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Part I -- The Unfortunate Pilgrim*: Or You Can’t Get There From Here

Part I -- The Unfortunate Pilgrim*: Or You Can’t Get There From Here

Jerry Krase (July 17, 2015)
Jerry Krase
A Cangelosi wedding circa 1935. My mother Martha Rose is the beautiful bridesmaid in the upper right corner. She didn't marry a Sicilian. Therefore the reason for this story.

*With apologies to Mario Puzo this essay in three-parts will demonstrate why, as to reconnecting to or even finding my Sicilian/Italian ethnic roots, "you can't get there from here."


A few years ago, when I was invited to present a paper at the Third Forum on Italian American Criticism, I was caught a bit off guard as I am hardly a critic of anything Italian American. Then I realized that it was a poor excuse to honor my slightly older friend, Mario Mignone, on his 70th birthday. Mario, State University of New York Distinguished Service Professor, is the founder and Director of the Center for Italian Studies as well as the founder of the Association of Italian American Educators. I was greatly honored to participate at the celebration because Mario has been one on the few who consistently includes me among his “Italian” (as opposed to “Italian American”) friends.  As a consummate intellectual he understood that, despite my total ignorance of (and even more total disinterest in) of what makes one authentically Italian, I treasured my marvelously mysterious semi-patrimony that includes, among other cultural insights, the fact that Italians are anarchists until they themselves are in charge. He also shared my observation that being Italian, or even Italian-American, is not merely a matter of having an “appropriate” surname. It is in these ways that Mario is partially culpable for my Columbus-like search for, and similar non-discovery of, what we were looking for. In my case it is the search for my Sicilian (Italian?) roots that I have cryptically subtitled “You can’t get there from here.” My Odyssey is presented here on I-Italy in several, hopefully digestible, parts as an allegorical journey through the rugged mountains of Campania followed by an equally disappointing, but less arduous, trip to find half of my roots in Sicily.

In one-way or another, I and most of my fellow speakers at the Theatre of the Mind, Stage of History: Italian Legacies Between Europe, the Mediterranean, and North America on the 150th Anniversary of Unification” conference at SUNY Stony Brook’s Center for Italian Studies have been directly involved in the “creation” or “production” of Italian American history. Some such as Luigi Bonaffini have done it by exemplification. Luigi spoke, for example, about the radical cultural icon “Arturo Giovannitti and the American Literary Establishment.” Others such as Marcello Saija, looked at institutions created by Italian immigrants as in “Sicilian Mutualism in USA During the Great Migration.” Others, such as Luigi Fontanella, Paolo Valesio, and Robert Viscusi literally (excuse the pun) are Italian American history.  As individual, often self-absorbed, self-reflections have, in my experience, been the major mode of presentation by and about Italian Americans, In the following paragraphs I shall mimic that approach by describing how I came to be, or perhaps better -- not to be recognized, an Italian American scholar. Although I often use first person narratives in my visual sociological work, I seldom make myself the central object of my scholarly work, so here I will add autobiography as well to the visually enhanced concoctions.

There is an enormous gap between academics and the people they study and report on. For example, the people who are the subject of an historical study don’t recognize themselves in the researchers’ output such as books and especially articles in academic journals.  Scholars pride themselves on their inaccessibility by “ordinary people.” I am not a great scholar and think (simply) of the history of, let us say, Italian immigrants as having at least three levels. The first of these is the actual “History Making” by the real people who actually do remarkable things such as those who have made their way to the United States of America from Italy and created the many versions of “Italian America.” The second level I call “History Gathering.” Researchers harvest the fruits of immigrants and their much more numerous descendants. Sometimes historians get the story right, but in a sense “Who is to know?” since their subjects seldom are given the opportunity to vet these collections befreo they are in print. The final level is “History Mass Production” in which the collections of writings about Italians and Italian Americans are formed into competing versions of "The" Italian American Experience. The version that wins the competition is called the “Canon.” In the subsequent Parts of my first person narrative about when and I how I learned that in the search from my roots that “you can’t get there from here,” you will be treated (if that be the correct word) to a story that you can be sure, for obvious reasons, will never be included in this or any other canon.

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