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America, written by Carlo Levi, 1947


Everywhere people think they know Italy, and indeed no other country in the world is better known, none more open and welcoming. Everyone knows Rome’s baroque sunsets, with golden clouds hanging over the pine trees and the sensual fountains of Bernini; the amorous Oriental marbles of Venice; the intellectual grace of Florence; the Persian colors of medieval Siena; the classical Bay of Naples, home of dolphins and tritons; the monotonous Arab enchantment of Sicily.

Yet far from the illustrious cities and the Roman roads there lies another Italy, the Italy of the peasants. Everywhere south of the Alps this Italy may be found – just beyond the dusty suburbs. Here is another nation. This peasant civilization is found in untouched, original form in the interior wastelands of the south, where there is no commerce from the sea, and the barren mountaintops of the lower Apennines seem to repel outsiders.

This is one of the poorest regions of
Europe. Here there is little room for joy or hope. The melancholy loneliness of the peasant world results not only from the physical isolation of the villages, the bad roads, the impassable mountains, the climate, the malaria but also from the psychological atmosphere of the region.

It is the sad but noble loneliness of a people richly endowed with the ancient virtues of patience, hospitality, human understanding and natural justice, but rudely shocked by “man’s inhumanity to man,” locked up in a world remote from time and history, behind a wall of ancient customs and usages, surrounded by magic and pantheism.

In this solitude, peopled by archaic pre-Christian divinities, by animal and earthly spirits and magic influences, man feels estranged from himself, hopelessly banished from impossible paradises. Upon such concepts the peasants have built a whole world of fancy and fable – myth of bygone days, stories of treasure hidden in caves and tree trunks and under solitary shoulders.

Among the hundreds of myths cherished by the peasants one stands out among the rest by providing the perfect avenue of escape from grim realities. It embodies fable and fact, concrete existence and romance, necessity and imagination. It is their version, magical and real at the same time, of an earthly paradise, lost and then found again: the myth of
America.

This myth of
America has always been one of the chief incentives to emigration. And the myth has been strengthened, enriched and modified by the experiences of the emigrant in his actual contact with the New World. Because the peasants are steeped in magic, there is an overlap of reality and imagination in their minds. Together they make a dual super reality which is to them very simple but which cannot easily fit into the unimaginative thinking of a rational modern man.

America has come to be an essential part of the daily life of the south Italian village, a social and economic element mingled with their concepts of bread, work, family and sentiment of every kind, and at the same time a mystical sustenance and the basis of a magical religion.

In its time Italian emigration was a revolutionary phenomenon, a massive effort to break up the “farm block.” An entire people left their native land for unknown shores. Most of them stayed there. But a few came back, and a new class arose in the unchallenging villages – the “Americans.”

Italian mass emigration dates from the 1880s, a period of economic and political upheaval in
Italy and of large-scale demand for manual labor in the U.S. It is significant, however, that the Italian peasants had begun long before 1880 to think of America as a dream-refuge from their woes. In 1853, for instance, the inhabitants of the village of Vasto sent a petition to the Bourbon minister of the interior, asking for an end to deforestation, couched in these terms:

Your Excellency: His Majesty’s faithful subjects beg to inform Your Excellency that the woods belong to both charitable institutions and private individuals are being cut down and the land cleared for cultivation, to the detriment of our pastures. For lack of firewood the undersigned and all other inhabitants of the
Abruzzi region will be compelled to immigrate to California.

It never occurred to the peasants of Vasto that they might emigrate to a more prosperous district of the
Kingdom of Naples or to some other European country. Their minds were filled with the image of a faraway promised land in California although mass emigration had not yet begun and America was still out of reach. But once emigration started, it increased steadily and reached its peak between 1903 and 1908. Then came a brief letup – and the second wave, lasting right up to the beginning of World War I. In 1913, for instance, there were almost four hundred thousand Italian emigrants to America. Entire sections of Italy were emptied. Eventually a good many emigrants came back home, though between the two wars this happened only rarely (except around 1929 when the crash in the U.S. and the rosy promises of Fascist propaganda caused some emigrants to return to Italy, where they found themselves stuck.)

Emigration has had a tremendous effect on many towns. San Fele, for example, is a little Italian village of twelve thousand inhabitants. Yet sixteen thousand former natives of San Fele have immigrated to
America and have never come back except for brief visits. The chief ice-cream dispenser of San Fele came home and stayed for four years, but then he finally left again for the country of his adoption. There are streets in San Fele where the emigrants’ houses remained empty and roofless in order to avoid the payment of taxes. Other streets are lined with houses belonging to “returned Americans,” well kept and comfortable, with shiny doorknobs and green shutters.

