Although he speaks repeatedly of his “two Italies”—a phrase he borrows from the poet Shelley—Joseph Luzzi is neither fully at home among the coarse elements of Calabrian culture his immigrant parents brought with them to America nor within the borders of Italy itself, what with its infuriating mix of high art and low purpose. But it is this unresolved quality of Luzzi’s musings—the back and forth tugging of a splendid mind—that makes this book so alive and such a pleasure to read.
Now director of Italian studies at Bard College, Luzzi was the first of five siblings born in the U.S. His harsh, demanding father, Pasquale, worked in an airplane-parts factory and cultivated a small farm in Westerly, Rhode Island. He never fully assimilated, nor did he seek to. “For my father,” Luzzi observes, “life abroad meant never being able to express himself in the language of the people in charge.”
Luzzi first went to Italy in 1987, when he was a 20-year-old junior at Tufts. He thought he might study art or, at least, try to reconcile the mythic Italy with its pop culture manifestations in America. Over the next 20 years, he visited Italy regularly and found the glories of Dante and Michelangelo juxtaposed with the stifling bureaucracy of Italy’s civil service. Back home, he pondered the larger meanings of The Godfather and “Jersey Shore.”
In 2007, Luzzi’s wife, Katherine, died in a car accident, leaving him with a newborn daughter to raise. He returned to Rhode Island, where his mother, brother and four sisters instantly “turned their lives upside down to help.” His grief kept him away from Italy for the next three years, but in 2012, he took his 4-year-old daughter to Florence, realizing that her concept of Italy will always be a world distant from his. He stresses that he has never viewed himself as “Italian-American.” Rather, he says, “I was Italian and American—a little of each, yet not fully either. . . . It is left to my daughter’s generation to inhabit the hyphen.”
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Joseph Luzzi for this book.