I recently read the thoughtful memoir by Joseph Luzzi entitled, “My Two Italies,” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). At its core, it’s the tale of an Italian family who crossed the ocean to start a new life in the United States, and how that journey was experienced by different generations. But there are several features of this book—and its author—that set it apart from most Italian American immigrant stories.
First of all, the events take place about fifty years after The Great Immigration (which is when my own great-grandparents arrived from Calabria). The 1910’s marked the peak of Italian immigration to the United States, when over two million Italians arrived during that decade, with a total of 5.3 million between 1880 and 1920.
Mr. Luzzi’s family—parents and older siblings—arrived in 1956, also from Calabria. (Worth noting that during those fifty or so years, the U.S. had changed quite a bit, as did the North of Italy. Calabria, however, did not.) As for the author, he was born 11 years later in 1967 as an American citizen. So while he learned English as his primary language, played baseball, and dressed in American-style clothes, his parents remained Italian in their ways, allowing the young Luzzi to understand something of his parent’s country before he ever traveled there himself.
Secondly, when he did finally make it to Italy for the first time, it was the Italy of Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante, and all of the other players in the Renaissance city of Florence. Although he was geographically much closer to his parent’s Calabria at that moment, culturally he was just as distant as he had been back in Rhode Island. The metaphor of two Italies could hardly be more apparent.
The title of the book is borrowed from a Shelley quote which says, in part, “There are two Italies […] The one is the most sublime and lovely contemplation that can be conceived by the imagination of man; the other is the most degraded, disgusting, and odious.” For anyone who has spent an extended period of time in that “Paradise of exiles,” you know how accurate the statement really is. Italy is rife with contradictions and paradoxes—which, in my opinion, is a big part of its appeal to the rest of the world.
What really gains my admiration about his tale is that the author takes a pragmatic look at both of these Italies, without being overly critical or swaying too deeply into sentimentality. For those of you who crave lyrical accounts of rolling Tuscan Hills, or the sunlight reflecting off the Venetian Lagoon, perhaps this isn’t the book for you. But for anybody who is hungry for an in-depth, honest discussion of this complex country, you cannot do better than “My Two Italies.”By focusing the story of a family, we also see a bigger picture of the challenges faced by all Italians, both past and present. We witness the details of daily life; of the stubborn traditions, the centrality of food and the dinner table; of families that stick together regardless of circumstances, because that was crucial to survival—in the Old Country, and for a time, in the New Country, as well. We see this closeness of the family as a blessing and a curse, both for individuals and the country at large. We understand how it can smother someone as much as protect them. We read about incredible strength of individual spirit, and disgraceful acts of political corruption. And in the end we concede that the real Italy rarely gives you something beautiful without asking you to endure (or overlook) something unpleasant in return.
There is a chapter in the book entitled “No Society,” which delves into a brief analysis of modern Italian politics from Craxi to Berlusconi, attempting to explain why Italians are so bad at governing, and so bad at choosing the people to govern them. It’s a clear, concise explanation, and perhaps necessary for rounding out the larger discussion.
I’ve read all of this before, both from other foreigners (Bill Emmott, Good Italy, Bad Italy), as well as Italians (Beppe Severgnini, La Bella Figura). So for me, I found it awkwardly placed, as I was absorbed by the personal story of Luzzi and his family, and this chapter sort of interrupted the emotional flow. Instead of feeling the joys and pains of the immigrant journey, I felt only frustration towards the modern Italian politicians. Nonetheless, a good overview.
More interesting is Luzzi’s dealing with the Italian-American stereotypes in the chapter, “Carnal Violence.” Everyone is exposed, from Robert DeNiro’s elegant Don Corleone, to the contrived spectacle of The Jersey Shore “reality” show. Luzzi shows no mercy to these embarrassing typecasts, deftly dispensing of their negative contributions to the ethnic image, and then pondering “why” Italian Americans themselves continue to help perpetuate these unfortunate myths.
But again, the real delight of reading this book is the personal story of Luzzi’s family, in some ways as surrogates for the Italian-American experience that many of us have lived in some related version. However, Luzzi has the academic knowledge, as well as the temporal proximity to the events which give his voice a rare combination of authority and genuine emotion. He accomplishes what sets out to do on the first page, which is, “not to solve the riddles of the past, but to bring them truthfully and vividly to life.”
