“For years the old Italians have been dying/all over America.” -Lawrence Ferlinghetti
On the second floor of Harvard’s Fogg Museum, in an airy, well-lit, white-walled gallery, near a slender window overlooking a red-bricked Cambridge street, there is a display case holding three portraits on chipped wood not much bigger than post-cards. Of varying degrees of aptitude, the paintings are of a genre called “Fayum Portraits” from the region of Egypt where they’re commonly found. When the Roman ruling class established itself in this Pharaonic land during the first few centuries of the Common Era, they would mummify themselves in the Egyptian fashion while affixing Hellenistic paintings onto the faces of their preserved bodies. Across the extent of the Roman empire, from damp Britain to humid Greece, little of the more malleable painted arts survived, but in sun-baked Egypt these portraits could peer out 20 centuries later as surely as the desert dried out their mummified corpses. When people envision ancient Mediterranean art, they may think of the grand sculptures blanched a pristine white, Trajan’s Arch and the monumental head of Constantine, the colorful paint which once clung to their surfaces long since eroded away. And while the monumental marbles of classical art are what most people remember of the period, the Fayum portraits of Harvard provide an entirely more personal gaze across the millennia.
If white is the color we associate with those sculptures, then the portraits here in Cambridge are of a different hue. They are nut-brown, tanned from the noon-day sun, yellow-green, and olive. Mummy Portrait of a Woman with an Earring, painted in the second century, depicts in egg tempura on wood a dark-skinned middle-aged woman with commanding brown eyes, her black hair showing a bit of curl even as it is pulled back tightly on her scalp; a woman looking out with an assuredness that belies her anonymity over time. Mummy Portraits of a Bearded Man shows the tired look of an old man, grey beard neatly clipped and groomed, his wavy grey hair still with a hint of auburn and combed back into place. Fragments of a Mummy Portrait of a Man represents a far younger man, cleft chinned with a few days’ black stubble over his olive skin. What’s unnerving is the eerie verisimilitude of this nameless trio.
That they look so contemporary, so normal, is part of what’s unsettling. But they also unsettle because they’re there to assist in overturning our conceptions about what Roman people, those citizens of that vast, multicultural, multilingual, multireligious empire, looked like. Our culture is comfortable with the lily-white sculptures we associate with our Roman forebearers which were then imitated in our own imperial capitals; easier to pretend that the ancient Romans had nothing to do with the people who live there now, and yet when looking at the Fayum portraits I’m always struck by how Italian everybody looks.
The old man could be tending tomatoes in a weedy plot somewhere in Trenton; the middle-aged woman wearily volunteering for a church where she’s not too keen on the new Irish priest, and the young man with the stubble looks like he just got off a shift somewhere in Bensonhurst and is texting his friends to see who wants to go into the city. I’ve never seen anyone who actually looks like the statue of Caesar Augustus of Primo Porta carved from white stone, but you’ll see plenty of people who look like the Fayum Portraits in North Boston, Federal Hill, or Bloomfield (the one either in Jersey or in Pittsburgh). When I look at the Fayum portraits, I see people I know; I see my own family.
Despite my surname vowel deficiency, I’m very much Italian-American. Mathematically, twice as much as Robert DeNiro, so I feel well equipped to offer commentary in answering the question with which I’ve titled this piece. Furthermore, as a second-generation American, I’m not that far removed from Ellis Island. My mother’s father immigrated from Abruzzo, that mountainous, bear-dwelling region that was the birthplace of Ovid, and his entire family and much of his fellow villagers were brought over to Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, to work as stone masons, a trade they’d been plying since the first rock was laid in the Appian Way. My grandmother’s family was from Naples, where Virgil was born, a teeming volcanic metropolis of orange and lemon trees, a heaven populated by devils as native-son Giordano Bruno wrote in the 16th century. For me, being Italian was unconscious; it simply was a fact no more remarkable than my dark hair or brown eyes.
Being Italian meant at least seven fishes on Christmas Eve and the colored lights rather than the white ones on the tree, it meant (and still means) cooking most things with a heavy dollop of olive oil and garlic, it means at least once a week eating either veal parmesan, prosciutto and melon, calamari, spaghetti with tuna, and buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes. Being Italian meant laminated furniture in the homes of extended family, and Mary-on-the-half-shell; it meant a Catholicism more cultural than theological, with the tortured faces of saints vying alongside a certain type of pagan magic. Being Italian meant assumed good looks and a certain ethnic ambiguity; it meant uncles who made their own wine and grew tomatoes in the backyard.
