“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.”
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.
A letter appears before the text of The Comedians, the 1966 novel by Graham Greene. The author penned the letter to Alexander Stuart Frere, his longtime publisher who had recently retired. Greene debunks the common assumption that he is the first person narrator of his novels: “in my time I have been considered the murderer of a friend, the jealous lover of a civil servant’s wife, and an obsessive player at roulette. I don’t wish to add to my chameleon nature the characteristics belonging to the cuckolder of a South American diplomat, a possibly illegitimate birth and an education by the Jesuits. Ah, it may be said Brown is a Catholic and so, we know, is Greene…[all characters] are boiled up in the kitchen of the unconscious and emerge unrecognizable even to the cook in most cases.”
Frere, of course, would not need this explanation, so why address the letter to him? Does it instead exist for the edification, or perhaps entertainment, of the reader? Greene’s letter appears without label. Is it an introduction, a preface, a foreword, or something else?
The distinctions between prefaces, introductions, and forewords are tenuous. In the essay “Introductions: A Preface,” Michael Gorra offers a useful introduction to, well, introductions. “An introduction,” he writes, “tells you everything you need to sustain an initial conversation. It might include a bit of biography or a touch of critical history, and it should certainly establish the book in its own time and location, and perhaps place it in ours as well.” Introductions often postdate the original publication of a work. Introductions turn back to move forward a book’s appreciation. Although introductions are often written by someone other than the author, they need not be objective. Gorra thinks the best introductions are “acts of persuasion — ‘See this book my way’ — coherent arguments as learned as a scholarly article but as lightly footnoted as a review.” Although they share a “review’s assertive zest…unlike a review they assume the importance of the work in question.”
Gorra remembers reading introductory essays in used, 1950s-era Modern Library editions as an undergraduate. His understanding of literary criticism was molded by this prefatory form: Robert Penn Warren on Joseph Conrad, Irving Howe on The Bostonians, Angus Wilson on Great Expectations, Randal Jarrell on Rudyard Kipling, Malcolm Cowley on William Faulkner, and Lionel Trilling on Jane Austen. Gorra notes “many of Trilling’s finest essays — pieces on Keats and Dickens and Orwell, on Anna Karenina and The Princess Casamassima — got their start as introductions.”
Gorra moves beyond definition to explain the critic’s role within introductions. They need to know “how much or how little information a reader needs to make that book available; he must achieve a critical equipoise, at once accessible but not simplistic.” That care “puts a curb on eccentricity; however strongly voiced, an introduction shouldn’t be too idiosyncratic.” Introductions exist not for the critic, but for the reader. They should be “shrewd rather than clever.” Better to “address the work as a whole” than “approach it with a magic bullet or key or keyhole that claims to explain everything.” The introduction does not unlock the book for its readers; it takes a hand, leads them to the doorstep, and then leaves.
One of the few introductions written by the book’s own author is the unconventional opening to Lonesome Traveler, Jack Kerouac’s essay travelogue. Kerouac formats the essay as a questionnaire.
His response to “Please give a brief resume of your life” traces his childhood as the son of a printer in Lowell, Mass., to his “Final plans: hermitage in the woods, quiet writing of old age, mellow hopes of Paradise.” He shifts from family detail to statements of purpose and misreadings of critics: “Always considered writing my duty on earth. Also the preachment of universal kindness, which hysterical critics have failed to notice beneath frenetic activity of my true-story novels about the ‘beat’ generation. — Am actually not ‘beat’ but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic.”
Kerouac ends his introduction by replying to the query “Please give a short description of the book, its scope and purpose as you see them” with a nice litany of subjects: “Railroad work, sea work, mysticism, mountain work, lasciviousness, solipsism, self-indulgence, bullfights, drugs, churches, art museums, streets of cities, a mishmash of life as lived by an independent educated penniless rake going anywhere.”
We know Kerouac’s essay is an introduction because he tells us so. It is not a foreword, which, according to The Chicago Manual of Style, is also typically written by someone other than the author. Some dictionary definitions identify a foreword as an introduction. They both introduce, in the sense that they both preface the work. But neither are prefaces — in the traditional sense.