This book should be required reading for all Italian Americans who have an honest desire to understand Italy, both The Old Country, and the modern one. Many Italian Americans still hold onto a vague image of a country that never really existed. Some even travel there to “get in touch with their roots” without ever venturing south of Rome, and into the mezzogiorno where most of their “roots” can be traced. And then they are disappointed when they can’t find their grandmother’s braciole on the menu at a Venetian restaurant.
As Luzzi writes, “We Italian Americans commemorate our past only to remind ourselves how far we have traveled from it. Our pride in our ancestors grows with the distance we set between them and ourselves.”
If you want to take this trip with Mr. Luzzi, you must be willing to suspend any fondness for Tony Soprano, “Sunday gravy,” Dean Martin songs, and the like. You must make the distinction between Italian Culture with a capital C, and Italian-American culture. You must acknowledge that both have rich traditions—but they bear very little resemblance to one another. This type of self-examination can produce a temporary “identity crisis” for some, but you’ll come out on the other end feeling enriched, not disillusioned.
This is because the author clearly holds affection for both Italies, even if it’s clear that those affections are not of the same nature. This is one of the great accomplishments of the book, and it could have only been achieved by someone like Luzzi who has one foot firmly planted in each “Italy.”
Visit the author’s website at: http://josephluzzi.com/
I just spent close to 90 minutes in the care of your dad.
I’ve been seeing him for about 30 years & have spoken about you from time to time.
Knowing you had relocated to Italy to teach I asked about you today & among other things was referred to your blog. 🙂
I enjoyed reading your review & the comments & it moved me to think, America is on the path to socialism & the way of corruption like Italy, & Spain as one comment noted.
I hope you will use your talents to address the issues here &help save our nation while there is a chance to save it. Otherwise, in days to come bloggers & other writers will be telling of the America that used to be the land of opportunity that Italians, etc came to.
We need your participation.
Benjamin Franklin said upon leaving the convention that gave us our Constitution in response to a woman’s question, what kind of government have you given us, “a Republic if you can keep it”. Rick, You & I are today’s ‘you’.
Hi Rick, Yes, I have enjoyed My Two Italies very much, I appreciate your review.
I have an unrelated question: please can you explain why some Italian speakers, when using English to me, say ,’No’ when they agree. My partner cannot explain this.
I need some explanation. If you can help, I will be so relieved as understanding takes away half the problem. Grazie, Diana
Hi Diana, not sure what you mean exactly, but I sometimes here “uh-uh” as an affirmative in Italian, whereas in English it means “no.”.
As usual, another great post, this one a review for a book that I now must read. Thank you for that!
You’re welcome…and let me know what you think of the book. Ciao!
Rick, this 13 day journey through Italy’s Mezzogiorno might interest youl http://www.amazon.com/1800-Kilometers-FIAT-500-Genealogical/dp/1501027514/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415395935&sr=8-1&keywords=1800+kilometers+in+a+fiat+500
Great review. Mille Grazie.
Thank you, Maria Grazia. Hope you get a chance to read the book…would love to hear your opinion.
I like this review and I wish I could read the book if only it wouldn’t remind me of a more contemporary expatriation: my family’s.
I think there’s a third generation of Italians that only recently (the last 10-15 years) moved to the States who feels like living two lives apart and owning none. Certainly, the practical difficulties are smoothed down nowadays but all the emotional side is there, even more mature and self-conscious because of the education background of these “new immigrants, old suffering”. That could be a good title for another book.
Yes, this is something relatively new…the so-called “brain drain” that’s happening now, where younger, educated Italians are leaving for better prospects abroad. Don’t know about a book, but I’ve seen a few documentaries about it. “Emergency Exit,” and “Italy: Love it or Leave it.”
Great review! I had recently bought this book. My husband is currently reading it. I will get my turn when he is finished with it.
Let me know what you think once you read it!
Hi Rick – Although there is some overlap, you and your readers might also enjoy Joseph Luzzi’s “In Michelangelo’s Shadow: The Mystery of Modern Italy”, which is available on audio book as part of the Modern Scholar lecture series. Saluti – Daviduccio
Grazie per il consiglio, Daviduccio!
thanks for this review. The title of Joseph’s book made me immediately think of another book by one of my neighbors who comes back to Italy from Philadelphia every August. Here is an article dedicated to him, in English: http://www.toro.molise.it/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=1960
Frank is a great person, even if old-aged now, but his example is a real model for me.