Being Italian-American meant having an identity where the massive pop culture edifice that supplies representations of you implies that the part before the hyphen somehow makes the second half both more and less true. My position was much like Maria Laurino’s in Were You Always an Italian?: Ancestors and Other Icons of Italian America, where she writes that “All the pieces of my life considered to be ‘Italian’…I kept distinct from the American side, forgetting about the hyphen, about that in-between place where a new culture takes form.” What I do viscerally remember is the strange sense I had watching those corny old sword-and-sandal epics that my middle school Latin teacher used to fill up time with, a sense that those strangely Aryan Romans presented on celluloid were supposed to somehow be related to me. Actors whose chiseled all-American whiteness evoked the marbles that line museum halls. Sculptures of Caesar Augustus were once a lot more olive than white as well. That classical Greek and Roman statuary was vividly painted, only to fade over time, has been known since the 19th century, even as contemporary audiences sometimes violently react to that reality. Using modern technology, archeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann has been able to restore some of the most famous Greek and Roman statues to glorious color, as he details in his Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World, but as the classicist Sarah Bond writes in Forbes, “Intentional or not, museums present viewers with a false color binary of the ancient world.” We think of the Romans as lily white, but the Fayum portraits demonstrate that they very much weren’t. That the individuals in these pictures should appear so Italian shouldn’t be surprising—Romans are Italians after all. Or at least in the case of the Fayum portraits they’re people from a mélange of backgrounds, including not just Romans, but Greeks, Egyptians, Berbers, Arabs, Jews, Ethiopians, and so on. Rome was, like our own, a hybridized civilization, and it’s marked on the faces that peer out towards us on that wall.
Last fall, at a handful of Boston-area colleges just miles from the museum, classical imagery was appropriated for very different means. Students awoke to find their academic halls papered with posters left during the night by members of one of these fascistic groups to have emerged after the 2016 presidential election, a bigotry that has been revealed as if discovering all of the fungus growing underneath a rotting tree stump that’s been kicked over. This particular group combined images of bleached classical sculpture and neo-fascist slogans to make their white supremacist arguments. The Apollo Belvedere is festooned with the declaration “Our Future Belongs to Us,” 17th-century French Neo-Classical sculptor Nicolas Coustou’s bust of Julius Caesar has “Serve your People” written beneath it, and in the most consciously Trumpy of posters, a close-up on the face of Michelangelo’s David injuncts “Let’s Become Great Again.” There’s something particularly ironic in commandeering the David in the cause of white supremacy. Perhaps they didn’t know that that exemplar of the Italian Renaissance was a depiction of a fierce Jewish king as rendered by a gay, olive-skinned artist?
Such must be the central dilemma of the confused white supremacist, for the desire to use ancient Rome in their cause has been irresistible ever since Benito Mussolini concocted his crackpot system of malice known as fascismo corporativo, but the reality is that the descendants of those very same Romans often don’t appear quite as “white” as those supremacists would be comfortable with. This is especially important when considering that the Romans “did not speak in terms of race, a discourse invented many centuries later,” as scholar Nell Irvin Painter writes in The History of White People. Moral repugnance is a given when it comes to racist ideologies, but one should also never forget the special imbecility that comes along with arguing that you’re innately superior because you kinda, sorta, maybe physically resemble dead people who did important things. What makes the case of the posters more damning is that those who made them don’t even actually look like the people whose culture they’ve appropriated.
No doubt the father of celebrated journalist Gay Talese would be outraged by this filching. In a 1993 piece for The New York Times Book Review, he remembers his “furious and defensive father” exploding after he’d learned that the Protestant-controlled school board had rejected his petition to include Ovid and Dante in the curriculum, the elder man shouting at his son that “‘Italy was giving art to the world when those English were living in caves and painting their faces blue!’” A particular twist as the descendants of those same WASPs paper college campuses with posters of Italian sculptures that they somehow claim patrimony from. But that’s always been the predicament of the Western chauvinist, primed to take ownership over another culture as evidence of his own genius, while simultaneously having to explain his justifications for the disdain in which he holds the actual children of that culture.
Since the late 19th-century arrival of millions of immigrants from the Mezzogiorno, American racists have long contrived baroque justifications for why white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are the inheritors of Italian culture, while Italians themselves are not. Some of this logic was borrowed from Italy itself, where even today, Robert Lumley and Jonathan Morris record in The New History of the Italian South, some northerners will claim that “Europe ends at Naples. Calabria, Sicily, and all the rest belong to Africa.” Northern Italians, comparatively wealthier, better educated, and most importantly fairer, had been in the United States a generation before their southern cousins, and many Anglo-Americans borrowed that racialized animus against southerners which reigned (and still does) in the old country.
As Richard Gambino writes in Blood of my Blood: The Dilemma of the Italian-Americans, it was in the “twisted logic of bigotry” that these immigrants were “flagrantly ‘un-American.’ And Italians replaced all the earlier immigrant groups as targets of resentment about the competition of cheap labor.” This was the reasoning that claimed that all Italian accomplishments could be attributed to a mythic “Nordic” or “Teutonic” influence, so that any Mediterranean achievements were written away, orienting Rome towards a Europe it was only tangentially related to and away from an Africa that long had an actual influence. Notorious crank Madison Grant in his unabashedly racist 1916 The Passing of the Great Race claimed that Italians were now “storming the Nordic ramparts of the United States and mongrelizing the good old American stock,” with Gambino explaining that “In his crackpot explanation, Italians are the inferior descendants of the slaves who survived when ancient Rome died.”
Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould writes that Grant’s book was “the most influential tract of American scientific racism” and Adolf Hitler wrote a letter to the author claiming “The book is my Bible.” A lawyer and eugenicist, Grant’s writings were influential in both the Palmer Raids, a series of unconstitutional police actions directed by the Wilson administration against immigrants suspected of harboring anarchist and communist sympathies, as well as the xenophobic nastiness of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act which made eastern and southern European immigration slow to a trickle. Incidentally, it was the Johnson-Reed Act that, had it been passed 10 years earlier, would have barred my mother’s father from entering the United States; a law that former Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions lauded in a 2017 interview with Stephen Bannon, arguing that the banning of immigrants like those in my family “was good for America.”