Marjorie E. Skillin and Robert M. Gay’s Words into Type doesn’t differentiate between prefaces and forewords, noting that both consider the “genesis, purpose, limitations, and scope of the book and may include acknowledgments of indebtedness.” Forewords often feel promotional. Skillin and Gay also note that, in terms of numerical pagination, introductions are typically part of the text, while forewords and prefaces have Roman numerals.
My favorite foreword is Walker Percy’s comments on A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Percy was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans in 1976 when “a lady unknown to me” started phoning him: “What she proposed was preposterous…her son, who was dead, had written an entire novel during the early sixties, a big novel, and she wanted me to read it.” Percy was understandably skeptical, but finally gave in, hoping “that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther.” Instead, he fell in love with the book, especially Ignatius Reilly, “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” Percy essay arrives as a pitch; no one would mistake it for a contemplative preface.
That last comment admittedly comes from the hip, owing to seduction by sound. Introduction sounds clinical. Foreword sounds, well, you know. Preface massages the ear with that gentle f. Unlike introductions and forewords, prefaces are often written by the authors themselves, and are invaluable autobiographical documents. A preface is an ars poetica for a book, for a literary life. A preface often feels like the writer sitting across the table from the reader, and saying, listen, now I am going to tell you the truth.
In the preface to his second volume of Collected Stories, T.C. Boyle soon becomes contemplative: “To me, a story is an exercise of the imagination — or, as Flannery O’Connor has it, an act of discovery. I don’t know what a story will be until it begins to unfold, the whole coming to me in the act of composition as a kind of waking dream.” For Boyle, imagination and discovery means that he wants “to hear a single resonant bar of truth or mystery or what-if-ness, so I can hum it back and play a riff on it.” He includes memories of middle school, when “Darwin and earth science came tumbling into my consciousness…and I told my mother that I could no longer believe in the Roman Catholic doctrine that had propelled us to church on Sundays for as long as I could remember.” Boyle thinks “I’ve been looking for something to replace [faith] ever since. What have I found? Art and nature, the twin deities that sustained Wordsworth and Whitman and all the others whose experience became too complicated for received faith to contain it.”
By “received faith,” Boyle means a faith prescribed rather than practiced. He later found “the redeeming grace” of O’Connor; his “defining moment” was first reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find:” “here was the sort of story that subverted expectations, that begin in one mode — situation comedy, familiar from TV — and ended wickedly and deliciously in another.” Boyle’s preface rolls and rolls — think of an acceptance speech that goes on a bit long, but we love the speaker so we shift in our seats and wait out of appreciation.
There are some gems. John Cheever, who taught Boyle at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, “was positively acidic on the subject of my academic pursuits,” but was otherwise “unfailingly kind and generous.” Cheever disliked Boyle’s self-identification as “experimental,” instead insisting “all good fiction was experimental…adducing his own ‘The Death of Justina’ as an example.”
He documents his early magazine submission attempts. He was quite successful, placing early stories in the likes of Esquire and Harper’s, but also had “plenty of rejection.” He covered his bedroom walls with the letters. He ends the preface with a return to first principles: “Money or no, a writer writes. The making of art — the making of stories — is a kind of addiction…You begin with nothing, open yourself up, sweat and worry and bleed, and finally you have something. And once you do, you want to have it all over again.” This act of writing fiction is the “privilege of reviewing the world as it comes to me and transforming it into another form altogether.”
Boyle has already elucidated some of these ideas in an essay, “This Monkey, My Back,” but for other fiction writers, prefaces are rare forays into autobiography. For jester-Catholic Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner, his sole collection of stories, was his preferred confessional. The essay is labeled an introduction, but I think function trumps form. Pynchon’s essay is self-deprecating, contextual, and comprehensive. It is the closest he has ever come to being a teacher of writing.
