What was America to Italy and Italy to America during the twenty years of Fascist rule? Arriving in Italy to live in 1981, and learning Italian very largely by reading the works of writers who had come through Fascism, I soon became familiar with the accepted view of literary life in that period. Fascism had been not only repressive but also inward-looking. Foreign and above all American literature had been censored when not banned; anti-Fascist thinkers and activists had found comfort in and taken inspiration from American literature, which had been courageously translated and published in the years immediately before and during the war by a group of dedicated intellectuals.
The names of Cesare Pavese, Elio Vittorini, and Fernanda Pivano were frequently repeated. Particular mention was made of a thousand-page anthology, Americana, featuring thirty-three writers from Washington Irving to John Fante, selected by Vittorini and published by the Milan-based publisher Bompiani in 1941. Having survived various interventions from the censor, this anthology became emblematic of the politicizing of American literature under Fascism.
In her revelatory and neglected book The “Mito Americano” and Italian Literary Culture Under Fascism, the late Jane Dunnett quotes a wide range of voices from the 1950s and 1960s who contributed to this version of events. “A whole generation,” wrote the critic Domenico Porzio, “slaked themselves on the ideological and cultural message smuggled in through Vittorini’s anthology [which] constituted…a serious attack on the dictatorship.” “We realized that Americana had opened the way,” recalled the highly respected academic Sergio Perosa. “The book was…a song of freedom, raised at the moment when freedom was most violated,” agreed Agostino Lombardo, another well-known academic. “Reading or studying English and American literature in those years, inevitably became a manifestation of independence,” observed Salvatore Rosati. America was “experienced as an instrument of political and literary polemic,” claimed Italo Calvino.
Born in 1917, hence somewhat younger than Pavese and Vittorini (both born in 1908), Fernanda Pivano would go on after the war to have a long career as a translator and interpreter of American culture, a vocation that began, she explained in countless interviews, “as an expression of my antiFascism.” “The America that Pavese and Vittorini spoke of was…the very antithesis of official Fascist culture.” Indeed it was Pavese’s and Vittorini’s 1930s translations, she explained, that had led to a first “formative interest, in Italy, for American literature,” although translating such works, she remarked, “was extremely polemical and even a little dangerous, since some of us had gone to jail for translating them.”
Such an account is encouraging for the flattering light it throws on writers, translators, publishers, and literary culture in general. It was also welcome for American scholars, who saw their literature as well as their army assuming a liberating role. Speaking admiringly of the “clandestine movement led by Pavese and Vittorini” in 1964, the critic Donald Heiney observed that “to a generation submerged in the fakery of official Fascist rhetoric, America offered the possibility of a return to the primitive and elemental, a return to innocence.”
Is the story true? In fact Fernanda Pivano was not imprisoned by the Fascists for translating American novels. On the contrary, in 1941 she won an award from the Fascist-controlled Centro Italiano di Studi Americani for her graduate thesis on Moby-Dick. In 1943, after the collapse of Fascism and the Italian surrender to the Allies, the occupying German army in Turin questioned Pivano and her brother over a contract assigning her the translation of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. In some interviews Pivano speaks of being released after the interrogation. In others she talks of imprisonment, but there is no evidence to support this and Pivano herself never says for how long she was held.
Pavese and Vittorini never led a clandestine movement; their translations were published by reputable publishers in regular contact with the Fascist authorities. It is true that Pavese was sent into internal exile in 1935, but this was because he was found to be in possession of an incriminating letter from an imprisoned anti-Fascist that was meant for his girlfriend, the revolutionary Tina Pizzardo. Condemned to three years of exile (in a seaside village in Calabria), Pavese petitioned for a pardon and was freed in just over a year. As for Vittorini, as late as autumn 1942 he was attending a literary conference in Weimar as an official representative of the Italian government. He went into hiding shortly afterward, joining forces with the Resistance after the American landings in Sicily.
