Marcella Bencivenni, Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940 (New York: New York University Press, 2011).

Over the past few decades, scholars such as Rudolph Vecoli, Nunzio Pernicone, Philip Cannistraro, Donna Gabaccia, and many others have chiseled away at Edward Banfield’s 1958 claims of “amoral familism”: the notion that Italian immigrants for social and cultural reasons remained bound by ties to the immediate family, fostering a mentality privileging the family at the expense of the public. From recent works, such as The Lost World of Italian American Radicalism, we learned there existed a rich culture of political activism and radicalism within the Italian immigrant communities in the United States. And, during the labor struggles of the 20th century, Italian immigrants not only participated, but also remained at the vanguard of working class movements.

In many ways, Marcella Bencivenni’s Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890-1940, is part of this larger cohort of scholarship seeking to prove Banfield terribly wrong. In this impressive book Bencivenni provides a magnificent glimpse into the world of Italian immigrant radicals, or sovversivi. However, the author’s focus and concern is to extend the study of Italian immigrant radicals – and radicals in general – beyond the traditional institutions mined by scholars such as unions and party membership. Instead, she demonstrates convincingly that to fully understand the radical experience one must be willing to examine and accept a “broader definition of the ‘political’” (3). Quoting Robin Kelley, Bencivenni cites “the importance of the cultural terrain as a site of struggle” and seeks to expand the discussion beyond class alone and to highlight a unique italianità that informed Italian American radicalism. The book’s contribution is in the notion that politics and culture cannot be so neatly separated, but must be examined in “terms of reciprocal interactions between cultural values and political ideologies” (223). The author fills a gaping hole in Italian American historiography by demonstrating how Italian radicals were shaped by cultural forces in Italy and the United States. In turn, Italian American sovversivi fashioned an ideology informed not only by politics and economic conditions, but also by their own social and cultural experiences.

Bencivenni’s book is organized thematically. Her first two Chapters, “Italian American Radicalism: Old World Roots, New World Developments” and “The Sovversivi and their Cultural World,” provide an essential and thorough background of the Italian American radical movement in the United States. The author outlines the anarchist, socialist, and syndicalist movements, as well as introducing the prominent leaders, ideologies, and organizations of Italian American radicalism.  Chapters Three through Five focus upon Italian radical cultural productions including Italian radical newspapers, theater, and literature. The remaining two Chapters are semi-biographical accounts of radical leader, writer, and poet Arturo Giovannitti and cartoonist Fortunato (Fort) Velona.

Bencivenni demonstrates well throughout the book how important the Italian American radical press remained in providing critical information to the movement. The press became the most effective mouthpiece to attack enemies of radicalism such as capitalism, prominenti, and the Church. Using available circulation statistics, Bencivenni argues that despite the transient nature of many radical papers due to insufficient funds and US government repression, newspapers remained an “important source of identity and self expression providing a sense of shared community and purpose” (67).

One of the more interesting themes pervading the book is the author’s discussion of “The Woman Question.” Radical authors, both men and women, shared a commitment to women’s emancipation and the author shows that by the early 1910s “articles on working-class women, their rights, and their struggle appeared regularly in the radical press” (87). But, as the historian Jennifer Guglielmo has also demonstrated, Italian radical men, informed by their own cultural notions of masculinity and the traditional female sphere, rarely put theory into practice. Not only did they deny women activists a prominent role in the movement; they often, as Bencivenni notes (referring to radicals such as Luigi Quintiliano, Arturo Giovannitti, and Carlo Tresca), displayed the contradictory behavior of “a radical outside, a despot at home” (91).

Remaining chapters highlight how cultural productions and events such as radical theater, picnics, poetry, and novelettes existed in a symbiotic relationship, simultaneously reflecting and informing the movement and its ideology. In many ways Bencivenni’s discussion of Italian American radical theater speaks to this point and reflects how culture and unique Italian traditions impacted radical politics. According to the author, “entering this dramatic world allows us, among other things, to grasp the human side, the emotions, and the dedication of the sovversivi, revealing the many ways in which they used culture, literary traditions, and their Italian heritage to bring their political message to the immigrant masses” (107).

Bencivenni’s analysis is generally solid and well documented. The author uses available sources, most prominently the radical press, to contend that the sovversivi exerted an inordinate amount of influence over Italian immigrant communities.     However, as the author contends, the fact remains that despite their influence, sovversivi remained a minority of the Italian immigrant population. Attempting to explore why that remained the case, Bencivenni and others point to the high rates of return migration and seasonal labor migration of Italian workers.  No doubt this sort of “transient” labor population hindered the goal of organizing the Italian working class, but it would have been interesting to see the author delve more deeply into her own analysis discussing the tension between sovversivi and the wider Italian immigrant working population. For example, citing Michael Topp, Bencivenni contends that radicals, in their frustration over what they considered the ignorance of their connazionali, often held Italian immigrants in contempt as savages or barbarians (85). In addition, in the chapter on the anti-fascists of the 1920s and 1930s, the author states that radicals remained biased against those who did not align with the Left and dismissed them as “puppets, having no will of their own.” The author contends that by “reducing fascism to simply sheer capitalist reaction,” the radicals “largely underestimated the broad nationalistic, religious, and cultural appeals of fascism to Italian immigrants, with disastrous consequences for the anti-fascist campaign” (215). One could argue, however, that these very factors were as important as population mobility – throughout the period of mass immigration – in impeding recruitment. Other, external factors – such as Americanization and government repression – may also have played a part.

Despite these minor criticisms, Bencivenni has written an important book that enhances the field of US history and radicalism. By examining Italian American radicalism through the lens of culture, the author forces us to expand our own conceptions of activism, working class movements, and the ideologies that inform these revolutionary struggles.

Reviewed by Peter G. Vellon
Queens College/The City University of New York


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