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Carol Bonomo Albright and Christine Palamidessi Moore, eds., American Woman, Italian Style

New York, Fordham University Press, 2011, pp. 363, $ 26.

Edited by the editor-in-chief and senior web editor of the journal Italian Americana, this new anthology builds on its successful predecessor Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian Americana (2008), which focused on fiction, poetry, and memoir. Similarly this second volume draws articles, some updated or condensed, from thirty-five years of Italian Americana that collectively cover the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century, as well as an impressive range of disciplines. With a target audience of scholars interested in Italian American studies, cross-cultural studies, history, immigration studies, sociology, and gender studies, the anthology would undoubtedly also appeal to non-academic readers and recent immigrants. By re-proposing old articles, Carol Bonomo Albright and Christine Palamidessi Moore hoped not only to create a well-deserved showcase for Italian-American women’s writing, but also to invite newer immigrant women to reflect on their own experiences in relation to the journey of Italian American women in the new world.

The anthology organizes the Italian American woman’s experience in four sections: Education, Work and Home Life; Literature; Art, Music, and Film; and Studies about Italian-American Women. All four areas offer worthy reflections on the past and present circumstances of women of Italian descent in the United States and, in one instance, Canada (Nathalie Cooke’s essay on Italian-Canadian poet Mary di Michele). The fascinating first section investigates both the interior and public life of immigrant women. The figures in these pages invite readers through their front doors, making them privy to everything, even the uglier aspects of the immigrant woman’s home life. Elizabeth Messina exposes the rarely discussed feelings of anger and isolation many immigrant women experienced in their marriages, while the studies by Richard Gambino and by William Egelman, William Gratzer, and Michael D’Angelo deepen our conception of gender relations among Italian Americans and between Italian and Jewish spouses. Once inside these private, sacred spaces, readers are free to roam from bedroom to family room to kitchen, the most widely studied room of the Italian American household. As the editors proclaim in their introduction, «No essay on Italian-American women’s lives would be complete without a mention of food, central as it is to Italian-American culture» (10). Thus, rounding out the series on interior and home life is a subsection that includes articles by Donna Gabaccia, Carol Helstosky, Catherine Tripalin Murray, and Cassandra Vivian, which ponder how recipes, cookbooks, and immigrant kitchens allow for a journey through Italian American identity. Rose De Angelis, a contributor to the second section of the anthology, creates a bridge back to section one through her examination of the metaphorical significance of food in fiction and memoir.

While the kitchen was clearly marked as the domain of immigrant women, certainly women began to look outside of the home for educational and career opportunities early on, as evidenced by three articles in the first section. Maria Parrino examines the educational struggle endured by four women from 1876 to 1924, while Diane Vecchio considers the business lives of Italian immigrant women during the same period and finds that the women carefully «juggled» their traditional role in the home with their new roles in the workplace. Egelman’s study propels us into the twenty-first century, revealing that Italian Americans have substantially higher earnings and levels of college graduation than persons in the general population. However, the answers to more complicated questions about how modern Italian American women balance education, work, and family remain elusive, perhaps because women of many ethnic backgrounds still worry about addressing this sensitive issue in public.

Other immigration themes examined in the first section, including psychological dislocation, physical uprooting, loss, social justice, and self-identification as an outsider in two worlds, also return in the second section on literature. Female figures and issues of identity are explored not only in novels by and about Italian American women (Barolini’s Umbertina and Ciresi’s Blue Italian), but also in more male-character-driven tales like Puzo’s The Godfather and Tomasi’s Like Lesser Gods. For perhaps the first time in an anthology, the rarely studied aspect of the Italian American women’s oral tradition finds a place among «canonical» Italian American literary texts. Through Carole Brown Knuth’s essay on the verbal art of Clementina Todesco, readers can imagine sitting around the hearth to hear the very tales that early immigrants brought with them from the old country. While Todesco’s stories, recorded by her daughter Bruna in 1941, were eventually published as the first ethnographic study of a storyteller from Italy, this is an area ripe for further exploration by scholars. Edvige Giunta’s insightful essay on the early adoption of memoir by Italian American women includes a 2010 postscript that praises the proliferation of memoirs published by established and emerging Italian-American women authors. Memoir, too, represents an area that demands further cultivation by Italian American women for by its very nature it rejects the widely-held stereotype of Italian American women’s silence.

If one were to identify any weakness in this immensely readable anthology, it would likely be the fact that the sections on Art, Music and Film and on Studies about Italian-American women are not as extensive in comparison to the two that precede them, even though the six essays they contain prove to be very effective as a gateway to future investigations. As an example, James Drake’s charming stroll through the life of opera soprano Rosa Ponselle whets our appetite for more tales about Italian American musicians, perhaps paving the way for essays on such modern singers of Italian descent as Alicia Keys, Natalie Merchant, Taylor Swift, and Lady Gaga that would appeal to college students.

The final section will be of particular interest to scholars and students for the precious resources it offers. It includes Gabaccia’s comprehensive retrospective of scholarly literature on Italian American women as well as Maxine Seller’s article on Arno Press’s 1975 thirty-nine volume series Italian American Experience, which she praises for its impact while highlighting the glaring absence from it of a volume dedicated exclusively to women. Betty Boyd Caroli concludes part four with a detailed list of resources on the topic of Italian American women. In 1976 when she first penned her article about the limited studies on women, she noted that «as the fields of women’s studies and immigration history grow, this neglect will no doubt find correction, and the records of the largest groups will at least be examined» (p. 337). American Woman, Italian Style does just that, successfully achieving its stated objective to showcase the «strength, inventiveness, persistence, and ingenuity» of Italian American women (p. 1). In an online interview with Robin Shannon of May 28 2011, Bonomo Albright calls the women chronicled in American Woman, Italian Style «unsung heroes,» and heralds the anthology as a «way of giving voice to them» (see Fordham Conversations at www.wfuv.org). In counteracting the pervasive image of the «guidette» that media culture is increasingly presenting as quintessentially Italian American to the young generations, collections such as Albright’s and Palamidessi Moore’s act as an antidote as well as a beacon signalling the need for additional studies on the impact Italian American women have on contemporary society.

 

Gina M. Miele (Montclair State University)

 

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