Robert Viscusi

Robert Viscusi, Rome 2003


Robert Viscusi & Ellis Island

A whole nation walked out of the middle ages, slept in the ocean, and awakened in New York in the twentieth century.

—Robert Viscusi, Astoria

Between 1870 and 1970 half the population of Italy left to settle elsewhere in the world. This migrant nation carried with it the memory of ancient customs and the sting of eternal injustices. Robert Viscusi's writing belongs to the large territory where Italians outside Italy have worked to make sense of their prospects, their achievements, their shattered recollections.

i found christopher columbus hiding in the ashtray
what are you doing there, if you please?
no one smokes, he said, leave me alone

—Robert Viscusi, An Oration Upon the Most Recent Death of Christopher Columbus

Robert Viscusi was born on April 4, 1941, at St. Catherine’s Hospital in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to Joseph Viscusi, a mechanic, and Vera Di Rocco, a dressmaker. Viscusi's grandparents were all immigrants from Italy who passed through Ellis Island. They never forgot Italy, though they never returned there.

The Language Problem

Like most Italian Americans born since the 1940s, Robert Viscusi grew up without being able to speak ten sentences in the native language of his grandparents and parents. The Second World War made it a dangerous thing for Italians in the United States to speak any of the many Italian languages they had inherited. The day after Mussolini declared war on the United States in 1941, signs were posted in the Italian neighborhoods saying, "Don't Speak the Enemy's Language! Speak American!" Viscusi’s mother read him English poetry. Fine. Speak English and succeed as an American. But the echoes of who he might have become as an Italian continued to surround him. The conflict between these two persons, the one he was and the one he almost was, were entwined with the very nature of language itself. This conflict made him the writer he became.

How do Italians find the meaning of their collective memory when they must live in another language, a foreign culture? Viscusi's education provided him with a deep initiation into the languages of the most foreign of all nations, those that have been dead for many centuries: he studied classical languages with the Jesuits at Regis High School and Fordham College. This training taught him to imagine himself into other cultures, other situations, other kinds of sentences. At Fordham College, he majored in English as if it too were a dead language. In a similar spirit, he took graduate degrees in English at Cornell and NYU, and in due course became a professor of English at Brooklyn College. He came to recognize the strangeness involved in this approach to the language of the nation where he had been born. But he understood that it made a kind of sensible adaptation to his situation. He began to see that for him English and American literatures were foreign ideologies, full of philosophical and theological conundrums that do not easily explain themselves to someone raised by Italians and educated by Jesuits.

The Minister of Craziness

Belongs to a church long established among the New Englanders.
It has only one precept.
But they won’t tell you what it is.

—Robert Viscusi, A New Geography of Time

At the same time he was studying American culture—particularly Emerson's puzzling religion and Henry James's puzzling taste—Viscusi had embarked upon what he thought of as an Italian literary career. His pattern for this was that favorite figure of English and American writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Dante.

The Dante has become, in the past two centuries, a recognizable type among English-writing persons. Byron, Shelley, Rossetti, Browning, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce are the first names that come to mind, but a full bibliography would have to include Charles Williams, David Jones, Leroi Jones, James Merrill, and dozens of lesser lights. A Dante in this sense is a writer who adapts some aspect of Dante Alighieri's Comedia in order to offer a similarly totalizing scheme of the human world as the writer knows it.

—Robert Viscusi, Max Beerbohm, Or the Dandy Dante

In short, there are many kinds of Dante. Even Karl Marx took a motto from Dante: Segui il tuo corso, e lasciar dir le genti. Follow your own path and let people talk.

Viscusi's grandfather of spoke of a Dante familiar to immigrants: he liked to repeat the old Italian myth that Dante had invented the Italian language and, with it, Italy itself. The idea that a poet could create a language to suit the needs of a nation that did not exist appealed to the boy Viscusi, and it became the first focus of the Dante that he wished to become. He wanted to discover the language of Italian America. This could not be simply English.

With his wife Nancy and their children Robert, Jr., and Victoria, Viscusi lived for a year in Rome in 1986-87 and at last learned to speak, to understand, to read, and to write the national language of Italy.

He devised an approach to English that allowed it to work in dialogue with Italian, in a language that could call itself Italian American. This freed him to invent English sentences on Italian models and to write in either language sentences that sounded as if they had been first spoken in another tongue, another place, another life. This language appears now and then in Ellis Island, an Italian sentence and an English sentence that echo one another. But these were very special kinds of sentences. How would a reader even know what they were? There is only one way to make readers recognize marvels as simple facts. This requires a world-sized scheme, one that allows for marvels to take place. Such a scheme is called an allegory.

The Great Allegory of Ellis Island

A great allegory is no less a communal work of art than a great cathedral.

—Robert Viscusi, Buried Caesars, and Other Secrets of Italian American Writing

An allegory is an imaginary space where wonders occur. Dante's allegory of human life is the Other World, where people go after they die and eternally reap the fruits, sweet or bitter, of the lives they lived on earth. In Dante's Other World, the poet can talk to people long dead. He can see pagan gods. He can fly on the back of a winged monster.

Most allegories are less obviously strange than that; but for those who believe in them, allegories always make miracles seem possible. Emma Lazarus, in her famous poem about Bartholdi’s statue of "Liberty Enlightening the World" took seriously the allegory of the lamp of freedom that transforms the world:

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

—Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus"

It is an attractive allegory, giving transformative, sacramental power to an eighteenth-century political theorem. No American is immune to the fascination of this idea. Like any allegory, however, it can be abused. Some American presidents have floated the idea that the entire history of the United States is to be understood as an allegory of freedom that entitles this nation to rise above ordinary realities of justice and equity. In the name of freedom, according to such a reading, the United States can invade other countries, it can imprison people whose ideas it deems dangerous. Such acts are a dark magic, but like all magic they have a plausible feeling, even when they leave behind all rules of right and wrong, because they take place in a landscape of wonders.

Many American writers, Italian Americans among them, have constructed a myth of America as a Renaissance Italian invention, as if nothing but water had occupied this side of the globe before Columbus sailed for the West with the Toscanelli map in his hand. This allegory was useful to Europeans who wanted to believe that these lands belonged, as it were, by right to white men. It was also useful to immigrants, who needed to believe that the place where they were going had some deep connection with the place they had left behind.

The allegory of the New World is a great stage of marvels—a world like the one at the other side of the ocean, but fresh and waiting, full of perfumed trees and talking birds and cities made of gold. Like any great allegory, it has many forms. Among those forms stands the allegory of Ellis Island, which has long since become a great allegory in its own right. Many writers—Italian, Irish, Jewish, Jamaican, Trinidadian, French, Russian among them—have been at work for five generations by now constructing this allegory. It is not merely a stage of marvels any longer, of course. By this time, the New World has shown itself to be a lot like the Old World. A site of slavery and conquest, of genocide and war against nature. A place where golden promises keep company with leaden facts.

An allegory is a way to look at the large facts of history all at once. On its stage, a people can speak two languages. A people can entertain great ambitions and suffer catastrophic defeats. We recite an allegory in times of uncertainty and doubt, looking for hints that history may turn out to have a purpose human beings can understand and learn to accept. The poem Ellis Island, a Book of Changes, lives inside the story of transformation that America has told its new arrivals. The poem never entirely abandons that story, even when it seems an empty delusion. This is one of those allegories we read to ourselves in the morning, when we are getting ready to face the day. We tell them to children at night, hoping to help them sleep.