Jane Dunnett (1960–2013) was a British linguist who spent her life researching cultural exchanges between Italy and the US during the Fascist period. Published posthumously, her book is by no means the first to question whether there really was any clear concern to resist Fascism through literary translation. She gives due credit to those who preceded her, most notably the French scholar Michel Beynet, whose L’image de l’Amérique dans la culture italienne de l’entre-deux-guerres (1990) runs to three volumes. What makes Dunnett’s book so enlightening and engaging is the way the specifically literary history of when and how American fiction was translated and received in Italy is placed in the larger setting of cultural, political, and even industrial exchanges between the two countries.
The mito americano—American myth—is a pat phrase in Italian, but one whose meaning has changed through time. Only in the last years of Fascism, and in particular during World War II, Dunnett suggests, did America come to be equated by some with political liberty and anti-Fascism. Long before that, for Italian emigrants to America in the nineteenth century, the myth was one of plenty, of wild and generous abundance, and then, in the early twentieth century, of modernization, wealth, organization, and architecture on a vast scale.
Between 1876 and 1930 something over five million Italians emigrated to America, most of them unemployed southern peasants, looking not so much for freedom as for free land. About two million would return. Such a huge exodus was seen remarkably positively by many commentators in Italy. “Let’s face it,” wrote Giovanni Nicola Battista in 1917, “if our economy avoided a deficit in the first ten years of the present century, we owe it to the millions of emigrants…who sent back rivers of gold to the mother country.”
The level of emigration and accounts of fabulous riches inevitably promoted intense interest in the US. In his book The Italians, Luigi Barzini Jr. remembers the 1920s in Milan:
Wild American dance tunes were in the air, generally played on American Victrolas. On Father’s desk was a brand-new American typewriter…. There were weekly installments of Buffalo Bill’s adventures…. American cars could occasionally be seen in the city streets, long, sleek, visibly expensive, or ugly, black, practical, spider-like, and cheap.
Far from being alien to Fascism, this land of vitality, mass organization, and wealth was seen to be in line with Fascist goals. FIAT’s huge new factory—opened in Turin in 1923 and very much inspired by Ford’s factory in Detroit—was exactly the sort of development Fascism sought to encourage. From the beginning of his premiership in 1922, Mussolini worked hard to attract American support and financial investment for such projects. “The stabilisation of the lira,” Dunnett writes, “which was one of the central planks in the regime’s economic policy for 1926–1927, was only achieved thanks to the direct financial, but also political, support of the USA.” In 1928 Mussolini wrote My Autobiography specifically for an American audience and apparently with the help of the American ambassador in Rome, Richard Washburn Child. “I admire the discipline of the American people and their sense of organization,” Mussolini claimed. Serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, the book was a success in the US.
Thomas Lamont, senior partner of J.P. Morgan, lobbied American politicians on Italy’s behalf. The head of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler, became, in the words of historian Gian Giacomo Migone, “a tireless propagandist for the Fascist regime.” Hearst’s newspapers were supportive, likewise American Catholicism. After a trip to Italy in 1934, Cardinal William O’Connell declared himself “enthusiastic about conditions in Italy under Mussolini’s rule.” When Britain and other countries in the League of Nations imposed sanctions on Italy in response to its 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, the US did not join in.
Dunnett is particularly intriguing when she documents Italian responses to Roosevelt’s New Deal, which many intellectuals interpreted as an imitation of Fascism’s corporative policies. Roosevelt’s book, Looking Forward (1933), was quickly translated by Bompiani (the later publisher of Americana) and marketed with a blurb that aligned Roosevelt and Mussolini and spoke of the “success of the Fascist idea on the other side of the Atlantic.” The following year, America Must Choose, written by Roosevelt’s secretary of agriculture, Henry Wallace, was reviewed by Mussolini himself, who saw in it proof that “America is moving toward a corporative economy.”
