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Italian Immigrant Radical CultureThe Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940$

Marcella Bencivenni

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780814791035

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: March 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814791035.001.0001

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Italian American Literary Radicalism

Italian American Literary Radicalism

(p.129) 5 Italian American Literary Radicalism
Italian Immigrant Radical Culture

Marcella Bencivenni

NYU Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter offers a reevaluation of the Left cultural tradition in Italian Americana, bringing attention to the role of literature and cultural traditions in the making of Italian immigrant radical politics. Recovering hitherto neglected radical texts, it examines two popular literary forms: the novelettes, or short stories, and poetry. Many of these writings were the works of renowned international writers and revered Italian socialist novelists, such as Edmondo De Amicis or Leda Rafanelli Polli. But other stories were written by working-class men and women, who often used pseudonyms or did not even bother to sign their work. The plots varied, but the themes were those typical of proletarian and socialist literature—that is, a literature written for the workers, about workers, and from a left-wing perspective: narratives of political oppression and injustice, working-class life, and revolution. Italian immigrant radical stories and poems included agitators and workers as the main heroes and overt political propaganda as a constitutive part of the text.

Keywords:   Italian Americans, sovversivi, Left cultural tradition, radical texts, novelettes, poetry, political oppression, injustice, working-class

What intellectuals write for public consumption is more important than what movements they join or what petitions they sign.

Richard Pells, Radical Visions and American Dreams

In addition to parties, newspapers, and theatrical groups, Italian immigrant radical politics also spawned a rich artistic and literary culture. The revolutionary syndicalist Arturo Giovannitti, for example, emerged as one of the most articulate radical voices of the early twentieth century, greatly admired not only by his co-nationals but by Americans as well. Progressive sculptor and illustrator Onorio Ruotolo became one of New York’s most distinguished artists,1 while communist Pietro Di Donato, whose Christ in Concrete was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club novel in 1939, has been recognized as one of the most effective “proletarian” writers.2

While we now know something of these artists, no attempt has been made to study the larger radical culture of which they were a part. Although a few literary scholars—Martino Marazzi, Fred L. Gardaphè, and Francesco Durante3—have recently brought attention to the radical writing of Italian Americans, particularly that which emerged from the Great Depression, the role of literature in the life of the sovversivi and the narratives, poems, and dramas they produced still remain, as Nunzio Pernicone has lamented, an untouched field.4 Significantly, this indifference toward the radical tradition persists even though more and more scholars, including Giuseppe Prezzolini, the director of the Casa Italiana of Columbia University during the 1930s and 1940s, have recognized that the best Italian American writing came from the pens of political radicals.5

The reasons for the lack of interest in Italian American literary radicalism can be attributed in part to Anglo-Saxon disdain for things Italian as well as to objective difficulties inherent in the sources themselves because almost all the texts are in Italian. But this neglect is also a result of the marginal role (p.130) that American and Italian American literary studies have traditionally given to radicalism. Although the cultural legacy of the U.S. Left is now under serious reconsideration6—especially regarding the 1930s—literary critics, with their emphasis on the aesthetic categories of “quality,” “value,” and “cultural achievement,” have tended to treat literary radicalism as a subaltern phenomenon, dismissing it, often indiscriminately, as nothing but political propaganda and assuming that the official attitude of socialists, anarchists, and communists toward culture was a negative one.7

Contrary to general perception, the sovversivi held literary and artistic expression in very high regard. “Art,” explained the communist-oriented paper Alba Nuova, “is the highest expression of the human mind,” and “to disregard the importance of culture and education in the name of political activism is the equivalent of sowing without reaping.”8 Not only did the sovversivi recognize the central role of art and literature in human life, they also engaged in sophisticated discussions about the relation of art and revolution, in an effort to create an entirely new aesthetic culture to fit the needs of workers.9 Nor were they indifferent to canons of beauty and style; as one anarchist, Carlo Prato, pointed out, “independently from the subject or the topic, the most important thing is the art of writing, the artist’s ability to write well.”10

Moreover, the sovversivi’s interest in and sensitiveness to literature and art are evident from the pages of their newspapers, which published in great abundance serialized novels, short dramas, poetry, and drawings. Many of these writings were the works of renowned international writers and revered Italian socialist novelists, such as Edmondo De Amicis or Leda Rafanelli Polli. But other stories were written by working-class men and women, who often used pseudonyms or did not even bother to sign their work.

The plots varied, but the themes were those typical of proletarian and socialist literature—that is, a literature written for the workers, about workers, and from a left-wing perspective: narratives of political oppression and injustice, working-class life, and revolution. The term “proletarian” in American literature is generally used to refer to the literary works produced by the 1930s generation of artists and intellectuals aligned with Marxist/Leninist ideology and the Communist Party.11 As the following discussion will show, the literary writing of Italian immigrant radicals was proletarian long before the Depression era. True, the sovversivi never used the term “proletarian literature,” but they did consciously align with the workers and were directly involved in the labor movements of their time. This allowed them to write from the “inside” and speak of a world with which the workers could identify. (p.131) Moreover, like most proletarian literature, Italian immigrant radical stories and poems included agitators and workers as the main heroes and overt political propaganda as a constitutive part of the text. In this respect, Italian immigrant radical literature would probably fall into the category of agitprop production, or in other words directly political art, art of commitment, art with a message.12 Behind the literary pieces we can always feel the writer’s sense of responsibility and commitment to transform society. The tone is usually dramatic, the message rhetorical, the intent explicitly didactic.

While many would probably see in this overt political propaganda the major weakness of literary radicalism—along with a justification of its alleged inferiority—a close and serious reading of these texts can tell us much about the political and ideological base of the Italian immigrant radical culture.

The Novelettes

Until the 1930s, when the expansion of popular culture and secondary education made books more marketable, the central form of Italian immigrant radical literature was the short story, not the novel. The absence of novels also probably had to do with the sovversivi’s intense absorption in labor struggles and propaganda, which left little time for writing long books. Called novelle or bozzetti, these tales ranged in length from about 1,000 to 5,000 words and were published in newspapers and magazines, appearing, if they were too long for one issue, in serial form in two or three consecutive installments.13

Focusing on a single major incident and character, most of these stories were variations on the theme of class oppression and social inequality: explorations into how “the other half ” lived, dramatizations of the world of labor and immigration, or social exposés of the evils of capitalist society. Their primary characters were working-class men and women, prostitutes, beggars, orphans, and hoboes. Using the same literary strategies and narrative modes as muckracking literature, these stories aimed at describing the bitter conditions brought by industrial capitalism, while at the same time giving expression to the struggle and aspirations of radical agitators. Realism, in this respect, was closely identified with social purpose.

Not surprisingly, immigrant life, with its degradation and hardship, was one of the most popular subjects of narration. The massive migration of poor Italians between 1890 and 1920 represented without doubt the starting point in the making of the Italian American literary consciousness. Like most new immigrants, Italians lived in horribly crowded and unsanitary slums and worked under brutal conditions for preposterously low pay.14 Struck by the (p.132) poor living conditions of their co-nationals, many felt compelled to voice the disillusionment with life in the New World. For example, in “Scenes from the Street,” the author, a woman named Fanny Barberis Monticelli, re-creates the desperation of an immigrant woman who has no money to feed her children. A victim of capitalism, she is eventually arrested by a policeman for accepting a crust of bread from a kind passer-by.15

Another woman, Matilde Bertoluzzi, wrote a story about a young Italian boy “about ten years old, thin, pale, with big and intense eyes that revealed infinite sadness,” who is forced to sell plaster figurines in the rich neighborhoods of New York City.16 The poor life of the child is set against the background of the indifferent, superficial world of the well-to-do families. As Walter Rideout has pointed out, the device of juxtaposition was a standard technique in radical novels.17 The contrast, in this case, served to uncover the miserable conditions of life of the immigrants; to arouse moral indignation, social criticism, and compassion; and, above all, to expose the faults of capitalism. The story ends with a cliché of socialist literature: the cry for revenge and promise of justice. Describing the death of the boy, who is knocked down by the carriage of a rich lady, the author emphatically declares: “The blood of one of the many martyrs of civilization has stamped on the clothes of the rich the curse of the unfortunates who demand justice—and will get it!”18 This inclination to admonish and castigate is significant in that it connotes the degree to which the sovversivi believed in the imminent coming of the revolution and the inevitable overthrow of capitalism.

