by Alan Filreis
to be published in the Pennsylvania Gazette; not to be
copied or quoted without permission of the author and editors of the Gazette

See Pennsylvania Almanac obituary, with photograph.

Some years ago, in a personal letter to Jerre Mangione, Macolm 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 b rilliantly 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 tra dition 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 taxonimies 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, hu mor, "adolescent fiction" (it certainly is a bildungsroman), folklore, ethnic studies, Italian-Americana, memoir, and nonfiction.

Jerre's radicalism ran deeper than the bending of commercial genres. He first visited Italy in 1936 and witnessed ways of fascist control there. Impassioned yet graceful pieces for The New Masses, the New Republic, Travel, and Globe described what he saw . He became the classic "pre-mature antifascist"-a hater of European fascism whose disposition came too "soon" for his own American political good. The U.S. was not officially anti-fascist, of course, until December 1941; in the cold-war era stretching f rom 1946 through the 1950s, those like Jerre who were avidly antifascist in the 1930s must have been-or still were-communists or dupes of the communists. Risks came from both sides of the right. Second was McCarthyism, which caught Jerre's beloved Feder al Writers' Project in its big net. But first he faced the black-shirted kind. As Mangione travelled through Mussolini's Italy, his left-wing publishing credentials already well known, his friendship with Carlo Tresca widely discussed, he risked forced conscription into the army at every point. We should all read, or re-read, Mangione's novel about the prematurity of certain antifascisms, The Ship and the Flame (1948), a modern allegory for European politics just prior to the almost complete collapse of democratic will in the western nations.

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 urba n 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 few 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 fiftieth 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 spokespe rson 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 centur ies 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 Philadelphians 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 f igures, 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 pu blishers, 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 sponsor ed 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, his elegant history of the Project, goes a long way toward Jerre's aspira tion that American artists would never forget how (for the most part) writers on the left came together to produce a lasting literary record of what was 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 for the period beginning 1938. The committee, led by Martin Dies, attacked the federal arts programs for harboring Americ an communists, for disproportionately featuring radical views of the U.S., and for their collaborative or "team" approach to cultural projects (which was naturally another sign of communist subversion). The HUAC hearings, in short, made it impossible for these projects to get continued congressional funding. 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 whi ch I mean the Project itself but also the very idea of such a thing)-and, in the same archival effort, can take some account of the disfigurement of writers' careers 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 Dies and his compatriots 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 P rogram 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 congress ional 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.


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Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:13 EDT