Italian/American Studies: Interrogations, Interventions, Intersections

Tamburri, Anthony Julian, Editor. Interrogations into Italian-American Studies. The Francesco and Mary Giambelli Foundation Lectures. Bordighera Press. 2020. Pp. ix +131. Paper $18.

Interrogations into Italian-American Studies collects four lectures delivered in 2017 as part of The Francesco and Mary Giambelli Foundation Lectures, at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute. This slim volume, its publication also funded by the Giambelli Foundation, features distinguished scholars and authors Fred I. Gardaphé, Maria Laurino, Donna R. Gabaccia, and the late Robert Viscusi. Anthony Julian Tamburri, the editor of the volume, offers the introduction, entitled “Cultural Philanthropy, A Private Affair.”

The book highlights two intersecting interests: (1) the concern about the future of Italian/American studies, and (2) the importance of interfacing this scholarship with the broader public. Collectively, the volume posits education about Italian/American history and culture as the answer. The aspiration is to place this learning at the center of discussions of what it means to be an Italian/American citizen. This is a political project, placing Italian/American studies in the role of shaping citizenship in the new millennium.

Anthony Tamburri is unequivocal about the purpose of this undertaking: to create a “strong sense of commonality” (xiv) among Italian Americans. The call is to infuse the group with a “collective purpose,” a unifying coherence (xiii). Nation-building has historically delivered this aim by inculcating populations with a sense of shared identity via state apparatuses such as schools and national culture. But how to instill a commonality in the diaspora where the power of Italian schooling and culture is partial?

The four distinguished contributors to the book explore an alternative route. Instead of calling for a singular culture, they propose the making of a learning-centered community. In other words, the project refrains from seeking a homogeneous community of cultural sameness—the cardinal mission of nationalism—and instead envisions an assemblage of citizens who place historical self-understanding at their center. This perspective makes Interrogations into Italian-American Studies indispensable for thinking not only about Italian America but also, more broadly, about ethnic and diaspora collectives. It is this scope that primarily motivates my engagement with the book.

One concern of the volume, as I mentioned, entails Italian/American studies, a field of knowledge production with significant intellectual presence in the U.S. academy. Yet, as the contributors remind us, this advancement should not obscure the resistances that have been attempting to block it. Operating within the power landscape of the academy and of civil society, like any other knowledge-generating field, Italian/American studies has experienced opposition, suspicion, and relative public neglect. But the “more strident resistance,” Tamburri contends, “comes from programs in Italian Studies” (xvi). The wider academy was not as receptive either. As Gardaphé notes, “It took years of hard work” for Americans academics to accept Italian/American studies as “a valid field of inquiry, and even more years for it to be accepted as a valuable addition to educational programs” (22). When it comes to nonacademic publics, Italian/American leaders appear to minimize, even overlook, the significance of Italian/American studies. What is more, significant sectors of this diaspora population are reticent to consider new knowledge about the group’s past and present.

In view of this contentious terrain, Italian/American studies becomes an agent of educational activism. Unable to afford taking its advances for granted, but also seeking further empowerment, Italian/American studies seeks interaction with various publics for whom, given the realities of hostility and marginalization, it must perform its relevance. “We thus need to talk, talk and talk in order to do, do, do …,” Tamburri notes, succinctly capturing the discursive ethos of Italian American studies (xvii): explaining its relevance in words and performing it in practice.

At a pragmatic level, the volume makes a plea for financial and symbolic support. From financially powerful elites, Italian/American studies seeks appreciation and monetary assistance in the form of private, “cultural philanthropy” (xv): the endowment of department chairs, support for graduate students, and educational programming. Dramatic budget cuts in the humanities and the specter of elimination of “minor” fields in the academy make this plea a pressing priority. In this respect, the support by The Giambelli Foundation sets a valuable precedent.

From the Italian/American public, now highly assimilated, Italian/American studies seeks interest in the knowledge it produces. The public’s participation in educational events and enrollment in undergraduate classes translates into the making of vibrant communities of mutual interests, necessary for building bridges between the academy and the broader public.