American influence on everyday life is apparent everywhere in southern
Italy. The language of the peasants is strewn with words coined in the U.S. that are a queer mixture of English and Italian. The oldest is ticchetto (ticket), symbol of the first stage of the great adventure. The shovel, commonest tool of the Italian highway - and railroad builder in America, became in Italian la sciabbola. American place names took on a softened and familiar sound like Massaciusette and Broccolino.

I have often asked old “Americans” to tell me about the places they had seen over there, but they are often very vague on the subject. It seems almost as if, after their entire struggle to attain the Promised Land, they had never actually looked upon its face or really entered it but had been content to linger on the threshold and feel its existence around them. They gave me only the most general descriptions: “a big, big city” or “a big brigade between
New York and Broccolino.”

They have more direct memories of the street where they lived, the store kept by their relatives and the limited circle of friends from their own village. They have brought back with them from this narrow world, where they were at last free from fear, all sorts of souvenirs. Many of them have returned with their mouths sparkling with gold teeth. Others have brought back calendars, photographs, newspaper clippings and advertisements, which were pinned up on the walls of their homes and their shop windows and turned yellow with age, covered with flies in the sun.

The baker of Avigliano stills keeps calendars advertising the bakery of his cousin in
New York. The peasants’ thoughts and aspirations came to be centered in faraway, friendly America rather than in Naples and Rome.

America is present not only in the language and memories of the peasants but in the objects of everyday life and the tools of their trades: razors, scissors, and armchairs. These importations from the other side are the outward signs of the peasants’ religious devotion to all that is American. They very often use American weights and measures – inches, feet and pounds – instead of the European metric system. Many village streets, even during the fascist regime, were called “Via Washington.” In fact this is a popular street name all over the regions of Apulia, Basilicata and Calabria.

Family life, relations between the sexes and religion have all been influenced by the journey to
America. Strict, old-fashioned morals have been considerably modified; crimes of passion and jealousy have become infrequent; women have cast off many of their shackles; free love and illegitimate children are on the increase. A rather practical reason for such changes is the large number of men who emigrated, leaving their brides at home.

In 1901, when the peak of emigration had not yet been reached, there were in
Calabria alone 42, 963 women with husbands overseas, and this number increased in the following years. At first the men sent back letters and money. The women began to buy new clothes and shoes and to sit in the front pews of the village church beside the gentry. There was, indeed, a certain snobbery about the “Americans.” Later some of the husbands returned and built white stucco houses for their families on the main square of the village. Others never came back, and they gradually stopped writing letters and sending money.

My husband doesn't write from
America;
what can I have done to offend him?

Says the deserted bride in an Italian song. She must either sink back into poverty or else acquire a new husband and children.

Some former emigrants, particularly in
Apulia and Sicily, have kept their American ways. They are quick-witted and enterprising and in many cases have contributed to the modernization of local life. When I recently revisited Matera, after many years, I found a new public swimming pool built with the savings of a returned “American.” But most of the peasants who have come back even after a lapse of many years are exactly the same as they were when they left.

While they were away they remained a part of the old community and its civilization. When they return, they soon forget what little English they have learned on the other side, sink their savings into a piece of barren land, pick up their former trade, recover the age-old way of life. The only explanation of their total relapse lies in the nature of the myth of
America; indeed the relapse is a conclusive proof of the myth’s existence.

The myth of
America is no such romantic invention as the “South Sea Islands.” It is not a creation of the intellect, such as that last of the myths of Western Europe, “Paris, City of Light,” nor is it a social and political myth like that of Soviet Russia. It is a true, magical myth, the expression of a peasant world, where magic has real power and every object has, in consequence, a dual nature. Because it is my most directly experienced comprehension of the peasants’ feeling for America, I refer to a passage in my own book, Christ Stopped at Eboli:

The Kingdom of Naples has perished, and the kingdom of the hopelessly poor is not of this world. Their other world is
America. Even America, to the peasants, has a dual nature. It is a land where a man goes to work, where he toils and sweats for his daily bread, where he lays aside a little money only at the cost of endless hardship and privation, where he can die and no one will remember him.

At the same time, and with no contradiction in terms, it is an earthly paradise and the Promised Land…As a place to work, it is indifferent to them; they live there as they would live anywhere else, like animals harnessed to a wagon, heedless of the street where they must pull it. But as an earthly paradise,
Jerusalem the golden, it is so sacred as to be untouchable; a man can only gaze at it, even when he is there on the spot, with no hope of attainment.

