The subject assigned for this talk—Italian cultural identity and migration to the United States—presents some difficulty. Of course some of the Italian immigrants to America were people of great culture. They included intellectuals of great renown with wide-ranging knowledge of culture. But the great mass of Italian immigrants were men and women who had relatively little contact with high culture. The large majority of Italian immigrants to the United States came between the years of 1890 and 1914. About 90 percent of them were from southern Italy which 30 years before 1890 were not part of Italy at all, but part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Some came from the great cities of Napoli and Palermo, but the great majority were paisani, from small villages, people who spoke in dialect—Napolitano, Calabrese, Siciliano, Pugliese—rather than Tuscan Italian.

            The culture they brought with them was not so much the high culture of Dante or Michelangelo, but the village culture of the region or village from which they came. Still, that culture was vibrant, and contained elements of genius. The Italian eye—the visual acuity that somehow, inarticulately, understood the harmonious proportions of visual art—was part of their heritage. We can see it in the vernacular architecture of the Italian village in which the proportions of the structure and the grace with which it fills its allotted space shows an inarticulate appreciation of the aesthetic principles which govern the buildings of Rome and of Palladio: somehow everything is just right. In America the Italians lived in neighborhoods where the buildings were not of their own design, and the exterior landscapes of the Little Italies of New York and Chicago and Cleveland and Boston did not necessarily show this aesthetic principle. But the interiors of these structures did, at least as Italian-Americans achieved enough affluence to redesign them and build them anew.  To those fortunate enough to enter the Italian brownstone house or restaurant, the unprepossessing exterior yielded, to beautiful paneling and marble work worthy of the classical and Renaissance Italian heritage. As Nathan Glazer notes in his chapter on the Italians in Beyond the Melting Pot, there is never a lack of men with talent for carpentry or craftsmanship in an Italian neighborhood.

            The Little Italies today have become mostly depopulated; yet this tradition lives on, quietly and anonymously in the suburbs. It is in the work of leading interior designers of Italian descent, whose work is sought after by the most affluent and fashionable members of American society.

            Another tradition the Italian immigrants brought with them was tailoring. The story is best told by Gay Talese, whose parents were immigrants from Calabria and who set up a clothing store in the Presbyterian precincts of Ocean City, New Jersey. Talese tells the story of his grandparents’ tailoring work in Calabria, in which in one instance a nephew-apprentice made a bad cut and destroyed the fine cloth for a pair of suit pants for a local grandee apparently involved in organized crime. The uncle managed to convince the client that the fashion in Paris was for pants with a horizontal cut stitched up in the middle of the leg—hoping nervously that the man was not well enough acquainted with high fashion to know that the story was a fabrication. In Ocean City his father tailored men’s suits and his mother designed and sold dresses of the highest style in a town which was a summer beach resort. Though their shop was just a block from the beach, he never saw either parent in a bathing suit or with sand in their toes. Talese himself, after a brilliant career in journalism and as an author, is always impeccably dressed in suits of a distinctive and stylish cut. The tradition of Italian tailoring and of appreciation for clothes designed and crafted with aesthetic flair, is by no means universal in America; yet it has affected and enhanced the national style.

            Then there was the opera. Italian immigrants, with very little money and spending most of their hours working, often at low-wage manual labor, nevertheless often had a fine appreciation and intimate knowledge of the operas of Verdi and Puccini. They did not necessarily form a large part of the audience in America’s opera houses—they did not have the money to be able to afford seats at the Metropolitan Opera as impecunious Italians did at La Scala. But they did sometimes attend, and with the development of recordings and broadcast media, they became prime and discerning audiences for the early records of Enrico Caruso and the Saturday radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera.

            Their children in turn built on this musical heritage and created some of the finest American musical popular culture. Starting in the 1930s, Italian-American crooners became enormously successful popular singers. The prime example, of course, is Frank Sinatra, but there were many others—Vic Damone, Perry Como, Tony Bennett, whose career continues today. Their first efforts were of the nature of Elvis Presley’s: Sinatra was a heartthrob of teenage girls, who screamed in ecstacy as he entered a performance venue or when he sang. But their careers were longlasting and their abilities far transcended the genre of teenage music. Their sensitive rendition of both melody and lyric, their exploration of the gamut of emotions from joy to despair, from celebration to lament—created a popular culture of high quality, and one which would not have existed in this country without their presence,

            In food, the Italian immigrants, from the south of Italy, did not bring with them the great cuisines of the Italian north—the cotoletta milanese, bistecca fiorentina, pesto genovese. They cooked with olive oil, not butter, and could usually afford a lot of pasta but not very much meat. But cocina italiana became, in time, standard American food. Spaghetti with meatballs, with tomato sauce or ragu, was established as a common American food, by the 1930s. The pizza—an exotic, unusual food when I was growing up Detroit in the 1950s—became a staple of American life by the 1970s; more than any other it is the food of American children today. The principles of Italian cooking are not always followed: in Italy the portions of each course are small, restrained; while American restaurants may advertise “all the pasta you can eat.” But the culinary consequences of Italian Americans cannot be overestimated. American food is increasingly Italian-influenced; one can even find in major and minor metropolitan areas, supermarkets with authentic Italian ingredients and Italian restaurants that would pass muster in Italy itself. 

