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Contemporary Italian American Writing

Helen Barolini: The Way of the World An Essay

Helen Barolini was born and grew up in Syracuse, NY and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Syracuse University. She then studiedand traveled in Europe writing a series of articles for the Syracuse Herald Journal. Married to the Italian poet Antonio Barolini, much of her married life was spent in Italy. Her seventh published book, the one from which this essay is taken, Chiaroscuro: Essays of Identity, reflect her dual background. Over fifty pieces of short fiction and essays by Barolini have been published in magazines and collections, and she has been cited in Best American Essays 1991 and Best American Essays l993. Barolini's first book, the novel Umbertina, was completed with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. That was followed by The Dream Book: an Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women which received an American Book Award. Barolini has been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, a Writer-in-Residence at Elmira College's Quarry Farm, and a resident writer at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center in Italy where she worked on a new novel.She has recently republished Umbertina with The Feminist Press: NY and a new book of essays and stories, titled, More Italian Hours & Other Stories, with Bordighera Press. The Dream Book was reissued yet again, after being in print for many years, by Syracuse University Press. About her latest book , More Italian Hours, Helen Barolini has said: "These stories, many set in Italy where I once lived, were written over a number of years, some there, some here. I have the named the collection More Italian Hours after Henry James's travelogue, Italian Hours, even though our Italies are quite different, as are our sensibilities toward that much loved country. James, the nineteenth-century prose master, reflected Italy through his Anglo-American lens. My much later experience is refracted through the particular, not much recorded, view of an Italian American. Several of these stories refer in passing to Henry James, and "Shores of Light," midway in the collection, contains a character, Matilde, quite different from the usual Jamesian Anglo-American heroine in Italy, and it is Matilde's thoughts on the Master that were useful in giving the collection its title. As my time in Italy was different from James's Italian Hours, so my view is another; it extends to include also those Italians who became Americans and made us, their descendants, Italian Americans with all the special complexity that implies.

THE WAY OF THE WORLD: An Essay


The centennial year of F.Scott Fitzgerald's birth, l996, is also my father's and ever since my finding in Matthew J.Bruccoli's biography (titled after his subject's hyperbolical words, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur) a photo of the author at age six captioned "Fitzgerald in Syracuse, New York, l902", he has become, in my far-fetched thoughts, my father's counterpart.

My father was born on Christmas day, l896 in Syracuse,New York and his middle name - Salvatore- was in honor of the heavenly Saviour whose birthday he shared while his Italian surname, translated, evokes bread, the staff of earthly life. Buono come il pane, good as bread, Italians say, not "good as gold" in the American way.

But my father had his own favorite saying, one which, for him, covered everything and was the one he most repeated:

Questo è il mondo,

chi sa navigare
e chi va a fondo.

Chi navigare non sa,
presto a fondo va.


Freely rendered, it means that in the way of the world there are those who know how to sail their course, and those who, through not knowing or disregarding their knowledge, soon sink to the bottom. It is pitiless, realistic, the wisdom of obstinate self-reliance which taught a man not to count on grace, but to pull himself up by his own bootstraps.


For Dante the submerged, i sommersi, were the unfortunates whom he places in the fourth ring of Inferno. They also figure in I sommersi e i salvati, The Drowned and the Saved, the title of Primo Levi's last book, and in references throughout: "...the Jews of Europe had been sub merged...".


Even without any literary reference, my father knew the difference between those who sink and those who don't. His is the story of the self-made man, of work and perseverance in the old style, of being his own boss. But he also had a fantasy; his Diamond as Big as the Ritz was to settle in California where he would live, work, thrive, raise a family, and play golf in that perfect climate. But that dream was trounced by the duty that cemented him his whole life to Syracuse andits miserable winters with his recurring bouts of pneumonia. Before he could leave for California, his dying mother, passing over her husband, made her son promise to stay to take care of his younger siblings.


It meant that I grew up in a home not of expressed affection and encouragement, but of duty discharged. I was disaffected from a sense of joy and personal fulfillment and understood only responsibility. The estrangement with my one remaining grandparent and the mysterious relatives on his side cast a shadow over the family and squashed close relationships. It made me distant from everything except my love of literature, a solitary calling in which the remote author is the one presence to cling to and believe in. The right author will never betray, disappoint, or leave one. Authors can be counted on as mere people cannot.


Fitzgerald, whose name commemorates Francis Scott Key of the Star-Spangled Banner, was born in St.Paul,Minnesota on September 24, 1896. The circumstance of F.Scott Fitzgerald and my father having shared not only the same birth year and commemmorative names, but also early school years in Syracuse, filled me with the same thrill of overlapping lives that Henry James experienced when he learned that he was in Florence at the same time that Clare Claremont, Lord Byron's mistress, was still living and residing there.


