Commentary: In order to develop ideas for this paper, I first analyzed the time of the Depression and what Italian Immigrants lives were like typically living in America. Using this background knowledge, I was able to analyze the lifestyles of the working class in each of the stories. Even though the background story of each of the family’s lives differed, they all had a common basis in that they were Italian Immigrant families working a hard lifestyle in order to support the family during economic hardship.
I revised this paper by looking to see if my ideas were clearly expressed. I ran into an obstacle of trying to figure out which ideas to express, since the novels are characterized with many examples. In order to overcome this, I decided that I wanted to stick with the main points of the novel to my ideas across. This is where I think my strength came in. However, I think my weakness lies in organization of my ideas within each story. The influx of Southern Europeans to the United States of America prior to the Great Depression provided labor for rapidly expanding industries.
When the capitalistic American economy collapsed in 1929, many of these laborers became jobless, living in cities like New York. Italians living in New York City during the Great Depression were a mass of poor people culturally linked, living through one of the toughest periods in American History. Through the eyes of a first generation Italian-American living in Brooklyn during this time, government, holiday celebration, and everyday life helped Italians withstand the hardship of The Great Depression. The large wave of Italian immigrants between 1880 and 1920 was largely due to the hard economic times Italy was experiencing.
Industrialization had taken over much of the world, and Italy’s problems directly stemmed from their failure to efficiently industrialize. Most often the Italian-Immigrant families lived in houses called tenements. Jacob Riis, police reporter for the New York Tribune and an immigrant himself, described the horrors of these tenements in his book How The Other Half Lives. In How The Other Half Lives, Riis reports, “one room 12×12 with five families living in it, comprising twenty persons of both sexes and all ages, with only two beds, without partitions, screen, chair or table. This is an example of the worst type of living conditions. Even through the Great Depression, Italian American immigrants that settled in New York lived their lives as happily as possible. Although before the depression many of these immigrants were impoverished, most families did not live as though they were poor. Family plays an important role in the lives of Italian-American immigrants, specifically in that they stay together and support one another. Especially during hard times of the Great Depression, family was important in dealing with the stresses and challenges of their working-class lifestyles.
Different Italian-American immigrant families adapted in different ways, but family plays a central role for each. This paper will discuss many literary works such as Christ in Concrete, The Fortunate Pilgrim, and works in the anthology From the Margins which make an accurate depiction of the Italian-American working class lifestyles during different periods of the twentieth century and how they adapted to the stresses and challenges of their lifestyles (Class Notes). First, the short literary work called Cakes, takes place in 1940.
This means that it was basically during the time of the Great Depression, and even though it was really a little after the Depression, the Depression still lingered on. Thus, there was a need to work all the time. The story is set in the summer of Brooklyn and we have this characteristic figure of an Italian man named Giovanni, and he works in a bakery shop to support his family along with his eleven-year-old son Johnny. The story begins with a narrative of an integration of making the food in the bakery and the various things that go into it. Cooking and baking is a central quality of this family’s lifestyle.
The narrative goes into great detail and this has to do with a cultural placement. For Giovanni’s family, cooking and eating is a set of cultural rituals and the making of an experience. It is a part of a performance art, not just a consumption product. Another central quality of this family’s lifestyle is essentially work. Puma writes: ‘With Johnny’s help, father and son would finish up by eleven instead of after midnight for the father alone. The next morning Johnny would still be sleepy, and his mother would tickle his toes until he climbed out of bed for breakfast with his sister and brother.
By then his father would already be on the subway headed again for the pastry shop Downtown’ (From the Margins 86). This shows that Giovanni’s life centers around work. Giovanni spends most of his time working about six days a week. He is doing this in order to support his family. In another scene when Johnny is making dough, he sees bugs in the flour, and Giovanni also accidentally knocks cigarette ashes into the flour. Giovanni shrugs it off as if it is no big deal. Giovanni is exhausted and he is simply being realistic and just wants to get work done.
