ITALIAN IMMIGRANT RADICAL CULTURE - The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940


On January 11, 1912 mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, began a three-month strike to protest a cut in their already thin wages. This "crusade for bread and roses," as the strike was soon called, became one of the most celebrated working-class protests in American history. For the first time, unskilled immigrants of many different nationalities overcame ethnic differences and scored a significant victory against American industrial manufacturers.

The Lawrence strike had an enormous impact on the American public consciousness, bringing attention to the atrocious living conditions of unskilled workers and the social divisions that plagued American industrial society. Overnight, the strike also catapulted Italian immigrant workers into national prominence. Italians constituted the largest single ethnic group of Lawrence's polyglot population, and they played a decisive role in the strike. Providing both leadership and mass militancy, they introduced the American labor movement to new tactics of direct action that reflected their native traditions of struggle and resistance. As local reporters of the strike noted, "angry" Italians "rushed the gates, broke open the doors, damaged the escalators, pulled girls from their work, cut off the electric drive, stopped the machines throughout the mill, and threatened to kill any person daring to put the machinery in motion."

Historians have by now written detailed accounts of the Lawrence strike and other labor conflicts of the period, recognizing the crucial contributions of Italian workers and leaders. Scholars of Italian American history have also increasingly documented how these struggles were part of a larger transnational radical movement and subculture that constituted a significant presence in the Italian immigrant community and the American Left until World War II.

Thanks to these pioneering works, we know that Italian Americans possess a vibrant if "lost" radical past. As early as 1882, Italian immigrants founded a socialist club in Brooklyn, New York. Radical organizations then multiplied and spread across the United States, from large urban 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, replete with alternative newspapers, social clubs, and schools. The heart of this movement was a transnational generation of social rebels or sovversivi—as they were collectively called in Italian—that included anarchists, socialists, syndicalists, and, after World War I, anti-fascist and communist refugees. read the entire introduction >

From Chapter 1 — Italian American Radicalism: Old World Roots, New World Developments (p. 7)

The story of Italian American radicalism begins with the massive emigration of Italians who entered the New World between 1880 and 1920. More than five million—four-fifths of them from the southern regions and the islands—migrated to the United States during this period. Italians became the largest nationality of the "new immigrants" from southern and eastern Europe, constituting more than 20 percent of the total immigration population. The great exodus of Italians was the result of economic, social, and political pressures. Like other European countries, Italy experienced a severe agrarian crisis in the 1870s, resulting largely from the expansion of the American economy. To make things worse, the South was also plagued by a series of calamities that occurred between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century: first the epidemics of malaria and cholera (1884-87) followed by the spread of phylloxera in the vineyards, then the volcanic eruptions of Vesuvius and Etna (1906), and finally the earthquakes of 1908, which destroyed much of of the Sicilian province of Messina and part of Calabria. The extraodinary growth of the population from eighteen million in 1801 to thirty-two million in 1901 and increasing political unrest also contributed significantly to massive emigration.

With the important exception of a small portion of artisans and craftmen, such as barbers, tailors, shoemakers, and masons, the great majority of Italian immigrants entered the American labor market as wage earners, and as unskilled, manual workers. Between 1899 and 1910 only 0.5 percent of all emigrants from Italy were listed as professionals; 5 percent were artisans, and 83.9 percent were contadini, land-poor peasants who generally lived in small villages under pre-modern social and economic conditions.

Their rural origin was a significant factor in their reception in the United States and their adaptation to the new environment. To Anglo-Saxon Americans, the looks, habits, and cultural traditions of the new immigrants appeared backward, primitive, and ultimately inferior. Italians were seen as not only of a lower stock, but also frequently as not "white." Employers, for example, "referred to South Italians as 'black labor' as opposed to the'white men' of Northern Europe." Similarly, U.S. immigration officials used "South Italian" as a seperate designation that put Italians in a middle ground within the racial order of white-over-black. As Matthew Jacobson has pointed out, "it was not just that Italians did not look white," but "they did not act white." Popular magazines and newspapers, for example, warned repeatedly that southern Italians were "by nature" emotional, bloody-minded, treacherous, and vengeful—a view that was encouraged and reinforced by sensational accounts of "Black Hand" criminality, the material of vaudeville comics, and nativist propaganda.

