boston’s Italians. I also learned quite a bit more about the cultural life of this large immigrant group. The author also points out the many acts of discrimination and racism that took place against Italians during the early part of the twentieth century all across the country. He also draws an interesting parallel between the Italian American experience and the discrimination faced by African Americans. While the discrimination and violence was not quite as severe for the Italians, it was certainly of the same general vein. The influence of James Donnaruma and La Gazzetta begin to be much more pervasive and apparent during this time period as the number of Italian immigrants increases, so, too, does the number of issues and injustices facing them, such as proposals for immigration restriction aimed largely at eastern and southern European countries, such as Italy. The cultural divisions between Northern and Southern Italians are also exposed to the reader in this section. While I was aware that there was some difference between these two parts of Italy, I was unaware of how vast those differences were and how much division existed in Italy, and, subsequently, among Italian immigrants in the New World. Overall, this section of the book, which spanned three chapters, was very helpful to me in understanding the early experiences that Italian immigrants faced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The story of the Italian-American experience as told in the book is wound through events in American history as could be expected. In the fourth section, the author shifts to discussing the Italian experience during the 1910’s and early 1920’s. Much of the work of anarchists during and shortly after World War I was completed by Italian anarchists, the most famous of whom were Sacco and Vanzetti. As one can imagine, the relationship between anarchists and Italian immigrants hurt the Italian American community as a whole. The fact that Boston seemed to be the national center of anarchists anyway made conditions that much worse for Boston’s Italian community, mostly centered on the North End. While the number of anarchists was relatively small, it reflected poorly on Italian immigrants as a whole. The author does a good job of explaining the division and problems caused by the arrest, trial, and subsequent execution of Sacco and Vanzetti on a local, national, and international level. Puleo also begins to explain some of the political division among Italians. As a strong Republican supporter, Donnaruma is sometimes swimming against the tide with other Italian immigrants supporting the Democratic Party. While political division existed within the Italian American community, during the 1920’s, a strong generation gap also began to develop as younger generations became more assimilated through public education. While not a large feature of his book, Puleo also introduces the Italian role in organized crime and its hurtful effect on the Italian American image as stereotyping the group as criminals.

The next chapter of American history was also a difficult one for Italian Americans. Because of the discrimination typically faced by Italian Americans, the Great Depression was particularly difficult for the group. The rise of Mussolini in Italy was also problematic, especially after Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany. While many Italian Americans still had family ties in Italy, they also developed loyalty to the United States as well. Once the United States entered the war, the Italian American community overwhelmingly supported its efforts and young Italian American men enlisted in great numbers.

The last two sections of the book were a little weaker in terms of content. After World War II, American society changed dramatically and younger generations of Italian Americans began to leave the North End for the suburbs. The author illustrates how this marked the beginning of the end for a distinctive Italian community. This move coupled with a controversial urban renewal project and divisive highway construction really tore the traditional Italian community apart. The last section of the book discusses current Italian leaders in the Boston area in several fields, such as business, fine dining, social activism, and politics. I did not personally think that this section was necessarily helpful or added much to the book overall.

Overall, I felt that the book was a very good resource documenting the Italian American experience. While I would not necessarily describe it as a page turner, it certainly is a good reference book for immigration research. While the book does focus on Italians in Boston; many of the experiences described are similar to issues faced by other immigrant groups in other parts of the nation. Judging by the amount of facts provided and by the eighteen page bibliographic essay, it is clear that the author certainly researched the topic well. In reading over the bibliographic essay, Puleo clearly used a wide variety of both primary and secondary sources. In particular, it is quite evident that he relied heavily on the papers of James Donnaruma, currently housed at the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota.

Without question, the book does add to the scholarship in the topics of both the Italian American experience and in Boston history. While I do not necessarily think that the post-World War II information is particularly valuable, the early years of Italian mass immigration is fairly informative and well-researched. If nothing else, the reader also has a more in-depth understanding of national and international events of particular importance to the Italian community. Using his own family’s experiences as well as extensive events in James Donnaruma also helped add a more personal feel to the narrative. Certainly reading the book does give the reader a much better feel for life in turn-of the century Boston’s North End and the challenges faced by Italians in both the new and old world.
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