As these two stories exemplify, early Italian immigrant radical writing had its roots in the literature of protest, social realism, and naturalism that emerged in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. Zola’s novels seem in particular to have been a source of inspiration and a model for many stories. The sovversivi’s reading and admiration of Zola is evident by the widespread publication of his novels, famous citations, and critical reviews of his works. Like Zola, Italian immigrant radical writers paid great attention to the setting of the story and the milieu, providing specific names of streets and cities as well as detailed descriptions of the main characters. This literary pretense to objectivity and historical truth was often reinforced by the use of subtitles like “storia dal vero” (real story), meant to assure readers of the authenticity of the facts narrated. Italian immigrant radical stories came especially close to Zola in their attempt to illustrate the demoralizing effect of industrialization on human character and fate. For example, in “The Anarchist and the Prostitute,” the author, a certain Ronchi, describes the condition (p.133) of prostitution (the prostitute in the story is significantly named Nanà, as is one of Zola’s most memorable characters) as a cause/effect of capitalist society.19

“Amate!” (You Must Love!), another story written by Matilde Bertoluzzi, illustrates a special theme of the sovversivi’s worldview and late-nineteenth-century socialist literature: that of universal love and brotherhood. Elena is a woman destroyed by the loss of her beloved son. She feels she no longer has a reason to live, until, with the help of a socialist friend, she realizes that she can and must love again. “Love! … Love! …,” insists the friend, “Human beings were born to love infinitely, and the only law in our world should be love.”20 Expressions like this one, which dominate Italian immigrant radical prose, shed light on the sovversivi’s intense idealism and humanism. Italian socialists, and even more so the anarchists, believed that human nature is fundamentally good and that it is the environment that promotes hatred. Consequently, they assumed that after socialism replaced the harsh and unjust structure of capitalism, love would prevail.

The sovversivi’s belief in love, as the highest of all values, was consistent with their anti-militarism. Italian radicals had always been traditionally anti-militaristic and anti-nationalistic. The reasons for their opposition were ethical, cultural, and, of course, political. Like other rebels, they traced the origins of militarism to economic and material interests and considered it nothing more than an instrument of the established classes to oppress and suppress the working class.

As World War I broke out, dozens of anti-military stories were published in anarchist, socialist, and syndicalist papers along with plays and articles.21 Most of these anecdotes mocked patriotic and nationalist propaganda and, through the dramatic experiences of fictional soldiers, mothers, and wives, showed the real side of war: the pain, destruction, and suffering caused by warfare. These stories attacked the rhetorical language of heroism (expressions such as “sacred duty,” “holy war,” “crusade for democracy”), challenging the construct of manhood in terms of physical strength, impassivity, and virility that the conservative press blatantly employed to encourage patriotism. Far from positive, these traits—insisted radical writers—incarnated the brutal, primitive, and irrational side of men, destroying the most important element of human character: dignity.

The comments of the anarchist poet Virgilia D’Andrea on the subject of the war are illuminating. When asked whether it was right for Italians to abandon the national fight of their “brothers” of Trento and Trieste, she answered: “And the men of the rest of world, aren’t they equally our brothers? (p.134) Those Italians who are forced to go abroad to work, don’t they feel more at home among the textile workers, the farmers, the miners in Germany than among the arrogant and insolent prominent men in our country?”22

One of the most prolific and popular anti-war writers was Arturo Giovannitti. As we saw in the previous chapter, he wrote several anti-militarist plays. One of them, Come era nel principio, bore the same title as a short story he wrote earlier. But whereas the play is pervaded by a sense of horror and brutality, the story is a hymn to creation and life. It describes a mutilated soldier and a mourning woman who meet in a destroyed, empty village after the war is over. The man represents anguish, violence, death; the woman instead stands for hope, peace, and life. Significantly, Giovannitti chooses May 1 as the imaginary date of his story, denoting a symbolic new beginning. “Today,” the woman explains, “the great mystery of life will occur again…. But this time the apple that I eat and you eat after me will be that of supreme knowledge, and all those who are born of me will not kill their brothers and will not earn their bread by the sweat of their brows.” When the man asks the woman how they should name their first-born, whether Amore (Love) is the most appropriate name, she replies: “No, it will not be a man, it will be a woman and we’ll name her Giustizia [Justice].”23 (In Italian the noun amore is masculine whereas giustizia is feminine.)

The sanctity of life is the major theme of another short story written by Giovannitti, in 1914. Entitled La vita è sacra, it tells the story of a burglar who on Thanksgiving night enters a house in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and is shot by the owner. With sarcasm Giovannitti shows how the owner, an honest man, “respectful of the law and the church,” decides to kill the thief even after he realizes he has not stolen anything. Giovannitti’s social satire becomes even more evident when he describes the attitude of the police, who without even looking at the dead man congratulate the owner for his “excellent” job. Emphatically Giovannitti concluded: “Life is sacred!”24

Italian immigrant radical literature took also the narrative form of Christian parables or tales, using religious allegories, symbols, and metaphors to make political propaganda. Like the Gospel’s religious parables, these radical stories imparted a moral lesson, using characters and actions that personified the qualities and meanings that the author wanted to be read beneath the story itself. In one instance, for example, the socialist agitator is compared to a madman—and implicitly to Christ. Unappreciated and mocked at first by his countrymen, he then becomes the spokesman for the commoners of his village.25 Despite its exaggerated rhetoric and prophetic tone, this kind of writing powerfully reveals the religious texture of the sovversivi’s culture. (p.135) Even though, as we saw in chapter 2, they overtly rejected religion, the Catholic culture in which they were raised still infiltrated their imagination, surfacing in the form of symbols, myths, and images. At the same time, however, the use of religious allegories may have well been a deliberate strategy to attract immigrants, especially women.

Another popular theme of Italian immigrant radical literature was the conversion of unorganized workers to socialism. Usually written in the first person, these stories traced the worker’s ideological evolution, from the passive acceptance of the status quo to class awakening, and, eventually, the endorsement of socialist principles. For example, “The Night of a Worker” is at once a lament of the miserable life of workers and a utopian vision of a just society in which there are no oppressed, no poor, no slaves.26

Finally, Italian immigrant radical stories also took the form of direct dialogue among workers. This narrative mode was first popularized by Errico Malatesta in Fra contadini and Al caffè and became a very popular form of literary propaganda in all radical papers.27 Using highly stereotypical and one-dimensional characters, the dialogues involved two or more persons, either men or women, and re-created real or plausible conversations among Italian immigrants. One of the speakers was a bigot, fatalist, skeptical of politics, and submissive; the other was instead rebellious, erudite, and aggressive. Using the question/answer format, the writer explained complex principles and theories of socialism and anarchism, such as the abolition of private property, the concept of class struggle, the importance of unions, or anti-clericalism, clarifying some of the most widespread misconceptions about radical ideologies.

  • Is it really true—asks a young lady—that socialists want to share everything?

  • Miss, you must be kidding me….

  • No, no for real! I heard it from a married man, a “commendatore,” well educated, an economist!

  • Then, Mister Commendatore must have made fun of you, he was in bad faith, or he is stupid. No, we, socialists do not want to share everything, first of all because a just distribution of goods would be impossible. Men would naturally want to be in competition, the strongest, smartest, and luckiest would prevail, individual conflicts would arise and slowly we would be in the same situation as today: rich on the one side, poor on the other. Instead, we want that the means of production, land and all that is used to produce, become collective property, the patrimony of all, not a few.28

(p.136) Similarly, in a column under the title “Popular Propaganda,” La Questione Sociale regularly featured a conversational serial between two fictional immigrants, Giacomo and Michele, with the obvious intent of educating its readers to the principles of anarchism.

  • Well compare Giacomo, I will let you come to my house because I have known you for the longest time but the fact that you belong to the anarchist sect does bother me; well—if you pardon my frankness—I believe you have lost your mind.

  • I am grateful—dear Michele—of the affection you have for me, but don’t you see? You feel sorry for me because you don’t know what is anarchy. Otherwise you’d be an anarchist too.

  • No, never. It’s enough for me to know that anarchists don’t want any master, religion, state, or motherland. They want to destroy society. You call that nothing?

  • No, my dear friend, anarchists do not aim at destroying society. What do we mean by society? An association of individuals who work for the commonwealth, because they know that other people’s good is their good too. In other words, in a society everyone must work for the collective welfare if …

  • Excuse me; what does COLLECTIVE mean?

  • It means of EVERYBODY. Thus, all of us must work to improve the conditions of all if we want to improve our own. […] Now, this should be the case, but it is not. Then how could you say that we want to destroy society when, considered in its real meaning, society does not even exist?

  • Slow down, compare Giacomo. Do not confound me. I, for society, mean all those things that govern us, that rule us, that make us live.

  • I see, you mean all institutions that constitute our actual social system.

  • Exactly. See you can speak like a literary man.

  • Well, the institutions, yes we do want to destroy them and we are right to do so. You’ll see …29

Two things are striking about this type of literature: the vivacity of the language, informal and yet very precise and alive, and the literary artificiality of the conversations despite their pretense to realism. This peculiar literary form was probably a response to the problem of low education among Italian immigrants and peasants. It moved away from abstract theories and explained in simple words, in a language the workers could understand, the principles and goals of various radical ideologies, while deconstructing Italian immigrants’ prejudices and bigotry.

(p.137) This literary strategy was also used to educate Italian workers, especially women, to the principles of unionism and to combat the problem of “scabbism.” For example, the labor paper Il Lavoro had a regular column called “Cose piane tra vicine” run by Nerina Gilioli Volonterio that employed the conversational format to encourage the unionization of women.30 Drawing inspiration from genuine settings and characters, these dialogues used a “real” language, often characterized by ironic and satirical tones to accentuate the naïveté of immigrants.