In Fitzgerald's diary-like ledger there is an Outline Chart of My Life, in which, paroding the nasal inflection of upstate New Yorkers, he noted his parents' move in January 1901 from St.Paul to "Sarycuse" where they occupied an apartment on East Genesee Street. The next year they were at the Kasson Apartments on James Street, a grand, main thoroughfare of stately homes which had been named for Henry James' grandfather, an early real estate investor in the emerging city. Finally the Fitzgeralds took a flat on East Willow Street just off James. This is all familiar territory to me. I grew up at the eastern end of James Street, the less grand part, where my father had bought a two-family house in l928. I went to school in Syracuse and graduated from the university there, then daily walked the length of James Street to my downtown job without having known that the street was named for the first William James whose fortune allowed Henry his comfortable margin as a writer. Perhaps my ignorance was all for the best; I might have been even more overcome with literary tremors and associations.


Scott Fitzgerald's being in Syracuse from l901 to l903 meant that he and my father started school at the same time and could well have been classmates, except that Scott was enrolled in Miss Goodyear's classes, a private school in a Victorian residence near the beginning of James Street which still in my day was attended by the daughters of prominent families, and my father went to the old Genesee Public School. Even if circumstances had put young Scott at Genesee Public, he and my father still wouldn't have met. For in those days children with Italian surnames, even though born in the U.S., were separated from their "American" classmates and put into what was known off-record as the Dago Room. My father remembered this dispassionately as a curiosity of the times. He and centenarian Carrie Cashier, a one-time schoolmate and then the great-aunt of actor Robert DeNiro, used to chuckle about those old days that could no longer hurt them.


In school Pop never got farther than ninth grade because he had to work, but he was impressed for life by his English teacher, Miss Katherine Bell. She called him not Anthony or Tony but Antonio after the character in The Merchant of Venice. He referred to her as Kitty Bell. Years and years later, when he was a leading wholesale produce merchant in Syracuse and I was a high school student, I wrote him a birthday poem which ended in a salute to "a sport not all wet like Venice/ to Antonio, my father, the Merchant of Lettuce". The poem, printed and framed (and passed out by the hundreds to customers and friends), hung in the sun room of the house on James Street until first he, then my mother went off to end their lives in nursing homes.


For Miss Bell the young Antonio had dutifully memorized lines from Sir Walter Scott's Lay of the Last Minstrel -the ones that go, "Breathes there the man, with soul so dead/Who never to himself hath said,/ This is my own, my native land!" That was a time when the cadence of certain lines learned in grade school were kept forever in mind without the reciter's necessarily knowing anything of the poet who wrote them. My father spoke the lines to his end.


Fitzgerald knew the poets. He wrote his personal observations of them and their work in the same ledger that served as his bookkeeping record, his favorite being Keats' Ode to a Nightingale which gave him the title for Tender is the Night and the assurance that anyone who did not know poetry could not be a writer.


If not the same school, still the young Scott Fitzgerald certainly would have attended the same church my father did as a boy. Given the Fitzgerald home addresses in Syracuse, Scott would have gone to mass with his observant Catholic parents at nearby St.John's church which is where my father's parents, both immigrants from Sicily, were married -not upstairs, in the church proper where the Irish practiced their Christian devotions, but downstairs in the basement which was the place for Italians.


"The Irish were our worst enemies in those days," my father equitably offered by way of explanation decades later.
I myself have never been fond of St.John's garish pseudo-Gothic decor. And I admit that when I think of those little boys of a century ago entering the church on different, highly symbolic levels, I am still offended even though I understand that it no longer pertains...that times have changed...that such practices have died. One Easter visiting my parents in Syracuse I went to mass at St.John's with them and thought during the service of how the celebrated and the ordinarysometimes touch without recognition, as in E.L.Doctorow's Ragtime, then go their different ways navigating through time and life. Some sail, some sink.


My father held his course until his ninetieth year. He lived all his years in the place where he was born; where, in the old days, he swam in the Erie Canal when it still ran through down town; where he made pocket money reading and writing letters for the immigrants on the North Side; and where, for a dollar saved over the months from his paper route earnings, he could hire a horse and buggy and ride out to Long Branch on Onondaga Lake for a fish fry and ginger brew and feel on top of the world. He also played the clarinet in the marching band of the Società Agostino DePretis. In a time that didn't understand and frequently despised them, the Italians in Syracuse formed social clubs for pleasure and a sense of identity, and named them for the high dignitaries of the old country. The members gave banquets and marched in parades and restored their pride in themselves, to the tune, my father remembered, of the triumphal march from Aida, or his own favorite, The Poet and Peasant Overture.