Interrogations into Italian-American Studies then calls for ethnic/diaspora solidarity for the purpose of advancing Italian/American learning. Inevitably, these questions come to the forefront: Why Italian/American studies? Italian/American studies for what purpose? The title of the book recognizes the stakes in this question. If various publics interrogate the relevance of the field, the field itself undertakes the self-questioning and provides answers to harness support and create alliances.

Fred Gardaphé’s contribution, entitled “In Education Begins responsibilities. Or, Why Italian Americans Don’t Know What They Don’t Know,” links self-knowledge with diaspora empowerment. For Gardaphé, a committed Italian/American cultural activist, formal education in all things Italian offers a powerful tool to transform individuals. Drawing from his own personal experience as Italian American, as well as from his experience as an educator, he makes a case for Italian/American learning as the means for self and family understanding. Students “began to understand things about their family like never before,” he writes. “When they began finding out what they had never known before, they began wanting to explore Italy more” (21-22). Gardaphé offers examples of Italian/American learning exerting a self-transformative power, orienting students in relation to their immediate social environment, and in turn reorienting them toward the broader Italian context. In this capacity, Italian/American studies plays a vital role in Italian cultural reproduction. It intersects with the mission of those organizations committed to Italian heritage preservation.

Education empowers the collective too, as it provides a measure of control over its public representation. Without “knowledge of ethno-histories, individual ethnic groups are limited to reacting to what others produce, and are thus kept from creating their own expressions. Italian Americans are being defined by others and not by themselves,” Gardaphé writes (23-24). Self-cultural production renders the collective a creative agent, emancipating it from its assigned reactive role. It moves the community beyond the constraining role of refuting how Others define the Self, opening a space instead for Italian Americans to reflect how to define the Self anew, on their own terms.

This autonomy obviously raises the challenge of charting new directions. How to map the future? In this dilemma, Italian/American studies sees itself in a position to direct the group. Drawing from Michael Fischer, Gardaphé reminds audiences that ethnicity is not about the sterile repetition of the same, but a process of change and reinvention. Scholars provide their students with access to family and diaspora history and offer “historical and contemporary models” for young Italian Americans to “study, emulate, and transcend” (28). Knowing the past deeply and reworking it in innovative promises future vitality.

Knowledge of ethnic history serves to not only direct the group, but also to shape the nation. In her “Lessons from Once Dangerous Americans,” distinguished author Maria Laurino points to the historical connection between Italian Americans and multiple oppressive regimes—nativism, “anti-religious fervor,” political persecution, stigmatization via “association with organized crime”—to propose that this systematic devaluation drive the Italian/American obligation to intervene in the national conversation about immigration. She assigns the group a “unique responsibility to speak out against the fear tactics and intimidation that many immigrants have experienced today” (35), and asks ethnic vigilance to safeguard “the American ideal of possibility and renewal” (45).

The writings of Laurino, a nationally recognized author—she has published in The New York Times among other high-profile venues—advances the mission of Italian/American studies in at least two ways. For one, it squarely places ethnic history as nationally relevant history. It recirculates, in other words, Oscar Handlin’s now-classic position of immigrant history as national history. The Italian/American past offers a usable past for motivating civic engagement and for producing an “assembly of citizens” (51) speaking out against the contemporary demonization of certain immigrant groups. This civic orientation boosts the aspiration of Italian/American studies to place itself as an integral component “of the American educational system … [which ought] to include Italian/American histories and stories in the body of material that one must master to be considered American” (Gardaphé 27). National education presents a frontier in which Italian/American studies seeks representation for its participation in the making of U.S. multicultural citizenship.

Laurino’s work further empowers Italian/American studies by demonstrating its value as a body of work that intersects with writing in genres such as essay, memoir, and literary journalism. It speaks to the synergy between scholarship and creative nonfiction and leads us to reflect on the various interconnections between academic research and fiction. This discursive network presents a powerful resource and political compass for expanding the circulation of Italian/American scholarship both within and beyond Italian/American publics.