Religious bigotry and provincialism were also regularly ridiculed. For example, Clara Vacirca Palumbo, wife of socialist deputy Vincenzo Vacirca, wrote a short story entitled “Il Miracolo” in which she described a mother’s desperate attempt to marry off her three daughters.31 To expedite her wish, she decided to go on a three-day pilgrimage to an ancient sanctuary of Our Lady of Sorrows to beg for a grace. Tired, but full of hope, she returned home only to find out that in her absence one of her daughters had become pregnant and her lover had deserted her for America.

Clara Vacirca was also the author of an anti-fascist serialized novel, Cupido tra le camicie nere, that narrated the pure and great love of two subversives against the adversities of fascism.32 What is interesting about this novel is its use of literary conventions and themes typical of popular romance and melodrama in combination with the principles of engaged, committed art. One could say that despite her contempt for bourgeois society, Vacirca was unable to break completely free from the canons of bourgeois literature. However, as we discussed earlier, the use of melodrama was not necessarily passive; as in the case of the plays, the author may very well have consciously employed popular themes to attract more readers. The major goal was indeed to persuade the reader to convert to radicalism through the exemplary life of the hero or heroine.

Like the plays, the passionate love between a man and a woman from different social classes or different political beliefs was a common plot used in short stories to popularize radical ideas. In one of these stories, Pietro Zanelli is a well-educated Italian immigrant, libertarian, and anti-militarist. He belongs to a socialist circle and writes articles against the government, the priests, and the bourgeoisie for the party’s newspaper. Unfortunately, he is in love with Marta, a beautiful girl from a wealthy, conservative family. It is the second year of World War I and Marta decides to participate in a military parade that will take place on Fifth Avenue to support the United States’ entry into the conflict. Her action, however, inevitably provokes the disappointment and irritation of Pietro. Terribly sorry, she asks for his forgiveness and promises him she will (p.138) never obstruct his political ideas. They eventually get married—she has to be content with civil marriage—and live happily ever after.33

The theme of love that is impossible because of political circumstances became particularly widespread in anti-fascist literature. A good example is a story published by “Maltempo” in 1927. Cesiria is a young peasant girl, living with her old father and her brother Attilio, an idler and bully, addicted to gambling and fraud, who joins the fascist squad of his town. When Cesiria falls in love with her neighbor Ambrogio, a serious young man who spends his free time reading libertarian books and studying social issues, Attilio confronts his sister with the intention of putting an end to their relationship. In contrast to the naïve female character of the previous story, Cesiria exhibits a strong personality and political consciousness of her own. Ready to die for her love, if necessary, she does not let her brother intimidate her and rages against him: “From idler to slacker the step was short: at last you became a disgusting criminal!”34

The examples discussed here are only a few among the many Italian immigrant literary voices lost in the pages of radical newspapers and periodicals. These voices took different forms and expressed a great variety of themes, ideologies, and messages that demand reassessment and more attention in both immigration and radical history. Some messages were obvious, other more subtle. Among the major topics in their writings we find a critique of capitalism, religion, and nationalism. While these themes are not entirely original, one is nevertheless struck by the abundance of the stories as well as the incredibly large number of ordinary men and women who ventured into literary writing.35


Poetry was perhaps the richest, oldest, and most interesting expression of Italian immigrant literary radicalism. Poetry indeed has occupied a key role in the Italian literary tradition, assuming myriad forms—from the popular folk poetry of the cantastorie (storytellers), the classical epic of Dante, to Ada Negri e Pietro Gori’s poetry of social revolt. For generations of immigrants, poetry represented a way to retain a link to their native land and assess their italianità. The success and persistence of dialectal poetry over the years exemplify perfectly the cultural and ethnic function of poetry among Italian immigrants.36

The importance of poems in the culture of the sovversivi becomes particularly evident in the pages of the radical press, which abound in verses, often embellished with drawings and occasionally published on the first (p.139) page. Yet, with the single exception of Giovannitti’s poetry, this important aspect of Italian American cultural identity has been completely, consciously or unconsciously, ignored—buried in the pages of equally forgotten newspapers of the Italian immigrant Left.

Like the prose, much of the radical poetic production is characterized by excessive sentimentalism and revolutionary rhetoric. Like other political and social verses, Italian immigrant radical poetry overdoes what it attempts, overstressing its intention and message. But the kind of thoughts and feelings expressed in socialist lyrics are, because of their political significance and educational nature, difficult to manifest without faults of tone. The overinsistence and rhetoric that sound so old-fashioned today were a deliberate, conscious artistic choice to stir and inspire the reader. In other words, when we judge these poems we must always remember that they were written with the intention not to amuse but to educate. In addition, we must always be aware of the literary taste and manners—the aesthetic ideologies—that rule in any given period.37 The sense of what is good, true, and beautiful is not absolute but changes over time, reflecting the standards and tastes of the culture it attempts to convey. Radical poems should be examined within the cultural context in which they were written and in the social context of their intended audience and effect.38

As in the case of fiction and drama, Italian immigrant radical poetry bore the specific influence of Italian literary traditions and genres, especially the social-realistic tradition of the late nineteenth century; the classical-humanist tradition of Giacomo Leopardi, Ugo Foscolo, and Giovannni Pascoli; and the patriotic tradition of the post-Risorgimento, exemplified by Giosuè Carducci’s anti-clerical, republican, and libertarian poetry. The most-admired poets were the so-called social poets or poets of social protest, notably Mario Rapisardi (1844–1912), Pietro Gori (1865–1911), and Ada Negri (1870–1945), the famous “poetess of revolt.” Their poems were constantly reprinted in Italian immigrant radical newspapers and magazines, especially from the early twentieth century to the World War I years. Poems like Gori’s “Primo Maggio” or Rapisardi’s “Canto dei mietitori” were indeed published so often, and in so many different papers, that they could be considered official anthems of the sovversivi’s culture.39

But poetry in the colonie italiane was not exclusively imported from Italy. The Italian radical movement in the United States produced dozens of poets, some well educated and middle class in origin, others emerging from the ranks of the working class.40 In addition to Giovannitti, whom I discuss in the next chapter, among the most productive and interesting poets were Simplicio (p.140) Righi, Riccardo Cordiferro, Antonino Crivello, Bellalma Forzato-Spezia, Francesco Pitea, Virgilia D’Andrea, Efrem Bartoletti, and Francesco Greco. These men and women, however, never considered themselves professional poets or literary persons. Instead, they saw themselves as social rebels who experimented with poetry writing in their spare time, in addition to organizing the immigrants, founding newspapers, and participating in radical activities. Opposing the nineteenth-century concept of art for art’s sake, they used poetry as a vehicle to advocate a solution to the social problems of their time.

Despite its obvious Italian influence, the sovversivi’s poetry was not a mere carbon copy of that of the “old country.” Italian immigrant poets may have looked back at their motherland for literary models and themes, but they drew inspiration from their American experience. Their poetry grew out of real conditions and concrete realities of immigrant working-class life. It was, for example, the Lawrence strike of 1912 that inspired Giovannitti’s best lyrics; it was the need for unionization that animated Crivello’s verses; and it was the corruption of the world of the prominenti that heartened Cordiferro’s bitter satire.

Most of these poets’ names are today almost completely unknown to specialists in the field of Italian American studies and are generally absent from literary studies of both American and Italian American poetry and culture. With some exceptions, most of this poetic production appeared in the pages of radical papers and was never published in books. Yet, these men and women enjoyed a considerable popularity within Italian communities in the pre- and post–World War I eras and exerted a strong influence among their co-nationals.41 While not always beautiful by today’s literary standards, their poems often possess a high spiritualism and poetic force that naturally appealed to the Italian immigrant masses.

Simplicio Righi

A well-respected doctor, Simplicio Righi was one of the earliest militants in the Italian section of the Socialist Labor Party of New York. From 1901 to 1902 he directed the socialist newspaper Il Proletario, where he published most of his early poems under the female pseudonym Rosina Vieni.42 He also edited a popular serialized column called “Alfabeto igienico del lavoratore” (Hygienic Alphabet of the Worker), which was published simultaneously in different papers and aimed at educating Italian immigrants to healthy norms of life and widespread problems like alcoholism, venereal diseases, and food poisoning.

Righi’s poems are usually melodramatic and laconic but do not degenerate into mawkishness.43 They celebrate the working class, voicing at the (p.141) same time their sorrows and their aspirations. His middle-class background notwithstanding, Righi identified himself as far as possible with the Italian workers and was able to re-create successfully both the material and spiritual world of the immigrants. In one of his most convincing poems, published on the front page of Il Prolerario on May 1, 1902, Righi concedes that the world “today” has much injustice and oppression but also believes that “tomorrow” will bring redemption, freedom, and equality for all. In another poem he gives further voice to the theme of the workers’ liberation and triumph, envisioning a future in which workers are no longer slaves, where science rules, and the only true deity is consciousness:

  • Non più catene ai polsi ed al pensiero.

    No more chains around the wrists or the mind.