My father had been introduced to the produce business at age thirteen when he worked for his uncle and had to get up at 4 AM each day. He learned to hitch the horses, and buy hay, timothy, and alfalfa at market for them. He learned to inspect produce, to collect payments, and to keep books. As he told it, he "fell in love with the business" and stayed with it the next fifty years. His college was the bustle and cunning of the marketplace and it served him so well that he would later be called upon by Syracuse University's School of Business Administration to participate in panel discussions on small business and the economy.


By the time he was sixteen he was able to purchase a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and was photographed leaning jauntily against it at a grape harvest he rode to in the Finger Lakes vineyards; he's wearing a turtleneck sweater and jaunty cap and is smiling widely. When he was nineteen he was president of the Syracuse Fruit Company, having gotten his father to sign the papers of incorporation since he was underage. It was then he started driving a customized Hudson car. Around the same time, Fitzgerald, after a promising beginning, had withdrawn from Princeton, noting "a year of terrible disappointments and the end of all college dreams." That of course would soon enough be reversed.


In the earliest days of my father's business, wholesale fruit was bought through brokers in New York -boxes of lemons from Sicily, say, or barrels of Almeria grapes packed in cork sawdust and shipped from Spain. Then motorization and California agriculture revolutionized produce buying and it was then he decided that his future, too, would be in California. But it never happened.
A business trip to Utica brought him the acquaintance of my mother who, as she tells it, first noticed the Hudson before she did the driver. He waited to marry her until the 1923 grape season was over for the shipments meant big profits in that time of home wine-making, and with the $5000 profit made on the grapes, he took her to Europe for their honeymoon.
They got there the year before Scott and Zelda settled in Paris. In l920 Fitzgerald had published his first novel, gathering his fame and $18,850 from words, not grapes; he married Zelda (who had first broken their engagement because he seemed unable to earn a living), named the Jazz Age, lived the Life. In 1924 in Paris the Fitzgeralds were, indeed, the golden pair. His novel writing was interspersed with an outpouring of stories and his ledger shows a canny businessman who knew how to keep recycling those stories in order to produce continual income.


Like my father the merchant, Fitzgerald kept meticulous accounts. But hard times hit them both. My father had to weather a disastrous fire, then the depression, and repayment of loans. Again he thought of California. In the late thirties, with Zelda hospitalized and his own life on the skids, it was Scott Fitzgerald who got to California. He was in Hollywood writing filmscripts when he died there in l940, age forty-four.


Instead of going West my father subscribed to the National Geographic magazine. Half a century of its issues were kept on specially built shelves in the basement of the house on James Street. He was seventy when he and my mother finally made the trip to California with Syracusefriends, a retired bank president and his wife. In Los Angeles they were met by a shipper my father had done business with on credit during the hard Depression years. "Well, Tony," the shipper said, "you must have done all right. I see you now travel with your own banker."


"Yes," Pop replied, "and an Irish one at that."


Some of his grandchildren are part Irish. "That's what this country is all about," he often reflected philosophically, the old enmity gone.
Fitzgerald's cardinal tenets sound like the numbered bits of wisdom my father once found printed on a paper placemat in a diner, brought home and framed, and made part of his philosophy. Fitzgerald stressed four virtues: Industry, Discipline, Responsability and Maturity (i.e. learning to regard failure as inevitable, and yet making one's best efforts always.) Ditto for Pop.


He finally retired from getting up at four in the morning and going to work in the dark, but never from life. He continued to golf in the summer at a country club which named its Senior Men's Tournament for him; he bowled in the winter, and lunched every Friday with the Syracuse Rotary Club. He steamed at the Y, attended to things like getting his hearing aid adjusted or his car washed, began to help my mother with the dishes, called to ask how my finances were ("Bad," I'd say, but he couldn't hear), and continued to go pick out his own grapefruit at the market where a few old-timers still remembered him as the Banana King of upstate New York.


His last years were spent in a benign haze at the nursing home where he thought he was waiting to tee up on the golf course, other times repeating, Well, it's time to go home now. When he died, age ninety-five, he,too, though in a way different from Fitzgerald, had brought forth his fruits in his season.


And yet, as I tell the tale of the two boys from Syracuse, something rings false. Do I really mean that my father sailed while Fitzgerald sank just because Pop mostly stayed sober and outlived him? No. Pop's life was more fraught than my simple story of it says. He didn't, in fact, change his destiny. He was shadowed by his mother's revenge on her husband which she had delegated to him; he was bound by his word to her not to leave Syracuse. His life was set. Is that a success story? Fitzgerald we still read and remember. Is that a failure?


So what did I mean? Perhaps that the happy life successfully lived is as much a fantasy as The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.


[Copyrighted © 1997 by Helen Barolini from her book CHIAROSCHURO: Essays of Identity, VIA/Bordighera Press, Inc.]

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