The last story in the collection, “The Secret Integration,” was written in 1964. Pynchon admits “what a blow to the ego it can be to have to read over anything you wrote 20 years ago, even cancelled checks.” He hopes the stories are cautionary warnings “about some practices which younger writers might prefer to avoid.” Rather than presenting an abstract, sweeping declaration of his amateur past, Pynchon skewers each story in the collection. “The Small Rain,” his first published work, was written while “I was operating on the motto ‘Make it literary,’ a piece of bad advice I made up all by myself and then took.” One sin was his bad dialogue, including a “Louisiana girl talking in Tidewater diphthongs,” indicative of his desire “to show off my ear before I had one.” “Low-lands,” the second piece, “is more of a character sketch than a story,” the narrator of which was “a smart assed-jerk who didn’t know any better, and I apologize for it.” Next up is the infamous “Entropy,” fodder for his second novel, The Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon dismisses the tale as an attempt to force characters and events to conform to a theme. It was overwritten, “too conceptual, too cute and remote.” He looted a 19th-century guidebook to Egypt for “Under the Rose,” resulting in another “ass backwards” attempt to start with abstraction rather than plot and characters. The same “strategy of transfer” doomed “The Secret Integration,” as he culled details from a Federal Writers Project guidebook to the Berkshires.
Pynchon served in the Navy between 1955 and 1957, and notes that one positive of “peacetime service” is its “excellent introduction to the structure of society at large…One makes the amazing discovery that grown adults walking around with college educations, wearing khaki and brass and charged with heavy-duty responsibilities, can in fact be idiots.” His other influences were more literary: Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro.” On the Road by Kerouac. Helen Waddell’s The Wandering Scholars. Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings. To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. Hamlet. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene. Early issues of the Evergreen Review. And jazz, jazz, jazz: “I spent a lot of time in jazz clubs, nursing the two-beer minimum. I put on hornrimmed sunglasses at night. I went to parties in lofts where girls wore strange attire.” The time was post-Beat; “the parade had gone by.”
The essay ends on a note of nostalgia “for the writer who seemed then to be emerging, with his bad habits, dumb theories and occasional moments of productive silence in which he may have begun to get a glimpse of how it was done.” A reader taken with Boyle will forgive his trademark bravado; a reader taken with Pynchon will forgive his self-parodic deprecation. Those who dislike the fiction of either writer won’t stay around for the end of his preface — or crack open the book in the first place.
More often than not, introductory materials are welcomed because we appreciate the fiction that follows. Such expectation can cause problems. The most notable examples are the forewords of Toni Morrison’s Vintage editions, which began with the 1999 version of The Bluest Eye. In “Lobbying the Reader,” Tessa Roynon casts a skeptical eye toward these prefatory remarks. She begins her critique with Morrison’s foreword for Beloved. “Without any apparent self-conscious irony,” Roynon notes, Morrison says she wants her reader “to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population — just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.” This before the reader encounters the first sentence of the actual novel, “124 was spiteful,” which becomes neutered by Morrison’s prefatory, critical self-examination.
Roynon’s love for Morrison’s fiction is contrasted with her disappointment in the forewords. She considers the essays formulaic and rushed, containing “apparently indisputable interpretations of the text…among profoundly suggestive ambiguities,” as if Morrison is hoarding her own meanings. Roynon worries that Morrison’s goal is the “desire to ensure that readers appreciate the scope of her artistry and her vision to the full.” Shouldn’t that be the experience of her readers? Morrison almost gives them no choice. The essays “demand to be read before the novels they introduce, not least because they are positioned between the dedications/epigraphs and the work’s opening paragraphs.”
Morrison’s prefatory summary for Beloved is so sharp, so commanding that Roynon thinks it threatens to undermine the novel itself: “The heroine would represent the unapologetic acceptance of shame and terror; assume the consequences of choosing infanticide; claim her own freedom.” Morrison has articulated elsewhere her reasons for contributing to the discussion about her books, but the gravity of these forewords makes readers passive recipients. What if the reader experiences the novel slightly differently? Does Morrison’s foreword negate those other readings? As Roynon notes, Morrison’s earlier critical essays would elicit, rather than close, “controversy and discussion.” By focusing on the autobiographical and the contextual, rather than being self-analytical, Morrison’s best forewords treats her readers as participants in the artistic experience, rather than people who are waiting for lectures.
