Sign in | Log in

Where I Come From

Where I Come From

James Periconi (November 20, 2007)

You, the reader, ought to know something about a blogger - his or her background, how the writer views his own Italianità, what strongly held points of view they have about Italian American (and other) issues, in short, what informs their perspectives. This is my introduction to you.




            Before you start reading my blogs, you might want to know where I come from, or, more particularly, what kind of Italian American do I think myself to be.  One of the great pleasures, and an endless subject of discussion (or at least speculation) among Italian Americans generally (or at least, among intellectuals), is the extraordinary variety within Italian America. 


            The fact is, there are more than one, two or three “types” of Italian Americans, and we’re always seeking for ways to describe those markers of an individual’s personality that help us figure out who she is.  What kind of Italian American was Frank Viola, a champion pidgeon breeder who died recently? Or Anthony Lo Frisco, an attorney who complained about severe reductions in his $2.3 million salary from his law firm, based on billings of $10 million a year, reductions due to his age (74).  Or Vin Ferrara, the ex-Harvard quarterback, a doctor who also holds a M.B.A. from Columbia, who developed a radically new football helmet that will dramatically reduce brain concussions in football players. I have no idea how much any of these considered or considers himself an Italian American. (Fiction readers, take note: read Anthony Giardina’s fiction  if you want to get a nuanced idea of the variety of late 20th century Italian Americans, and read our “classical” writers, like Pietro Di Donato or Bernardino Ciambelli or Jerre Mangione or John Fante, to get a feeling for Italian Americans closer to the immigrant experience.)  Most Italian Americans I know aren’t like any of these three I picked pretty much at random; some but not many are like characters from one of the classic writers I mentioned. 



            Let’s start with my perspective: neither a professor nor a journalist, I’m a second or third generation Italian American, – both Grandpas born in Italy, both Grandmas born here but of Italian parents – a New Yorker, principally an attorney, as my Dad was, though he wasn't like me a literature Ph.D. "dropout." I'm also a serious book collector and bibliographer of Italian-American books, and former book dealer (in Italian-American and other categories). I believe fiercely that the secret to our discovering who we are comes about largely by reading great writers, Italian American and otherwise. All these parts of me inform what I’ll be writing about.  You can be the judge of whether my opening remark about the great variety of Italian Americans is borne out in my blogs. 


            Even more to the point, I myself am not even the same Italian American now that I was 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago!  When I first read Rose Basile Green’s typology of Italian American literature about 10 years ago, I saw parts of myself at different stages of my life in each of the descriptions, including a “revulsion” period.  I admit my mother asked me frequently when I was in my early twenties (more than 30 years ago), “are you ashamed of being Italian American?”  One of my favorite punchlines now in conversations with my now 91-year-old mother, after telling her about some Italian American literary or cultural activity I’m involved in, or something I’m writing about, is: “Mom, you should get closer to your Italian American heritage,” at which remark she laughs.  When my lawyer father, a co-founder of the Columbian Lawyers Association 60 or so years ago, urged me, as a newly minted lawyer 30 years ago, to join, I looked at him disdainfully – what good could that possibly do for me in any way?  Well, about 5 or 6 years ago – almost a decade after Dad passed away – I joined the Columbian Lawyers Association and I go quite regularly (and enjoy it, as I’ll explain in later blogs), in this same period of my life when I also regularly haunt rather WASPy precincts like the Grolier Club, thanks to Vic Basile, as enthusiastic an ItaloAmericanophile as you’ll find, who sponsored me.

What kind of Italian American does that make me?



            I see these vast changes in my perception of my own Italianità reflected in changes, albeit very different ones, in Italian America generally over these years. As I see it, Italian America is unimaginably different in 2007 from the country it was in 1948, when I was born; in 1970, when I graduated from college; or even in 1977, when I began my law practice.  At the last of those dates – just 30 years ago, in the span of about 125 years since the Great Migration began – the idea that the U.S. Supreme Court would have not one but two Italian-American members would have been regarded as absolutely impossible, a fantasy.  Virtually no Italian Americans were part of the upper reaches of American law, either in law firms or law schools. The idea that so many Italian Americans would be highly respected partners of major U.S. law firms – which once regarded Italian Americans, like Jews and African Americans as anathema – was unthinkable in 1977, but no longer.  For someone with my politics, at times it seems more a nightmare than a dream that these two Italian American lawyers made  it to the top – two brilliant guys, Justices Scalia and Alito, but hopelessly conservative, hopelessly out of touch with the progressive spirit that was an integral part of early Italian America.   (I’m more pleased that they’re smart, by the way, than I’m sad they’re so conservative.) 



            One of the idée fixes in my life, let me be clear, is this: Italian-Americans, who haven’t disappeared as distinct from other Americans, who haven’t completely assimilated, need to overcome their historical amnesia before they’ll ever truly be comfortable about who they are.  We now have an extraordinarily rich imaginative and historical literature about who we were and who we are.  Yet that literature has touched surprisingly few lives even among the most educated and successful of us.  That is the enigma of Italian America, that is the poignancy and the heartbreak of our situation – seemingly constitutionally unaware of who we are, even at the “upper” ends.


            My blogs, then, will ask what we need to do to release our repressed Italianità: I’ll write about contemporary events and people, whether obviously significant ones or just representative of the stage Italian America has reached, but always relate them to our history, what we’ve said about ourselves in the past that’s relevant to who we have become.  I’ll write about literary issues, and about social issues, like the professional classes, and about books. 


            And an advance warning: I’m not a flag-waver, so don’t expect that.  To overcome our amnesia, we can’t just complain about what others have said about us.  We have to look at the warts, and some of them are hidden.  The greatest of our writers are saying that, writers like Robert Viscusi: if you haven’t read his Buried Caesars, stop what you’re doing right now – go to, and type in “Robert Viscusi” and you’ll find it. Buy a copy and read it.





DISCLAIMER: Posts published in i-Italy are intended to stimulate a debate in the Italian and Italian-American Community and sometimes deal with controversial issues. The Editors are not responsible for, nor necessarily in agreement with the views presented by individual contributors.
This work may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without prior written permission.
Questo lavoro non può essere riprodotto, in tutto o in parte, senza permesso scritto.