    Maestra e donna ai popoli, la scienza;

    Science will be teacher and mother of all peoples,

    Unico nume, il vero,

    Truth, the only god:

    E, duce, la coscienza.44

    And conscience the chief of all.

It is not difficult to see in Righi’s poetry the influence of the realistic school of the late nineteenth century with its emphasis on the social question—the increasing attention to the social, economic, and environmental problems brought by industrialization. Frequent also is the evocation of Jesus, the redeemer of humankind, with his revolutionary message of brotherhood and equality.45

The image of Christ as a militant figure, appearing now as an agitator, now as revolutionary, now as persecuted, was by no means restricted to the sovversivi’s poetry. Donald Winters in his important study of the spiritualism of the Wobblies has convincingly documented the “religious texture of the IWW message,” pointing out interesting parallels between the themes of political martyrdom and Christian images of sacrifice and persecution.46 A comparison between Jesus and the revolutionary appeared frequently in the sovversivi’s literature, revealing a dialectic relationship between Italian socialism and Christianity. Despite their proclaimed atheism, the sovversivi borrowed from Christianity not only its prophetic tone and biblical language but also the values of solidarity, brotherhood, compassion, and universal love with which it is imbued.

Righi’s humble, compassionate language and sensitivity, which significantly is reflected in his choice of a female pseudonym, won him the reputation of “poeta gentile,” gentle poet. Yet, in the mid-1920s he became a fascist (p.142) sympathizer, contributing regularly to the literary magazine Il Carroccio, edited by Agostino De Biasi, the founder of the first fascist organization in the United States.47 Righi’s ideological journey from socialism to fascism was, however, not unique: Mussolini himself had been an active and prominent socialist leader until World War I, and so had been, as discussed earlier, other renegades like Edmondo Rossoni, Aldo Tarabella, and Libero Tancredi.

Antonino Crivello

If Righi classifies as the idealistic bard of Italian immigrant workers in the United States, Antonino Crivello (1888–1969) stands out as their practical prophet. Born in Palermo, Sicily, he emigrated to the United States at the age of fifteen and became one of the most active and important union organizers of tailors and dressmakers in New York.48 He also was one of the founders of Circolo Libertario Pensiero ed Azione and a member of many labor and antifascist groups. He was a man of culture whose education did not pass unnoticed by the Italian consulate, which in its files pointed out that he spoke and wrote Italian very well.49

A convinced and active socialist, Crivello had a political creed that was, as he himself put it, “Labor Solidarity.” “It was a joy,” he wrote to his union comrades, “to inspire you with faith in the Union, and to teach you that in Union there is strength. Please make sure that our work has not been in vain, and that you shall proceed with our International and its leadership from victory to victory, towards the highest peak of social justice, progress and civilization.”50 Crivello’s poetry is the quintessence of his unionist faith. Poems such as “Fratello, ascolta!” “Speed up,” “Insanity,” “Lottiamo!” “La Parola,” and “Dressmakers, Avanti!” are all calls to action.51 Written in the form of folk ballads, generally in end rhyme, they attest to his passionate crusade for unionism, solidarity, and working-class rights. Addressing Italian immigrants in Italian, English, and often Sicilian dialect, he urged them “to awaken,” to leave their “hovel,” their “indolence” and to finally rebel against those who exploit and oppress them.52 “Salvation,” he insisted, “can only be in the unity of those who suffer and are enslaved,” and only “in joined struggle can workers win freedom and put an end to injustice.”53

While Crivello’s purpose of developing class consciousness is even too obvious, the impact of his lyrics in unionizing Italian immigrants is less apparent. As in the case of American syndicalist poets such as Joe Hill and Ralph Chaplin, Crivello’s words contributed undoubtedly to popularizing working-class unity and organization among Italian immigrants. Crivello’s (p.143) leadership and influence are also evident from the letters of the Italian consulate to the Ministry of the Interior, in which he is described as an active socialist and “relentless” anti-fascist. In 1934, for example, Consul Grossardi deemed it necessary to send the Prefect of Rome a copy of a poem Crivello wrote in memory of Antonio Fierro, killed by fascists on July 14, 1933, in Astoria, Queens, assuring him that he was being carefully monitored.54

As we have seen, anti-militarism was one of the central components of the sovversivi’s Weltanschauung. This fervent anti-militarist tradition found in Crivello one of its best representatives. Set against the background of World War II, his “Guerra!” illustrates the anti-militarist soul of the sovversivi. Published as a pamphlet and sold at 5 cents a copy, this long and ambitious poem (218 lines) was dedicated to “every man who in good faith approves the present war, believing it to be a war of vindication.” In it, Crivello exposed the hypocrisy, infamy, and ruthlessness of the war. Condemning the media’s attempt to picture it as a crusade for democracy and freedom, he argued that the real motive of the conflict was the same as always: “the sordid greed of the great and powerful.”55 “Let us not be fooled,” he declared in a speech to a union meeting; “we entered the war to save the world for democracy, but instead we saved the world for dictators. Today let us spread good propaganda which cries for peace.”56

Crivello’s poetic muse was not limited to political themes. In addition to working-class verses, he wrote sonnets dedicated to family life, his native land, and love. In one of them, “’Sta notti puru cusi!” (This night, too, you sew), he re-evoked the grief he felt as an immigrant boy, watching his mother sewing all night to make a living, while his father was unemployed. Written in Sicilian, the lyric powerfully dramatizes the great loneliness and desperation behind the immigrant experience, as exemplified by these lines:

  • Senza pani è l’America, matruzza?

    How can America be without bread, mother?

    Tutti papà truvò li porti chiùsi!

    Father found all doors shut!

    Puru iddu ‘un dormi! Sentu chi singhiùzza57

    He also can’t sleep! I can hear him sobbing …

Like the political movement, Italian radical poetry was male dominated. However, as we have already seen, women were not absent from either politics or literature. Turning the pages of the radical newspapers, one can find several female names. These names attest to the fact that women were contributors to and subscribers of radical newspapers; active members of social, (p.144) political, and feminist clubs; as well as authors of political articles, short stories, and poems.58 Unfortunately, records about these names are often scant, and it is therefore impossible to reconstruct their owners’ biographies. Two important exceptions are the socialist-syndicalist Bellalma Forzato-Spezia (1877–?) and the anarchist Virgilia D’Andrea (1888–1933).

Bellalma Forzato-Spezia

Bellalma Forzato-Spezia was born in Mirandola, a small village in the province of Modena, in northern Italy, on January 1, 1877. She emigrated with her husband to America a few years after the death of her parents in 1891, settling in West Hoboken, New Jersey.59 There, at 416 Spring Street, she opened a bookstore that became renowned for its large selection of booklets of socialist propaganda and social novels. It remains unclear whether she was already active in Italy or whether she embraced revolutionary ideas after her arrival in America. Practically nothing, except for his last name, Forzato, is known of her husband. In any case, by 1907 she had joined the Federazione Socialista Italiana, and her name became associated with that of important revolutionary socialists and syndicalists of the time, such as Edmondo Rossoni, Giacinto Menotti Serrati, Camillo Cianfarra, and Dino Rondani. She gave dozens of lectures to socialist and anarchist gatherings and regularly wrote poetry and articles for Italian-language radical newspapers. Police records indicate that she was well known within the Italian radical community of the early twentieth century in the United States. Categorized as “subversive,” she was carefully monitored by consular officers, and all information about her activities was systematically forwarded to the Ministry of the Interior in Rome.60

Like other radicals, Forzato-Spezia emphasized education and knowledge as a pre-condition of revolutionary organizing and emancipation. Consequently, most of her writings were meant to educate, inform, and awaken immigrants. A strong supporter of Ferrer’s Modern School, in 1911 she published a pamphlet entitled Per le nuove generazioni in which she attacked traditional teaching and advocated a rational, secular, and libertarian education. Conventional schools, she wrote, instead of enlightening and elevating the minds of future generations, had become “the most powerful instrument of domination and enslavement”: a means for the bourgeois state “to fabricate docile citizens, respectful of laws, authorities, and pre-established orders.” True education, she insisted, should free children “from the shackles of dogmatic education” and create a revolutionary milieu fit for preparing “a (p.145) new generation of conscientious, free, and innovative men.” Her educational plan included, among other things, “the demolition of religious, patriotic, militaristic, and capitalist dogmas” as well as the promotion of a “compassionate rationalism” conducive to fighting all social injustices and creating a better future.61

In addition to publishing articles and pamphlets, between 1907 and 1915 Forzato-Spezia also wrote poetry, most of which appeared in Il Proletario. Her poetry clearly reveals the influence of her classical and humanistic education, exhibiting a careful attention to the form and the metrics, technical precision, balance, and emotional restraint. In contrast to typical working-class or socialist poetry, which is generally very accessible, Forzato-Spezia’s poetic language is carefully chosen, studied, and affected. Most of her poems are long and elaborate, filled with panegyrics, allegories, and metaphors.