            Politics and religion were the subject of much of my chapter on Italians in The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again. Politics was not a central preoccupation of Italian immigrants to the United States. In the Italy of the years around 1890 and 1900, politics was primarily a matter for the elites, particularly in southern Italy. Italian men could vote, but typically they voted for local notables whose political success was a reflection of their prominence in the local community—they were large landowners, proprietors of the few local businesses, ancestral scions who took deference as their due. Of course these things were changing as we learn how in Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. But the habits of mind that Italian immigrants brought from Italy did not necessarily reflect these changes. In the great cities of the United States to which virtually all immigrants migrated politics was dominated by political machines—some run by Yankee Protestants, most by Irish Americans who did not willingly enlist immigrants from other countries in their ranks. In some places the Italian vote was targeted by opportunistic machines, but by no means always. Italian immigrants, unlike the Irish then or blacks today, did not vote overwhelming for either major American party. Their political preference was affected by where they came from in Italy and by the political situation in the city where they settled. There was some sentimental attachment to Italy: many Italian Americans looked with favor on Mussolini in the 1930s—though almost none did after December 7, 1941—and many Italian voters resented Franklin Roosevelt’s comment in June 1940, after Italy invaded France, that the hand that held the dagger has stabbed his neighbor. But that was more a resentment of the Italian-American criminal stereotype than an endorsement of Mussolini’s regime.

            A similar pattern obtains with respect to religion. As Glazer pointed out, Italian immigrants were not uniformly Catholic. Many were affected by the anticlericalism which was the policy of the leading parties in the Kingdom of Italy in the years around 1890 and 1900, and the Church, like other institutions, was often deeply distrusted. Adherence to strict Catholicism grew stronger among the second and third generations of Italian-Americans than it was among the first. Moreover, the Catholicism that did prevail was more about the traditions of village and city saints—the various San Gennaros—than it was about technical Catholic doctrine; more about figures like Padre Pio (who lived some of his early years in the United States) than about Popes Pius IX, Leo XIII and Pius X. In addition, the Irish dominated the Catholic hierarchy in the United States just as they dominated the urban machines of the Democratic party. The first Italian American bishop was not appointed until 1954.

            My point is that the Italian cultural influence in America is largely not the product of high Italian culture, but the product of the vernacular. The Italian immigrants who came to the United States between 1890 and 1914 and between 1918 and 1924, when American immigration laws largely shut the flow of migration off, were mostly southern Italians. Like most immigrants from Latin America today, they came from a society with very low levels of trust in institutions. Italian immigrants did not trust the government, or businesses, or labor unions, or the church, or any other institution; they trusted only in their families and hard work. They did not see their salvation in politics or government—rather, they saw government and politics as something to be avoided; the intelligent position was to keep your head down, to keep quiet, to escape notice by the people who ran the major institutions of society. The Italian immigrants did not trust the schools, either; like today’s Latino immigrants, their children tended to leave school early, and to seek jobs in the private sector—even in the unregulated, black economy—so they could help support their families and, after that, to work their way up if possible. They left little imprint on the institutions of high culture in America.

            But the vernacular culture, in the United States as in Italy, had its own great strengths and has had its own notable achievements. The Italian immigrants recognized the claims of the higher culture early on. Glazer, in Beyond the Melting Pot, notes the tendency of Italian communities to erect statues in memory of great Italians—statues of Dante and Michelangelo, Puccini and Verdi, Mazzini and Garibaldi, and of course, more than anyone else, of Christopher Colombus. They came to know, early on, that for all the modesty of their claims for Italian vernacular culture, they were also heirs to a higher culture that had contributed massively to European and American civilization. Their own personal knowledge of, and connection to, these cultural icons was limited—except for the opera. The connection of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to these cultural traditions is often attenuated indeed, if not nonexistent. And their connection to the high culture of Italy today—to the literature of Italo Calvino or Umberto Eco (despite his one bestselling book), to the design culture of Milano or Firenze—is no greater than that of Americans generally, which is to say not very much.

            And yet in many ways America today—with all its strengths, all its resiliency, all its creativity—is in important ways a country in which the Italian vernacular culture has made a visible, enduring and vital imprint. It would not be the same country, it would not be as rich and as vibrant, without the contributions the Italian immigrants and their offspring have made over the last century and a few years. This Italian contribution is not alone: the contributions of Eastern European Jews, of Poles and Germans, of Irish and Scandinavians, of today’s Latino and Asian immigrants, have also played a part in making America what it is today. But the Italian contribution should not be forgotten. I would venture to say that it is not forgotten, though it is not often articulated in America today. As Italian-Americans increasingly populate the highest levels of American society—in politics and in business, in popular culture and high culture, in great institutions from labor unions to the Catholic Church—the Italian-American cultural influence increasingly permeates American society, even as it becomes less of an identifying characteristic of individual Italian-Americans themselves. There is not a complete or entirely satisfying fit here between the vernacular contributions of Italian-Americans and the high culture of Italians in Italy. Yet there is some relation, some commonalty, which needs to be recognized, respected and remembered.