Roynon’s solution is both simple and eloquent:
Were I Morrison’s editor I would urge her to cut the most explicit of her interpretations, to bury the explanations at which we [readers] used to work so hard to arrive. And I would entreat her to move all of her accompanying observations from the beginning of her books to their ends. Turning all the forewords into afterwords would greatly reduce their problematic aspects. In metaphorical terms of which Morrison herself is so fond: we don’t need lobbies or front porches on the homes that she has so painstakingly built. But back gardens? They could work.
No matter whether it is called an introduction, foreword, or preface, the best front piece written by the book’s own author encourages a reader to turn the page and start, but respects her need to experience the work on her own. William Gass’s long preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country is an exemplary selection. Originally written in 1976 and revised in 1981, Gass’s preface works as a standalone essay, an inspiring speech for fellow writers, and a document of one artist’s continuing struggle.
Gass reminds us that most stories never get told: “Even when the voice is there, and the tongue is limber as if with liquor or with love, where is that sensitive, admiring, other pair of ears?” His “litters of language” have been called “tales without plot or people.” Received well or not, they are his stories, the words of a boy who moved from North Dakota to Ohio, the son of a bigoted father without “a faith to embrace or an ideology to spurn.” “I won’t be like that,” Gass thought, but “naturally I grew in special hidden ways to be more like that than anyone could possibly imagine, or myself admit.”
Gass turned inward, moved in the direction of words. Lines like “I was forced to form myself from sounds and syllables” sound a bit sentimental if one is somewhat familiar with Gass, but he has always been, in the words of John Gardner, “a sneaky moralist.” Gass began writing stories because “in some dim way I wanted, myself, to have a soul, a special speech, a style…to make a sheet of steel from a flimsy page — something that would not soon weary itself out of shape as everything else I had known.” His earliest stories failed because they were written in the shadow and sound of the canon, leading Gass to wonder “from whose grip was it easier to escape — the graceless hack’s or the artful great’s?”
He broke free “by telling a story to entertain a toothache,” a story with “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” That story, the subject of constant revision and reworking for years, would become The Pedersen Kid, his seminal novella. Gass shares his personal “instructions” for the story: “The physical representation must be flowing and a bit repetitious; the dialogue realistic but musical. A ritual effect is needed.” Here one might think Gass is making the same sin of explanation as Morrison, but these are plans, not an exegesis of his work. These thematic plans soon eroded, and “during the actual writing, the management of microsyllables, the alteration of short and long sentences, the emotional integrity of the paragraph, the elevation of the most ordinary diction into some semblance of poetry, became my fanatical concern.” Only years and many rejections later did Gardner publish the story in MSS.
A great preface is a guide for other writers. While the biographical and contextual minutia might be of most interest to aficionados and scholars, working writers who find a great preface are in for a treat. At their best, these introductory essays are the exhales of years of work: years of failure, doubt, and sometimes despair. Gass’s preface for In the Heart of the Heart of the Country contains a handful of gems worthy of being pinned to a cork board above one’s desk:
The material that makes up a story must be placed under terrible compression, but it cannot simply release its meaning like a joke does. It must be epiphanous, yet remain an enigma. Its shortness must have a formal function: the deepening of the understanding, the darkening of the design.
All stories ought to end unsatisfactorily.
Though time may appear to pass within a story, the story itself must seem to have leaked like a blot from a single shake of the pen.
To a reader unhappy with his fiction: “I know which of us will be the greater fool, for your few cents spent on this book are a little loss from a small mistake; think of me and smile: I misspent a life.”
Gass ends with a description of his dream reader. She is “skilled and generous…forgiving of every error.” She is “a lover of lists, a twiddler of lines;” someone “given occasionally to mouthing a word aloud or wanting to read to a companion in a piercing library whisper.” Her “heartbeat alters with the tenses of the verbs.” She “will be a kind of slowpoke on the page, a sipper of sentences, full of reflective pauses.” She will “shadow the page like a palm.” In fact, the reader will “sink into the paper…become the print,” and “blossom on the other side with pleasure and sensation…from the touch of mind, and the love that lasts in language. Yes. Let’s imagine such a being, then. And begin. And then begin.”