From Chapter 2 — The Sovversivi and their Cultural World (p. 50-51)

Just as the sovversivi created various political groups, so too they developed an extensive and elaborate social infrastructure that contributed to produce a distinctive subculture and community. Among the most vibrant and militant centers of radicalism were the anarchist community of Barre (Vermont), comprising stone and marble cutters from the northern Italian city of Carrara; the anarcho-syndicalist community of silk workers in Paterson (New Jersey), and the Latin community of Ybor City (Florida), where Italian workers in the cigar industry joined forces with Cuban and Spanish radicals. Distinct radical neighborhoods also existed in all principal industrial cities and mining states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Colorado, and Montana, where Italians settled in great numbers. New York City boasted the largest and most active of such radical settlements. East Harlem and lower Manhattan, particularly the area stretching from 8th to 23rd streets and Second to Fifth avenues, epitomized the heart of Italian immigrant radicalism, hosting a great number of socialist schools, social centers, newspapers, and radical cafés.

Scholars have noted the tendency of Italian immigrants in the United States to establish stable and insular communities with intense social relationships and ethnic, fraternal, and cultural societies that re-created the life of the Old World. Radical conclaves conformed to this pattern. Most Italian radical organizations, affinity groups, and unions had their offices and newspapers in the same districts. It is not difficult to imagine, as Nunzio Pernicone has described it, the sovversivi crossing "paths on a daily basis, chatting on street corners, visiting each other's offices, and eating dinner together." This "togetherness" was reinforced by cafés and restaurants that served as important centers of socialization, political debate, and intellectual conversation. A common meeting place in New York was John Pucciatti's Spaghetti House on 12th Street at Second Avenue (now simply John's)—"the favorite meeting place of free thinkers of all nationalities," said one newspaper ad—where for one dollar radicals could discuss politics while enjoying an appetizer, some pasta, an entrée, and a bottle of wine.

From Chapter 3 — A Literary Class War: The Italian American Radical Press (p. 67)

In January 1888 members of the Italian socialist-anarchist-revolutionary group Carlo Cafiero—named after a famous nineteenth-century Italian anarchist hero—met in their office at 108 Thompson Street in New York City to launch a journal that would "express and give voice to [their] ideas." L'Anarchico, as the paper was called, was the first of nearly 200 radical Italian-language newspapers produced in the United States from the late ninteenth century through World War II period—the third-largest figure in the nation after the German and Jewish presses. Almost one-third of these newspapers were published in the New York City metropolitan area, but the Italian radical press, like Italian immigrant radicalism itself, had a wide geographic distribution, including almost every state, smaller industrial and mining towns, as well as the great cities. Much of what we know of Italian American radicalism comes from the contents of these periodicals. Their general characteristics and themes, as well as the main debates they generated in their pages, are the focus of this chapter.

From Chapter 4 — Politics and Leisure: the Italian American Radical Stage (p. 99-101)

In 1896, the anarchist poet Pietro Gori, who had just arrived in the United States, published a one-act skit entitled Primo Maggio (May Day), which he had written a few years before in an Italian prison. The play told the story of Ida, a young peasant woman who leaves her village and family behind to follow a mysterious stranger to "the country of Love and Truth . . . where the land belongs to all, . . . where freedom is the only law and love the only bond, . . . where misery is unknown and equality guaranteed to all."

Symbolically set on International Workers' Day, the play carried a strong message of liberation and solidarity dramatizing hope, victory, and empowerment for working people. The famous aria of Verdi's opera Nabucco: "Va pensiero, sull'ali dorate . . .," which most Italians knew by heart, opened and closed the play. But Gori reset Verdi's lyric, written originally as a lament of the Hebrews for a home of their own, to new words honoring "the great flowering ideal"—the anarchist and socialist dream of a future earthly paradise were inequality and injustice have been banished. The song begins with an invocation of May, " sweet Easter of the workers," and quickly moves into an exhortatory call for action, a cry meant to stir and galvanize the workers.....

Compelling music and rhetorical sentimentalism made Gori's Primo Maggio an instant classic both in Italy and the United States, where it was performed time and time again, especially on the occasion of radical holidays with Gori himself often playing the guitar, singing, and acting in it during his brief American sojourn.....

