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/