Scholarship requires vast investments in personal energy and resources. In her “Virtual Sambuca: Research in Rural Sicily Before and After the Digital Revolution,” Donna Gabaccia discusses past and present research practices, and in doing so she also illuminates the painstaking work that goes into the making of new academic knowledge. High-quality, breakthrough scholarship, such as Gabaccia’s, invigorates communities of researchers and is essential for empowering Italian/American studies in the U.S. academy and beyond. But how to make academic writing of relevance to nonacademic publics? How, in particular, to reach out to the Italian/American public whose cultural passions, as Gabaccia notes, do not—more often than not—dovetail with academic passions? The rueful reality is that in many cases an academic’s painstaking lifetime work does not even make it as a public footnote. In its advocacy for broader circulation, Italian/American studies has no choice but to tackle this question. Gabaccia identifies an example of collaboration with a “citizen researcher,” her narrative pointing to the prospects and problems associated with public social sciences and humanities.

One way to have the work of the gown resonate with the world of the town is for scholars to delve into issues that the public experiences intimately, but for various reasons, does not discuss. Robert Viscusi’s contribution, entitled “The Orphanage: Encounters in Transnational Space,” probes the role of Italian/American studies vis-à-vis a difficult issue in Italian/American lives, an issue veiled in silence—specifically, the distraught relationship between Italians living outside Italy and Italians living within the country. This is an emotionally tense and intense relationship, one resembling the “bitterest flavor of sibling rivalry, a condition where mutual distrust, envy, spite, and name-calling are endemic” (103). As Tamburri confirms in his introduction, it is a taboo issue Italians “never talk about but never forget” (xiv). Avoidance, though, makes for a burning silence, one lived internally within the individual psyche, and experienced anxiously. How to turn this problem into a meaningful and liberating public conversation?

The answer requires the recognition of connections and disconnections bringing closer and tearing apart this relationship. Viscusi invites us to think of it as a transnational space full of crisscrossing activities. It is animated by the circulation of people, ideas, words, knowledge, images, films, books, and other kinds of commodities across the United States and Italy. But this transnational space could also be seen and felt by some as an empty space, a space punctuated by alienation, dispossession, disorientation, and misunderstandings. In this space, knowledge across the divide of Italy / Italian America is limited and limiting. “Images cross the ocean in drastically reduced forms,” Viscusi notes, “and give way to lurid distortions” (109). Unlike national belonging, which promises fullness, transnational belonging can only deliver partiality. Viscusi evokes the figure of orphanage to convey this lack. “When Italian Americans consider Italy,” for instance, “they are working with a drastically reduced encyclopedia” (108).

Significantly though, the silences reverberating the transnational space are not absolute. The work of “memoirists and novelists and essayists and poets, those who concern themselves with the geography of the inner world,” ventures into these difficult and sometimes dark recesses (104). These texts offer valuable resources for understanding migrant dreams reoriented or deferred, ambivalences and uncertainties, and gains and defeats, as well as internal conflicts associated with movement within the Italian/American transnational space. Though the literary arts explore this affective “force field,” these emotions are often difficult to articulate in ordinary public discourse (109). For Italian/American studies scholars, this situation offers a viable public role: the analysis of this body of writing situates the scholar as an intermediary––a cultural translator––who discusses this corpus to foster mutual understanding between Italy’s diasporas and the historical homeland.

A common mindset connects the four lectures: Italian scholars and authors see themselves as public intellectuals positioned to direct the shaping of Italian America. They map this population simultaneously as U.S. citizens, members of the diaspora, and ethnic Italians, which makes for an ever-unfolding diverse community. They aspire to contribute to the civic coherence of that community around the learning of its history and culture. The vision is to animate the Italian/American transnational space with a sociopolitical ethos of understanding the past historically—instead of reproducing it as a cultural myth—and of acting upon this knowledge as autonomous agents—instead of the passive producers of the same. The lectures, then, do not only undertake cultural critique; they also, refreshingly, propose an affirmative value as a course of action both for scholars and communities.