As in her other writings, the importance of knowledge and education to emancipate the workers is also the major theme of her poems. With aggressiveness, she urges the masses, especially women, to fight the prejudices and ignorance that keep them enslaved and follow the road of “Reason.”62 In the poem “O donna, vieni!” she especially defies religious faith—“the eternal despot”—insisting repeatedly that the rhetoric of resignation, inherent in the Christian discourse of Salvation, is one of the most powerful means of controlling the masses and justifying class inequality.63 Only after the workers have freed themselves from the yokes of religion, bigotry, and ignorance:

  • Sorgerà non remota

    It will rise not distant

    un’aurora sanguigna,

    a bloody dawn,

    e allor la scalza plebe,

    and by then, the barefoot populace,

    Niobe non più serva

    no longer servant

    a una schiatta proterva,

    to an insolent race,

    svincolerà rombando,

    will free itself roaring

    sull’espugnata vetta,

    on the stormed top,

    a volo la vendetta

    revenge will take off

    e correran gli abissi

    and from the abysses of the air

    dell’aria i gridi a flutti:

    will come running the screams in billows:

    “salute o Terra, alfine

    blessed thee oh Earth, at last

    equa madre per tutti!”64

    just mother to all!

Often, her criticism betrayed a bourgeois contempt for Italian immigrant workers (or plebeians, as she called them), who with their coarseness helped ruin the good name of Italy. For example, in “L’emigrato italiano in America” (p.146) (The Italian immigrant in America) she describes Italian immigrants as “squat, lazy, and slack,” complaining that because of them:

  • La regina un dì del mondo, ora è fatta avventuriera,
  •    Once the queen of the world, she has now become an adventurer
  • Olè! La sordida e pezzente, abbruttita e abbietta Italia!
  •    The sordid and imploring, ugly and abject Italy!
  • Mai nutrirono le Pampas dei selvaggi più vil schiera:
  •    Never did the Pampas feed savages of a more cowardly kind:
  • non son forse i nostri cani di meno ignobil schiatta?
  •    Aren’t perhaps our dogs of a less ignominious stock?
  • Basta, basta, troppo è già!65
  •    Enough, enough, this is already too much.

Forzato-Spezia’s wounded nationalist pride would emerge openly with the outbreak of World War I, when she joined the group of syndicalists led by Edmondo Rossoni in support of Italy’s intervention. In 1915 she founded L’Italia Nostra, a fiercely nationalist paper, along with Rossoni and Onorio Ruotolo. Her last articles of a feminist/socialist nature appeared in Il Lavoro, the organ of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, in 1917. After the war she retreated from political activism and ceased to write for radical newspapers, and following the death of her husband in 1926, she returned to Italy, settling with her son in Rome and working as a translator. In 1936 she was officially registered in the Fascist Party, openly in favor of the regime, and her dossier was consequently removed from the police files.66

Virgilia D’Andrea

While Forzato-Spezia returned to Italy to cheer fascism, new radicals were flooding the United States to escape Mussolini’s regime and persecution. Among them was the anarchist poetess Virgilia D’Andrea. Born in Sulmona, Abruzzo, also Tresca’s birthplace, in 1880, she came from Paris to the United States in 1928 and settled in Brooklyn, along with her lover Armando Borghi, a well-known anarchist and anti-fascist (fig. 5.1). Italian authorities described her as a short, petite woman with dark eyes and dark short hair, of “fine intelligence, culture, and education” but also “a violent type, of inconstant character and reprehensible moral behavior.”67 Her alleged immorality resulted from her contempt of social conventions and her belief in free love. In reality, as some of her autobiographical writings reveal, she was a very (p.147)

Italian American Literary Radicalism

Figure 5.1 Anarchist poetess Virgilia D’Andrea (1880–1932), who fled fascist Italy with her lover, Armando Borghi, in 1922, taking refuge in Germany and France and eventually landing in New York in 1928, where she lived until her premature death from cancer. She was a beloved figure of the movement, known for her poetry and oratorical skills.

sensitive and idealistic woman “with the head full of dreams, fantasies and tears.”68

At a very young age she tragically lost her entire family and was forced to go to a boarding school run by nuns to become a teacher. Her only consolation there was reading: “I devoured,” she recalls in one of her stories, “hundreds and hundreds of books; the poetry of Rapisardi, Leopardi and especially Negri were [sic] my favorite.”69 Inspired by these readings, she gradually converted to anarchism, becoming, in the words of Italian authorities, a “dangerous propagandist and organizer of radical activities, which she disguised under the cover of anti-Fascism.”70

When she arrived in America she was already well known among the Italian immigrants as both a poet and an anarchist and revered by many. She conducted lecture tours in Florida, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Massachusetts that, as the newspapers of the time reported, were always well attended, with people filling the conference rooms to their capacity.

D’Andrea’s popularity, however, was due to her poetic eloquence as much as to her political activism. In 1922 she published her first book of poetry, Tormento (Torment), with an introduction by the Italian anarchist theorist par excellence, Errico Malatesta. The book sold 8,000 copies and was issued a second edition in 1929 while she was in exile in France. Italian authorities promptly impounded the book on the ground that it “excited the spirits,” and denounced her for inciting rebellion. Her verses, noted the questor, are “imbued with a feline bile against Italy; they are verses carefully composed to instigate lawbreaking, to incite class hatred, and to vilify the army.”71

(p.148) Tormento consists of nineteen poems in rhyme, many of which were originally published in L’Avanti!, the official organ of the Italian Socialist Party. The cover pictured a winged woman in the act of freeing herself from her chained wrists, symbolizing bourgeois power. As the title of the collection suggests, these poems recount the poet’s personal anguish, grief, and anger for the political defeats of the Left that followed World War I. Most of her poems were written in the aftermath of the so-called biennio rosso (1919–20), a time characterized by widespread social protests, strikes, and upheavals in Italy, when many believed that the Bolshevik revolution would naturally extend to the Italian nation and the rest of Europe and socialism would finally triumph. Instead, to the disbelief of leftists, Italy gave birth to the world’s first fascist regime while Germany established a Nazi party. In the years following Mussolini’s seizure of power in 1922, the Left in Italy was artfully silenced, its publications were banned, and its prominent leaders were either arrested or forced into exile.

Even in such a climate of terror, D’Andrea refused to give up her anarchist dream: Her verses speak to the unredeemed and nonaffiliated on the fringes, providing at the same time a radical critique of the movement and a visionary aspiration. As Malatesta explained to readers, in her book “you will especially find the faith that does not die with defeat—the firm conviction and the sure hope.”72 This unshakeable devotion to the “Ideal” is perhaps best represented in these verses, written while she was held in prison in 1920:

  • No, non son vinta.

    No, I am not defeated.

    Vibra, in me, più forte,

    Despite this sad cell, the ardent faith

    L’ardente fede ne l’angusta cella,

    lives in me, stronger,

    E frange i ferri e batte le ritorte,

    And the dream wave that scourges my heart

    L’onda del sogno, che il mio cor flagella

    transcends the bars and defeats all barriers

Contrary to most Italian American radical poetry, which tended primarily to talk of general social and political conditions rather than individual experiences, D’Andrea’s poems fused the personal and the political. Themes of revolutionary change and social inequality intermix with her inner feelings, while pessimism about her political time is softened by the awareness of the power of love and the beauty of life. In this respect her verses display perhaps the influence of Leopardi’s romanticism more than Rapisardi’s or Negri’s social protest. This subjectivity is particularly evident in her second (p.149) book, Torce nella notte (Torches in the night), published by her comrades in 1933 after her premature death from breast cancer.

A combination of prose and poetry, autobiography and history, remembrances and political commentaries, the book consists of sixteen stories, of which seven are tributes to the memory of anarchist martyrs and leaders—the “torches in the night” to which the title implicitly refers. The book’s cover depicts a naked female figure, handcuffed, in the act of hurtling toward an imaginary abyss, her eyes closed in silent despair, symbolizing perhaps the fall of anarchism. But if D’Andrea recognizes the decline of the anarchist movement, the anarchist ideal still remains her main source of inspiration:

  • Per una grande Idea;

    For a great Ideal

    Di lotta in lotta, di prigione in prigione;

    From struggle to struggle, from prison to prison

    Discacciata dalla patria, attraverso

    Banned from my country, across

    le vie del mondo,

    the streets of the world,

    senza mai la tua casa,

    without ever a home,

    il tuo nido di rifugio,

    a nest

    senza mai un sicuro domani;

    without ever a certain tomorrow;

    In piedi, dove finisce l’ingiustizia e

    Standing up, where injustice ends and

    dove passa la sventura;

    bad luck passes by;

    In piedi come oggi, tra i feriti, i caduti e

    Standing today, among the wounded, the dead

    gli scampati d’una più feroce tragedia;

    and those eascaped to a fiercer tragedy;

    Verso una visione d’umanità e di giustizia;

    Towards a vision of humanity and justice;

    Verso l’ostinato sogno di pace e di amore;

    Towards the stubborn dream of peace and love;

    Sotto le flagellanti burrasche della vita;

    Under the scourging storms of life;

    E sempre a bandiera spiegata.