In Chiaroscuro: Essays of Identity, Helen Barolini writes that “Italian Americans are too easily used as objects of ridicule and scorn,” and while that’s accurate, it’s a rhetoric that has deep and complicated genealogies. Italy has always occupied a strange position in the wider European consciousness. It is simultaneously the birthplace of “Western Civilization,” and an exoticized, impoverished, foreign backwater at the periphery of the continent; the people who first modeled a noxious imperialism, and the subjugated victims of later colonialism. A pithy visual reminder of Italy’s status in early modern Europe can be seen in the German painter Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1533 masterpiece The Ambassadors, which depicts two of the titular profession surrounded by their tools. On a shelf behind them sits a globe. Europe is differentiated from the rest of the world by being an autumnal brown-green, with the exception of two notable regions colored the same hue as Africa—Ireland and Sicily. In Are Italians White?: How Race is Made in America, coedited with Salvatore Salerno, historian Jennifer Guglielmo explains that the “racial oppression of Italians had its root in the racialization of Africans,” something never more evident than in the anti-Italian slur “guinea” with its intimations of Africanness, this implication of racial ambiguity having profound effects on how Italians were understood and how they understood themselves.
In the rhetoric and thought of the era, Italy was somehow paradoxically the genesis of Europe, while also somehow not European. As such, Italians were to be simultaneously emulated and admired, while also reviled and mocked. During that English Renaissance, which was of course a sequel to the original one, books like Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier and Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, with their respective paeans to sensuality and duplicity, molded a particular view of Italianness that has long held sway in the English imagination. Consider all of the Shakespeare plays in an imagined Italy: The Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentleman of Verona, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, Othello, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale and The Merchant of Venice, not to mention the occasional appearance of Romans in other plays. Shakespeare’s plays, and other icons of the English Renaissance, set a template that never really faded. A simultaneous attraction to and disgust at a people configured as overly emotional, overly sexual, overly flashy, overly corrupt, overly sensual, and with a propensity less cerebral than hormonal. And the criminality.
Long before Mario Puzo or The Sopranos, Renaissance English writers impugned Italians with a particular antisocial perfidy. Such is displayed in Thomas Nash’s 1594 The Unfortunate Traveller: or, the Life of Jack Wilton, which could credibly be called England’s first novel. In that picaresque, the eponymous character perambulates through the Europe of the early 16th century, encountering luminaries like Thomas More, Erasmus, Henry Howard, Martin Luther, and Cornelius Agrippa, and witnessing events like the horrific siege at Munster in the Low Countries. Most of Nash’s narrative, however, takes place in “the Sodom of Italy,” and an English fever dream of that country’s excess settles like a yellow fog. One Englishmen laments that the only lessons that can be learned here are “the art of atheism, the art of epicurizing, the art of whoring, the art of poisoning, the art of sodomitry.”
The narrative circumstances of Nash’s penultimate scene, which reads like Quentin Tarantino, has an Italian nobleman being executed for the violent revenge he took upon his sister’s rapist. On the scaffold, the nobleman declares that “No true Italian but will honor me for it. Revenge is the glory of arms and the highest performance of valor,” and indeed his revenge was of an immaculate quality. He’d first forced his sister’s assailant to abjure God and condemn salvation, and then, satisfied that such blasphemy would surely send his victim to hell, he shot him in the head. A perfect revenge upon not just the body, but the soul. Nash presents such passion as a ritual of decadent Mediterranean vendetta, simultaneously grotesque and inescapably evocative.
From Nash until today there has often been a presumption of vindictive relativist morality on the part of Italians, and it has slurred communities with an assumption of criminality. In the early 20th century sociologists claimed that the dominant Italian ethic was “familial amoralism,” whereby blood relations had precedence over all other social institutions. Nash’s nobleman is the great-grandfather to Michael Corleone in the collective imagination. Do not read this as squeamish sensitivity, I’d never argue that The Godfather, written and directed by Italians, is anything less than an unmitigated masterpiece. Both Puzo’s novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation are potent investigations of guilt, sin, and evil. I decided not to join the Sons of Italy after I saw how much of their concern was with stereotypes on The Sopranos, which I still regard as among the greatest television dramas of all time. I concur with Bill Tonelli, who in his introduction to The Italian American Reader snarked that “nobody loves those characters better than Italian Americans do,” and yet I recall with a cringe the evaluation of The Godfather given to me by a non-Italian, that the film was about nothing more than “spaghetti and murder.”
Representations of Italianness in popular culture aren’t just Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano, there’s also the weirdly prevalent sitcom stereotype of the lovable, but dumb, hypersexual goombah. I enter into consideration Arthur “The Fonze” Fonzarelli from Happy Days, Tony Micelli from Who’s the Boss?, Vinny Barbarino of Welcome Back Kotter, and of course Friends’ Joey Tribbiani. Once I argued with my students if there was something offensive about The Jersey Shore, finally convincing them of the racialized animus in the series when I queried as to why there had never been an equivalent about badly behaving WASPs called Martha’s Vineyard?
