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Italian-American Intellectuals … Immigrant Working-Class Revolutionaries vs. Bourgeois Progeny …What Difference a War Makes!

Italian-American Intellectuals … Immigrant Working-Class Revolutionaries vs. Bourgeois Progeny …What Difference a War Makes!

Tom Verso (July 22, 2014)

The epitaph carve on the tomb of Tina Modotti reads in part: “…steel and wire combined with snow and pollen to make up your firm and delicate being.” /// /// The combination and juxtaposition of the gentleness and softness of “snow and pollen” with the hardness of “steel and wire” captures the essence of Modotti and Bella Dodd, and more generally the women of their pre-WW II generation. Be they revolutionaries struggling to change their world, or “Hell’s Kitchen” housewives (e.g. Lucia Santa “The Fortunate Pilgrim”) struggling to survive in their world, the Italian American women of that era are best characterized by the juxtaposition of gentleness (“snow and pollen”) on the one hand and resilience (“steel and wire”) on the other. /// /// Not so their progeny! Coming of age in the greatest economic boom in history, the post-war Italian Americans moved out of the “Hell’s Kitchens” to suburbia where cats were no longer mousers; rather pets. Life was good. Accordingly, the Italian American intelligentsia of the post-war manifested the softness of “snow and pollen”, but not the hardness of “steel and wire”. As the struggle to get food on the table gave way to the struggle to lose weight, revolution gave way to protestation. Ideas about working class revolutions gave way to protestations about racial segregation, women’s rights and sexual freedom. Thus for example, Daniela Gioseffi, the Italian American “Joan of Arc” according to the prominenti and literati ‘festschrift’ in “Pioneering Italian American Culture”; Gioseffi’s book is dedicated to “women who wish to be free to pursue their creative instincts and succeed at their art…” One wonders what Modotti and Dobb might think of women’s freedom of artistic expression vs. working class freedom from exploitation? /// /// The works of artists and intellectuals are windows into the mass culture. Comparative cultural studies entail the juxtaposition of the culturati in time and space. The comparison of pre-war Modotti and Dobbs with post-war Paglia and Gioseffi makes for interesting sociological insights into pre and post-war Italian American intelligentsia.