    And always with flying colors.

Even though her free-love union with Borghi clearly defied gendered norms, D’Andrea did not specifically address women’s problems in her writings. Unlike Forzato-Spezia or other radical feminists like Maria Roda, she did not denounce sexism and she did not issue specific calls for female liberation. Instead she formulated a broader class-based analysis and internationalist vision that aimed at the liberation of all oppressed people.

(p.150) Riccardo Cordiferro

While most Italian immigrant poets chose formal, classical verses, others used satirical, popular tones to advocate social change. Among them, Riccardo Cordiferro was certainly the most popular.73 A prolific playwright, journalist, and lecturer, he also wrote hundreds of verses, touching on different subjects and genres. Like other sovversivi, Cordiferro had no literary pretense or ambition. He considered poetry “the interpreter of human aspirations and passions” but looked down on “lyrics that have nothing to say and are written only for the so-called aesthetes and intellectuals.”74 Despite his classical formation, his poems reflected the themes and motifs of popular culture, and, despite the affectation of the rhymes, the language he used is always frank, simple, even rough at times. This explains Cordiferro’s wide popularity among Italian immigrants, even though, aesthetically speaking, his poetry is probably the poorest amongst the sovversivi’s. As in the case of his plays, he sang of a world that Italian immigrants could identify with and understand—parodying the bigotry and provincialism of the Little Italies; unmasking the opportunism, hypocrisy, and corruption of the prominenti and the priests; and at the same time indicting American society, with its exasperating individualism and harsh materialism. Whereas Giovannitti or D’Andrea seduced the workers with their eloquence, Cordiferro reached them with his humor and sarcasm, and, after making them laugh, he left them thinking.

With a few exceptions, Cordiferro’s poetic production rests above all in the pages of La Follia, the popular weekly newspaper he co-founded in New York in 1893 with his father and brother. Although the paper cannot be defined as radical, at least not by the sovversivi’s standards, Cordiferro wrote in it fierce articles and poems of social criticism that often got him into trouble with local authorities. He published two volumes of poetry, Singhiozzi e Sogghigni (Sobs and smirks, 1910) and Il Poema dell’Amore (The poem of love, 1928).75 A third volume, Poesie scelte (Selected poems), appeared posthumously in Italy in 1967.76 In addition to poems, he also wrote as many as forty-nine musical romances that were performed by famous lyric tenors of the time.77

His earliest and most radical poems appeared in the anarchist newspaper La Questione Sociale between 1894 and 1898.78 Poetry here becomes a means of protest against tyrannies and injustices, an angry cry against the inhumane conditions of the immigrant workers, a hymn to revolution and revolt against social inequality and working-class oppression. Sarcasm dominates (p.151) the lyrics, becoming a weapon with which to attack, expose, and provoke, as for example in this tercet: “Dovremmo chiamarci padroni di tutto / ma abbiamo soltanto nell’anima il lutto … / siam stanchi, siam stanchi perdio di servir.”79 (We should own everything / but we have in our soul only mourning / we are tired, for goodness’ sake, we are tired of serving.)

Anti-clericalism is another important theme of Cordiferro’s poetry. In “Osanna a Satana,” which echoes Carducci’s “A Satana,” Cordiferro opposes the Christian theory of God’s existence with an atheistic and materialistic conception of life. His religious critique flows into “satanism”: He curses God, responsible for so much misery, and celebrates Satan, symbol of freedom and knowledge.

Francesco Pitea

Political satire is also the cultural form used by Francesco Pitea (1894–1981), a mill worker of Paterson, New Jersey. Born in Gallico Superiore, a small village in the southern province of Reggio Calabria, Pitea left Italy for America in 1913, joining two of his brothers who had emigrated before him. He worked as a coal miner in West Virginia, then moved to Brooklyn, and finally settled in a town near Paterson called Dundee Lake (today’s Elmwood Park), where he worked, along with his wife, as a mill machine operator for most of his life. In addition to being active in the labor movement as member of the ILGWU, he was a convinced anti-fascist and anti-war militant.80

His ideas and involvement in the Italian immigrant Left led to his arrest in 1920; he avoided deportation only through the intervention of his comrades.81 Most important, he was one of the founders and the director of the anti-fascist weekly newspaper La Scopa, published in Paterson for three years (1925–28). It was here, assuming the pseudonym of Libero Arsenio, that Pitea wrote most of his invectives against Mussolini and his fascist supporters in America. His poems appeared under a column called “Serenata” (Serenade), accompanied by a little drawing of a man with a guitar. As the word “serenade” suggests, Pitea intended his verses more as songs than poems. However, unlike a wooer, instead of praising the object of his songs, he launched long denunciations against the abuses of fascist policy.

His poetry drew inspiration from the historical developments of fascism and aimed at revealing to the increasing number of immigrants who, driven by nationalist pride, had embraced fascism, the real nature of Mussolini’s ideology. With impudent, pungent, and biting irony he ridiculed fascism and Mussolini, comparing fascist groups to “The League of Cudgels,” (p.152) King Vittorio Emanuele to “a dull, ridiculous king,” and Mussolini to an “impostor,” a “coward,” an “opportunist,” “a false Caesar” who was ruining Italy.82 Even harsher were the words against fascist prominenti in America, such as Vincenzo Giordano of Il Bollettino della Sera and Carlo Barsotti of Il Progresso Italo Americano, who were nothing more than “patriottardi / Ben pronti ai ricatti, / Vil, falsi e bugiardi83 (jingoists / always ready to blackmail / vile, false and deceitful), and “volta gabbana / che stanno a campare / con qualche puttana” (weathercocks / who live their lives / with whores).84

Like Cordiferro’s verses, Pitea’s poems cannot be appreciated unless they are seen in their historical context. In the mid-1920s fascism was forging a large consensus among Italian American, as well as American, public opinion. To counter fascist propaganda without running the risk of being prosecuted became almost impossible. What better cultural way, then, to expose the incongruity that existed between the appearance of fascism and its real nature than satire? After all, satire by definition involves the act of “ridiculing folly, vice, stupidity—the whole range of human foibles and frailties—in individuals and institutions.”85 Pitea’s poetry was tailored to do exactly that: to present the paradoxes of fascism while providing a radical critique of the prominenti, and it did so in a language fit for the workers. Anti-fascist satirical poetry was a significant force in articulating anti-fascist sentiments and spurring sympathies toward liberalism and democracy.

Italian immigrant literary radicalism was not limited to the works discussed here. In fact, it would have been easy to pile up further evidence. The communist Vittorio Vidali published several poems under the pseudonym of Enea Sormenti during his short but active sojourn in the United States. Efrem Bartoletti, a self-educated miner from Umbria who came to the United States in 1909, wrote regularly poems for L’Avvenire and Il Proletario, publishing several volumes of poetry. Francesco Greco, a carpenter from Calabria, was one of the best-known poets in the Calabrian dialect. His poems appeared in various radical papers, and a collection of his best poetry, L’Anima allo Specchio, was published in 1964. Giuseppe Zappulla, an anti-fascist emigre and the editor of various literary magazines, was also the acclaimed author of several stories and poems. Finally, Nino Caradonna, a journalist and writer, published more than ten volumes of poetry, some of which have been translated into various languages. Dozens of examples of other literary writings that touch upon various aspects of Italian immigrant radical culture can be found in radical papers.86

(p.153) Limitations of space, however, have made it necessary to limit the discussion to the most representative material, focusing on those themes and issues that appeared most commonly. Certainly, not all the prose or the poetry analyzed in this chapter is “great” literature. Yet, considered as a whole, this body of radical work remains important for several reasons. First, their wide production and popularity suggest that while illiteracy was widespread among Italian immigrants, its rate was considerably lower among the radicals. Radical literary production also shows that literature flourished and grew along with radical ideas, challenging the assumption that Italian immigrants were indifferent to politics and education. In fact, within the Italian immigrant communities no one was as educated as the sovversivi, many of whom reached a degree of intellectual sophistication far beyond the average level of working-class education.87

Literary radicalism also brought alive the sense of radical possibility that shaped the immigrant experience of first- and second-generation Italian Americans. Set against the background of international as well as internal political events, these poems and novelettes supplied hundreds of Italian immigrants with their first understanding of the meaning and possible achievements of socialism. To paraphrase what Donald Winters has written about the IWW poets, these kinds of proletarian songs and writings provided the rootless Italian workers with a vision and faith greater than that of any other political movement.88

Ultimately, 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. In them we find the clearest expression of the spirit that moved the sovversivi—their commitment to the workers, their devotion to the ideas of equality and freedom, their hatred of privilege and arrogance, their desire for a counterculture different from that of the middle class. This vision was rooted in the core values of the European Left—liberty, justice, and equality—and had as its ultimate goal the overthrow of capitalism. What the sovversivi hoped for, however, was not only a new political world but also a new cultural world in which literature and art would help change the way people thought and acted. (p.154)


(1.) Among Ruotolo’s most important works are a bust of Theodore Dreiser, life masks of Helen Keller and Ann Sullivan Macy (National Portrait Gallery); a bust of Lenin; “Statue of Black Woman (Stanford’s Cantor Center for Visual Arts); a bust of Caruso (Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center); and the Woodrow Wilson Memorial (University of Virginia).