Painter explains that “Italian Americans hovered longer on the fringes of American whiteness,” and so any understanding must take into account that until recently Italians were still inescapably exotic to many Americans. Tonelli writes that “in an era that supposedly values cultural diversity and authenticity, the portrait of Italian Americans is monotonous and observed from a safe distance.” The continued prevalence of these stereotypes is a residual holdover from the reality that Italians are among the last of “ethnics” to “become white.” Tonelli lists the “mobsters, the urban brute, the little old lady shoving a plate of rigatoni under your nose,” declaiming that “it gets to be like a minstrel show after a while.”
Consider Judge Webster Thayer who after the 1921 sham-trial of anarchists Barolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco would write that although they “may not have committed the crime” attributed to them, they are “nevertheless morally culpable” because they were both enemies of “our existing institutions… the defendant’s ideals are cognate with crime.” Privately, Thayer bragged to a Dartmouth professor, “Did you see what I did to those anarchistic bastards the other day?” As late as 1969, another professor, this one at Yale, felt free to tell a reporter in response to a query about a potential Italian-American New York mayoral candidate that “If Italians aren’t actually an inferior race, they do the best imitation of one I’ve seen.”
But sometime in the
decades after World War II, Italians followed the Irish and Jews into the
country club of whiteness with its carefully circumscribed membership. Guglielmo
explains that initially “Virtually all Italian immigrants [that] arrived in the
United States [did so] without a consciousness about its color line.” Victims
of their birth nation’s rigid social stratification based on complexion and geography,
the new immigrants were largely ignorant of America’s racial history, and thus
were largely immune to the anti-black racism that was prevalent. These
immigrants had no compunction about working and living alongside African
Americans, and often understood themselves to occupy a similar place in
But as Guglielmo explains, by the second and third generation there was an understanding that to be “white meant having the ability to avoid many forms of violence and humiliation, and assured preferential access to citizenship, property, satisfying work, livable wages, decent housing, political power, social status, and a good education, among other privileges.” Political solidarity with black and Hispanic Americans (we forget that Italians are Latinx too) was abandoned in favor of assimilation to the mainstream. Jennifer Gillan writes in the introduction to Growing up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction about Learning to be American that “American have often fought bitter battles over what it means to be American and who exactly get to qualify under the umbrella term,” and towards the end of the 20th century Italians had fought their way into that designation, but they also left many people behind. In the process, a beautiful radical tradition was forgotten, so that we traded Giuseppe Garibaldi for Frank Rizzo, Philly’s racist mayor in the 70s; so that now instead of Sacco and Vanzetti we’re saddled with Antonin Scalia and Rudy Giuliani. As Guglielmo mourns, “Italians were not always white and the loss of this memory is one of the great tragedies of racism in America.”
If there is to be any anecdote, then it must be in words; where literature allows for imaginative possibilities and the complexities of empathy. What is called for is a restitution, or rather a recognition, of an Italian-American literary canon acting as bulwark against both misrepresentations and amnesia. Talese infamously asked if there were no “Italian-American Arthur Millers and Saul Bellows, James Baldwins and Toni Morrisons, Mary McCarthys and Mary Gordons, writing about their ethnic experiences?” There’s an irony to this question, as Italians in the old country would never think to ask where their writers are, the land of Virgil and Dante secure in its literary reputation, with more recent years seeing the celebrated post-modernisms of Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, Dario Fo, and Umberto Eco. In this century, the citizens of Rome, Florence, and Milan face different questions than their cousins in Newark, Hartford, or Providence. Nor do we bemoan a dearth of examples in other fields: that Italians can hit a baseball or throw a punch can be seen in Joe DiMaggio’s homeruns and Rocky Marciano’s slugging; that we can strike a note is heard in Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin; that we can shoot a picture is proven by Coppola, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese.
Yet in the literary arts no equivalent names come up, at least no equivalent names that are thought of as distinctly Italian. Regina Barreca in the introduction to Don’t Tell Mama!: The Penguin Book of Italian American Writing says that there is an endurance of the slur which sees Italians as “deliberately dense, badly educated, and culturally unsophisticated.” By this view the wider culture is fine with the physicality of boxers and baseballs players, the emotion and sensuality of musicians, even the Catholic visual idiom of film as opposed to the Protestant textuality of the written word, so that the “intellectual” pursuits of literature are precluded. She explains that what remains is an “idea of Italian Americans as a people who would never choose to read a book, let alone write one,” though as Baraca stridently declares this is a “set of hazardous concepts [which] cannot simply be outlived; it must be dismantled.”
I make no claims to originating the idea that we must establish an Italian-American literary canon, such has been the mainstay of Italian-American Studies since that field’s origin in the ’70s. This has been the life’s work of scholars like Gambino, Louise DeSalvo, and Fred Gardaphé, not to mention all of the anthology editors I’ve referenced. Tonelli writes that “Our time of genuine suffering at the hands of this bruising country passed more or less unchronicled, by ourselves or anyone else,” yet there are hidden examples of Italian-American voices writing about an experience that goes beyond mafia or guido stereotypes. For many of these critics, the Italian-American literary canon was something that already existed, it was merely a question of being able to recognize what exists beyond the stark black and red cover of The Godfather. Such a task involved the elevation of lost masterpieces like Pietro di Donato’s 1939 proletarian Christ in Concrete , but also a reemphasis on the vowels at the ends of names for authors who are clearly Italian, but are seldom thought of as such.
