wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat

Fascist Modernities

Known above all for its cinema, America functioned in the interwar period as a giant screen upon which Italians projected their fears and fantasies about consumerism, sexual emancipation, and other developments associated with mass society. The ambivalence that most Italian intellectuals showed toward America is captured in Barzini's 1931 remark that the country was both 'the most stupendous and powerful phenomenon of modernity in the world' and 'a place where all the deviations of the spirit bear fruit.' Other Europeans felt similarly divided. Many French intellectuals saw America's faults—disrespect for (French) traditions, small-scale economies, and individual eccentricities—as the source of its strength as a financial power, and few refused to see the films of Chariot, no matter what they said publicly about American cinematic imperialism. In both Italy and France, the thirties saw the formation of attitudes toward America that would continue, often under different political guises, long after 1945.

Still, America occupied a special place in the Italian imagination. Emigrations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had brought millions from the old world to the new, and letters and contact with those who made reverse migrations gave many Italians some familiarity, however mediated, with American culture. This sense of connectedness was encouraged by the fascist government, which labeled emigrants as 'Italians abroad' and established free summer camps for emigrants' children to nurture their sense of Italian identity. Moreover, Mussolini adopted a friendly stance toward America in his first decade of rule, partly to guarantee Italy's receipt of monies from the J.P. Morgan loan and encourage exports. In this period, with the help of his eager admirer William Randolph Hearst, Mussolini wrote many articles for the American press that highlighted the putative similarities between the two countries—both were young, both were forging new ground, and both, at least in Hearst's papers, were anti-communist.

While pro-American attitudes found public expression until the outbreak of World War II, the Wall Street crash created a ready audience for anti-American messages as well. In the years of the depression, a flood of books and articles appeared whose depictions of the country ranged from ambivalent to hostile. Far from being the land of the free, America increasingly appeared as a 'dictatorship' of capital that enslaved its citizens to a materialistic lifestyle. Returning from the States, the critic Margherita Sarfatti reported that Americans had created a 'modern, efficient, and rational hell' where the 'roar of riches in the making' had replaced church bells and birdsong. Many accounts placed the blame on unregulated consumer capitalism, which standardized bodies and souls in its push to forge national markets. The journalist Valentine Piccoli likened the American socialization process to a Fordist assembly line: 'The standard mentality is like an enormous octopus whose tentacles extend over all of life, imprisoning the mind and the spirit, forcing ideas and attitudes to conform to one type, in the same way that the great mechanized factories produce the different pieces of an auto according to a uniform model.'

Paradoxically, the most modern people on earth also seemed to be the most primitive. Adriana Dotterelli and other Italian visitors took the popularity of jazz, spy novels, comic books, and mass-produced trinkets as proof of Americans' infantility and lack of taste. As the writer Emilio Cecchi reported after he returned from a year-long lectureship at the University of California at Berkeley in 1931, in matters of culture America was truly a blank slate. Describing a student's inability to pick out the Madonna figure in a Renaissance painting, Cecchi recalled, 'I was ecstatic. I really was in the desert.' As for French intellectuals, the notion of taste among Italians implied some internalization of cultural norms that, in turn, were indicative of shared moral and social discourses. The failure to provide for the education of the senses signified that, after 150 years, America had remained 'prenational' and primitive.

The New World served as a repository for Italians' fears over the shifting of racial hierarchies as well. Cecchi characterized the San Francisco Bay Area's black communities as 'disturbing and swarming breeding grounds of that savagery to which America is still profoundly tied,' and the painter Renato Paresce looked askance at the 'animalesque' aspects of Hispanic culture. Even religious practices appeared to be showcases of regressive behavior. From New York, the writer Mario Soldati recorded the activities of black-influenced 'carnal and colorful cults,' and Paresce reported on the self-mutilation and crucifixion supposedly practiced by deviant Hispanic Catholic sects. 'The American conscience is a ferment of barbaric and panicked energies,' Cecchi concluded.

The 'shockingly amoral' nature of American life also struck Italian observers who investigated gender relations and the family. Like their counterparts from France and Weimar Germany, Italians castigated American women whose lifestyles confirmed the outcome of modern trends that had begun to manifest themselves at home: female emancipation, the supposed neglect of maternal duties, the eclipse of traditional patterns of seduction and courtship. American wives dominated their husbands, they claimed, and their focus on careers meant that, as in Stalinist Russia, the hearth and the home-cooked meal were things of the past. As one reporter observed, American homes consisted of 'cold radiators, iron, cement, glass, and aluminum, all without history, beauty, or dreams. One has instead levers, buttons, floodlights, and bare bulbs. Everything is standardized.'

Taken collectively, such texts created support for models of modernity that might maintain patriarchal traditions and strong family identities. By underscoring the tyranny of democratic models of modernity and social life, they also aided Italian intellectuals in sidestepping the issue of fascism's own violence and inhumanity. The case of the writer Soldati and his book America primo amore (America first Love, 1935) holds interest in this regard. In 1929, at the age of twenty-three, Soldati came to America to do graduate work in art history at Columbia University. A friend of Carlo Levi and student of Lionello Venturi, the Turin native was no fan of the regime, and he viewed his sojourn abroad as a step toward a possible emigration. After just two years, though, he returned voluntarily to live under the Italian dictatorship, and made peace with fascism in the interests of career ambitions and family obligations. He published several literary reportages drawn from his American experiences in the daily and periodical press, and in 1935 reprinted most of them in America primo amore, earning a reputation as a preeminent Italian commentator on America that persisted well into the postwar period.

Despite his book's title, Soldati depicts America as a violent and pathological place that stands as a warning against unchecked modernization. Unregulated consumer capitalism had created a new type of standardized mass-subject devoid of all taste and humanity. Emitting strange metallic odors, 'like certain high-voltage electric machines,' Americans were heartless automatons who thought nothing of throwing their relatives out on the street and who pursued their own interests at whatever cost. The random violence that plagued America was further evidence of American barbarism for Soldati. New World criminals did not fit Lombrosian stereotypes of degeneracy; assassins there were 'blond and handsome, with sweet eyes and serene expressions,' driven to the criminal life by 'inner emptiness' rather than defective genes. Every American was thus a potential killer (including Soldati's knife-brandishing Midwestern girlfriend), and crime formed part of the fabric of everyday life.