I do not think his books can be found online on Amazon, but I really enjoyed them. My favorite is My America. I was impressed to know how much Italians have contributed to the American growth and historical evolution 🙂
Italian immigrants and subsequently Italian-Americans have had a huge influence on American history and culture. And mostly for the good. Unfortunately, it’s the mafia stories that get all the ink. This book underscores how the average Italian immigrant struggled and worked hard to make a better life for his children. It is the American Dream, one generation postponed.
I so agree, We know many of them, our neighbors are Italian-Americans who own a great Deli that grandpa bought in Monterey , and we love to go to their restaurants,’ they are patrons of the operas ,and in my church- a very Italian parish in San Carlos at Monterey they contribute much money to alleviate of the misery of many homeless people. I have never even met a mafia person. We love our Italian-Americans…of course, and that is not bad at all, they have moved on, a friend of ours is a doctor in New Rochelle, NY, the counselor of our grandkids’ school is an Andrea Sportello in Sacramento , and our neighbor ( third generation Italian ) complains that his daughter ” is marrying a person form a different background.” The young man is from Nebraska…
Italians have enriched our country beyond measure …..
Very interesting and I will download this book or buy it. Going back 150 years, I have just read Charles Dickens ‘American Notes’ about his visit to America around the 1840’s and his view of the US at that time. Fascinating reading when slavery was still horribly visable. No mention of the Italians though!
Wow, that sounds like an interesting read, too. Yes, I like reading about history from those who actually lived it.
Rick, I originally downloaded the complete works of Charles Dickens from Amazon and American Notes is the first one in the collection. Happy reading.
I’m sure I would like to read this book. However, since I am not Italian American and have never seen Tony Soprano or the Jersey Shore bit (thank you, Lord) I think I will see if the local library has “La Bella Figura” as a better book for me. Also I have barely begun “From Marble to Flesh”–delicious title isn’t it. Keep up the great articles
Grazie e a presto
Rick, maybe a thought… My current husband is originally from Spain and that is a country that has been and is equally plagued forever by its corrupt politicians. We recently talked to a young Spanish lawyer, close friend of our family,28 who is now in a postgraduate legal program at the University of SC in LA. He left his country in disgust over the continuing crisis that is not being addressed there. He attributes this to a peculiarity of the system ( within the parliamentary system) that Spain and Italy share, and that is a system of “closed lists” in which all power is invested in the PM who is elected by name. All other offices are his then to distribute along party lines, in a way like the old party bosses we had here in the 50ies. If you check which countries use that system ( in Europe, these are the only two), you find yourself in a very ” bad neighborhood” as corrupt politicians go. In the current Spain, a disaster in jobs/corruption in many ways, there is now one small party that is advocating to abolish this system that encourages corruption, lack of personal responsibility, unresponsiveness to the voters at all levels… check it out. Our young friend believes that this is a systemic problem, not a human failure. Italians and Spaniards are no more corrupt than Norwegians or Germans or Fins, but the latter all have a better political system. I bought the book and look forward to reading it…
Yes, I’m sure you’re right about that, Sabine, although I wasn’t aware of the exact political structures that you mentioned. But there’s also the culture of “raccomandazione,” and “campanilismo” in Italy which is as much cultural/historical as political. Not sure if that exists in Spain, too, but it’s definitely part of the stagnation in Italy.
Italy and Spain are good examples if what happens in countries that essentially have a history of poor governance. So, unsurprisingly, people turn to their families and closed inner circles to help themselves.. This is also true for much of the Middle East. What we North Americans or Northern Europeans would call ” nepotism”, they would call helping their own. This worked very well for many centuries but does not work well in a global economy, in which people have to be able to work much detached from family ties with anyone who can do the work.
Love the Christmas in Rome, maybe next year!
Very thoughtful review. Will get this book and can sort of relate to its main them that you outlined so well. I grew up in defeated post-war Germany, left in 1965 for the US and when I go back ” home” occasionally to visit, it is another country, in my case, mostly a better one. Thanks much!
Great review. Thank you. I now feel inspired to read this book.
Grazie! It’s a very interesting read, I highly recommend it.
I have read the book and I will now read again. Your review has provide insights that will unable me to understand better and appreciate the book more!
Thanks, James. Yes, it’s really a great story and deserves a second read. I’d love to hear more about your opinions about it.