Friday, September 26, 2014

"Living the Revolution" by Jennifer Guglielmo

Oh, the ever-changing face of America!

Who among us can even envision a northern New Jersey clutching tight to New York via the tendrils of the garment and other departed industries, pocked with recently arrived anarchists from places like Avellino?

Jennifer Guglielmo's "Living the Revolution," assembles the research and words necessary to conjure that distant and disappeared time.

Some of this reviewer's antecedent's hailed from Avellino and the revelation in Guglielmo's book goes a long way toward explaining his own anarcho-syndicalist tendencies.

And explanation is necessary, because the Italian-American milieu in which he grew up was far from revolutionary. Uncles and aunts in Brooklyn and Queens loathed John Lindsay in favor of a hack named Mario Procaccino. When a black family moved into the neighborhood, a call of alarm went out.

To be Italian-American in mid-century New York was to be conservative, closed-minded and to wont for a liberal, higher education (generally speaking).

"Living the Revolution," goes a long way toward explaining how that happened: Italian-Americans desperately clinging to their classification as "white" by federal authorities; their frantic efforts to establish "American-ness" while the U.S. made war on Mussolini's Italy; the devastating impact of the Palmer Raids on the anarchist culture that took root in the tri-state area among Italian immigrant women.

Later on, according to this book, Italian and Italian-American women became active in the the union movement, although their efforts to gain power were often thwarted and their contributions to the Ladies Garment Workers and other syndicates undervalued.

Guglielmo's book recuperates the ladies' names and actions, making great strides in combating the widely-held notion that they were somehow not militant. This appears to be the primary task she set out for herself in penning this text.

"Living the Revolution," sets the record straight. It's a work of historical scholarship and, from time-to-time, bogs down in minutiae, however necessary. Sometimes, the task at hand causes the author to wander far from the focus of her discussion and into the 19th-century uprisings in southern Italy or the writings of Antonio Gramsci.

In the end, it all ties together and Guglielmo's passion for the subject ultimately drives the narrative and should win over those who come to her story with a healthy curiosity.

"Living" is a feminist tract. It pulls from the rich filigree of events, that make up the first half of the 20th century, the prevailing policies, traditions and mores of patriarchy and white supremacy.

It dramatizes how these things weighed upon the activist women and illuminated the creativity they employed in combating them.

"Living the Revolution," not only rescues the names and profiles of some worthwhile people otherwise condemned to anonymity, it helps explain how we got where we are as a nation today, the good and the bad alike.

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