The Value of Worthless Lives: Writing Italian American Immigrant Autobiographies (review)

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The Value of Worthless Lives Writing Italian American
Immigrant Autobiographies (review)
Phylis Cancilla Martinelli
Biography, Volume 31, Number 2, Spring 2008, pp. 305-308 (Review)
Published by University of Hawaii Press
For additional information about this article
[ Access provided at 18 Oct 2020 00:13 GMT from UNSW Library ]

Reviews any attempt to evaluate some of his other claims. One wants to believe that the biographical subjects presented here are essential to one’s understanding of humanism in general, but the evidence in support of that argument can, in some instances, be slim.
While the chapters follow chronologically, one also strains to draw links between many of the details included. Letters, for example, are cited to construct outlines of a biographical sketch, but the details themselves do not always cohere. One might be told that Leontorius traveled to France and Germany with a reform-minded abbot, and that he collected Virgil’s works, but then, with little introduction or subsequent analysis, one is told that Le- ontorius wrote a poem against Italians and homosexuals. Analysis might have helped suture this gap, and might also have provided a thread connecting the vast number of names of individuals with whom the monk was in touch. Ina similar vein, Renaissance Monks teases and seems not to follow through. Take, for example, this suggestive introduction to the early life of the “Jack-of-all- trades Vitus Bild Acropolitanus” in Chapter Five As a humanist poet, following in the footsteps of his licentious teacher Jacob Locher Philomusus,
Bild too lived an easygoing life until he fell ill and had a terrifying dream-vi- sion that caused his moral conversion (137). One might expect a little more detail about the waywardness of both teacher and student, and how an easygoing life shaped the experience of the young humanist who would become a monk and later have strong Lutheran sympathies. Renaissance Monks, unfortunately, foregoes the opportunity to bring its subjects fully to life. The text is thus unable to offer its readers a multifaceted perspective of each monk as an individual and as a man of the cloth.
Duane A. Rudolph
Ilaria Serra. The Value of Worthless Lives Writing Italian American Immigrant
Autobiographies. Bronx Fordham UP, 2007. 244 pp. ISBN 9-7808-
2322-678-8, Since when do the lives of ordinary, and often uneducated, perhaps even untalented writers become worthy of recognition in a book length analysis When the author Ilaria Serra takes the time to tease out the social and psychological impetus behind the life stories she unearthed, thus convincing the reader of their significance. Indeed, the first third of the book is based on showing the value of readings that were dismissed by others. For example, she mentions elitist critic Roy Pascal, who sees texts chronicling the lives of average folks leading to worthless stories, since in his view they were impelled by egotism not heroism. Serra discusses and leaves behind postmodern criticism

306 Biography 31.2 (Spring of autobiography to draw on a range of disciplines, including history, psychology, and sociology, which comment on the trauma immigration causes the newcomer. In this context she sees the autobiography as fulfilling many uses for the individual and society. By recounting their hardships, losses, and growth, mature immigrant authors can derive satisfaction from making sure that others learn of their strength of character. This is not usually motivated by self-aggrandizement, but to indicate that even the life of an ordinary person can require extraordinary fortitude at times. From a societal perspective, their often explicit morality stories can serve to warn fellow immigrants to be careful by telling of those who lost their way in anew, permissive culture and acted against the values of the via vecchia that served countless generations of poorer peasants in Italy.
Serra argues that for the immigrant to write such an autobiography, anew Italian American self was needed—not the Italian self traditionally immersed in the extended family, but with a psyche anchored in an active, individual self. However, this newer self, developed by experience and observation of the individualistic American culture, did not lead to a complete personal transformation. Serra finds that the autobiographies suggest a Quiet individualism which is conducive to a narrative about the self told sottovoce rather than shouted in triumph (31). This new perspective to some extent cuts across the differences in region, class, and gender represented by her research. The reader of such autobiographies must see them, she reminds us, as records of simple lives with moderate aspirations and pride in often ordinary success, but success not available to them in Italy. We also learn of the ethos of the survivor as a dominant theme in the narratives. The trauma of immigration is not only asocial psychological disturbance. The move often entailed living in harsh circumstances, working in dangerous trades, exploring uncharted territories with hostile natives, and for women, raising children without medical care or female kin to assist anew mother.
Ilaria Serra’s sample has enough depth and scope of this hard-to-find genre to give the reader a taste of the various individuals who put pencil or pen to paper. Her focus on the works of the first generation is justified to the reader, as is her typology of immigrants that gives order to her analysis. In the following chapters the voices of Italian artists and spiritual leaders are heard poets like Pascal D’Angelo, revolutionaries like Carlo Tresca, and spiritual immigrants like Constantine Panunzio, who became a Methodist Minister, and Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, who came to love and defend Native Americans. In her last chapter, Serra includes those from a higher social class. For some, the lives of physicians, business leaders, and professors may seem more important to preserve than those of the ordinary immigrants, for among

