Dana Gioia, named the first Italian American Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts.

President George Bush's appointment of Dana Gioia (1950- ) as Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts and the nation's poet laureate in 2002 is a singular milestone -Gioia is the first of Italian ancestry to be named to such a distinguished position. Designation to such an honored station confers prestige to Gioia of course, and by extension, it also may be regarded as a mark of esteem for Italian Americans. Although it may come as a surprise to some the reality is that writing in verses and rhymes has in fact been an enriching feature of the Italian American experience not merely as adumbrated by professional poets with impeccable academic credentials, but also by sensitive individuals of more humble circumstances. Although the likes of famous muses Lawrence Ferlinghetti and John Ciardi, are familiar, there are also those who are less well known but have also made their impact in expressing the immigrant experience such as Joseph Tusiani, for example. Born in San Marco, Lamis (Foggia) Italy in 1924, and educated at the University of Naples, Tusiani emigrated to New York where he began a career as an educator in various New York colleges while also working as a translator and writer of novels and poetry. He has received numerous poetry awards. One of his most important works is Gente Mia and Other Poems, the beginning of an autobiographical series in which he eloquently addresses the immigrant experience.

Born in Los Angeles, California in 1950 to Italian-American father who was the son of Sicilian immigrants, and to a mother of Mestizo background, Dana Gioia received his education at local Catholic schools, Stanford University and Harvard University. While working in the private corporate world he also continued to write and attracted the attention of the literary world for his insights when in 1986 his collection of poetry Daily Horoscope was published. That Gioia was considered a major poet is revealed in the fact that he received an award from an English society that rarely extended such honors to Americans. Gioia stirred the world of literature with his critical collection Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture in 1992 by commenting on the irony of the world of poetry that on the one hand gained ascendancy in academia, while simultaneously appealing to a shrinking audience in the general public. He urged a return to " a vulgar vitality to poetry and unleash the energy now trapped in the subculture." It was in that year that Gioia became a full-time writer.

Hailed as a man of letters, a poet, essayist and critic, Gioia has remained firmly rooted in an Italian American ethos, a mindset that pays tribute to his ancestors -"hard working and dignified" -and to the value of tight family associations. He has made a conscious decision "to relocate to northern California, a few miles away from my parents. I wanted my sons to know their grandparents better, to know the kind of working class, Catholic, Latin roots that had been so important to me." By 1994 Gioia assumed the position of poetry editor for Italian Americana, a cultural and historical review of the Italian American experience, that has given him a unique perspective in assessing the on-going Italian American interest in poetry. Specifically he sees them concentrating on three main subjects: funerals, family and food, and Catholicism.

Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts Dana Gioia with Congresswoman Connie Morella

Richard Russo
First Italian American Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction

It has been said that compared to other ethnic groups, Italian Americans have not been able to claim a major spot at the pinnacle of literature. That changed in 2002, when Richard Russo became the first Italian American to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize in American Fiction for his book “Empire Falls.”

Born in 1950 and raised in Gloversville, New York, his small-town roots continue to influence his writings as he takes the pulse of blue-collar community rhythms and quirks. Even while a student at the University of Arizona, where he received a Master in Arts in American literature, Russo would return to Gloversville during the summer to join his father in a construction work gang that built a highway off-ramp exit in Albany – an experience his father proudly proclaimed whenever they drove by the site, saying, “We built that.” That exposure undoubtedly led to experiencing a tension between the fading work ethos of small-town America and the pull of academia. Eventually he taught literature at Colby College in Maine, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. Prior to his Pulitzer award Russo wrote three novels, “Mohawk,” “The Risk Pool,” and “Nobody's Fool,” earning praise for the warm, droll, self-effacing and empathetic accounts of small-town America. “Nobody’s Fool” was made into a Hollywood film starring Paul Newman.

Notwithstanding his background, Russo’s novels do not specifically focus on the ethnic Italian American experience, although some distinctly ethnic characters are included. Instead, his focus often turns to the withering of towns where mill jobs have vanished and residents are just hanging on to their pride. Accordingly, “Empire Falls” is a tale of blue-collar life that resembles a kind of spirited performance carried on without societal and governmental assurances. Set in a crumbling Maine mill town, Russo’s book piercingly depicts a cross-section of the community, from the controlling matriarch to the submissive restaurant owner, capturing the essence of the town’s eccentric, reprobate and foolish residents alike.

Don DeLillo, another Italian American who is an acclaimed novelist of the current generation, was born in the Bronx to immigrant parents in 1936 but like Russo does not focus to any considerable degree on the Italian-American saga. Published in 1997, “Underworld,” his most praised work, was the runner-up in a 2006 New York Times survey of the best American fiction in the last 25 years.

In recent years Philip Caputo – perhaps best known for his celebrated “A Rumor of War,” a memoir of his personal involvement in the Vietnam War that traced his transformation from a gung-ho Marine platoon leader to a shell-shocked, disillusioned veteran – has turned to writing novels instead. In 1972 he was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize in journalism as part of a team that wrote about political corruption in Chicago. His novels include, among others, “Horn of Africa,” “DelCorso’s Galler,” and “An Act of Faith.”

Other Italian American fiction writers who have achieved popularity in recent years include Adriana Trigiani and Lisa Scottoline, whose books do refer to their Italian American background. Trigiani, born in Pennsylvania as one of seven children of Italian immigrant parents, was raised in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, where, “I grew up in the mountains, a Catholic, and went to a women's college.” “Big Stone Gap,” “Big Cherry Holler,” “Milk Glass Moon,” and “Lucia, Lucia, Queens of the Big Time,” are among her better-known books. She has also written the screenplay for a film based on “Big Stone Gap.” Scottoline has been a best-selling author for years. Her book “Killer Smile,” based on her grandparents’ alien registration cards, recalls the little-known story of the internment of Italian Americans within the United States during World War II.

(Gay Talese, "Where are the Italian American Novelists?" March 14, 1993 New York Times Book Review; Richard Russo, Empire Falls, (2001); Fred Gardaphe, Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative (1997); Bill Tonelli Italian American reader, 2003)

Photo credits: Random House Inc. Publishing, Red Diaz / Duende Publishing Print, Simon and Schuster, Inc., Joyce Ravid, Stephen Ellis, Tim Stephenson, April Narby

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