Examining dispatches from Italian foreign correspondents and the books of a dozen and more Italians who had traveled and lived in the States, Dunnett is persuasive in showing the intensity and variety of the Italian debate about America throughout the 1920s and 1930s, in particular the Italian perplexity over America’s combination of puritanism and libertinism, and a certain ambivalence toward the American drive for wealth at the supposed expense of spiritual emptiness and a mechanistic lifestyle. A short biography accompanies the analysis of each writer’s contribution, suggesting a degree of back-and-forth between the countries at every social level. Here is Mario Soldati in 1935, plunging into the New York subway:
In every face I saw a different race, in every glance a country. How many lips, albeit silent, had the shape and seduction of unknown tongues. In the irresistible mingling of peoples I forgot my own country, my homes, my distance friends…. I felt light and free.
And here, in 1933, is Leo Ferrero in Santa Fe trying to understand the race problem:
Here I have violent arguments about negroes. The attitude of the South to the negroes is absolutely crazy—no one seems to have the slightest idea how much suffering is being inflicted. What poverty of imagination! Hardly anyone is aware of the importance of political freedom and legal rights. Everyone is nostalgic for tyranny and lynching.
Alongside this abundance of reportage, enthusiastic or horrified, or often both, Italians could also enjoy a constant supply of American fiction. Translation had long been important in Italian literary culture. Since at the time of unification in 1861, only around 5 percent of the population was able to speak standardized Italian, translation was encouraged as a way of consolidating the language. By the early 1900s more than half of popular books sold in Italy were translations and by the end of the 1920s most Italian publishers had American authors on their lists, with writers like Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, Jack London, Claude McKay, and Scott Fitzgerald all readily available. In the early 1930s—which Pavese would famously refer to as “the decade of translation”—Italians were translating over a thousand titles a year, considerably more than any other European country.
One reason for this foreign presence was that Italian authors were simply not trying to appeal to low- and middle-brow tastes. “In Italy,” wrote Antonio Gramsci, “there is a gap between writers and the public who tend to look for their books from abroad because foreign literature feels closer to them than their own.” The Fascist government, unlike its predecessors, had a policy of encouraging reading, partly through subsidizing publishers, and publishers found that the easiest way to attract new readers was by translating genre novels from abroad. Of twenty-four detective novels on Mondadori’s list in 1931, only one was written by an Italian; Sonzogno’s list of romantic fiction was entirely made up of translations. In 1934, replying to complaints that Italian writers were being ignored, Vittorini responded that “if it were not for translations, editors wouldn’t know whom to turn to.”
When it came to movies, the American presence was overwhelming. Between 1925 and 1930, 80 percent of films seen in Italy were American. Dunnett gives a hilarious account of the gossip columns that grew up around movie stars, with one journalist offering regular but entirely fake interviews with major names in closely described Hollywood venues without ever visiting the US.
Mussolini’s older son Vittorio sought to reform Italian cinema on the American model, encouraging Italian artists to learn from their American counterparts, while the Duce’s youngest son, Romano, born in 1927, held a subscription to Topolino, the Italian translation of Disney’s Mickey Mouse, something that may partly explain why the magazine was allowed to remain in circulation right up to Mussolini’s declaration of war on America in December 1941. When in 1936 the censor hesitated over Charlie Chaplin’s decidedly non-Fascist view of the world in Modern Times, worrying that Charlot, as Italians called him, might be too popular to ban, Mussolini watched the film himself and gave it his blessing, with the exception of one scene “in which the incarcerated Chaplin unwittingly takes cocaine.”
In the light of all this Italian appreciation for American books and films throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the question arises of how a completely different account of the relationship between the countries emerged in the postwar period, the story of a small and valiant band of translators bringing the message of American freedom into Italy against all odds. The answer, Dunnett shows, has to do with how from 1938 onward—when Mussolini aligned his repressive policies with Hitler’s, enacting anti-Semitic laws—later events would be projected backward across the entire Fascist period.
Not that the Fascist censors had been idle in the early years of Fascism. They were always severe with newspapers and magazines; openly anti-Fascist journalists did not easily find work; all references to suicide, murder, abortion, and pacifism were banned, since these were out of line with Fascist values. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), among others, was banned. In the book world, publishers reacted by negotiating and self-censoring. Since their goals were more commercial than political, they employed an army of readers to examine forthcoming books for anything that might offend Fascist principles. Many sex scenes were toned down or simply removed, along with disparaging references to Italians. Where novels referred openly to class struggle, as in Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat, prefaces were written insisting that the texts referred exclusively to American society. Overall it is surprising how little foreign fiction was censored.
