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Marcella Bencivenni. Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940

New York, New York u.p., 2011, pp. 279, $ 50.

Over the last two decades English-language scholarship on the sovversivi – Italian anarchists, socialists, syndicalists, communists, and anti-fascists – in the United States has grown dramatically. Bencivenni builds on this work, but makes an important intervention into a literature that has primarily been concerned with organizations, ideologies, individual activists, and prominent events like strikes and trials. Unlike scholars such as Nunzio Pernicone and Jennifer Guglielmo, Bencivenni places emphasis on these radicals’ cultural practices and productions, both as essential sources for understanding their worldview, and as elements that were instrumental in «sustaining and spreading their values, entertaining their communities, and bolstering the movement’s organization and strength» (p. 3). Bencivenni makes a convincing argument that the culture of the sovversivi, in addition to material conditions, decisively shaped Italian American working-class politics. This book is therefore an indispensable addition to the historiography of both Italian Americans and American cultural radicalism.

The plays, poems, short stories, and illustrations that rolled off radical printing presses and populated radical newspapers have been ignored by most historians of the Italian American Left. Bencivenni’s in-depth textual analysis, aided by wonderfully translated excerpts from poems (published alongside the original Italian) and numerous reproductions of political cartoons, corrects this omission while setting a high bar for future studies of immigrant radical culture. In the process, the author rescues a number of once-influential artists from historical obscurity. Though some, like the poets Arturo Giovannitti and Virgilio D’Andrea, are known to specialists in the field (primarily as a union organizer and an anti-fascist exile, respectively), others will be unfamiliar even to some experts, such as the poets Simplicio Righi, Antonio Crivello, Bellalma Forzato-Spezia, and Francesco Pitea, the cartoonist Fort Velona, and the playwright Riccardo Cordiferro.

The first three chapters of the book provide an overview of the history of the Italian American Left, the social activities of its members, and their radical press. Here Bencivenni deftly synthesizes the large body of work on these topics. However, her decision to treat the sovversivi as a single movement with a common culture may obscure as much as it reveals, since it ignores fundamental and irreconcilable differences between competing ideologies like anarchism and communism. Furthermore, these early chapters suffer from the flaws inherent in any synthesis. First, they duplicate previous authors’ errors. Among the misstatements of fact repeated here are the claim that the anarchist Pietro Gori co-founded Paterson, New Jersey’s newspaper La Questione Sociale (p. 15), and that European syndicalism was «[b]ased on the ideas of Georges Sorel» (p. 23), who in fact had little impact on the syndicalist movement, which predated his writings. Although these originate in the secondary sources Bencivenni uses, it is nevertheless unfortunate that they crop up within an otherwise compelling and important work. Second, her overview of radical leisure and the radical press, again mostly summarized from existing scholarship, includes little substantial analysis. The discussion of the sovversivi’s condemnations of American racism and their ambivalent attitude toward women’s roles, in particular, fail to engage with the rich scholarship on immigrant racial identity, whiteness studies, and gender ideologies. In describing the deeply ethical character of Italian American radicalism, meanwhile, Bencivenni falls back upon hackneyed notions of political religion and describes the sovversivi’s beliefs as «a theology» and a «new religion» (pp. 44-45), or as having a «religious texture» (p. 141). This conflation of religion and political ideology is analytically unhelpful, though again much of the preexisting literature is at fault.

The remaining four chapters of the book, however, are both highly original and analytically rigorous. Studies of the Italian American radical theater, short stories and poetry, the life and works of Arturo Giovannitti, and anti-fascist cartoons all engage with cultural and literary theory and fulfill the rich potential of Bencivenni’s topic. The chapter on radical Italian immigrant dramatic groups and plays is one of the only studies of its kind, and the author’s examination of left-wing poetry is undertaken with skill and grace. She advances a spirited defense of explicitly political literature, contending that «the importance of Italian immigrant literary radicalism lies exactly in what is usually considered the major limitation of radical literature: the overt political message and social criticism it conveys. For all their faults of tone and exaggerations, the poems and stories discussed here captured all the key elements of Italian immigrant radical culture» (p. 153). In the case of Arturo Giovannitti, she eloquently argues that criticism of his writing on the basis of its propagandistic nature «fails to grasp the most significant and compelling part of Giovannitti’s poetry: its idealistic spirit…That spirit – the utopian vision of the world – which is the spark of all of Giovannitti’s poetry, is what makes it poetry» (p. 178). At the same time, Bencivenni does not shirk the fact that Giovannitti was also an alcoholic and abusive husband, and instead paints a sensitive portrait of a complex and contradictory man who embodied many of the tensions of the larger radical movement. Her concluding chapter on the wonderful anti-fascist cartoons of Fort Velona, meanwhile, is novel and meticulous, and unlike most works on the Italian American Left, leaves the reader with a sense of triumph rather than defeat.

Whatever its shortcomings, this book is destined to become a standard work on Italian immigrant labor and radicalism, and rightly so. As a cultural history of the Italian American Left, or of Italian Americans in general, it is unparalleled. Never has the «lost world of Italian American radicalism» seemed as alive as it does within these pages. Bencivenni also succeeds in making a compelling case for the restoration of Italian American radicals and the subculture they created «to their rightful roles in both Italian American studies and the history of the American Left in the twentieth century» (p. 39).


Kenyon Zimmer (University of Texas, Arlington)


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