Not is because the peasants see in
America the magical vision of both the earthly and a promised land that the myth has its dual nature. So does every image and object belonging to it; for instance, the pictures of Franklin Roosevelt in the peasants houses. This, too, I have tried to comprehend in my book:

…The eyes of the two inseparable guardian angels that looked at me from the wall over the bed. On one side was the black, scowling face, with its large, inhuman eyes, of the Madonna of Viggiano; on the other a colored print of the sparkling eyes…and the hearty grin of President Roosevelt. I never saw other pictures or images than these: not the King nor the Duce, nor even Garibaldi, no famous Italian of any kind, nor any one of the appropriate saints; only Roosevelt and Madonna of Viggiano never failed to be present. To see them there, one facing the other, in cheap prints, they seemed the two faces of the power that has divided the universe between them.

…Sometimes a third image formed, along with these two, a trinity: a dollar bill, the last of those brought back from across the sea, or one that had come in the letter of a husband or relative, was tackled up under the Madonna or the President or else between them, like the Holy Ghost or an ambassador from heaven to the world of the dead.

This is the mythical value of the dollar, the pezzo of the emigrant’s money order to his family at home: it is at one and the same time a bank note with concrete purchasing power in the village, a factor in the national budget because it can purchase foreign imports and, by virtue of its dual magical nature, a gift from the powers above.

The dollar bill is chiefly used to honor the Madonna. The peasants pin it to the clothing of the religious statues and burn it during the display of fireworks on the feast days of the major saints. In other words the dollar is the sacred object – not in the worship of financial success but in the peasant’s magic conception of paradise.

Just after the Allied invasion, when the exchange value of the dollar began to fluctuate wildly, the peasants of southern
Italy underwent an almost religious crisis. What? The dollar had lost its value. Ten dollars would no longer buy a sheep? This actually weakened the myth of America. The newest official exchange threatens to undermine the faith of the peasants and to have its effect on religious feasts and fireworks, on the worship of the Madonna and the saints.

The Statue of Liberty in the harbor of New York is to the peasants the image of the Madonna, not a black, earthly Madonna but a shimmering white Madonna with a light-bearing torch in her hand than gleams with the most precious and magical of metals – gold. Politicians have been quick to see possibilities in this mythical identification and to play them up to their advantage. During recent elections the left-wing parties in
Apulia joined together on the ballot under the sign of the Statue of Liberty. They won a substantial victory over the conservative barons and landowners, partly because peasants voted for the Madonna of Liberation.

The mythical America, both real and unreal, rooted in fact and fancy, appears in popular songs and poems in a variety of guises: as a definite place where men work for a living, as a place of refuge or escape, as a fairyland, as a land, even as the very edge of the known world. Many songs of family love have
America for a background

After World War I American quotas and Fascist policy in Italy combined to stem the flow of emigration. The bonds between the two countries weakened steadily until the war cut them entirely. The two unexpected events revived the myth of
America.

First, the arrival of the American Army on Italian soil. The inhabitants of the Promised Land had come; these must be messengers from heaven. Certainly they were not as other men, even if they had Italian names because they were the sons and grandsons of emigrants. They were liberators with powerful weapons, with money jingling in their pockets, and they swept through the villages south of
Naples without stopping, like visitors from another planet.

The second event was the arrival, after years of silence, of packages of food and clothing. Communications with the other world were resumed, and there was proof that the lost paradise existed beyond the seas. An essential and sorely missed part of the peasants’ life was restored to them. In the precious packages from
America they rediscovered the capital city of their souls. They heard from relatives and friends who had dropped completely out of their ken. At last they had something to talk about besides the gossip of their own village, and they could learn from America how to build themselves a new form of government.

The peasants of southern
Italy have often shown more interest in American politics than in their own. The election of William Howard Taft, who was considered a friend of Italians, was greeted with band music and fireworks. When the peasants were called upon to choose between the monarchy and a republic, they had the example of the U.S. in their mind. The millions of votes cast that turned Italy into a republic were due in considerable measure to the myth of America.

Since the war a spirit has grown up among the south Italian peasants. For the first time in history they feel closer to their government and ready to take part in the experiment of democracy. With time the myth of
America may undergo a change; it may lose its magical character and become rather an inspiration to action. Even then it will remain deeply rooted in two realities: the very old civilization of the peasants and the modern civilization of the New World.

There is in southern
Italy a song about America, a lament filled with sorrow but also with patience and resolution:

America is very long and very wide,
Surrounded with mountains and the sea.

We came, then, to
America,
We built towns and cities;

We slept on the bare ground,
taking our rest like beasts of burden...

The emigrants who built these “towns and cities” have shared in the making of
America, not a mythical or magical America, but an immense reality. Where they came from there are still the same ancient villages perched on stony mountains, with all their old problems: poverty, malaria, backward agricultural conditions and, on top of all these, the ravages of war. There, too, Italians must build new “towns and cities.”

To them the myth of
America might prove a realistic inspiration

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