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Norberto Lombardi (a cura di), Il Bardo della Libertà. Arturo Giovannitti (1884-1959)

Isernia, Cosmo Iannone Editore, 2011, pp. 449, € 25.

Bringing together scholars from historical and literary disciplines, this book celebrates one of the foremost icons of Italian emigration to the United States: Arturo Giovannitti, a hero to the cause of labor militancy who also was the first Italian-American poet to be recognized in America. «The bard of liberty» deserved this description for two reasons. To generations of workers and to labor historians, Giovannitti, along with Joe Ettor, was one of the well-known leaders of the great textile workers’ strike at Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, a strike «for bread and roses, too» which the Industrial Workers of the World led to victory. Giovannitti’s and Ettor’s success in reversing the charges – including the death sentence – held against them at the Salem trial was also a sign of the triumph of their cause over a subservient judiciary order. In later decades, Giovannitti remained a symbol of the social struggle in favor of the working masses. «Arturo era la speranza del genere umano» stated an obituary in la Parola del Popolo. Giovannitti’s talent as a poet, in the English language, however, although early recognized, has not left such a deep imprint on public and on academic memory as his charismatic figure among American radicals. It is one of the great merits of this book to analyze the two facets of Giovannitti’s accomplishments, linking them to the common cause of his struggle for freedom and justice. With their diverse, biographical, historical or literary approaches these contributions bring to the foreground a more complex figure than is generally depicted: «una figura assai complessa» as some have recorded.

Among the seventeen essays, several deal with the political and economic context that led Giovannitti to leave his home town Ripabottoni in 1901 at the age of 17. He left the Molise area at the peak of the exodus of «biblical proportions» that affected the province like other parts of the Mezzogiorno, compelling hundreds of thousands of rural migrants to the inferno of industrial America (Massullo, d’Ambrosio). Unlike most migrants however, Giovannitti was not destined to manual hard labor. He came from an educated middle-class family influenced by evangelical culture. Still a liceo student, Arturo had taken sides in social conflicts supporting a more egalitarian distribution of wealth in his impoverished province. It was to protect him from the arbitrariness of political power that Arturo’s father, a pharmacist, sent him to Montreal, Canada. Links between that city and Ripabottoni had already been established by evangelical missionaries who had encouraged the migration of several families there. Thus Arturo started his life in North America by studying theology at McGill University. As the late Rudolph J. Vecoli tersely remarked, «Giovannitti had not come to America to preach the Marxist gospel, but that of Jesus Christ» (p. 63).

The political and religious factors of Giovannitti’s emigration reinforced his commitment to social justice when he came into contact with Pennsylvania mining communities which he had come to serve in a protestant mission. It, therefore, becomes easier to understand Giovannitti’s messianic style in political discourse after he had «converted» to socialism and adhered to the Italian Socialist Federation. From 1909, as the editor and then director of its organ Il Proletario, Giovannitti put his rhetorical and oratorical talents to support the cause of revolutionary syndicalism. His inflammatory style was based on a broad specter of socialism that transcended political rivalries and ethnic divisions (Bencivenni, p. 88). A style by which socialist ideas were conveyed in Christian metaphors. Indeed, during the Lawrence strike Giovannitti and Ettor proclaimed themselves the «new apostles of a new gospel» (Marazzi, p. 171).

Marcella Bencivenni suggests that, in spite of his growing reputation at the time of the Lawrence strike, Giovannitti would never have become such a legendary figure without the ordeal of the trial and his narrow escape from the death sentence (p. 94). Paradoxically, however, if this episode was a climax in his career, on the U.S. side it was one that propelled him in literary circles. Giovannitti’s bold defense in English at the trial («Address of the Defendant to the Jury»), and the poems he wrote from his prison cell attracted the attention of writers in Greenwich Village. His collected poems were soon translated into English (Arrows in the Gale, 1914). «The Cage», a poem rightly perceived as a critique of the judiciary system and a symbol of the imprisonment of the working class, was reprinted in a 1913 issue of the Atlantic Monthly before being selected by Louis Untermeyer for his anthology Modern American Poetry (1919), (Bonaffini, p. 150).

 On the Italian side, however, deeply rooted in the Molise towns, the defense movement in support of Ettor and Giovannitti transcended local and regional constituencies, attaining proportions of transnational and worldwide mobilization that deny the notion that migration had solely created a «passive internationalization» of the Molisean population (Lombardi, p. 18; d’Ambrosio).

In the 1920s, Giovannitti played a central role for the unification of the Italian-American left against fascism, fighting on several fronts against pro-Mussolini propaganda in the United States. But when that unity was split by communist tactics, withdrawing into more moderate forms of support to the labor movement, he had shed his revolutionary beliefs (Ottanelli).

If hagiographic celebration is avoided in the many contributions to this book (all of which regrettably cannot be reviewed here), the danger lurks however in the exhaustive ambition of the project. The accumulation of details on aspects of Giovannitti’s commitments throughout his life tends to give a clear biographical outlook to the volume. Yet, beyond additional elements to his career as a labor agitator, Giovannitti’s peculiar style and political sensitivity are truly enlightened by the attention given to his literary career, and to the cultural expression of his political writings. The «lyricism engagé» of his poems and speeches, their emphatic eloquence and religious references, do more to delineate a new portrait of the working class hero than details on less-known aspects of his life (Marazzi, p. 174; Fofi, p. 238).

 

Catherine Collomp (Université Paris 7, Denis Diderot)

 

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