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Remembering Jerre Mangione
Jerre Mangione, Hon'80, a writer best known for his portrayal of the Italian-American immigrant experience and a faculty member at the University for many years, died in August at age 89. We asked Dr. Alan Filreis, professor of English and an admirer of Mangione, to share some memories of the man and his work. -- Ed.
SOME YEARS AGO, in a personal letter to Jerre Mangione, Malcolm Cowley wrote that Mangione's Mount Allegro had had "more lives than any other book of our time." This will continue to be true, even after Mangione's recent death. Mount Allegro (1943) is a brilliantly touching picture of immigrant life in Rochester, New York, and I urge it on all readers who want to know or remember my late colleague. Sociologist Herbert Gans admires the book because of the way Mangione successfully "commit[ed] the oral tradition to paper." Indeed, according to Jerre, he intended something like the nonfiction of one who records folklife. But at the last minute his first publisher had him alter names because "fiction will sell better," and so he was a novelist. (Even the name Mangione, or big eater, became Amoroso, lover.) Bookstore taxonomies have defied -- or maybe been defied by -- this marvelous work. Mislabelings of the commercial kind almost certainly over the years confused some buyers and browsers trying to follow word-of-mouth recommendations. I'm convinced that various award-giving committees, stuck in categorical places, were similarly confused. My own unsystematic count of shelving categories has found the book sold under sociology, fiction, autobiography, humor, "adolescent fiction" (it certainly is a Bildungsroman), folklore, ethnic studies, Italian-Americana, memoir, and nonfiction.
Jerre ranged quietly yet urgently across the years and the topics, producing "Happy Days in Fascist Italy" for the communist New Masses in 1938, "When the Feds Were Writers" for The New York Times in 1972, "The Fate of the Urban Ethnic" for a book on urban experience in 1981, and "Any Italian Can Paint a Landscape" for this magazine in 1989, to name just four periodical entries from the many leaves of the Mangione bibliography. Published commendations of Jerre's books, writings, and cultural projects, run together with the list of articles and chapters about him, surely put him among the most oft-cited authors who have graced the Penn faculty.
VIA or Voices in Italian Americana in 1993 dedicated most of an issue to Mangione's writing, a fitting tribute on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Mount Allegro. The same year, the Library of Congress exhibited archival materials documenting this wide-ranging career. A year earlier, then- governor of New York Mario Cuomo presented Jerre with the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Award, an exciting, fitting moment Jerre savored. Cuomo introduced Mangione with passion as "an acclaimed spokesperson for Italian Americans and for all immigrants to this country."
Another moment Jerre savored was the formation, after many years of advocacy, even agitation, of an Italian studies program at Penn. He was its first director. When later Jerre published (with Ben Morreale) a remarkably comprehensive survey of five centuries of the Italian American experience, La Storia, he felt, rightly, that he had helped make Italian cultural life in the U.S. special and fascinating to readers "far beyond the boundaries of the ethnic community itself" (Werner Sollers' phrase in lauding the book). The emergence of La Storia in 1992, a half century after Mount Allegro, gave Phila-delphians, including Jerre's friends at Penn, an apt opportunity to honor his life and work. Large crowds attended readings, signing parties, and special programs such as the celebration organized by AMICI (Friends of the Center of Italian Studies at Penn).
In 1987 Jerre had sold his personal and professional papers to the University of Rochester. These include notes, drafts, several drawers of manuscripts and printed materials pertaining to the Federal Writers' Project, correspondence with writers, public figures, tapes, photos, and an array of fascinating ephemera (brochures, pamphlets, posters). Unpublished letters in the Mangione Papers include those from Conrad Aiken, Louise Bogan, Kay Boyle, Kenneth Burke, Frederick Exley, Philip Roth, May Sarton, Cowley, and many others.
People devoted to the idea of publicly funded arts know that Jerre Mangione was the tireless coordinating editor of the WPA Federal Writers' Project in the late 1930s. In effect, he was the literary agent for the project. Using contacts among New York publishers, and his considerable charm, he was able to get the now-famous American Guide Series published at no expense to the government and at minimal cost to people who bought the volumes. Two of those books were The Philadelphia Guide, which was sponsored by Penn, and The Pennsylvania Guide. Both are still astonishingly helpful, relevant resources, as well as rich geo-sociological histories of the region. The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935-43, his elegant history of the project, goes a long way toward Jerre's aspiration that American artists would never forget how writers on the Left (for the most part) came together to produce a lasting literary record of what were then mostly untold versions of American stories.
The House of Representatives recently released to the National Archives all the records of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for the period beginning in 1938. Now that this part of the HUAC archive is finally open, scholars, including this one, can measure the damage done by anticommunists to the reputation or legacy of the Federal Writers' Project (by which I mean the Project itself, but also the very idea of such a thing). In the same archival effort, we can take some account of the disfigurement of writers' careers that Jerre Mangione saw for himself, including, fascinatingly, his own.
One afternoon in 1987 I interviewed my emeritus colleague at length. I asked him what things might have been like, for him and other FWP writers, had Congress not cut short the life of New Deal-era federal support of public arts projects. Jerre joked modestly that The Dream and the Deal would have been a longer book. But then as my tape ran he went silent for a long time, and bore a pained look. He might have been remembering, for instance, that at the height of the Cold War, when the New England American Studies Association gathered at Amherst College to discuss the New Deal arts projects, an academic critic of American literature named Barry Marks read a paper in which he argued that "the most impressive single feature of the WPA Arts Program was its lack of respect for creativity." For Jerre, on the contrary, "the writers and nonwriters on the project somehow managed to play their role well, so that in spite of all the administrative blunders, the political imbroglios, and the Congressional salvos, [we] produced more good books than anyone dreamed [we] could." I remember Jerre Mangione as a writer who wrote his own "good books," yes, but also as one who made others' literally possible -- which, contra Barry Marks, was and is the highest praise.
-- Alan Filreis
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