A preface might begin as a cathartic act for the writer, but it should end as a love letter to readers. Books are built from sweat and blood, but without the forgiving eyes and hands of readers, books will gather dust on shelves: never touched, never opened, never begun.
Because Ruth Curry and I are always looking for the next Emily Books pick, and are now reading unpublished manuscripts as well as published books in preparation for our plan to begin publishing a very select number of Emily Books originals, this Year in Reading was INTENSE for me. I probably read more books in 2014 than I did even in the extremely uneventful summer between 6th and 7th grade, when I read literally every book in the YA section of the White Oak public library, plus almost all the books on my parents’ bookshelves. I read The Second Sex that summer because I was hoping there might be sex in it. Also The Prince, Our Bodies Ourselves, and several presidential biographies. In retrospect my parents should have sent me to summer camp.
Instead of a laundry list of the seriously hundreds of books I read this year, I thought I’d focus here on just a handful that made me excited about books again in a way I haven’t felt in years — both reading and writing them. These were books that I unequivocally loved, books that I’m certain will stay with me in the years to come.
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob: I first heard Mira Jacob on my friend Jaime’s podcast, The Catapult, reading a scene where narrator Amina has a tense conversation with her mom, who has a hilarious, idiosyncratic take on English usage and is just in general a maddening, overbearing/lovable mom character to add to the pantheon of all-time great mom characters. “No wonder that dirty man shot himself — all that time without sun and this devil woman tearing her pantyhoses,” is her take on Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Jacob performed the dialogue like an actress and I was immediately hooked. The book traces a deep, painful, years-long family tragedy, but Jacob balances humor and heartache deftly, and Amina is wry and sad and totally real.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: God, this book. This BOOK! Since I devoured four Sarah Waters books in a row this year, I feel qualified to judge that this book represents a new level of excellence for Waters. Since her other books are all amazing too, that’s really saying something. I had kind of expected this book to blow up Goldfinch-style; it’s a gripping page-turner in addition to being perfectly written and it’s about something important and real. I wonder whether reviewers’ understandable reticence about revealing the plot twist that changes the book halfway through from masterful historical portraiture to something more like a thriller made it a harder sell than it ought to have been? Anyway, if you like interwar London, fraught lesbian secret affairs, and hot sex scenes, plus crime, punishment, and hard moral questions that keep you thinking long after the book is over — I mean, it’s just hard to imagine anyone not loving this book. I think it’s perfect.
After Birth by Elisa Albert: This book is kind of the opposite in terms of appeal-universality — I can imagine a reasonable person hating it. But I am helpless with love for Elisa Albert’s work. Something about her voice and her style, not to mention her subject matter, just does it for me in a way no one else’s books do, and I’ve been salivating for years for her to come out with another one (this one doesn’t actually get published til February). It’s about a malcontented woman who has a baby and moves to upstate New York, where she falls in intense friend-love with a charismatic fellow new mother. Albert is great on the darkness at the heart of all kinds of hallowed intimacies, and even when you’re gasping, appalled by the narrator’s pinched, cruel worldview, you’ll never stop reading.
Adam by Ariel Schrag: Ariel Schrag is one of the most talented human beings alive. Not only did she create comics that evoke high school perfectly while still in high school, she’s a screenwriter and teacher and now, the author of one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read. Adam is the weird, touching story of a high school senior who spends a summer with his cool older sister in NYC and uses the opportunity to try on a new identity. Schrag’s writing is sharp and stylish but also effortlessly graceful; you almost don’t notice how great her sentences are because they flow straight into your brain, situating themselves there like some better, funnier version of your own thoughts.
