By YVONNE FRENCH
"The Italian American writer has to look up and have a larger vision of the world."
So said author Gay Talese, who gave a talk on Feb. 22 at the Library with another Italian American writer, Jay Parini.
Mr. Talese, a former New York Times reporter, wrote a best- selling book about the newspaper called The Kingdom and the Power (World, 1969) and has written several novels and a recent book on how to write creative nonfiction.
Mr. Parini, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, recently completed John Steinbeck: A Biography (Holt, 1995), and has also written and edited books of poetry, biographical works and novels.
The two authors joked that most of the Italian American writers alive today were present at the lecture in the Mumford Room. "We are pretty rare," said Mr. Talese, who was introduced by Rare Book Division Chief Larry Sullivan as being among a "dwindling group of intellectuals who make their living from writing."
Mr. Talese went on to describe Italian American authors as unwilling or unable to transcend the authority of the family or the church to write any groundbreaking material.
"The American people want stories. The Italian American story is too unconnected to the larger experience, unless people are looking for family. ... Great writing [can be] centered in a family, but the outside world must come through," Mr. Talese said.
"I'm not here to denigrate our ancestry, [but] not many Italian Americans make their living writing in English. We're better represented in the movies," said Mr. Talese, who named Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese as directors who might be more influenced by their Italian roots.
"Italian tradition is visual. Paintings are the reality. Words are to be forgotten," Mr. Talese said.
Mr. Parini, whose grandparents emigrated from Northern Italy near Genoa, said, "I never even thought of myself as an Italian American until recently, when I said to myself, 'This is perhaps a category.' I had WASPicized myself. I wore tweed jackets, got a Ph.D. I spent so much time in England that I picked up a slight Scottish burr."
Ms. Talese offered a darker view of his Italian family, who arrived in the United States shortly after the end of World War I.
"We were very unsure of ourselves as Americans. My father was the only immigrant in his family. [During World War II] his brothers were in the Fascist army fighting the United States. I was aware that all my uncles were wearing the Italian uniform," said Mr. Talese, who grew up in Ocean City, N.J., the only son of a tailor.
"I worried about my uncles being killed. I remembered making model airplanes. My father was enraged that I was making [models of] the very planes with my little hands and balsa wood and glue that would destroy Monte Cassino [monastery]. My father broke into my bedroom and destroyed my whole air force when I was 13. This is the duplicity of the Italian American home," he said. "I don't know whose side I was on in World War II. In my soul I was Italian. I don't speak the language [but] I have an emotional attachment."
Mr. Talese did not say why he began to write in spite of the obstacles. Mr. Parini was much more forthcoming. "That's a good question, because there wasn't a book in my [house]. I read Robert Frost in ninth grade and I said, 'This is what I want to do with my life.'" Mr. Parini grew up in an Italian mining community in Pennsylvania. He described a strong oral tradition. "Storytelling was very much prized. The best thing to do was to sit back and tell family stories on a weekend."
Mr. Talese described his father as a "distinguished" tailor to the Protestant gentlemen of Ocean City. A man who, because of his job of "opening up and undressing" magistrates, mayors and state assemblymen, came to share a certain intimacy with them.
Mr. Talese later wrote Honor Thy Father (World, 1971). "I like to write about father-son relationships because within that relationship there is love and hate, courage and cowardice," Mr. Talese said.
"Italians do not want to humiliate the father because [it would mean] disloyalty to the family. It's an inhibiting factor peculiar to the Italian race," Mr. Talese said.
In mulling the source of Italian insularity, Mr. Talese spoke of little villages "painted on the mountains" of Southern Italy. Mr. Parini said that the local dialects were so different that a person from one village could not make himself understood in the next. The immigrants from the villages and regions of Italy tended to stick together once they got to the United States, according to Mr. Parini and Mr. Talese, whose lecture generated much discussion in the audience.
Before the lecture, Dr. Sullivan gave an abbreviated history of Italian-language book acquisitions at the Library. The texts date to the post-Revolutionary War period, when Thomas Jefferson in 1815 sold his library to Congress after British soldiers burned the Capitol during the War of 1812. Many of Jefferson's books were written in Italian.
In the early 1900s, some 1,130 Italian-language titles were added with the acquisition of the Accademia della Crusca collection. The Accademia was founded in the 16th century to standardize the Italian language in the Tuscan dialect. Published between 1500 and 1887, the collection includes humanities and sciences titles by 350 authors.
The most recent significant Italian- language acquisition was the gift of a 1560 Venitian edition of Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, Dr. Sullivan said.
This lecture was the second in a series on the Italian influence on America. The first was about architecture (see LC Information Bulletin, Deb. 6). The series is jointly sponsored by the Library's Rare Book and Special Collections Division, the Embassy of Italy, the Italian Cultural Institute and the National Italian American Foundation.
Italian Ambassador to the United States Boris Biancheri will discuss the legacy of Machiavelli in a third lecture at 6:30 p.m. May 1 in the Mumford Room.