(p.254) (2.) See for example Michael Denning, The Cultural Front (London and New York: Verso, 1998).

(3.) See Martino Marazzi, Misteri di Little Italy: Storie e testi della letteratura italoamericana (Milan: Franco Angeli, 2001), and Voices of Italian America: A History of Early Italian American Literature with a Critical Anthology (Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2004); Francesco Durante, Italoamericana. Storia e letteratura degli italiani negli Stati Uniti, 1776–1880 (Milan: Mondadori, 2001); Fred L. Gardaphè, “Left Out: Three Italian American Writers of the 1930s,” in Bill Mullen and Sherry Lee Linkon, eds., Radical Revisions: Rereading 1930s Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 60–77, and “Follow the Red Brick Road: Recovering Traditions of Italian/American Writers,” in Philip V. Cannistraro and Gerald Meyer, eds., The Lost World of Italian American Radicalism: Ideas, Politics, and Labor (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003).

(4.) Nunzio Pernicone, “Arturo Giovannitti’s ‘Son of the Abyss’ and the Westmoreland Strike of 1910–1911,” Italian Americana, XVII, 2 (Summer 1999), 178. See also Donna Gabaccia and Franca Iacovetta, “Introduction” to Women, Gender, and Transnational Lives: Italian Workers of the World (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 23.

(5.) See for example Kenneth Ciongoli and Jay Parini, eds., Beyond the Godfather: Italian American Writers on the Real Italian American Experience (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1997); and Giuseppe Prezzolini, I trapiantati (Milan: Longanesi, 1963).

(6.) In addition to classics such as Walter B. Rideout’s The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900–1954 (1965), Daniel Aaron’s Writers on the Left (1961), and James B. Gilbert, Writers and Partisans (1968), the new scholarship of American radical culture includes the works of Alan Wald (1987, 1992), Cary Nelson (1989), Paula Rabinowitz (1991), James Bloom (1992), Barbara Foley (1993), Paul Buhle (1995, 2006), and Michael Denning (1998).

(7.) For this argument see especially Alan M. Wald, “Introduction to Daniel Aaron,” Writers on the Left (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992, first edition 1961).

(8.) Salvato Rossi, “L’arte e la rivoluzione,” Alba Nuova, May 1, 1922, 2; “La cultura proletaria,” Alba Nuova, September 1, 1923, 2.

(9.) See for example the article “Il socialismo e l’arte,” Il Proletario, February 17 and 24, 1907, 3–4, and the literary magazine Il fuoco (1914–15).

(10.) Carlo Prato, “L’arte di scrivere,” Il Novatore, March 16, 1911, 87.

(11.) Discussions about the definition of “proletarian” art and literature dominate literary studies of the 1930s. For a good overview of the scholarship see Barbara Foley, Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941 (Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 1993), especially chapter 3.

(12.) “Agitprop” is a portmanteau of “agitation” and “propaganda.” See Denning, The Cultural Front, 57.

(13.) Significantly, as a modern genre, the novelette originated in the fourteenth century in Italy with Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a collection of one hundred short stories.

(14.) For a first-hand documentary study of early immigrant life see especially Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971, first edition 1890).

(15.) Fanny Barberis-Monticelli, “Scene della strada,” La Lotta, February 20, 1909, 1.

(16.) Matilde Bertoluzzi, “Il piccolo emigrato,” Il Proletario, September 16, 1899, 2.

(p.255) (17.) Walter B. Rideout, The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900–1954 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965, first edition 1956), 16.

(19.) A. Ronchi, “L’anarchico e la prostituta,” La Questione Sociale, March 24, 1906, 3–4.

(20.) Matilde Bertoluzzi, “Amate!” Il Proletario, November 25, 1899.

(21.) See for example Evening, “Una fucilazione,” La Questione Sociale, November 19, 1898, 2–3; E. Perrella, “Ricordi,” Avanti, July 23, 1904, 3; Duvicu (Ludovico Caminita), “La guerra,” La Questione Sociale, June 2, 1906, 3; Titì, “Bozzetto militare,” La Questione Sociale, January 26, 1907, 3; Arturo Giovannitti, “Come era nel principio,” Il Fuoco, April 15, 1915, 6–7, “Il disertore, ” Il Fuoco, May 31, 1915, and “La lanterna verde,” Il Fuoco, November 1, 1914 (originally published with the title “ La Cantoniera” in Il Proletario, September 17–October 15, 1909), “Una voce nella tormenta,” Lotta di classe, May 3, 1918; Oronzina Tanzarella, “L’epidemia,” Lotta di classe, March 31, 1916, 3.

(22.) Virgilia D’Andrea, Torce nella notte (New York, 1933), 31.

(23.) Arturo Giovannitti, “Come era nel principio,” Il Fuoco, April 15, 1915, 7.

(24.) Arturo Giovannitti, “La vita e’ sacra,” Il Fuoco, December 1, 1914, 11

(25.) “Il matto,” Il Proletario, May 1, 1902, 5–6. See also “I doveri dei ricchi,” Il Proletario, October 28, 1899, 2–3.

(26.) G.,“La notte di un operaio,” Avanti, December 31, 1904, 2; “Quello che dice un contadino,” Il Grido degli Oppressi, June 14, 1893, 3; Senofonte Entrata, “Atto di fede del contadino,” Avanti, October 4, 1904, 4.

(27.) See for example “Dialogo tra mastro Onofrio e mastro Cola,” Il Grido degli Oppressi, October 24, 1892, 2–3; “ Tra padre e figlio,” Il Grido degli Oppressi, March 18, 1893, 2–3; “Quattro chiacchiere,” Il Proletario, October 7, 1899, 2–3; Il villano, “Cristiani e socialisti,” Il Proletario, October 21, 1899, 2–3; “La proprieta’,” Il Proletario, November 4, 1899, 2; Paola Lombroso, “Il socialismo in salotto,” Il Proletario, July 7, 1900, 2; “Il diritto del padrone,” Il Proletario, August 16, 1900, 2–3; “L’alcool è veleno,” La Questione Sociale, November 8, 1914, 3.

(28.) Carlo Monticelli, “Il diritto di proprietà,” Il Proletario, July 28, 1900, 2–3.

(29.) Sereno, “Propaganda popolare,” La Questione Sociale, December 15 and December 22, 1906, 2.

(30.) See for example Nerina Gilioli Volenterio, “Cose piane tra vicine,” Il Lavoro, August 25, 1917, 3, and October 27, 1917, 2.

(31.) “Il Miracolo,” Il Solco, February 27, 1927, 39–41.

(32.) Published by La Strada Publishing Co., New York, 1938.

(33.) G. Procopio, “La Vendetta di Marta,” Lotta di Classe, June 2–June 16, 1916.

(34.) Maltempo, “La verità: novella,” Libertas, August 1927, 9–10.

(35.) “I monitori,” unsigned, La Questione Sociale, July 24, 1906, 3; A. Alberti, “Barattin,” Lotta di Classe, July 28, 1916, 3; Manfredi Bacciel, “Il suicidio di sua eccellenza,” Avanti, June 25, 1904, 3; Adamo Zecchi, “Nobile cuore!” Il Proletario, August 2, 1902, 2–3.

(36.) On the dialectal poetry see for example Vincenzo Ancona, Malidittu la lingua/Damned Language, edited by Anna L. Chairetakis and Joseph Sciorra, translated by Gaetano Cipolla (Toronto: Legas, 1990); and Herman W. Haller, The Other Italy: The Literary Canon in Dialect (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999).

(37.) I. A. Richards, Practical Criticism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987, first published 1927), 208.

(p.256) (38.) Wallace Sillanpoa, “The Poetry and Poetics of Arturo Giovannitti,” in Jerome Krase and William Egelman, eds., The Melting Pot and Beyond: Italian Americans in the Year 2000 (Proceedings of the AIHA, 1987), 183.

(39.) Along with Rapisardi, Gori, and Negri, many other Italian poets of social protest, such as Felice Cavalloti (1842–98), Domenico Milelli (1841–1905), Lorenzo Stecchetti (alias Olindo Guerrini, 1845–1916), and Corrado Corradino (1852–1923), filled the pages of radical papers. See Pier Carlo Masini, Poeti della rivolta, da Carducci a Lucini (Milan: Rizzoli, 1978).

(42.) See Mario De Ciampis, “Storia del movimento rivoluzionario socialista,” La Parola del Popolo (December 1958–January 1959): 136, 141.

(43.) Righi’s poetry is briefly mentioned in Marazzi, I misteri di Little Italy, 91.

(44.) “Domani …,” Il Proletario, June 9, 1900, 1. All translations of the poems are mine, unless otherwise noted. They are literal translations, therefore in their English version lose much of their poetic strength.

(45.) See for example “Piangi, Gesu’,” Il Proletario, December 25, 1904, 1.

(46.) Donald Winters, The Soul of the Wobblies (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985).