Gori's plays were among the earliest examples of a rich theatrical culture that was simuotaneously the product and the expression of the sovversivi's radical milieu. The theater occupied a very special place in the world of Italian American radicals, supporting their communities, entertaining the workers, and helping to promote radical causes. Like the Left theater of the Popular Front, the sovversivi's stage was "the real cultural center of the radical movement." Next to the press, it represented the most powerful vehicle for political propaganda and education as well as the primary source of funding for radical papers and other political activities. For, as Irving Howe said, "the theater was the art form that reached everyone in the immigrant world."

Starting from the late nineteenth century until the 1930s, throughout the United States the sovversivi organized "red" theatrical groups known as Filodrammatiche rosse with the goal of "spreading the modern ideals of social justice and solidarity through the theatre." The first of them, La Cosmopolita Operaia, was formed in Paterson, New Jersey, as early as 1895. At least seven Italian radical theatrical groups functioned in New York City during the first two decades of the twentieth century.....

From Chapter 5 — Italian American Literary Radicalism (p. 129-131)

In addition to parties, newspapers, and theatrical groups, Italian immigrant radical politics also spawned a rich artistic and literary culture. The revolutionary syndicalist Arturo Giovannitti, for example, emerged as one of the most articulate radical voices of the early twentieth century, greatly admired not only by his co-nationals but by Americans as well. Progressive sculptor and illustrator Onorio Ruotolo became one of New York's most distinguished artists, while communist Pietro Di Donato, whose Christ in Concrete was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club novel in 1939, has been recognized as one of the most effective "proletarian writers."

While we now know something of these artists, no attempt has been made to study the larger radical culture of which they were a part. Although a few literary scholars—Martino Marazzi, Fred L. Gardaphè, and Francesco Durante—have recently brought attention to the radical writing of Italian Americans, particularly that which emerged from the Great Depression, the role of literature in the life of the sovversivi and the narratives, poems, and dramas they produced still remain, as Nunzio Pernicone has lamented, an untouched field. Significantly, this indifference toward the radical tradition persists even though more and more scholars, including Giuseppe Prezzolini, the director of the Casa Italiana of Columbia University during the 1930s and 1940s, have recognized that the best Italian American writing came from the pens of political radicals.

The reasons for the lack of interest in Italian American literary radicalism can be attributed in part to Anglo-Saxon disdain for things Italian as well as to objective difficulties inherent in the sources themselves because almost all the texts are in Italian. But this neglect is also a result of the marginal role that American and Italian American literary studies have traditionally given to radicalism. Although the cultural legacy of the U.S. Left is now under serious reconsideration—especially regarding the 1930s—literary critics, with their emphasis on the aesthetic categories of "equality," "value," and "cultural achievement," have tended to treat literary radicalism as a subaltern phenomenon, dismissing it, often indiscriminately, as nothing but political propaganda and assuming that the official attitude of socialists, anarchists, and communists toward culture was a negative one.

From Chapter 6 — Arturo Giovannitti: Poet and Prophet of Labor (p. 155-158)

Thursday, December 31, 1959, was a sad New Year's Eve for the Italian American community: Arturo Giovannitti, one of their greatest crusaders and beloved leaders, had passed away.....

The remembrances and tributes published by his friends and many common workers clearly indicate that Giovannitti was considered a hero, a symbol of the socialist struggle on behalf of the poor and oppressed. His fame rested principally upon the Lawrence strike of 1912, when, along with Joseph Ettor, an Italian American Wobbly organizer, he risked capital punishment on the fabricated charges of inciting violence and being an accessory to murder. He almost certainly would have never attained the status of a hero without the publicity he accrued from the Lawrence case. But it was his poetic talent that enlivened his legend and thrust upon him the role of "prophet" of the workers.....

Yet today, just fifty years after his death, the legendary "Poet of the Workers" has been almost completely forgotten: His memory, like much of Italian American radicalism, has been erased by Americanization and social mobility, his verse exiled to a few old anthologies of radical poetry. True, labor historians have long recognized Giovannitti's central role in the Lawrence strike, and his name does usually appear in the indexes of social and labor histories. But Giovannitti is completely absent from traditional critical studies of both American and Italian American cultural radicalism, despite the fact that many contemporary literary critics, radical and nonradical alike, considered him one of America's finest poets.....