Then in 1938 the Fascist government moved to introduce quotas for foreign films to promote the domestic industry, causing the major American producers to withdraw all their films in protest. In the same year the government made a census of Jewish writers and banned their work. It was in this rapidly worsening atmosphere that in 1940 Bompiani prepared to publish the anthology Americana.
The two men later considered most influential in promoting American literature at this critical moment could hardly have been more different. Elio Vittorini, responsible for compiling Americana, was a Sicilian who had eloped at nineteen, taking his wife to the mainland and struggling to earn a living as a journalist and editorial adviser. Presenting himself, in his early twenties, as an expert on foreign fiction (he claimed to have learned English from a friend while working as a proof corrector for the Florence newspaper La Nazione), he loathed translation and largely farmed out the huge amount of work he took on to the well-to-do Lucia Rodocanachi, whom he asked to produce “literal” versions for him which he would then rewrite. Despite frequent promises, she was never credited for her contribution.
Vittorini, as Dunnett shows, had no particular preference for American literature, at least until the late 1930s. Commissioned to select stories for anthologies—of Faulkner, for example—he invited Rodocanachi to do it for him. Being a writer himself, he made no secret of the fact that he imposed his own style on the translations he put his name to. When he did write about American fiction—and it would be his introduction to Americana that the censor most objected to—he argued that American writing was universal, because primitive, pure, and free from crippling traditions, a literature for all the world that spoke directly across cultures and contributed to the construction of “a new man.” Responding to the introduction, Pavese pointed out that this was simply the aesthetic conception Vittorini had been developing for his own fiction for some time.
Timid and withdrawn, tormented by his failures with women, Pavese spent almost his entire life living with his sister’s family in Turin. Unlike Vittorini, he had always been passionate about American literature, graduating with a thesis on Whitman and producing an extraordinary translation of Moby-Dick in his early twenties. There is no sign of any political intent behind this work. Pavese loved translation, loved American slang, sweated over it, sent scores of letters to friends in the US to track down the meaning of obscure terms, and sought in every way to keep the style of the original authors, producing a dazzling version of Faulkner’s The Hamlet that made no concession at all to the censors, even where the novel’s hero Ike has intercourse with a cow. It was published without being censored in 1942.
Valentino Bompiani, the publisher who expected a handsome return from Americana, had already begun printing the book when the censor moved to block it in November 1940. Negotiations began. Far from being arrested for his work, Vittorini twice went to discuss the matter with the minister of culture. Bompiani claimed that not going ahead would represent a substantial financial loss and lead to the cancellation of other planned anthologies, including one of German literature. When Vittorini’s introduction was identified as the chief stumbling block, Bompiani suggested replacing it with a less pro-American essay by the more “reliable” scholar Emilio Cecchi. Eventually Americana was published in 1942, a year after Italy declared war on the US, and reprinted in January 1943 after an immediate success, only to be banned the following June when a new minister of culture was appointed. Needless to say, the banning enhanced the book’s status as a political text.
However, Dunnett is skeptical about any real influence the anthology might have had. American fiction was popular among Fascists and anti-Fascists alike, she points out, not to mention the great majority who simply did not think of fiction in political terms at all. Written with exemplary straightforwardness, The “Mito Americano” and Italian Literary Culture Under Fascism avoids a polemical tone, rarely generalizes, and never moralizes. Nevertheless, as Dunnett traces the development of postwar myths about the translation and publication of American literature under Fascism, it’s clear that she believes what we are looking at is a mixture of opportunism and wishful thinking, not only on the part of Vittorini and Pivano (Pavese had committed suicide in 1950), but an entire generation of readers eager to believe they had been more subversive and less submissive than was actually the case. In our own troubled times, the book presents itself as an invitation to doubt the windy rhetoric of relevance and rectitude that blows about so much literary endeavor, and not to expect too much of a publishing industry whose raison d’être is profit.