That Philip Roth is a Jewish author goes without saying, but rarely do we think of the great experimentalist Don DeLillo as an Italian-American author. A restitution of the Italian-American literary canon would ask what precisely is uniquely Italian about a DeLillo? For that matter, what are the Italian-American aesthetics of poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jay Parini, Diane Di Prima, and Gregory Corso? What can we better say about the Italianness of Gilbert Sorrentino and Richard Russo? Where do we locate the Mezzogiorno in the criticism and scholarship of A. Bartlett Giamatti, Frank Lentricchia, and Camille Paglia? Baraca writes that “Italian Americans live (and have always lived) a life not inherited, but invented,” and everything is to be regained by making a reinvention for ourselves. Furthermore, I’d suggest that the hybridized nature of what it has always meant to be Italian provides a model to avoid the noxious nationalisms that increasingly define our era.
Guglielmo writes that “Throughout the twentieth century, Italian Americans crafted a vocal, visionary, and creative oppositional culture to protest whiteness and build alliances with people of color,” and I’d argue that this empathetic imagination was born out of the pluralistic civilization of which the Italians were descendants. Contrary to pernicious myths of “racial purity,” the Romans were as diverse as Americans are today, drawing not just from Italic peoples like the Umbrians, Sabines, Apulians, and Etruscans, but also from Egyptians, Ethiopians, Berbers, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Anatolians, Gauls, Huns, Dacians, Franks, Teutons, Vandals, Visigoths, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Iberians, Jews, Arabs, and Celts, among others. A reality quite contrary to the blasphemy of those posters with their stolen Roman images.
Rome was both capital and periphery, a culture that was a circle with no circumference whose center can be everywhere. Christine Palamidessi Moore in her contribution to the Lee Gutkind and Joanna Clapps Herman anthology Our Roots are Deep with Passion: Creative Nonfiction Collects New Essays by Italian American Writers notes that “Italy is a fiction: a country of provinces, dialects, and regions, and historically because of its location, an incorporator of invaders, empires, and bloodlines.” Sitting amidst the Mare Nostrum of its wine-dark sea, Italy has always been at a nexus of Europe, Africa, and Asia, situated between north and south, east and west. Moore explains that the “genuineness of the ethnicity they choose becomes more obscure and questionable because of its mixed origins; however, because it is voluntary, the act of choosing sustains the identity.”
The question then is not “What was Italian America?” but rather “What can Italian America be?” In 1922 W.E.B. DuBois, the first black professor at Harvard, spoke to a group of impoverished Italian immigrants at Chicago’s Hull House. Speaking against the Johnson-Reed Act, DuBois appealed to a spirit of confraternity, arguing that there must be a multiethnic coalition against a “renewal of the Anglo-Saxon cult: the worship of the Nordic totem, the disenfranchisement of Negro, Jew, Irishman, Italian, Hungarian, Asiatic and South Sea Islander.” When DuBois spoke against the “Anglo-Saxon cult” he condemned not actual English people, but rather the fetish that believes only those of British stock can be “true Americans.” When he denounced the “Nordic totem,” he wasn’t castigating actual northern Europeans, but only that system that claims they are worthier than the rest of people. What DuBois condemned was not people, but rather a system that today we’ve taken to calling “white privilege,” and he’s just as correct a century later. The need for DuBois’s coalition has not waned.
Italian-Americans can offer the example of a culture that was always hybridized, always at the nexus of different peoples. Italians have never been all one thing or the other, and that seems to me the best way to be. It’s this liminal nature that’s so valuable, which provides answer to the idolatries of ancestry that are once again emerging in the West (with Italy no exception). DuBois offered a different vision, a coalition of many hues marshaled against the hegemony of any one. When I meet the gaze of the Fayum portraits, I see in their brown eyes an unsettling hopefulness from some 20 centuries ago, looking past my shoulder and just beyond the horizon where perhaps that world may yet exist.
One of the questions at the heart of Old in Art School, the new memoir by Nell Painter, is what it takes to be “An Artist” and who gets to decide you’ve earned those capital A’s. In her 60s, Painter left a career as an eminent Princeton historian and author of numerous books about African-American history and race—including, in 2010, The History of White People—to study painting and drawing at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts and in the MFA program at the Rhode Island School of Design.
After a lifetime of hard work and intellectual rigor adding up to success, Painter found that art school was governed by a different equation, where who you were and how you looked seemed to be at least as important as what you produced. “To be An Artist was to be a certain kind of person that you could not become through education or practice,” she writes. “If I lacked the essential quality of being An Artist, I was condemned to failure.”
In a recent interview at her vacation home in the Adirondacks, Painter discussed why she chose such a radical change of direction at this time in her life and what she learned about art, society, and herself in the process.
The Millions: Did you always think you might go into academia?
Nell Painter: Yeah, after I got a C in sculpture and realized—I thought—I didn’t have enough talent to be an artist.
TM: So your earliest love was art?
