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Voices Spring-Summer 2011:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read a review of Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives here.
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Voices SS2011


Volume 37

Reviews Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives, edited by Joseph Sciorra. New York: Fordham University Press, 2011. 257 pages, black-and-white photographs, index, $28.00 paper.

Masterfully arranged by the editor, the articles in this book comprise a sterling collection of Italian American folklore research. The organization of the work provides seamless transitions from essays on foodways to material culture, cultural landscape to explicit art forms, and large-scale ceremonial events to religious belief, all situated in diverse locales from New York to California. By “listening with an accent” (10), the authors provide fresh insights about everyday creativity and ethnic identity formation.

In the first section, Simone Cinotto’s “‘Sunday Dinner? You Had to Be There!’: The Social Significance of Food in Italian Harlem, 1920–40” is followed by John Allan Cicala’s “Cuscuszu in Detroit, July 18, 1993: Memory, Conflict, and Bella Figura during a Sicilian American Meal.” The complexities of collective food consumption are not given short shrift in these two essays, which consider food and food rituals as contested narrative space, where individual and group identities are negotiated, reexamined, and refined.

Lara Pascali’s “The Italian Immigrant Basement Kitchen in North America,” an outstanding analysis of Italian American indoor vernacular space as “dream space,” provides a smooth segue from the home to outdoor vernacular environs. In “Creative Responses to Italian Immigrant Experience in California: Baldassare Forestiere’s Underground Gardens and Simon Rodie’s Watts Towers,” literary scholar Kenneth Scambray compares the work of two Italian American “grassroots artists.” Using building skills acquired in the United States, the artists create outdoor “architectural narratives” that “express the conflicted and often bifurcating experience of Italian immigration to America” (63). Art historian Joseph J. Inguanti’s “Landscapes of Order, Landscapes of Memory: Residential Landscapes of the New York Metropolitan Region” couples formal analysis with interviews with gardeners to compare urban and suburban vernacular spaces. His focus on “landscapes of memory” and “landscapes of order” reveals the crucial role vernacular landscape plays in the construction of Italian American ethnic identity. I found the author’s description of vegetable gardens in cemeteries intriguing, especially his conclusion: “Domesticating their graves by tending grave gardens, Italian Americans make clear an ongoing relationship between the living and the dead” (87). At one time, however, the tomato plant was grown for purely decorative purposes. By the eighteenth century, the tomato was used as a food, but it was still listed among poisonous plants. Is the planting of vegetables like tomatoes and squash primarily ornamental? Inguanti never reveals if he asked Italian American gardeners this question and others about practical cemetery logistics, such as who controls the plot, and what happens if more space is needed for burials. In other words, how do practical concerns mesh with practices that yield a “harvest of memories, some less pleasant than others” (97)?

The connection of place to memory, both nostalgic and conflicted, is also explored in Joseph Sciorra’s essay, “Locating Memory: Longing, Place, and Autobiography in Vincenzo Ancona’s Sicilian Poetry.” Sciorra takes an ethnographic approach to reveal the nuances of a Sicilian immigrant poet’s creative work. Situating the poems in the cultural and social world in which the poet lived, he examines Ancona’s poetry as “memory work” to elucidate how the poet and his audience “developed a collective voice to commemorate the past and forge ways of moving forward” (128). Sciorra’s article provides an elegantly written bridge to Marion Jacobson’s “Valtaro Musette: Cross-Cultural Musical Performance and Repertoire among Northern Italians in New York,” another ethnographic chapter. Jacobson’s fieldwork provides solid documentation of the evolution of the song repertoire and style of valtaro, a northern Italian accordion music adapted for performance in 1930s and 1940s Manhattan nightclubs. Eventually adopted by Italians and Italian Americans in general and today a cherished part of public ethnic displays, Jacobson notes, “Valtaro songs performed an ineluctable American truth: that music, particularly folk song and its hybrid offspring—influenced by jazz and pop—provide a powerful and positive medium of cultural exchange” (151).

In the next section, the strength of Joan Saverino’s article, “Italians in Public Memory: Pageantry, Power, and Imaging the ‘Italian American’ in Reading, Pennsylvania” lies in its historical research, which traces the development of a unified public Italian American identity. Peter Savastano’s “Changing St. Gerard’s Clothes: An Exercise in Italian American Devotion and Material Culture” is a stellar example of in-depth research grounded in fieldwork. This important study focuses on behind-the- scene ritual preparations that reveal how devotees—whether male, female, gay, or straight—all participate in an intimate ritual place “where these parallel universes encounter and intersect with each other in interesting and creative ways” (182).

The final chapters bring the book full circle. Luisa Del Giudice’s “Cursed Flesh: Faith Healers, Black Magic, and (Re-Membering) Death in a Central Italian Town” and Sabina Magliocco’s “Imaging the Strega: Folklore Reclamation and the Construction of Italian American Witchcraft,” deal with reclamation of religious belief from two different ethnographic perspectives. By researching her own family history, Del Guidice finds herself “reassembling, possibly inventing, a fragmented magical inheritance about which I had known little” (195). Magliocco interviews contemporary Italian American spiritual seekers and practitioners of revival witchcraft to reveal how the reclamation of Stregheria is a political strategy that transforms a folk-magic tradition into source of ethnic pride.

In its entirety, Italian Folk surpasses previous studies on the topic of Italian American folk culture. Through the authors’ “engaged listening,” readers are offered opportunities to reexamine and reconsider their own understandings of creativity’s role in everyday lives. While the authors are writing primarily for folklorists with an interest in Italian Americans, this exemplary work should be on the reading list of every scholar of immigrant folklore.

—Felicia McMahon, Syracuse University


The organization of the work provides seamless transitions from essays on foodways to material culture, cultural landscape to explicit art forms, and large-scale ceremonial events to religious belief, all situated in diverse locales from New York to California.

This review appeared in Voices Vol. 37, Spring-Summer 2011. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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