Tina Modotti
To my mind this beautiful scene says it all about her:
In the first week of February 1939, as Spain’s Civil War wound down, a Mexican diplomat was driving through an abandoned Spanish village about 20 miles south of the French border. To the north, refugees by the ten’s of thousands were trying to get into France, escaping the vicious Guernica-esque Fascist onslaught coming up from the south.
The diplomat noticed a women “sitting alone at one of those outdoor coffee shops”. She was small, slightly more than five feet, a very slender middle-aged woman. He offered to take her to safety. In his words:
She refused…She was waiting for the [retreating Republican] army which was on its way to that small town, and she knew that [her companion] was coming with it. 
“I told her she was in great danger [from the Fascist]I tried to persuade her to come with me…Well she refused my offer firmly…I left.
“… it was about six in the evening the sun was shining but gave no warmth. The whole scene, the entire situation reinforced by the winter sun, the peasants escaping from the mountains, the army retreating and the image of her, sitting alone, with that waiting, searching, contemplative look…”
That small unpretentious contemplative solitary lady sitting at a table in an abandoned war torn village belied an Olympus giant. She was the unity of Apollonian reason and Dionysian passion that Nietzsche thought the essence of Greek Tragedy: a tragic hero driven by Dionysian passion to bring Apollonian order to a chaotic world; who understands and accepts that her fate (her inescapable destiny) is to suffer and fall because the world will not yield – nor will she. 
She was a sweat-shop machine operator, seamstress, model, stage and screen actress, photographer, business manager, artist, spy, hospital administrator, intelligence operative, writer, bodyguard, linguist, nurse, combatant. Her revolutionary working-class zeal brought her to Germany, Russia and Spain.
In short, she was Tina Modotti – ‘Some Kind of Lady’!
Modotti’s early life in Italy and the US was filled with struggle and pain characteristics of the Italian Diaspora. But her beauty, talent and intellect afforded her the opportunity to enter into the ranks of the American bourgeoisie either as an artesian or intellectual. However, her passion for social justice caused her to turn her back on “the good life” and embrace a life of profound fear, pain and suffering in the cause of the working class.
For example, in the late 1930s, the American intelligentsia regularly and with great passion protested the Fascist of Spain. While they were protesting, Tina Modotti was in Spain taking part in the combat.
She was in the infamous Málaga–Almería Road massacre. While the voices of Fascist machine guns harmonized with the screams of trapped defenseless mothers and children, Modotti frantically raced from wounded to wounded (stop the bleeding – keep them breathing), and desperately (hysterically) sought some modicum of shelter for the children as the Fascist planes relentlessly came with guns blaring again, again and again!
It was not ‘civil rights’ or ‘women’s rights’ or ‘sexual rights’ or ‘artistic rights’ to which Tina Modotti committed her life. It was life itself; the right to life of the working class people who suffered unto death the prerogatives (indeed whims) of the rich and powerful. (see expanded discussion of Modotti in related articles box #1)
Bella Dodd
Similar to Modotti, but not so dramatic, Bella Dodd followed the path of rejecting the academic and/or legal career available to her. She rejected the comforts and accolades of the bourgeois life style; choosing instead the struggle against working class exploitation and the associated hardships.
Like Modotti, Dodd emigrated from Italy as a child and early on distinguished herself as very intelligent and motived. She won a scholarship to Hunter College and graduated with honors.
After graduating from Hunter, Dobb took a job as a substitute high school teacher, however after one term, Dr. Dawson, the chairman of the Political Science Department at Hunter College, called and offered her a post at the college. She commenced teaching freshman political science full-time in the Spring of 1926.
Subsequently she went on to receive a Masters Degree from Colombia University, and a law degree from New York University.
With such an extraordinary education for a person at a time when relatively few completed high school, many doors of bourgeois society were open to her. However, there was an experience she had back in high school that was a foretelling of her rejection of the bourgeois world for a life of devotion to the working class.
While in high school, she developed an interest in politics, and a friend gave her a copy of “The Call”, a Socialist publication. In her autobiography “The School of Darkness” she wrote:
