In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Italian-American Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works

American Literature Italian-American Literature
Fred Gardaphe
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0221


The earliest Italian American writers were immigrants who learned English and responded to their experience in America through poetry and prose, more often than not found in the early Italian language newspapers. Few had mastered the English language, and so their contributions to literature were not considered to be American. In fact, early-20th-century immigrants from Italy to the United States were hesitant to even to refer to themselves as Americans. The literature produced during this period provides great insights into the shaping of American identities and into the obstacles that these immigrants faced in pursuing their versions of the American Dream. The rise of Fascism in Italy of the 1920s–1940s would have a tremendous effect on those identities. One of the earliest Italian Americans to voice his opinion of Italian Fascism in his poetry was Arturo Giovannitti, who, with Joseph Ettor, had organized the famous 1912 Lawrence Mill Strike. National awareness of writers as Italian Americans would not begin until the likes of John Fante and Pietro di Donato published in the late 1930s. Fiction published prior to World War II primarily depicted the vexed immigrant experience of adjustment in America. The post–World War II years brought the arrival of more immigrants as serious producers of American art. Among the early writers were returning soldiers, such as Mario Puzo and Felix Stefanile, often the first of their families to be literate and attend American schools, especially with the help of the GI Bill. While many of the writers were busy capturing the disappearance of the immigrant generation, others were continuing the radical traditions. Government investigations into Communism through the House Committee on Un-American Activities sparked the ire of many Italian American artists. Increased mobility through military service and education in American schools brought Italian American writers into contact with the world outside of Little Italy and opened their imaginations and creativity to modernist experiments. Those who would gain recognition as members of the “Beat movement” responded to an apolitical complacency that seemed to set in directly after the war by fusing art and politics profoundly to affect America’s literary scene. During a time when the very definition of “American” was being challenged and changed, Italian American writers were busy exploring their own American histories. America’s postwar feminist movement had a strong effect on the daughters of the immigrants. Social action, the redefinition of American gender roles, and the shift from urban to suburban ethnicity became subjects of the writing of many young Italian Americans who watched as their families moved from working- to middle-class life. Fiction produced in the 1980s and 1990s recreated the immigrant experience from the perspective of the grandchildren, who quite often reconnected to Italy to create new identities. Contemporary Italian American literature demonstrates a growing literary tradition through a variety of styles and voices. Critical studies, beginning with Rose Basile Green’s The Italian American Novel (1974), reviews, the publication of anthologies, journals, and the creation of new presses are ample evidence that Italian American culture has gained understandings of its past as it develops a sense of a future.

General Overviews

It was not until the formation of the American Italian Historical Association in 1968 that Americans of Italian descent came together to work on countering the prevailing stereotypes of Italian Americans that had been produced in the United States. Their efforts resulted in publications that sought to expose and explore the contributions that Italian immigrants and their descendants made to American culture. Gambino 2010, for example, brought academic and public attention to the psychological impact of ethnic identity of America’s Italians. These publications led to the creation of several books that sought to capture the whole of Italian American culture. Gallo 1981 offers a more critical take on the plight of Italian Americans in relationship to other ethnic groups in the United States. More traditional approaches to ethnic history are used by De Conde 1971 and Scarpaci 2009, which utilizes historical photographs. Mangione and Morreale 1993 was the first attempt to capture the whole of Italian American history chronologically; because of its limitations, edited volumes such as D’Acierno 1999, Connell and Pugliese 2019, and Connell and Gardaphe 2010 sought to expose the complexities of the Italian American experience. It wouldn’t be until Laurino 2015, a journalistic history based on a PBS film documentary, that a more thorough history of Italian Americans would be produced.

  • Connell, William, and Fred Gardaphe, eds. Anti-Italianism: Essays on a Prejudice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    Essays on television, film, and literature shed light on the prejudice faced throughout American history by Americans of Italian descent. This multidisciplinary collection examines Italian immigrants’ and ethnics’ encounters with US institutions of work, religion, education, government, and media to expose discrimination against what was once the largest immigrant group in the United States.

  • Connell, William, and Stanislao Pugliese, eds. The Routledge History of Italian Americans. New York: Routledge, 2019.

    The goal of this volume was to update the status of Americans of Italian descent since the publication of La Storia (Mangione and Morreale 1993), and to do it from multiple points of view in multiple disciplines. Over forty lengthy essays by leading scholars create a comprehensive history of Italian American contributions to politics, the arts, business, and much more. Essays are organized thematically under the following rubrics: “Explorations and Foundations, “The Great Migration and Creating Little Italies, “Becoming American and Contesting America,” and “Post War to Post Ethnic?”

  • D’Acierno, Pellegrino, ed. The Italian American Heritage: A Companion to Literature and Arts. New York: Garland, 1999.

    Major collection of twenty-seven original formal and personal essays, many by the editor, and all by key figures in the field, that illuminate contributions of Americans of Italian descent to the literary and artistic mosaic of American culture.

  • De Conde, Alexander. Half Bitter, Half Sweet: An Excursion into Italian American History. New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1971.

    Early look at the prejudice faced by Italian immigrants as they made their way into American life. Explores the stereotyped thinking that made that transition difficult, resulting in much of the bitter feelings they harbored about the transnational experience that led to the development of “ghetto thinking” that slowed their entrance into the mainstream of American life.

  • Gallo, Patrick J. Ethnic Alienation: The Italian-Americans. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1974.

    Study based on interviews conducted to explore the political participation of Italian Americans through US history. Suggests “Italian-Americans may prove to be a vital ingredient in not only forging that alliance but in serving as the cement that will hold urban centers together.”

  • Gallo, Patrick J. Old Bread New Wine: A Portrait of the Italian-Americans. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981.

    This work more broadly develops ideas first presented in Ethnic Alienation (1974) to present a history of Italian migration to the United States, and is a seminal early interpretation of the Italian American experience.

  • Gambino, Richard. Blood of My Blood. Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2010.

    Originally published in 1974, this was the first major examination of Italian Americans using history, sociology, and psychology to create a sense of what it meant to be Italian American, and it was key to drawing many new scholars to the field. Written by the son of immigrants, using personal anecdotes, the study often drifts into opinion-based arguments that keep it from becoming more than one man’s look at the subject.

  • Laurino, Maria. The Italian Americans: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 2015.

    Designed and written to accompany director John Maggio’s four-part PBS-supported documentary film (2014), from which Laurino’s book takes its title, this history is a collection of her essays accompanied by well-printed archival photos and illustrations; original documents such as newspaper accounts, letters (including a few written by “Black Hand” extortionists), magazine articles, and book excerpts; and brief interviews with, among others, Gay Talese, Dion DiMucci, David Chase, and John Turturro.

  • Mangione, Jerre, and Ben Morreale. La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

    The first attempt to create a general and popular history of Italian Americans, written by two important literary figures in Italian American culture. The authors reach back to the age of first encounters into the 1990s to provide a historical overview of the Italian presences in the United States. Modeled on Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers, this study never reaches the depths of that hallmark study of Jewish Americans, yet for years served as an adequate introduction to the history of America’s Italians.

  • Scarpaci, Vincenza. The Journey of Italians in America. Gretna, LA: Pelican, 2009.

    Historical survey of Italian immigration and assimilation into North American culture told through short essays and hundreds of photographs that took Scarpaci on her own travels to many Italian American public and personal archives. While the book has short essays, its strength lies in the nearly five hundred photos, nearly one-third in color, that illustrate the brief writings that open each section.

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