NP: Oh, yeah, I drew all the time, and I was briefly an art major at Berkeley. But this C—and I earned my C, I didn’t do a damn thing—I thought, oh, if you have talent…
TM: Are you glad that you took the history path or do you ever wish that you had stuck with art?
NP: Oh, no, I did the right thing—not for the right reasons, necessarily. That generation, the Modernist generation of women and black people—totally ignored. And there are some fantastic artists in that generation. I don’t think, working as hard as you have to work for as long as you have to work, I don’t know if I could have sustained it, with virtually no recognition.
TM: What made you decide to make this huge change at this point in your life? Did you feel that you had done everything in your academic career that you wanted to do?
NP: I wouldn’t have put it quite that way, but that’s as good a way to put it…I was ready to move on. I had shepherded a whole lot of really good dissertations, and I had written a whole lot of really good books. And as I say in Old in Art School, my history writing had started pulling me into the visual already.
TM: I imagine you knew that you would be older than most of your classmates, but did you imagine that it would make as much of a difference as it did?
NP: No. I had done these tryouts, like taking classes at Princeton and doing the drawing and painting marathon. And it didn’t come up either time, so for me it was, first, satisfying myself that it was rewarding enough to invest a lot of time, and that I had the physical stamina to do it, and so the answers in both cases were yes. I thought that would do it. You know, I didn’t feel so old in undergraduate school, because Rutgers is a university, and there was a lot else going on besides art, whereas the Rhode Island School of Design is an art school and design school.
TM: Are you saying that there were people of different ages at Rutgers, so it didn’t feel like you stood out?
NP: Yes, and at Rutgers my fellow students weren’t on a track to become professional artists in the same way that I discovered was so wrong for me in graduate school. It took me a long time to figure out.
TM: So you’ve concluded that wasn’t the track for you?
NP: I used to say, oh, I’m a former historian. I don’t say that anymore. I’m still a historian. As I was preparing my book, going through my journals, I discovered that every three months or so, I would say, “Oh, I want to make books.” But I’d always forget, what is it I’m doing here? But it was hard to realize that I am not going to be an artist like my fellow students [at RISD] are going to be artists. I mean, they may not become the artists they want to be, but their chances are much greater because they don’t have the kind of past that I have.
TM: Do you think it was your age, or your particular background and education?
NP: It was both.
TM: You wrote about what you called your “20th-century eyes” being a limitation in art school, and also about how the other students presented themselves, that people dressed “like artists,” and I think you even said at one point that everybody was thin or at least nobody was overweight. How much do you feel your critiques or the response to your work was related to how people were perceiving you as a person? And how much do you think who an artist is should affect the judgement of their work?
NP: I don’t know if that’s a “should” I can address. We live in a world that is racist and sexist and ageist, and all of those are so salient in our culture that it’s kind of counterfactual to try to figure it out. I did feel that I was being “invisible-ized” as an old, black woman. I definitely felt that, and women my age, of any race or class, can testify to feeling invisible.
TM: There is so much emphasis on youth and what you called “right-nowness” in our culture, but is there, or should there be, a place for the perspectives of people of different generations?
NP: Art is market-driven. Art is about taste. There are no “should”s. I mean, we can decry ageism and sexism and racism but [it doesn’t change anything]. There are no objective criteria, and that was one of the hardest things, because a lot of people were pretending that there were objective criteria, and there weren’t. There’s just so much art in the world and there’s so much art that succeeds that’s different from other art that succeeds—in the sense of the marketplace, which is basically how you judge.
One of my teachers at RISD, I said to him, “What’s to become of me?” and he said, “I don’t think you’ll get a gallery, but if you do it’ll be, like, in a summer place.” Such a putdown. But turns out that his gallery was in a summer place, and it just closed. Then he said, “Well, people may buy your work but they’ll buy it because it’s you, not because it’s good art.” Another putdown. I think I realized right then what was going on here, that this was very personal about him and that also, what people buy is usually about the artist. And certainly, when you get to prices, it’s about who the artist is, it’s not what the stuff looks like. And then again, there’s so many different ways the art can look, so I don’t feel diminished that people may buy my work because it’s me, because that’s how the marketplace is.
I make the work that satisfies me. I have no idea who my market is and what they would want. I make what I want.
TM: Do you think art school was worthwhile, not just in your growth as an artist but as a life experience? With people living longer, there’s a lot of talk about what to do with your post-career life and keeping your mind active. Do you feel that it gave you a sense of purpose?
NP: I don’t know how much usefulness for other people my particular experience would be, because other people aren’t likely to go into it with what I did. But on the other hand, I think one big question worth asking, for someone who is thinking about an encore career, is how intense do you want it to be? I went for 100 percent intensity. And, you know, people said to me even before I went to Mason Gross, “You have lots of degrees—why don’t you just take some classes?” And for some people that will work. But I said I wanted to be the kind of artist I was a historian, which is totally misguided.
TM: Why do you think it’s misguided?
NP: I just didn’t have the time. Also, I had too many entanglements. When I went to Harvard my parents were healthy; they could help me, and I didn’t have a public presence in the world, so those were the two big sucks of energy and time this time around.
TM: Was this the first time you had written something autobiographical?
TM: How did you find that compared to scholarly writing?