Puma shows Giovanni’s hard lifestyle when he writes: ‘The physical work, the heat from the ovens…the long hours for little pay in those times when most other Sicilians too didn’t earn enough to buy many cakes—when almost no one was well off—all these conditions left Giovanni little time for anything else but more work…To keep doing his work, he found pleasure from the batches that looked good and tasted good …Another pleasure he had was when he told stories about his bachelor days when he ice-skated in Central Park with the rich girls who lived in brownstones off Fifth Avenue nearby and how they brought him presents and behind the bushes he kissed them—but wouldn’t take him home’ (From the Margins 87). This scene shows the intricacies and details of the daily life of people who had a hard life. He gets his pleasure from a tiny little success in his work, when his baking has gone right. These little things mean a lot when you don’t have much. It is the daily routine of these little things and the stories and memories that he can make from these little things that help him deal with the stresses and challenges of the work life.
In another scene, Johnny had to work late at night and what we have at the end is that he is so sleepy that he falls asleep on the woman who owns the store, and then ”as his eyes snapped open, Johnny said, ‘I’m wide awake’…” (From the Margins 88). Johnny, is only eleven years old, yet he is still working late into the night to help his father. In today’s time, this is unusual, but during the Great Depression it was necessary for young children in the family to work in order to survive. Giovanni’s family’s job is cakes and that is where they spend the most of their time. The things they do, their work, the food, and the fact that this is what their life is like, is their identity and the central qualities of their lifestyle. The story is one evening in 1940 in a hot, steamy bakery shop in Brooklyn.
The way it smells, looks, sounds, and tastes are the simple things of their lives. It gives you a sense that their lives are centered in interacting with each other, their work, their food, and the communities. Second, Christ in Concrete, by Pietro di Donato, is based on the death of the author’s father in a construction accident in 1923. Geremio, the father, was an Italian American construction worker whose job centered around hardships and dangers. Geremio, his wife, Annunziata, and son, Paul came to the United States early in the twentieth century to escape poverty and forced military service in the old country. Sustained by their Catholic faith, they are npaid and exhausted but filled with hope for a future that will spare their children the hardships of their own. Geremio has a good job because this is the early 1920’s growth period economically where buildings are going up all over New York. Thus, Geremio is making a decent income and can afford to have a large family and buy a house. However, Geremio fears the danger that looms on this job but knows he must follow his boss’s orders. Lacking job security, these men know that only their daily labor prevents them and their families from starving to death. Geremio’s wife, Annunziata, is expecting another child, who both parents hope will be another boy to carry on the family name.
Having a big family is the Ethos of the community and establishing yourself in a new country with a generation to follow is scene as successful. Geremio has just bought a house, the achievement of his dream of success in the United States. To save up money for a house is important and it is fundamental to buy into the American dream and own property. This is true in Italian-American experience and throughout immigrant experience. Unfortunately, Geremio dies during an accident that occurred on the Job. After Geremio died, Paul and Annunziata were left alone to support one another. Paul, represents Di Donato himself, who at the age of twelve, as the oldest son, was forced to go o work as a bricklayer to support the family after his father died. In order to deal with this challenge, Paul is forced to come of age rapidly. The funeral cost them the price of the house, and so the money that goes to the house, went to the funeral. The “house of life” now became the “ house of death”, and they did not know how they were going to survive. Paul is a middle- aged student and must take on a man’s job and support the family. Since he is the son, he must do this because it is his responsibility. Paul is not allowed to be a child anymore because of his inheritance; he has to confront the world. As Paul told his mother about his day at work, “every art of his body flamed and before he had consumed his bit of potato and spaghetti, he slipped back in his chair and fell asleep” (Christ in Concrete 82). Here is a man outside of his home, and then he collapses and the goes back to her nurturing role and picks him up.