That paper gave a new turn to my thinking. I sought other copies I felt my heart beat with excitement as I read the articles on social justice … for the first time I felt a call, a vocation.” (p.22)
Keep in mind – the concept of “social justice” implied social justice for the exploited working class.
This ‘instinct’ about working class social justice affected her thinking from that time on. However, it was the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the subsequent Depression that transformed the ideology about working class social justice into action for working class social justice. She writes:
I was stunned by the fury of the impact of the depression on my family and those around me. I watched the line of pale, pinched faces of people who stood before the closed doors of the bowery Savings Bank on Forty-Second Street. They reminded me of the anxious faces I had seen in Hamburg and Berlin a few years before.
“I saw men obviously once in good circumstance line up around the block for soup and coffee at mission houses. I saw them furtively pick up cigarette butts from the streets. (p 61)
The “fury of the depression” shocked the intelligentsia into action. At Hunter College Dobb helped organize the Hunter College Instructors Association to address issues about low wages, no security or tenure or promotion.
“It was a new type of organization for college teachers – a grass-roots organization for immediate action on important questions of privileges.” (p62)
The Hunter Instructors Association then began to help organize teachers in “all the municipally owned colleges of New Your City, then private colleges such as New York University. She help draft and vigorously fought for a “college teachers’ tenure bill which was passed and signed into law by Governor Lehman.
Because of that success, Dobb became the legislative representative of the teachers Union Local 5 and an officer of the A.F. of L.
From then on Dobb devoted her life to organizing and working for labor unions. She nearly caused a riot when she gave a rousing speech in support of the Stevedores union. Bodyguards had to escort her home! She took repeated leaves of absence from her teaching position at Hunter and eventually resigned because she was not able to be an effective teacher and union representative.
In short, she gave up what could have been a very good bourgeois life as a college professor or lawyer or politician. She could have been, what Hesse called, a “Magister Ludi” conjuring eloquent “Glassbead Games” publishing them in journal articles and books, and giving speeches about social justice, while still maintaining a substantial standard of living.
Instead, she forgo the comfortable bourgeois life style and talking about social justice; instead she chose a self-sacrificing life of modest means so she could engage in the working class struggle.
In short, Dodd, like Modotti, was not an armchair revolutionary.
What a difference a war makes…
World War II brought an end to the Depression. The demand for military equipment put the nation back to work. After the war, America embarked on the greatest economic boom in world history (literally).
Virtually, all the industrial countries in the world were physically and financially destroyed (Germany, Italy, France, Russia, Japan, etc.). American factories were not only unscathed in the war, they were fully equipped, employed and operational. American factories then change over from war material production to supplying manufactured goods to the rest of the world and had no competition.
Accordingly, the working class issues that motivated people like Modotti and Dobb became passé. The standard of living of American workers grew exponentially. The 1950s saw them moving to suburban homes, own multiple cars; television came into existence, etc.
Camille Paglia and Danellia Gioseffi
Both Camille Paglia and Danellia Gioseffi, born in the 1940s, came to maturity in this halcyon age. Both by ‘nature’ and nurture were predisposed to bourgeois academic and publishing career opportunities that the great post-war economic boom made available to them.
By ‘nature’ they manifested their extreme intelligence and creativity at a young age, and were ‘nurtured’ by fathers educated far beyond the typical Italian American male at the time.
Paglia’s father attained a graduate degree and became a professor of Romance Languages at Le Moyne College.  Gioseffi’s qualified for Phi Beta Kappa at Union College. Both fathers were humanist and thus ‘nurtured’ their daughters' ‘natural’ intelligence and creative bent. For example, Gioseffi’s father began reading Cervantes and Shakespeare to her when she was ten years old.
In an economic milieu when there seemed to be no working class issues, Paglia and Gioseffi where drawn into the prevailing social issues of their time.