NP: It was so hard. [Laughing.] It was so hard. Luckily I had an agent who is very experienced and patient and helpful and got me through it.
One winter I came down with pneumonia twice in five months. The doctors, with my semi-conscious consent, were ready to try anything. One thing they did try was a technique “to warm up the lungs.” It involved a canvas corset that looked like it had been developed in a Victorian brothel and weaponized in a Soviet psychiatric hospital, ca. 1938. The nurses filled the thing with hot paraffin, strapped it on my naked torso, covered me up with furs and, pulling on their coats, left the room with promises to be back in 20-ish minutes.
Turns out there’s not much you can do for second-degree paraffin burns beyond trying to cool them down, keep them clean, and try not to pop the blisters. It’s astonishing how much pain you can stand when its infliction is gradual. It’s also astonishing to see how easy it is to forgive when beauty enters the equation. My nurses forgot me in that isolated exam room. They’d been outside, reveling in the season’s first snowfall. I imagine those two young women shivering in their great coats, arms linked, looking up at the sky and smiling. S pervym snegom! The dank caecum of the city where the hospital sat squat, prison-like, was getting its annual winter makeover. Given enough snow, even Soviet brutalist architecture assumes a certain charm.
Which is to say that winter is a sacred event in this part of the world. And given that it’s winter about half the year, that’s not nothing. It doesn’t mean, however, that eastern Slavs are incapable of viewing winter’s drawbacks pragmatically. Already treacherous sidewalks don’t become less so with the addition of ice. Municipal negligence of road maintenance, nightmarish driver noncompliance with traffic law, balky central heating—all exacerbated by the interminability of the season—are hardly exclusive properties of the West. The distinction in our perspectives of winter lies, it seems to me, in our arts: for Americans, November/December feels like a Robert Frost poem, for Slavs, a Tolstoyan reckoning or an Andrei Tarkovsky dreamscape, though that’s likely where the difference ends. This, too, is just a guess, but I figure that to all or most of us, East or West, by March, its romance wearing thin, winter feels as cold, dark, and endless as a Donna Tartt novel.
Yet, here in Slavic wonderland, despite the difficulties winter presents, when it hits we still rush to greet each other—s pervym snegom! with the first snow!—and are transformed en masse into 9-year-olds by the touch of the big, early flakes. Winter is romance, a chance at renewal, a purifier. We have trouble envisioning how the word “snowflake” could ever be used as a pejorative. Winter stopped Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, and whoever might try next. Winter is when the Leshy—the forest demons—go to sleep and finally leave us be: Anton Chekhov, Alexander Pushkin and 12 centuries of folklore don’t lie.
All of which came flooding back when I opened this—one of a half-dozen or so indispensable books I read this year—Alex Cigale’s lithe translation of Russian Absurd: Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms. Kharms was a Soviet writer who was not prolific, was a committed misanthrope, a friend of Kazimir Malevich and an admirer of Vladimir Mayakovsky. He despised children, but was a talented and successful writer of children’s books. A four-year-old I know laughs himself silly every time I read him Kharms’s poem “Bulldog and Dachshund.” In the end, Kharms would starve to death in a psychiatric ward during the siege of Leningrad. It seems his nurses forgot him, too.
The current collection, published by Northwestern University Press, assembles fragments of Kharms’s poetry, dramaturgy, prose, diary entries, literary criticism, private correspondence, largely arranged chronologically—a chronology that only gains in poignancy with a glance at the datestamp accompanying each entry. In 1936, with the Great Terror gunning its engine, Kharms wrote this in his notebook:
I am incapable of thinking smoothly
My fear gets in the way
It severs my train of thought
As though a ray
Two or even three times each minute
My conscience is contorted by it
I am not capable of action.
If the prospect of reading a minimalist, absurdist, surrealist Russian intimidates, Cigale’s translation should help allay those fears. His agile rendering of Kharms’s work is as fine a representation in English as I’ve seen of the ambiguity, shading, and tense-shifting that typifies Russian prose, aspects that English translations too often muddle. If Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus light your fire, or if your writing life, however difficult, seems like so much torture, or if you’re intrigued by what a story coming from a man experiencing “the existential nightmare of a decade lived under a suspended death sentence,” sounds like then, winter, that season of reflection, might be just the time to add this collection to your TBR pile.
Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle
Twitter’s got you feeling toxic? TV news doesn’t offer any relief? You find yourself refreshing your website of choice to see whether Robert Mueller has handed down any more indictments? You wonder how it was that “contempt” became the default setting for our public discourse? Save yourself the time, the screen exposure, and the inevitable frustration and wrap your brain around this thesis that, among other matters, convincingly draws a line from Raskolnikov to the Alt-Right and describes the radical left as an “anti-intellectual online movement which has substituted politics with neuroses….” This book is terrifying, outstanding, required reading.
The Body Hunters by Sonia Shah
An hour later, the nurses come back to my room, giggling, the tell-tale bite of cognac floating with them into the room. Beads of sweat streaming down my face I turn my head to the one I can see to tell her that “it really hurts.” The other one, behind me unpiling furs, fussing with the snaps on the corset says, “just a sec.” I hear a sharp intake of breath as she whispers, “Oh, my God,” and runs out of the room.
