The Anarchist Bastard: And Other Tales
of Growing Up Italian in America

Reviewed by Mary Donnarumma Sharnick
The Connecticut Muse, Spring 2011

In her just-released memoir, Joanna Clapps Herman looks at her maternal and paternal ancestry without blinking. Her deep love for the Becce and Clapps families and their traditions, as well as her honest dismay of the madness and violence that surfaced in both clans, makes for arresting reading. Clapps Herman's vivid narrative engages the reader, bringing to life sensate images of the Becce pig farm in Waterbury, Connecticut (where her grandfather routinely bit his mule when the animal would not work), and allowing no escape from the triumphs and tragedies of the Clapps famiglia--including, on the one hand, her father's gratifying work with sculptor Alexander Calder, and on the other, her abused and child-ridden grandmother's attempt to boil one of her sons in a pot.

Clapps Herman opens her tale by telling the reader that she "...was born in 1944 but raised in the 15th century..." Her childhood, as she describes it, was more imbued with Homeric values than Christian or immigrant American ones often presumed in memoirs of this kind. She writes: "What was emphasized was shame not anxiety, honor not accomplishment, hospitality rather than individual ambition, song and storytelling, not writing."

The author's own self-consciousness, honed and sharpened by her university and graduate education and her permanent move to New York City in 1963, compelled her to see her New York life almost completely in contrast with her Waterbury life. In her introduction, she notes that it has taken her forty years to be able to speak and write about that duality. Tough, poignant text for anyone who yearns for a "slice of life" particularly rendered, Anarchist Bastard kept this reader going in one sitting. Joanna Clapps Herman's book not only entertains, but also serves as a model for writers who themselves aspire to memoir.