Paglia, a bisexual women, found her social activism niche in sexual liberation. Her Yale doctorial dissertation, an absolutely staggering scholarly tour de force, published in book form as Sexual Personae – Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson”. Sex themes play a significant role in her subsequent scholarly and journalistic publications, and media appearances.
This is not to imply that sex was the only social issue to which Paglia’s amazing intellect was brought-to-bear. Rather, it seems to me, sex was a (the?) predominate issue that characterized her scholarship, activism and social persona. More importantly, unlike the pre-war Italian American women such as Modotti and Dobb, working class labor issues were at best, if at all, tangential to her sexual bent. (see expanded discussion of Paglia in related articels box #2)
Similarly, Gioseffi ‘made-her-bones’, as it were, writing about social issues that were, like Paglia, at best tangential to those of working class labor. For example, her celebrated phrase “escape the kitchen-prison”: she seems not to have noticed that the women escaped the house kitchen prison only to enter the corporate kitchen prisons such as McDonalds and other food service companies that payed minimum wage (i.e. not a living wage – operative concept “living”) for maximum work. 
Grace Cavalieri wrote in her raving review of Gioseffi’s “Word Wounds and Water Flowers:
“When I was young … Most women I knew were like my mother – they never raised their voices, certainly wouldn’t argue politics at the dinner table…” (p18)
And, today, do the women in corporate kitchens “raise their voices” and “talk about politics”?
Cavalieri captures the essence of Gioseffi's the bourgeois mentality; a mentality that reflects the bourgeois world and not the working class world. Clearly the bourgeois women have prerogatives that her progenitors never considered. But those prerogatives are irrelevant to the working women trying to keep body-and-soul and family together. 
Tell a McDonald’s sub-subsistence wage working woman about how life is so much better now that she can talk politics at the dinner table and pursue her art! Indeed, how much does she know about politics given her literacy level? And, what art?
And, Paglia may take some pride in the fact that corporate kitchen owners could care less if the ‘burger bagger’ is straight, gay or whatever.
In short, to my mind, Paglia and Gioseffi are examples of the Italian American intelligentsia who, in the post-war period have lost sight of their working class roots. While commendably they are socially conscious, nevertheless they manifest little consciousness of the material standards of living of the working class.
Unionism and Tenure
While the literati, in general and Italian Americans such as Paglia and Gioseffi in particular, have rightly been concerned about social issues such as sexuality and various women’s issue (e.g. my body... my choice), they have been oblivious to the degeneration of working class standard of living and the loss of worker’s rights that were gained by the pre-war generation.
Consider for example two of Bella Dobb’s most passionately embraced issues: unionization and teacher tenure.
The chart below demonstrates that in the post-war period all the unionizing gains made by the Bella Dobb’s generation have been literally obliterated:
Further, the correlating income (standard of living) gains associated with unionism are similarly being eroded, as the chart below demonstrates:
Teacher Tenure – Public Schools
The following from the June 11, 2014 Los Angles Times pretty much sums up the current status of public school teacher tenure:
“The tenure and seniority system that has long protected California public school teachers … was struck down Tuesday in a court decision that could change hiring and firing policies nationwide.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu said that the laws governing job security were unconstitutional…”
In case one thinks this is just an anecdotal court ruling, be advised just three weeks later the July 3, 2014 New York Times reported:
“An education advocacy group on Thursday threw down the first challenge to New York’s teacher tenure laws in the wake of a landmark court decision in California last month finding such laws there unconstitutional.
A lawsuit filed in State Supreme Court on Staten Island argues that the tenure laws violate the State Constitution…”
Teacher Tenure – College teachers
Dobbs began her working class activism in the struggle for rights and benefits of college teachers – Hunter College Instructors Association. And, again we see in the charts below that those rights and benefits are being seriously eroded.
Colleges have been decreasing the number of full-time tenure teachers on their staffs.