It’s probably a good thing that Sonia Shah’s exposé of Big Pharma sat on my shelf unread for so long. This immaculately researched, exhaustively referenced, and rage-inducing study chronicles the deeply disturbing abuse of the poorest of the poor in the service of reliable data for clinical drug trials. And, well, profits. I don’t know if I could have taken it when it was first published a decade ago. A bioethicist quoted in the book states succinctly the matter at the heart of the problem: “The data [guinea pigging the poor] is valuable either academically or commercially.” So what’s the good news? The book is 10 years old so perhaps the systematic and cynical targeting, dehumanizing, and embittering of the poor has decreased in its intensity. Or increased. It’s one or the other. Right?
Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum
The Holodomor Museum is about a 15-minute bus ride from my flat. In 2004, Ukrainians took to the streets to protest a stolen presidential election. That was called “The Orange Revolution” because we all wore orange at the behest of a populist—and attractive—politician. I still have my orange down jacket. I slept in it in the tent city that went up downtown, shutting Kyiv—and effectively the country—down. Got pneumonia that year, too. Also got a new election with a different result and a president who promised to “put the bandits in prison!” but didn’t. He also promised to raise the issue of the Holodomor—the Soviet program of collectivization that killed millions of Soviet citizens, mostly Ukrainians, in 1931 to 33—at the U.N. He’d get them to call it “genocide.” He made good on that, though he accomplished almost nothing else in the remainder of his five-year term. Not one corrupt official went to prison, but we got a Holodomor Museum. Ukraine is Charlie Brown on Halloween: I got a rock.
A teaser from the introduction to Anne Applebaum’s lucid examination of the artificial (enforced) Soviet famines of the 1930s: “Applebaum proves what has long been suspected: after a series of rebellions unsettled the province, Stalin set out to destroy the Ukrainian peasantry. The state sealed the republic’s borders and seized all available food. Starvation set in rapidly, and people ate anything: grass, tree bark, dogs, corpses.”
This is not a history for the faint of heart. It is the documentation of a crime: the premeditated, targeted murder by starvation of five million people in just over two years. A sobering investigation of the human capacity for evil, it also serves as an indirect indictment of that niche within Western academia that has labored to relegate the slaughter to the status of an historical footnote. Applebaum’s dependably lucid argumentation and nimble prose makes for a substantial, if deeply troubling, read.
The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla
I’m trying to figure out what I dislike about Lilla’s charge that the liberal cause has dismantled itself. But it’s hard to resist an argument whose core tenet is “the common good,” a phrase that is found in one form or another on practically every page of this short book. To the oft-heard insistence that “there is no right or left any longer, just capital,” Lilla offers convincing proof that there is an American Right and it has a concrete image of society that it holds to. Contrast that with the Left, which has drifted demonstrably from its core message and abdicated “the contest for the American imagination.” The upshot according to Lilla: it’s hard to envision a political entity as rudderless as the Democratic Party winning many elections for a good, long while.
And yet, one wonders. Would there have been any measure of the kinds of civil rights advances we’ve seen in the last 2- years if they hadn’t been championed by the Left? Lilla’s unclear about which “identities” he would rather the Left had left off its to-do list. The Once and Future Liberal is an excellent argument starter.
The Given World by Marian Palaia
The thing about this debut novel is that it compels you to pay attention. It would be easy to get lost in prose this gorgeous, lives this palpable, and a story this heartbreaking, and end up at, “Pretty good. I liked it. Four stars.” But there’s a lot more going on under the surface. A word like verisimilitude isn’t enough to describe why The Given World works so well. It’s more than authenticity, there is an intimacy in the telling, as if you found yourself sitting down on the back porch with a friend of years, and she decides to tell you a story over beers. It’s a story about a young woman who seems to believe that the only acceptable alternative to shooting yourself in the foot is shooting yourself in the head, and yet, she makes her way. This is grown-up fiction that has not yet consented to leave me at peace. A haunting, formidable debut.
The books above were those that helped me get through the year. The purifiers. Books that managed to assure me that where evil abounds, grace abounds all the more. Tyrants, robber barons, cynics, and cyber-bullies don’t stand a chance when confronted with intelligence fueled by grace. And grace takes work. Good news: winter is on its way. Lots of time to read, to prepare for spring, that awful season when the river ice breaks up and the bodies begin to surface.
Finally, what follows is a listing of every book that made good use of my brain and heart in 2017. I highly recommend every one.
Emperor of the Earth by Czeslaw Miłosz – Essays on life, society, art by the Nobel laureate
Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin – A Scottish girl’s fight to survive, set in Edinburgh.
A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre – Kim Philby, deception in the spy game. Thrilling.
The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter – Don’t let the title trigger you. Smart.
Human Acts by Han Kang – Political turmoil in South Korea. Outstanding.
But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer – If you love jazz. If you don’t, have you considered therapy?
Feral by George Monbiot – Could a romantic vision of the environment save the planet? Maybe.
The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph – Oh, the blessing of an old-style liberal arts education.
Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford – Can faith still work? Survey says: Yes!
The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov – Radioactive love from a banned Uzbek writer
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Erudite, trenchant, and certainly right, Taleb makes a case for beneficial chaos, only he calls it “antifragility.”
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson – Short stories that are too good for anthologies. Outstanding, each one.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.