ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
Even to this day, graduate students in English departments fall head over heels with Virginia Woolf, hoping to apply new theoretical concepts to explore the modernist’s experimental prose. I vividly recall feeling that love in the 1980s when Annis Pratt taught a graduate seminar on Woolf and thereafter became one of my cherished dissertation advisors. What I remember equally well were two surnames that possessed totemic value for me: DeBattista and DeSalvo. Both scholars wrote landmark monographs on Virginia Woolf through forms of critical biography. Both produced courageous feminist work, insisting on an ineffable relationship between the personal and the political. While my love of Virginia Woolf never waned, I focused my scholarly efforts instead on less cherished writers from literary Italian America. That decision largely had to do with writers like Louise DeSalvo.
Louise DeSalvo’s writing made my scholarly decision not only possible, but also essential. Introduced in 1985 to Louise’s work on Virginia Woolf through Helen Barolini’s The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women, “A Portrait of the Puttana As a Middle-Aged Woolf Scholar,” I knew then that I would take a risk and choose to explore a nearly unknown field of literary study in the 1980s: Italian American women writers. Luckily, I had many mentors by my side: my mother, who discovered Barolini’s anthology in her neighborhood bookstore; my committee, who supported my decision; and DeSalvo, who compelled me to think differently about the nexus between one’s work as a scholar and one’s being as a person. I will never forget this line from DeSalvo’s puttana essay, which I share here: “I learned what it is humanly possible to do in one day; what one cannot do; that one must trust the times when no work is getting done, because it is in those fallow periods that the unconscious mind is working.” This sentence and so many others epitomized DeSalvo’s gift to generations of women scholars who came after her, buoyed by her words.
Years later, I saw on my bookshelf the edition from which DeSalvo’s essay was originally published: Between Women: Biographers, Novelists, Critics, Teachers and Artists Write about Their Work on Women (edited by Carol Asher, Louise DeSalvo, and Sara Ruddick) and realized then that Louise was always moving toward memoir writing, refusing to separate the writing life from her life as a woman, a mother, and an Italian American working-class child born during the second World War. Louise DeSalvo’s work bolstered my refusal to separate love of teaching from love of scholarly writing; admitting to a love of teaching is verboten in certain universities, or at least it is a feeling one keeps under wraps in front of certain intellectuals. While my life has been very different from Louise’s, I, too, could not live in the Ivory Tower in which some academics have been rightfully accused of living. A closed-off fortress for pure thinking and writing could not exist for most women in academia as such a place was built by men of a certain class, race, and culture, who were often afforded such monastic privilege in their homes. Like Louise, I did not have that privilege; as she, so I, like many of my students, was a first-generation college goer, trying to prove my mettle, to affirm by overachievement a permission to work in academe’s hallowed halls. Louise’s fuller shift into memoir writing in the 1990s provided me with the language and literature to honor successive generations of students in the classroom.
After happily teaching for ten years at Gonzaga University, I took a position at Stony Brook in 1999 in order to build a program in Italian American Studies. This move proved propitious for many reasons not the least of which was the opportunity to teach the works of Louise DeSalvo. Nearly every semester, I managed to teach DeSalvo’s 1996 Vertigo: A Memoir. My students universally LOVED this book. I did not. In fact, I dreaded teaching Vertigo, but could not stop myself from doing so because, regardless of their gender or ethnicity, all my students admitted to feeling as though “Louise” was speaking directly to them, enabling them to feel an intimacy with the author and to validate their feelings about their own fraught parental relationships. In fact, that is one of the gifts DeSalvo gives her readers: this feeling of intimacy with them—melting the fourth wall, breaking the conventional boundary between writer and reader. In Vertigo, DeSalvo examines her Italian American family of origin as fundamental to her emotional development and to her personal turmoil. This is DeSalvo’s central preoccupazione and it is unrelenting. Perhaps that is why I felt so discomfited while teaching Vertigo: it was too personal, too willing to air dirty laundry in public, especially about her mother’s depression and unbridled fury at Louise’s grandmother.
The gift Louise gave to me personally as a reader and teacher of Vertigo is this: I will not have shame cast upon me if I admit to having bad thoughts; that I will not automatically be assumed a treasonous Italian American daughter if I harbor bad feelings about my family of origin. So, while DeSalvo’s Vertigo loosened the tongues of my students, it simultaneously liberated their teacher from her deeply-rooted shame-sanctioned culture—which was Louise’s culture as well. DeSalvo’s next memoir, Crazy in the Kitchen: Food, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family, registers a generic shift from feminist confessor in Vertigo to ethnic autobiographer in Crazy, enabling a transition from a drama of incoherence to one of healing. Shortly after it was published in 2004, I began teaching Crazy in the Kitchen in a cross-listed course I created for the Italian American minor and for the department of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies. I have come to love teaching Crazy in the Kitchen over the past fifteen years, perhaps because I recognize in DeSalvo’s memoir a kind of prequel to Vertigo as Louise excavates her Italian family’s history of deprivation in the homeland, which is marked by further loss by way of migration to America. What DeSalvo teaches me in this memoir is her willingness to share with us, her readers, her growth as a daughter and a scholar, learning to forgive her own worst tendencies and, finally, her mother’s limitations. Together, with Louise, students and I come to recognize that in order to understand our own families, we must unearth hidden histories, which may take a lifetime. Like Louise, we must begin with a willingness to become the Nancy Drews of our own family’s mysteries. Then, so much more will follow.
When doing preliminary research on Hawthorne’s cloth-working Hester Prynne for a book I was writing on the trope of women’s needlework and migratory cultures (Women Writing Cloth: Migratory Fictions in the American Imaginary), I read Louise DeSalvo’s 1987 monograph, Nathaniel Hawthorne. In it, she reminds us that the handsome legacy bequeathed to Pearl, Hester’s daughter, is perhaps Hawthorne’s rewriting of his own financial history as, like his father before him, Nathaniel left his family in “dire financial circumstances” after his death. Before her segue into memoir writing, DeSalvo documented the intersection between biography and fiction, always honoring the personal by fingering the thread that connects past and present. Louise might as well have been describing the fictional Hester Prynne when she described her grandmother’s domestic needlework as an act of affirmation that “gives you what others do not, what others cannot give you, what this country that you came to does not give you” (“White on Black” Embroidered Stories: Interpreting Women’s Domestic Needlework from the Italian Diaspora, eds. Edvige Giunta and Joseph Sciora). Louise DeSalvo gave me many gifts: scholarly and creative, but always deeply human gifts. In her memoirs, Louise gave my students the words to say it (to quote Marie Cardinal!) by meeting them on their own emotional turf, by sharing unfiltered thoughts, by using rough-hewn language that led to discoveries about the self’s ability to create, to mature, and to heal. Mille grazie cara Louise DeSalvo: I remain ever grateful.
Mary Jo Bona is professor and chair of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies with her affiliated department in English. Bona’s expertise in feminist literary studies examines the nexus between gender and ethnicity, with transnational migratory identities, material cultures, and Italian diaspora studies as primary intersections. A specialist in the field of multiethnic American literature and feminist studies, her authored books include Women Writing Cloth: Migratory Fictions in the American Imaginary; By the Breath of Their Mouths: Narratives of Resistance in Italian America; Claiming a Tradition: Italian American Women Writers, and a book of poetry, I Stop Waiting For You. Bona’s next project focuses on mother-daughter studies, an area recently reinvigorated by feminist narratology, queer theory, and critical race studies.