Average salary increases are lowest for professors.
Tina Modotti and Bella Dobb on the one hand, and Camille Paglia and Daniela Gioseffi on the other, have been presented here as metaphors for the life and works respectively of pre-war and post-war Italian American intelligentsia.
The selected anecdotes are not meant as comprehensive generalizations about any of the women. However, I believe that the anecdotes are indicative of respective mentalities and corresponding behavior of the women and their respective generation of intellectuals.
The profundity of the differences between Modotti/Dobbs and Paglia/Gioseffi are, I believe indicative of the profundity of differences between the respective generations of Italian American literati. 
Further, those differences are not, as they say, ‘academic’ (i.e. abstract object of discussion). Those differences represent very significant (indeed profound) real material affects on the American working class generally and Italian Americans particularly.
In short:
What a sad commentary on contemporary Italian American intelligentsia that, in the last two decades while theirs and more generally worker’s standards of living have been plummeting, the two most heated issues they engaged were the “Sopranos” and “Advanced Placement Italian”. Talk about ‘Heads in the Sand”.
What a difference a war makes … No? 


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It hurts to be SO misrepresented and trivialized

My life has been of "steel and wire" and a monumental struggle to survive in many ways. Anear death at the hands of the KKK, because of my work in Civil Rights as an journalist in Selma on WSLA-TV at 20 years of age after a cheap state college education, for which I had to work nights; a near death in childbirth at 24, because of working too hard to finish my Master of Fine Arts degree--struggle after struggle, holding menial jobs to get through college to be the first woman of a large Italian family of sweatshop workers to become an American Book Award winning author of 16 books, all though struggle and hard work. This article truly misrepresents the rigors of my working class life and family. It is extremely slanted and inaccurate. I lived through WWII and UNA STORIA SEGRETA and the suffering my family endured and my poor hard working, poverty stricken father went through to get his degres and academic honors is monumental. This is a false comparision. Not well researched and rather insulting. I've dealt with vital themes, and the struggles of real women of my generation should not be trivialized this way. After all my hard work, it hurts to see a story like this in iItaly. Verso could have done a better more sensitive job on his thesis. it is not entirely accurate at all. Let Verso raise a child alone while working and writing nights to be somebody, after nearly dying in childbirth, and working my way through undergraudate school at an inexensive state college to achieve a scholarshiop for graduate school. Then, let him be out here in the literary world competing with people from Harvard and Yale's Ole Boy Circuit. It is a marvel that I've achieved what I have through the rigors I've endured as a member of an immigrant working class family of factory working women. It is not an accurate comparison at all. I'm glad for this opportunity to correct his inaccuracies in two comments.

Inaccurate Protrayal of My Life, Though I get the Point.

This article contains many inaccuracies and doesn't even spell my name correctly it's Daniela Gioseffi (not Danellia) but that is the least inaccuracy. I don't care that my photo is stretched out to make me look like a character in a fun house mirror, the real issue is that my father worked his way through school delivery newspapers 6 miles every morning and evening, on a lame leg, to support his 7 immigrant brothers sisters through the Great Depression. He came to America through Ellis Island with only the clothes on his back, and did a million odd jobs day and night to go to Union Collage. Carrying coal buckets, tending a parking lot all night and living on beans and pasta, if that. His father was a poverty stricken shoemaker and my father grew up in a cold water flat practically starving. I worked my way through a state college doing a million odd jobs day and night. I did not come from a bourgeois class at all, but a very hard working class. All my aunts and my mother were seamstresses in factories. I earned a BA and then an MFA with very hard labor and went to school of scholarships. Tuition at Montclair State College, as it as at that time was $95 per semester and I still had to work like a dog to pay for my books and tuition and college costs. Yes, my father read to me because he valued education, but both he and I did hard labor to go to college and I was the FIRST woman of a large Italian family to attend college. This idea that I come from some privileged background is all wrong and this article is poorly written and researched. I've slaved to accomplish what I have done. My father, intelligent and educated as he came to be through hard labor, said to me: "What does a girl want to go to school for? You'll only marry and have babies. " I had to make my way through college much on my own, just as he did, and I had to buck patriarchal culture to do it, also. I grew up in a Newark ghetto, and only got anywhere at all because a state college education was cheap and even so I check hats, checked groceries in a super market, babysat, delivered prescriptions for a drug store, even scrubbed floors at one time. I don't understand what this article is attempting to say. I was born in the midst of WWII and we were living on rationed foodstamps in a Newark ghetto. I've published my books of social conscience because I know what poverty and suffering are. And so did my father, coming from very poor Italian immigrant parents. Tom Verso could have done better research, because his premise does not work in my case. I'm still working hard after sixteen books and an American Book Award. My labors are endless and I now edit www.Eco-Poetry.og/ on climate crisis as a volunteer labor of conscience. A film is being made of my life titled AUTHOR and ACTIVIST: The Daniela Gioseffi Story, that will show all this, regarding the sacrifices I’ve made to make a difference. Here's the on line 5 mins. preview/trailer. Also, the link to the CUNY-TV Interview with Anthony Tamburri: I talk with Dr. Anthony Tamburri about my struggles and my father's in an interview on CUNY-TV. My life has NOT been a bourgeois picnic of ease in any way. My social conscience as a progressive fighting for social justice comes from a working class mentality, indeed . In any case. I see the point Verso wants to make. My life just was not as he portrays it, though my father did read to me despite our struggles. He was an inspiration mostly because of his hardworking immigrant tenacity. We were never privileged in any way. Daniela Gioseffi