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Nearly Two Years on from His Death, We Recall Robert Viscusi’s Wise Words

In the coming year let's remember to celebrate the unsung heroes of Italian American Studies, like Viscusi and others, as part of all our intellectual galas

Robert Viscusi, Brooklyn, April 4, 1941 - Manhattan, January 19, 2020

Given all the annual galas on the local, regional, and national levels, why is it that intellectuals like Robert Viscusi are never celebrated? Why is it that, at best, a popular filmmaker or a novelist may be recognized, but never the hard-core intellectual whose work — creative, critical essays, and/or translations — has an indelible impact on the thinking of and about the history and culture of Italians in the U.S.?

I wish to share with you a few thoughts on this pre-Christmas Sunday afternoon, as we hopefully continue to exit this often tragic and sad morass of a Covid-19 existence we have had to endure for the past nineteen-plus months. Some of you will recall bits and pieces from some other communiqués of mine, but, alas, they tell us that repetition is the greater form of education.

In important moments such as the one we have been experiencing this past year with regard to Italian/American culture and activism, or lack thereof, two crucial themes — general in nature, not particular to anything specific motif or individual — often seem to raise their heads: (1) the conception and/or treatment of Italian Americans by society at large, and (2) what we can do about it in the form of actions, be said actions “re-active” or “pro-active”! Yes, there is a purposeful reiteration and/or alliteration of terminology here.

This brings me to the main intention of this brief note. The two above-listed themes are undergirded by the basic social contract of “education”. It is a contract at two levels: (a) I have in mind, for one, “education” in a general sense, and hence with a small “e”; namely, what we learn about ourselves “strada facendo”, along our way in life. (b) This, in turn, is dependent on the second level, “Education” with a capital “E”; this involves what is taught at all levels of schooling: K-12, undergraduate studies and graduate studies.

Joseph Tusiani: January 14, 1924, San Marco in Lamis- April 11, 2020, New York City.

While I am concerned, as are many I am sure, with perceived “abuses” of the system due to a variety of issues from the left and the right, what is of major interest in the overall context here, and all that pertains to Italian Americans, is what there is not regularly taught: the history and culture of Italians in the U.S. Unfortunately, said history and culture of Italians in the U.S. is not taught in most homes as well. I have heard such declarations in public venues, a radio program for instance, about how some had to learn about their Italian/American heritage as an adult.

Many of us have bemoaned the lack of such curricular programming and structural pedagogy, and we should surely continue to do so. However, and let me underscore and place both in bold and italics, however, as the above-cited recent declaration of having had to learn about one’s own heritage as an adult proves, history and culture of Italians in the U.S. is, to be sure, also not taught in most homes. In this regard, then, I ask you to take no more than seven minutes out of your day and watch / listen to what Robert Viscusi has to say about said matters in the three videos below.

Robert Viscusi passed away on January 19, 2020, the two-year anniversary of his death is near. He was one of our most acute intellectuals on the history and culture of Italians in the U.S. His work is known to many of us within the world of Italian/American studies; it is not, unfortunately, known to those who may not inhabit daily our Italian/American studies cosmos. But his voice should be known, especially by those who assume the role of spokesperson and/or defender of the history and culture of Italians in the U.S. Indeed, this may be one of the most egregious lacunae to fill as we move forward.

Given all the annual galas on the local, regional, and national levels, why is it that intellectuals like Robert Viscusi (let us also not forget, for example, Helen Barolini, among others who are still engaged daily) are never celebrated? Why is it that, at best, a popular filmmaker or a novelist may be recognized, but never the hard-core intellectual whose work — creative, critical essays, and/or translations — has an indelible impact on the thinking of and about the history and culture of Italians in the U.S.?

I digress ever so briefly to mention that one year the Columbus Citizens Foundation did indeed honor one of our most treasured, committed — impegnato, engagé — intellectuals, Joseph Tusiani. Joseph may have been less “public” as an intellectual activist, but if you read his essays, absorb his poetry, notice whom he has translated, you will readily perceive a strong commitment to what we can only call, as Daniela Gioseffi often dubs it, la causa, the commitment to the promotion in every sense of the word, the history and culture of Italians in the U.S. This and more has been Robert Viscusi’s ragione d’essere as critic: that all those who see themselves as inhabitants of cultural and literary Italian America acquire this necessary sense of self that eventually transforms its absence within the dominant culture into a presence.

Helen Barolini. Helenbarolini.com

Such a requisite manifesto for an intellectual movement is, without doubt, his Buried Caesars and Other Secrets of Italian American Writing (2006). It is, I would contend, required reading for anyone, lay or academic, interested in and, more significant, committed to, a sort of social activism regarding Italian America. Indeed, this is a book, in some ways, for the general reader precisely because Bob infuses in his textual analysis historical references and social commentary that, on the one hand, educate, and, on the other, lead the reader to consider the critical act in general and its varying potential.

So, with regards to Robert and his overall communiqué, I am hopeful that as we exit this quagmire of Covid and all that it entails, and as we profess to begin anew, one of the novel activities is a session dedicated to Robert’s intellectual work at future gala weekends. Sessions of this sort should be a part of all galas, especially those organizations that proclaim leadership in the promotion of the history and culture of Italians in the U.S.

I am also hopeful — Spes ultima dea — that these same organizations re-think — ponder anew — their annual galas and be sure to make room on the dais for at least one of the worthy intellectuals whose work is so important for the promotion of the history and culture of Italians in the U.S.

A group of us will celebrate Robert Viscusi’s work this coming January 18, 2022, at 2 PM. It will be a hybrid event. Zoom information will soon be sent via the list-serve of the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute. If you are not a subscriber to the list-serve you can do so by visiting calandrainstitute.org and you can sign up where it says, “Join our Newsletter”.

Buone feste!

Alla riscossa,

Anthony Julian Tamburri

Dean and Distinguished Professor of European Languages and Literatures

Videos of Robert Viscusi

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAF-E3rFc30
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vfhRaf567AA 
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-IbD3gLmuw&t=183s

 

 

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