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Pier Giorgio Ardeni, Across the Ocean to the Land of Mines: Five Thousand Stories of Italian Migration from the Mountains of Bologna and Modena to America at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Bologna (Italy), Pendragon Press, 2015, pp. 479, $ 32.

Pier Giorgio Ardeni makes three important interventions in Italian immigration history in Across the Ocean to the Land of Mines by investing in some of the best practices of social and microhistory methodologies. First, Ardeni has made new discoveries. Using original research, he has built up what he terms an «Exodus Archive». In doing so, he has found distinct patterns of migration from Italy. Second, he has added significant new insight to the history of immigration. By examining the chain migration of men and women from the Apennine mountains of Bologna and Modena, a group that – along with other northern Italian immigrants – has been overlooked and understudied, Ardeni sheds new light on Italian migration specifically, and on the larger story of United States Immigration history more generally. Third, Across the Ocean to the Land of Mines is a pedagogical resource. This book has the potential to serve as a teaching tool. Ardeni synthesizes broad themes in immigration history and embeds the Apennine immigrants’ experiences within larger historical conditions. 

Ardeni’s Exodus Archive (ea) is built from government documents and other institutional records from church and state. His compilation of data from English and Italian sources helps him construct an incredibly rich and detailed narrative about the five thousand men and women that he has studied. The way Ardeni assembled the Exodus Archive serves as a model to follow. Moreover, the information it holds not only helps Ardeni tell his story, but the material is sure to become a reference source for other historians in the field. Across the Ocean in the Land of Mines contains a good deal of the ea’s raw data, organized in ways that reflect Ardeni’s methodology as well as his argument. For each one of the family names he has found, he includes information on kin networks and connections between individuals. Ardeni records first and last names and explains whether these names may have been changed or transliterated (inadvertently by immigration officials or by choice by the immigrants themselves). The ea also catalogues people geographically – by place of birth, port of exit, entry point, local destination, and settlement in the United States Ardeni also dates each individual emigration out of and entrance into the United States, creating a periodization for these five thousand Apennine immigrants.

This northern Italian group has all but been ignored by immigration historians. There are a few reasons for this. The first is simply about demographics. The vast majority of immigrants from Italy came from the country’s southern regions. Contemporary social scientists during the period of mass migration, and scholars using their findings later, have followed the numbers. Second, in addition to the size of the southern migration that made them difficult to miss, the places that its members settled in – large cities and urban areas – have received more historiographical devotion than agricultural and rural industrial regions. Ardeni shows that it was the latter that drew the Apennine immigrants. This group of five thousand men and women came to mine coal in the Midwest, primarily Illinois but also in Oklahoma, Indiana, and other mineral rich areas. Finally, Americans’ concern about what was perceived as an Italian threat to the nation came from those viewed as racially «Other,» and the groups from the mezzogiorno were prime targets of this wrath. Lawmakers, reformers, and immigration restrictionists focused on southern Italians, and their discourse and policies often parsed out the difference between them and northern Italians. Thus, the important historiographical turn in United States history that highlights the intersection between racism and ethnic identity has emphasized southern Italians.

Ardeni makes a third contribution, one of pedagogical value, with this book. The author is masterful at synthesizing knowledge. Across the Ocean to the Land of Mines brings together scholarship on the immigrant experience and social conditions of immigration that are focal points in many classes in a variety of fields, including the United States survey and immigration history. Ardeni’s ability to bring his original work into an established historiography makes the book suitable for both undergraduate and graduate courses. For example, the author traces the paths of Apennine migrants and explains how and why a particular path in chain migration was forged. Most of the Italian immigrants from the region he studies left from Le Havre, rather than Genoa. This seems, from geographic and logistical standpoints, not to make sense. Ardeni’s documentation is clear, however, and his interpretation on the matter important. Northern Italians tended to leave through Le Havre because they were responding to the heavy and orchestrated recruitment of French companies that were luring them to do so. While many historians show the pattern of chain migration, Ardeni spends time thinking about and explaining the reasons behind why a particular group of immigrants followed a certain path. Regardless of the point of exit, the vast majority of immigrants’ point of entrance was the same. With few exceptions, immigrants to the United States came through Castle Garden and then, after 1892, Ellis Island. Ardeni’s chapter on Ellis island is exceptionally well-written and provides important content for scholarly and pedagogical contributions.

What Across the Ocean to the Land of Mines has accomplished in original research cannot be understated. The content and analysis, however, suffer from two problems. First, there are typos which indicate a laxity in the press’ copy editing. The second, and more problematic issue, are the historical inaccuracies. These mistakes, though few, undermine the impact of the book and are particularly glaring regarding American labor history. For example, Ardeni states that unions in the United States did not admit foreign workers in the early years of Italian immigration (p. 114). But Italians joined the Knights of Labor as well as the United Mine Workers of America from their inceptions. In fact, Italian workers were organizers for the latter. In addition, footnotes and citations are paltry, and thus it is difficult to assess whether this is an interpretive, grammatical, or contextual issue. The bibliography lists an older, albeit important, literature. The reviewer wonders whether Ardeni failed to invest in more recent material or if the press stripped out a longer version of the citations.

Overall, the striking import of this book still stands. With the wealth of information of the Exodus Archive, which is well documented and explained thoroughly, and the incredible amount of research that went into it, it remains a tour de force.

Caroline Waldron Merithew (University of Dayton)

 

 

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