Two interrelated challenges, I believe, arise here. First, there is the issue of the dissonance between Italian/American scholarship and significant sectors of the public. Will a community that “concentrates on the known, the familiar, as though reality and history were a mantra that could make everything safe if simply repeated often enough” (Gardaphé 23) open up to this volume’s vision? How to win over the interest of community leaders who are indifferent or hostile to new ideas produced by scholarship? It appears that in this juncture the book simultaneously advances two competing modes of the “organic intellectual”: (1) the “resisting organic intellectual,” one who opposes the knowledge fostered by dominant community institutions; and (2) the “traditional organic intellectual,” one who emerges from within the ranks of the community to “provide the dominant classes with forms of moral and intellectual leadership” (Giroux et al. 1984). The place of Italian/American studies scholars as intellectuals within the community’s power relations invites further conversation.

Second, because diaspora communities are internally fragmented across competing versions (and visions) of identity, the answers that this volume offers will most likely be resisted from sectors of the community within. For instance, a diaspora’s self-control over its cultural production—the decision of how to define identity—does not necessarily translate into emancipation from power structures of the dominant society. Examples from the Greek/American diaspora indicate that civic organizations, often in partnership with private capital, construct identity narratives that conform to U.S. cultural mythologies. In this enterprise, the definition of the diaspora collective aligns with dominant expectations about the range and scope of difference within the home society. It is of significance that the elite identity-makers show no hesitation to consistently sideline academic work confronting their mythologies. Because Italian/American studies also operates within a field of power relations, it must also direct attention toward the prospect of opposition. It might be of value for Italian/American studies to move from the language of commonality and coherence toward that of the transnational network. In this reframing, the empowerment of Italian/American studies hinges on the continuing work—both in talking and in doing—to enhance existing interconnections and create new alliances and affiliations within the network, while at the same time reflecting on ways to face those forces that will most likely seek to resist its civic vision.

Interrogations into Italian-American Studies aspires for dense interfaces between scholars, authors, artists, and the broader public within the Italian/American transnational space. How does one go about achieving it? The resistance of some publics to the circulation of new knowledge points to an answer that I believe Italian/American scholars to some extent already practice. If there is a dissonance in the cultural passions between academic researchers and the public, Italian/American studies is confronted with a dual task. One necessary route is to continue producing first-rate scholarship for academic visibility and empowerment. Another one is public scholarship. Italian/American scholars should find it necessary to write in compelling and engaging—and elegant though not necessarily simplistic—prose, whether it be blog posts, short essays, or other forms of more generally accessible writing.

In both routes, Italian/American studies performs its relevance, albeit differently, in relationship to two kinds of publics. There is no doubt that this solution, perhaps requiring a complicated division of labor as well as multiple roles for scholars, might be asking for too much from a field with limited resources. But it is likely the only solution available in the aim of earning academic legitimacy and shaping assemblies of learned citizens. In fact, this dual orientation of scholarly and cultural activism might create a signpost for what it means to be a scholar in the twenty-first century, a direction that makes Italian/American studies all the more culturally important, and this volume’s plea for support all the more urgent.

Yiorgos Anagnostou is a professor of transnational Modern Greek studies at The Ohio State University. For his research profile see here.


On the topic of academic “cultural activism” and the notion of diaspora as network from the perspective of Greek/American studies, see Leontis (1997). On public scholarship, see Anagnostou (2015).

Works Cited

Anagnostou, Yiorgos. 2015. “Public Scholarship and Greek America: Personal Reflections, Intellectuals Vocations.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Special section on Modern Greek Studies and Public Humanities, Yiorgos Anagnostou Guest Editor, 33.1 (May): 15–23.

Giroux, Henry, David Shumway, Paul Smith, and James Sosnoski. 1984. “The Need for Cultural Studies: Resisting Intellectuals and Oppositional Public Spheres.” Accessed 28 February 2020. [LINK]

Leontis, Artemis. 1997. “The Intellectual in Greek America.” Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 23.2: 85–109.