Reviews these success stories are names the Americani recognize, like filmmaker Frank Capra. And many Italian Americans find comfort and status in being able to point to such prominenti, preferring to forget the humble origins and modest achievements of most immigrants. However, there are many moving accounts by working-class writers and women. Neither group might be expected to leave a written account of their lives as immigrants, especially because, as Serra notes, for the peasant class, writing is an act of protest, showing a determination to become part of history outside of the confines of family and friends By taking writing in their own hands, by daring to produce a book (the insignia and accessory of a superior cultural class, by becoming subject and not object of a productive rhetoric, our authors again cross cultural boundaries (28). Thus, worker writers define themselves through their manual labor and craftsmanship, and through their sense of destiny. Michele Panatello, for example, struggled economically during the US depression but would not return to Italy, where he could be forced to doff his cap to Fascist rulers. He saw this as what destiny wanted his is an example of the ethos of the survivor. Women were only infrequently found among these autobiographical authors those who stepped out of their traditional gender roles, however, found that America offered them some independence through working in a cash economy. Rosa Cavalleri’s story, recorded by settlement workers, gives voice to a girl and later woman by clearly explaining how she learned courage and resistance through the ordeal and opportunity of immigration. Anna Yona, an Italian Jew who kept her husband’s manuscript alive by continuing his writing when he died, did not start out as a writer. But once challenged she went onto immerse herself in the intellectual life of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Anna’s life shows us the complex layering of multiple social identities. With some enlightenment, which Ilaria Serra provides, others can seethe beauty, strength, and transformations these autobiographies represent, and learn from the morality tales embedded in their texts. After all, the uneducated Italian immigrants who found their creative outlet in eccentric towers, subterranean cities, and a fanciful Wooden Sculpture Garden, were originally snubbed by city planners who wanted to destroy such unconventional immigrant expressions, built by those without funds or formal training. But Simon
Rodia’s Watts Towers and Baldasare Forestiere’s underground gardens are now known globally as vernacular architecture, and Romano Gabriel’s sculptures are designated important folk art. Hopefully, the readers of Serra’s pioneering work will accept her legitimizing of such writing as social fact and a valid aspect of history that gives flesh to statistics and breathes energy into stiff formal portraits. Whereto look

308 Biography 31.2 (Spring for such underrated literary treasures She gives hints about possible sources for some an autobiography maybe as close as the family file cabinet. There resides the autobiography of Frank Nizza, my grandfather it will now be read with an eye for his place in her typology. Since he and Raffello Lugnani, discussed in Chapter Two on working-class writers, left San Francisco after the
1906 earthquake and fire to work in Alaska as miners, with a little imagination these two Italians can be seen huddled over a campfire chatting about the novel idea of someday writing a book about their lives.
Finally, such a book is important to encourage representatives of the many newer immigrant groups to be stewards of their own group’s autobiographical expressions. In this Information Age, new technology and a growing emphasis on self-expression may encourage Vietnamese, Salvadoran, Russian, and Ethiopian newcomers to pursue writing about their immigrant and refugee experiences. All can be added to the tapestry that is part of modern society.

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