Mr. Smith Goes to Rome

Luigi Martinati/Wolfsonian-FIU
A poster celebrating the Italian Air Armada’s transatlantic flight from Rome to Chicago for the 1933 World’s Fair

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.