This chapter offers a re-reading of Giovannitti in his dual capacity—as a radical leader and as a poet. It is an attempt to bridge the political and "lyrical" sides of Giovannitti and re-situate his poems in the broad cultural context of the early American labor movement.....

I maintain that Giovannitti's poetry blurs traditional distinctions between art and propaganda. His idealism, lyricism, and intense melancholia were never separated from his deeds, and his poetry was never exclusively expressive of his personal inner world. In fact, his political views formed not only the background of but also the impetus for his poetry.

From Chapter 7 — Allegories of Anti-Fascism: The Radical Cartoons of Fort Velona (p. 187-188)

On November 22, 1925, the anti-fascist daily Il Nuovo Mondo published a striking cartoon on its front page (fig. 7.1). It caricatured the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in his tyical pose: standing erect with arms by his side, his lips sticking out in a serious, almost frowning, expression, and a defiant, threatening-looking gaze. Emblazoned on his hat are all the terrible effects of the fascist regime: persecution, destruction, working-class slavery, Blackshirt violence, militia, unemployment, and debt. Next to Il Duce stands a figure with a megaphone representing the Italian-language mainstream press—the most important vehicle of fascist propaganda in the United States. The cartoon's title, "The pro-Fascist press in support of the cudgel," commented on the ignominious connection between influential Italian Americans and fascism, while the caption below, "Every cent given for the Italian debt is an aid to Mussolini's dictatorship!" alerted readers that any money donated to the fascist regime would be turned into weapons against them.

The artist, Fortunato Velona, was an Italian immigrant socialist and labor organizer of working-class origins who, like other sovversivi, fought passionately and relentlessly against fascism. His dramatic cartoons poking fun at Mussolini and his corrupt regime filled the pages of Italian American radical papers from early 1920s through the end of World War II and were frequently reproduced into gigantic posters that were used at anti-fascist protests and rallies. Their humor, impertinence, and insight still catch the eye, yet, despite their abundance and quality Velona's illustrations remain completely unknown to American and Italian American audiences. The historian Cécile Whiting in her study of anti-fascism in American art does not mention Velona at all, let alone Italian American contributions to the subject. In fact she argues that American artistic responses to fascism were almost nonexistent until Hitler came to power in the mid-1930s.

This chapter is an attempt to correct this view and bring Velona's artwork to wider scholarly attention. While the American Left did not react against fascism until the formation of the Popular Front in 1935, Italian American radicals, as we saw earlier, mobilized as soon as the fascists began to organize. Not only did they establish political organizations and papers through which they launched innumerable anti-fascist activities such as demonstrations, parades, and lectures, but they also used a variety of cultural forms to awaken the Italian American, and American, public to the brutal reality of fascist rule.....

But with the rapid ascendency of Mussolini, the privileged art form in the Italian American crusade against fascism became the cartoon. In many respects, cartoons were more effective than other cultural media. Because of their immediacy, dynamism, and directness, they allowed for broader audience and a more direct message than other artistic or cultural forms.....

It is impossible to assess how many people saw Velona's cartoons and how they responded. The fact that they appeared in Italian-language radical papers certainly limited their readership and influence. Yet, Velona's illustrations should be considered in the vanguard of "American" anti-fascist visual representations as they pre-dated them by more than a decade, anticipating the contours of the anti-fascist social-realist art of the Popular Front. The themes and style of Velona's cartoons were the same attributes that Whiting found in the anti-fascist illustrations of The New Masses, The Daily Worker, and Leftward in the mid-1930s by artists like William Gropper, Jacob Burck, and Art Young. Like their drawings, Velona's cartoons were politically engaged, didactic, and propagandistic. They also largely covered the same anti-fascist themes—repression, terror, corruption, and war. This resemblance suggests that artistic responses to anti-fascism developed along with political activism and political consciousness. Art and politics mutually reinforced each other. Growing awareness of the threat of fascism stimulated artistic expression, while art served as the means through which ideological strategies against fascism were articulated.