Florence Gordon by Brian Morton: I am lucky enough to know Brian a little and so after I finished this book I wrote him an email saying that I loved everything about it except was he sure about the title? At the time I felt strongly that it should have been called Opportunities For Heroism In Everyday Life, which is the title of a book by the namesake protagonist. Now I realize that I was very wrong. This book is about Florence Gordon; it couldn’t and shouldn’t pretend it’s about anything else for one second. Florence would want it that way! She’s a very forceful character: a heroic feminist activist-author who’s beloved by many readers and acolytes, but somewhat feared and even hated by her intimates and her family, whose lives have been shaped/deformed in response to her uncompromising personality. The book is about the relationship her granddaughter doggedly forges with her, a description that makes it seem like the book might be sentimental. It’s not; Florence would never allow it to be. But you will still cry. (So much!!)
The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink: This funny, profane, deeply weird book defies description. The author has been writing for years but, aside from a zine, never before for publication. When an email correspondence with Jonathan Franzen turned into a friendly rivalry, she set out to prove that she can write better than he can. Can she? Well, he thinks so and to be honest I do too. (And I love J. Franz. I am a known Franz-stan.)
Wish You Were Me by Myriam Gurba: Reasons to live: food, beautiful fall days, cats, being in the ocean and being lifted up by a perfect wave, and reading a new writer for the first time whose voice is different from any you’ve heard before and who you want to keep hearing forever.
The Girls From Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe: This novel got great reviews, came our around the same time as my novel Friendship, and is also about female best friends. If the author hadn’t contacted me out of the blue via Facebook and offered to send it to me, I would have been too jealous to read it. Luckily, she did! It’s very different from Friendship — Rufi’s voice is nothing like mine, and her book’s scope is broader, in every way — but has a similar unsparing attitude, stripping away familiar pieties about love and goodness until all that’s left is the truth.
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld: I’m a Sittenfeld superfan and her latest book delighted me just as much as all her others have, maybe more so in some ways. She pulls off a trick in it that, in less masterful hands, often goes awry: she creates a world just like our own but with one crucial supernatural difference (here, it’s that one of a pair of twins is psychic). I read this back to back with Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra At The Wedding, another book about very dissimilar twins, and I recommend this! You can feel like you took a mini-seminar in twin lit, and they’re both fantastic books.
Notice by Heather Lewis: The hardest to read book I’ve ever read. Lewis was a phenomenal talent who died young and whose work never got the recognition it deserved. We republished this out of print book as an Emily Books ebook that includes corrections from the original manuscript, courtesy of Lewis’s literary executor Ann Rower, and a new Introduction by Dale Peck. It’s about a woman who enters an abusive relationship with an older couple whose daughter has died. I had to trap myself underground with it and ride the subway til I got to the last page, but I’m so glad I did. Ruth and I are incredibly proud that we were able to bring this book back to life.
Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich: Ulinich’s brilliance and wryness are up against their most formidable opponent yet: online dating. Her heroine, Lena Finkle, finds herself single in her mid-30s with two teenage kids and embarks on the kind of romantic odyssey many people get out of the way in their early-20s, when Finkle was tethered to her then-babies. She eventually falls, hard, for a total cad, and the book documents what it’s like to be in love with someone terrible with painful realness.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
It began at the start of the year with Huck Finn, and Gulliver put in an appearance this week. Along the way, Gatsby and Don Quixote stood on the pedestal and took a bow, their tales championed, their authors heralded.The Globe and Mail, that venerable institution which, not incidentally, happens to pay my salary, has summoned a panel of experts (not, repeat, NOT including yours truly) to choose 50 books – the finest fifty in literary history – drawn from fiction and non-fiction, and including tomes both classic and modern.But this isn’t just your garden variety list. No sir. For each book chosen, an essay is written by a noteworthy scribe (Alberto Manguel makes a case for Dante’s Divine Comedy; Michael Ignatieff for Machiavelli’s The Prince).Each week, one essay is published. There is no order to the publication of the fifty.We’ll check back at the end of the year when the project comes to a close, but in the meantime, here’s the latest essay, Victoria Glendinning’s case for Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. From there, scroll down and look on the left for individual links to each of the other essays published so far.