FROM IMMIGRANTS TO ETHNICS: The Italian Americans by Humbert S. Nelli


Email this review


From his previous, well-received work (The Italians in Chicago, 1880-1930; The Business of Crime), Univ. of Kentucky historian Nelli would have seemed the very person to produce the straight-out history of Italian Americans that's been lacking. The book, however, is both poorly written and organized--hackneyed, long-winded, repetitive, non-consecutive--and deficient as a factual or interpretive record. The wordy repetitiveness--from sentence-to-sentence, page-to-page, chapter-to-chapter--is like a tic. (""An estimated 97 percent of Italians coming to the United States landed in New York City. From there they fanned out through the country although the majority remained close to the port of arrival or settled in urban-industrial centers of the Middle West."" In the next chapter: ""During the immigration era, 97 percent of the Italians entering the United States landed in New York. Although a large proportion of the immigrants moved on to other destinations, most settled in urban areas, generally large cities."") Nelli does, in this fashion, take up a number of topics: from the brutish nature of life in Southern Italy and Sicily through the padrone system to inter-generational tensions and the new ethnicity. He makes one point strongly: ""the immigrant community and its institutions represented an important step away from Old World patterns"" (i.e., mutual support was scant). He also makes a point, to less purpose, of shifts in the location of Italian neighborhoods. Similarly, he talks repeatedly and inconclusively about the Mafia (and says, self-contradictorily, that ""Like other newcomers, immigrant criminals attempted to recreate. . . the institutions and the traditions which were very familiar""). The one topic treated with precision and acuity is the Church--how Italian Catholics differed from others. For the rest, Nelli notes Italian slowness in gaining political power (with differing explanations) and cites the ""atypical"" cases of LaGuardia and John Pastore; he also takes note of Italian fraternal societies, the Italian press and theater, Italians in sports, etc. But what he has to say in many cases--and decidedly as regards inter-generational conflicts--applies equally to other ethnic groups. Most remarkably, he makes only cursory reference to anti-Italian prejudice (except, as a special case, in the South). Altogether it's clumsy, superficial, incomplete.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1983
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press