Ernest Ialongo's Reviews > Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940

Italian Immigrant Radical Culture by Marcella Bencivenni
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May 04, 12

Read from March 28 to May 02, 2012

Review of Marcella Bencivenni's "Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940."

Ernest Ialongo

Bencivenni's book uncovers the radical culture of America's early Italian immigrants, and challenges the notion that Italian Americans are inherently a conservative group. It does so through prodigious archival research and a deep analysis of the cultural production of these Italian American radicals. Just as importantly, Bencivenni places Italian American radical culture within the broader context of political and cultural developments in Italy first, which formed the political sensibility and artistry of these radicals, and then in America where these radicals flourished.

This global analysis of Italian American radical culture is evident throughout the book, from the università popolare to the cartoons of Fort Velona. In the former, Bencivenni notes the rise of these informal schools to politicize the working classes in Great Britain, then their spread through Europe and Italy, and finally their emergence in America. In the latter she notes the development of the cartoon as a means of social and political satire in early modern Italy, then its explosion as a means of political and social protest in Europe and the United States in the 19th century, and finally the cartoon's mobilization by Italian American radicals to disseminate their particular message.

Another strong characteristic of this book is its careful nature in drawing conclusions about the influence of Italian American radical culture on the wider Italian American community. For instance, Bencivenni admits that it is impossible to determine how many people attended a political lecture, but deduces from the press that large crowds did consistently attend these events, and thus they must have had some staying power. Moreover, she notes that "We will never know how many workers read or understood Giovannitti's verses, but Giovannitti's great reputation among the workers suggests that they nonetheless found his poetry moving and powerful." (180)

A further strength of this book is its analysis of the transmission of ideas. Bencivenni notes throughout her book that most of the Italian American immigrants were poorly educated, and many were illiterate. In order to penetrate their political ambivalence and learned subordination to the elites and the Church, Bencivenni shows how the visual nature of the radicals' plays and cartoons and the simple didactic nature of their short stories conveyed the themes the radicals wished to spread: a critique of capitalism and its exploitation of the poor, socialism as an alternative, the role of the Church in keeping the masses submissive, and the role of the prominenti as the chief exploiters of their co-nationals. The radicals' anti Fascist message, and the collusion of the US government, Church, and prominenti in Fascism's success, was also effectively delivered in this method of simple and direct communication.

Finally, I found most compelling Bencivenni's investigation of the complexity of Italian American radical culture. Although it was steeped in the egalitarian, internationalist, and anti-clerical traditions of global socialism, Bencivenni notes that these Italian American radicals could not escape their Italian heritage, and thus their message to their co-nationals was quite complex. Though committed to egalitarianism, Bencivenni notes that the male radicals could not in real life bring themselves to support the complete equality of women. Though committed to internationalism, the radicals' message was rooted in a pride for their Italian heritage. Finally, though anti clerical, much of their work was laced with religious imagery, or tied to Biblical stories, often with Jesus Christ remade as a modern revolutionary. Bencivenni does well to explore how much this complexity was a product of the Italian American radicals' background, and how much this was purposefully done to speak directly to the masses in a language and with sentiments they would find familiar.

This book is a welcome addition to the expanding list of works dealing with Italian American radicalism, and will no doubt remain a foundational work in the field for years to come.
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Reading Progress

04/23/2012 page 18
6.0%
04/24/2012 page 50
18.0% "The Sovversive emerge."
04/25/2012 page 66
24.0% "And now on to the press."
04/27/2012 page 100
36.0% "The Press."
04/27/2012 page 120
43.0% "The Theatre."
04/28/2012 page 140
50.0% "Literary Radicalism."
04/29/2012 page 155
56.0% "Radical lit.--showing 'another world was possible.'"
04/30/2012 page 194
70.0% "Velona's cartoons."
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