(47.) Cf. Marazzi, I Misteri di Little Italy, 91.

(48.) In 1917 he was hired as the Italian representative in the Education Ministry of Local 25 (ILGWU). He then became district manager of Local 25 in Brooklyn and treasurer of the Dressmakers’ Joint Board. In the 1930s, Crivello was manager of Local 144 of Newark, New Jersey, a position he held for twenty-three years, until blindness forced him to retire. Antonino Crivello Papers, “Biographical sketch,” Immigration History Research Center (hereafter IHRC), University of Minnesota.

(49.) Letter of Italian Consulate to the Ministry of the Interior, April 2, 1914. Antonino Crivello (hereafter CPC), busta 1540, Archivio Centrale dello Stato (ACS), Rome. Organized by the Italian police, the CPC files document the activities of Italian radicals in Italy and abroad.

(50.) “Letter of resignation to the ILGWU,” Antonino Crivello Papers, IHRC479, May 24,1956, Box 1, IHRC.

(51.) Antonino Crivello Papers, IHRC479, Box 2, folders “Poesie II” and “Poesie III, ” IHRC.

(52.) The original verses read: “Se uomo sei, esci dal tuo abituro, / da la tua ignavia, dal tuo viver duro … / De la tua croce un’arma fa’, un martello, / E i dritti tuoi rivendica, fratello.” (From “Fratello, ascolta!”)

(53.) In the original poems: “La salvezza per tutti è una sola:/l’union di chi soffre e protesta, / di chi sgobba. L’alata parola / tutti appella e combatter l’infesta / vil genia che opprime il Lavor.” (From “La parola.”) and “Vincerem lottando uniti, / sfruttatori e parassiti, / vincerem la libertà. / Non vogliam essere oppressi. / L’ingiustizia al mondo cessi / Liberiam l’umanità!” (From “Lottiamo!”).

(54.) Letter from Consul Grossardi to the Prefect of Palermo, April 10, 1934. Antonino Crivello, CPC, busta 1540, ACS.

(p.257) (55.) Guerra …! (Bronx, N.Y, 1939), Crivello Papers, IHRC479, Box 1, IHRC. In another anti-war poem, “Ho bisogno di pace” (I need peace), he voiced his torment and sorrow for humankind and, with disarming candor, cried: Perchè far la guerra ci dobbiamo quando/sta ne la pace il bene? / Perchè aggredirci, con piacere nefando, / e a vicenda forgiarci le catene? (Why must we make war when / Goodness is in peace? / Why attack each other, with nefarious pleasure, / And forge our chains with one another?).

(56.) Antonino Crivello Papers, IHRC479, Box 1, folder “Speeches,” IHRC.

(57.) Published in Biblioteca del Convivio, vol. 10, Filippo Fichera, ed. (Milan: Editrice Convivio Letterario, s.n.), 30. In addition to the above-cited poem, the collection includes seven more poems by Crivello. In Antonino Crivello Papers, IHRC479, Box 1, folder “Poems,” IHRC.

(58.) Among the names that I was unable to identify are for example Teresa Ballerini, Poem: “Ai Diatribi,” La Questione Sociale, October 15, 1896, 2; Antonietta Bonelli, Poem: “I Pellagrosi,” Il Proletario, December 7, 1901, 2; Elena Lavagnini, Poem: “Natale?” Il Proletario, December 25, 1904, 1; Hada Peretti, Poem: “La vita,” Avanti, November 23, 1904, 2; Susanna Carruette, “La donna del domani,” La Questione Sociale, November 6, 1901, 2; Virgilia Buongiorno, “Alle compagne lavoratrici,” La Questione Sociale, October 15, 1895, 4; Matilde Bortoluzzi, “Sfruttamento e seduzione” Il Proletario, November 4, 1899, 1; Rosetta, “L’opinione di una donna sulle donne,” La Lotta, March 27, 1909, 3; Argia Sbolenfi, Poem: “Le elezioni,” La Lotta, March 27, 1909, 3; Ines Oddone Bidelli, “La donna,” Il Lavoro, April 21, 1917, 2; Oronzina Tanzarella, Racconto: “L’epidemia,” Lotta di Classe, March 31, 1916, 3.

(59.) Bellalma Forzato-Spezia, Biographical file, CPC, busta 4908, ACS.

(60.) The Consulate to the Ministry of the Interior, October 31, 1913. Bellalma Forzato-Spezia, CPC, busta 4908, ACS.

(61.) Bellalma Forzato-Spezia, “Per le nuove generazioni” (New York: Nicoletti Bros. Press, 1911), 12, 22, 27, 29. All translations from the Italian are mine.

(62.) See for example “S’accendeva l’aurora!” Il Proletario, February 20, 1915, 1.

(63.) “O donna, vieni!” Il Proletario, March 11, 1911, 1–2.

(64.) “Quel giorno,” Il Proletario, May 1, 1908, 3.

(65.) Published in Il Proletario, May 1, 1907, 2. Other poems by Bellalma Forzato-Spezia include “Al Salto del Niagara,” Il Proletario, December 25, 1907; “Maggiolata nuova,” Il Proletario, May 1, 1909, 1; “Cavallo in fuga,” Il Proletario, February 11, 1910; “Il Naviglio,” Il Proletario, May 1, 1910, 6; “Bimbi mutilati,” and “Il canto dei secoli,” both in L’Italia Nostra, January 22, 1916.

(66.) Bellalma Forzato-Spezia, Police headquarters, March 2, 1939, CPC, busta 4908, ACS.

(67.) Virgilia D’Andrea, “Biographical sketch,” CPC, busta 1607, ACS. See also Franca Iacovetta and Robert Ventresca, “Virgilia D’Andrea: The Politics of Protest and the Poetry of Exile,” in Gabaccia and Iacovetta, eds., Women, Gender and Transnational Lives, 299–326.

(68.) Virgilia D’Andrea, Torce nella notte (New York: 1933), 10.

(69.) Ibid., 58.

(70.) Letter from the Italian Consulate, March 9, 1929, CPC, busta 3033, ACS.

(71.) Questura di Milano, February 27, 1923, CPC, busta 1607, ACS.

(72.) Errico Malatesta, “Introduction” to Virgilia D’Andrea, Tormento (Paris: La fraternelle, 1929, first edition 1922), 2.

(p.258) (73.) For a brief discussion of Cordiferro’s poetry see also Marazzi, I Misteri di Little Italy, 85–87.

(74.) See Cordiferro’s own introduction to his Poesie scelte, Guido Massarelli, ed. (Campobasso, Italy: Edizioni Pungolo Verde, 1967).

(75.) His poems are deposited at the IHRC, University of Minnesota.

(77.) See the detailed bibliographical records written by Cordiferro himself, Sisca Papers, IHRC2408, Box 1, Folder 1, IHRC.

(78.) See for example “Brindisi di Sangue,” June 8, 1894, 3; “Ad un pezzente,” April 30, 1896, 3; “Ideale,” June 15, 1896, 3; “Osanna a Satana,” July 15 and August 15, 1896, 3; “Anno novo,” January 15, 1897, 4; and “Ai vili,” September 15, 1898, all published in La Questione Sociale.

(79.) “Brindisi di sangue.”

(80.) Francesco Pitea has never received any scholarly attention. Thanks to Rudolph Vecoli, who interviewed Pitea in August 1965 and collected his poetry and papers, it is now possible to study his life and work. For biographical information see the biographical sketch written by his son Joseph. Francesco Pitea Papers, IHRC2085, Miscellaneous Italian Manuscript Collection, IHRC.

(81.) Reported in La Parola del Popolo (December 1958–January 1959): 287.

(82.) “Il Duce si lagna al conte Thaon di Revel,” La Scopa, July 24, 1925, 4; “Sempre con lui,” La Scopa, September 24, 1927, 4; and “E la battaglia continua,” La Scopa, July 16, 1927, 4.

(83.) “Giordano e le truffe,” La Scopa, October 16, 1925, 4.

(84.) “Il Duce si lagna al Conte Thaon di Revel”; in addition to the above-cited poems see also in La Scopa “A tutti i prominenti fascisti di America,” May 14, 1927, 4; “E’ nato il futuro imperatore,” October 8, 1927, 4; “Morte agli imbelli,” December 3, 1927, 4. Another poem, “La giustizia,” was published in the single issue Libertas, August 1927, 14.

(85.) Kathleen Morner and Ralph Rausch, eds., NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms (Chicago: NTC Publishing Group, 1991).

(86.) By Vittorio Vidali see in Alba Nuova “Il Minatore,” February 16, 1924, 3; “Donna,” March 1, 1924, 3; “Il Lavoratore,” March 29, 1924, 3; and “Malgrado tutto,” March 22, 1924, 3. Efrem Bartoletti, Nel sogno d’oltretomba: cantico libero (Scranton, Pa.: 1931) and Riflessioni poetiche (Milan: Gastaldi Editore, 1955). Giuseppe Zappulla, Vette e abissi. Liriche e poemi (New York: V. Vecchioni Printing, 1936).