This 12-year-old boy is exhausted after working a 12-hour day and wakes up with sore muscles and then has to go back to work everyday. This is a world where Annunziata looks at her son going through this, and her heart breaks to see her son do this because it should be a man’s job and his childhood died with this father. This experience shows how much the importance of community and nteraction with other working men in the workplace is helping him to become a man. In the novel, the Job refers to the force against which the worker’s struggle and also represents the working community. In addition, Paul’s family now lives in a Tenement which was similar to a small apartment divided so that two families lived in the house with one family on each floor. To help support Paul’s family, Nazone, the Godfather takes on a particular importance in Paul’s life. He supports the family with money and also is a mentor in Paul’s life. In Italian-American culture, the Godfather is supposed to take care of you especially if you have been left because your father has died.
As a mentor, Nazone is helping Paul to adapt to these stressful challenges as he is growing into manhood and trying to make sense out of all these issues. Third, The Fortunate Pilgrim, by Mario Puzo is based around an Italian-American family that is determined to survive in America. Lucia Santa came to the United States with her children in search for a better life. However, in the 1920’s, Lucia Santa’s family had to work to meet ends meet. They were not of high-class status, but they were part of the working class. Lucia Santa also lost her husband during an accident at work but she received money from his death because there was insurance from the workers.
She put it in a trust for her kids so they are untouchable and the rest she put in postal savings, not in a bank. This is important because in 1929, the stock market dropped and they were bank failures. Lucia Santa’s family were immigrants who were attempting to assimilate into a new culture, establishes values of work, and maintain loyal to family in order to deal with the stressful challenges of their lives. Lucia Santa eventually re-marries and maintains a large family. In order to support the family, Octavia, Lucia Santa’s eldest daughter is forced to work as a dressmaker. Octavia sacrifices her dreams of going to school and getting a good education.
Also, Vincenzo, the youngest son of the first marriage, is being forced to work during the summer and he is only 13-years-old. Puzo writes: ‘The dream of summer, freedom, and play, had been taken from him. His mother had informed him that in the mornign he would start working for Panettiere, and work until school started in the fall… There would be no sitting in the shade eating lemon ice or reading by the wall of Runkel’s factory or playing “Bankers and Brokers”… ’ (The Fortunate Pilgrim 18). Vincenzo is known for being cursed because he was born when his father died. This is why Octavia treats him nicely and wants to save up money for Vincenzo to go to school.
Unfortuantely, the Depression hits and Vincenzo has to work for the summer so he can no longer go to school. Also, there was no income coming in from Frank Corbo because initially he worked as a free janitor worker, and later on he becomes insane and non functional. In addition, Lorenzo, who is Lucia Santa’s son, eventually gets married and his income has to go to his wife and kids. Octavia also becomes sick and has to go the hospital for a long period of time, so there is no income coming from her any longer. Vincenzo is the next person in line. Gino, the youngest son of the second marriage, was too young to work and mostly spent his time playing.
Vincenzo’s life is sacrificed for the good of the family and by the time Octavia is better and Lorenzo is doing a little better, Vincenzo is stuck in work and he doesn’t really have a life of his own. In the end of the novel, Gino ultimately makes his fate by going out into the army when World War II hits. The novel begins in the Depression and goes into World War II, which is a time of prosperity. The government was able to provide work for many people in order to produce goods for the war. Thus, in order to deal with the stressful challenges of life, the children of the family had to make sacrifices for the good of the family. Eventually, Lucia
Santa’s family is able to move to Long Island out of the Tenements and have their own house. They move to Long Island and this means they have arrived and are now fully American. Lucia Santa’s family now has good fortune and has achieved her desires even with many hardships along the way. In conclusion, the novels and stories described in this paper portrays the Italian-American working lifestyles during different periods of the twentieth century. Each of the families in these stories deal with a period of economic distress and have to adapt to the stresses and challenges of life. Whether it is through love, family, or working, these families struggle at first but eventually find their to overcome their challenges.