ITALIAN IMMIGRANT RADICAL CULTURE - The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940
Today, Italian Americans are typically perceived as ultraconservatives interested only in food and family—a perception that is unfortunately reinforced by endless variations of the Mafioso stereotype popularized and even glorified by Hollywood movies, television series, and commercials.
My book, Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940, tells a different story: it shows that in spite of their present conservative image Italian Americans possess a vibrant, if largely forgotten, radical past. As early as 1882, an Italian Socialist Club was founded in Brooklyn, New York. Radical groups then multiplied and spread across the United States, from large cities to smaller industrial and mining areas. By 1900 there were thirty official Italian sections of the Socialist Party along the East Coast and countless independent anarchist and revolutionary groups throughout the nation. Italian immigrants also played a significant role in the labor struggle of the early twentieth century and the anti-fascist resistance of the 1920s-1940s providing both leadership and mass militancy.
For decades this important chapter of Italian American history was blatantly ignored. Recently, however, there has been a real surge of interest in the “lost world of Italian American radicalism” and the scholarship on the subject is rapidly growing. But whereas other scholars have focused mostly on political and labor issues I have explored specifically the movement’s culture—the values, beliefs, milieu, and artistic and literary expressions that defined and distinguished Italian American radicalism.
I tried to tell as a comprehensive story as possible, providing a general history of the movement as well as an analysis of the cultural forms and institutions that shaped and sustained it. I wanted to show what did this radical world look like and what it entailed. What made it radical? What made it particularly Italian American? To what extent was it an extension of home country politics or shaped by the American environment? How did it change in response to the realities of American life?
I also wanted to shed light on an extraordinary group of radical leaders, or sovversivi, as they were called in Italian, who for half a century fought tirelessly to advance the interests of workers and to promote social justice, freedom and democracy. In fact, the idea for the book began almost a decade ago as a research paper on one of the sovversivi’s most charismatic figures: Arturo Giovannitti—the leader of the famous Lawrence Strike of 1912 and one of the most acclaimed American radical poets. I came across Giovannitti by chance as I was studying the group of young rebels of early twentieth-century New York’s Greenwich Village. Naturally, I became curious about him and decided to find out more about his life and his relationship to American radicalism.
Eventually, I discovered that Giovannitti was part of a transnational generation of social rebels that included anarchist and socialist émigrés, immigrants who were radicalized in America, and after World War I anti-fascist and communist refugees. While revered within the Little Italies and the American labor movement of the early twentieth century, these men and women seemed to have vanished from history. American historians mentioned them, if they ever did, only cursorily and even general Italian American history books failed to acknowledge them. In part I wrote this book to rescue these untold stories from historical oblivion, and challenge the highly generalized view of Italian immigrants as a compact block of conservative, apathetic and apolitical peasants.
But I did not want to simply vindicate the sovversivi’s radical past. I also wanted to draw more attention to culture as an interpretative category of analysis. Art, literature, theatre, newspapers and other educational and recreational activities were integral to Italian immigrant radicalism, functioning not only as vehicles of political propaganda, but encapsulating also a distinct worldview: a sensibility based on communal traditions, values and a messianic faith in the “Beautiful Ideal”—the revolutionary dream of working-class emancipation and social justice. This shared culture, I argue in the book, was an extraordinarily rich and vital component of the movement that acquired almost a religious and millenarian quality.
By looking at Italian American radicalism through the lenses of “culture” I hope this study will provide a more rounded history of the Italian immigrant experience, and a better understanding of the complex relationship between class and ethnicity and between politics and culture.
I also hope my book will help end the debates against old stereotypes and turn to new interpretative controversies, stimulating more interest in the sovversivi’s world and encouraging comparisons with the transnational experiences of Italian immigrants in other countries and other ethnic groups in the United States.
Finally, I hope the sovversivi’s struggle and worldview may illuminate and inspire us to promote a more just, equal, and democratic society. The issues that radicals were sorting out in the first half of the twentieth century have been hardly settled: economic exploitation, ethnic and racial prejudice, political oppression and inequality are still rampant. We have lots to learn from the sovversivi’s dedication, passion, courage and integrity. Italian Americans, in particular, may benefit from re-discovering their revolutionary legacy to free themselves, in the words of the late Rudolph Vecoli, “from an apologetic ethnicity that is too much dominated by a reactionary, chauvinist, and racist ideology.”