Review of Joanna Clapps Herman’s memoir, THE ANARCHIST BASTARD, GROWING UP ITALIAN IN AMERICA (SUNY Press)

by Rosemarie Crupi Holz
Fiele Festa Spring 2011

Once upon a time, a long time ago, two strong, independent and fiercely proud young men left the misery and poverty of southern Italy and journeyed to America to carve new lives for themselves. After many attempts at various jobs in different cities, they ultimately wound up in Waterbury, Connecticut, a place they chose for its beauty and resemblance to their homeland. The lives of these two paesani, Vito Becce, a farmer from Tolve, and Giuseppe Clapps, a blacksmith from Avigliano, unknown to each other though they came from the same province of Basilicata, would become entwined through their offspring, Rose and Peter. Their children would fall in love, marry, raise a family and nestle into the isolated world of their tribe.

They would achieve great successes, these men from a land once the home of the ancient, glorious Greeks, yet a place barely known to most Italians. Their ability to rise to their own mythical proportions in their struggle to survive the dissolution of one world for another made it all possible.

The Anarchist Bastard, Growing up Italian in America, written by Joanna Clapps Herman, is no fairy tale with a sweet happy ending. It is a haunting, tender, yet unsparing memoir in which the author, their granddaughter, tells her family’s story. Using information gathered from long interviews and her own memory, sometimes presented in the distinct voices of her loved ones, Herman presents a family portrait you will find difficult to forget.

Grandfather Becce, her maternal grandfather and the anarchist bastard of the title, owned and operated a pig farm and built the first slaughterhouse in Waterbury, Connecticut. A shrewd businessman, he established diplomatic relations with anyone in power, including the mayor of Waterbury and the local politicians. His house was always welcome to people and his Sunday gatherings were a long ongoing party, where he proudly served homemade sausages, prosciutto, breads, pizza, wine, cakes and cookies.

Grandfather Clapps, the paternal grandfather, would create The Waterbury Iron Works foundry. It was so successful and respected that when Alexander Calder the internationally acclaimed artist began producing large-scale sculptures, this is the foundry he trusted to fabricate his monumental mobiles and stabiles. Grandfather Clapps’ skills were in his blood. Blacksmithing was part of his family’s presence in Avigliano for many centuries and generations of Clapps were renown for their expertise with anything made of iron or steel. Clapps, the author informs us, is indeed a southern Italian name and there is a very long list of people with this name in the phone book of Basilicata.

In Waterbury, Joanna Clapps Herman thrived. Happily isolated from 20th century society, surrounded by loving grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends, she would work and play. While she was of them, this sealed, protective existence within her family’s tribal culture of absolute rules and customs nourished her. When she emerged as an adult, she began to realize that she had been living with a divided consciousness and could not understand the disconnection between her Italian world and her intellectual and cultural life. As the years passed, she tried to reconcile these worlds and tell her story. Yet the words would not come. She was stuck, unable to speak, stunnato. It took over forty years, but The Anarchist Bastard, Growing up Italian in America, her poignant, powerful collection of autobiographical narratives is her epic achievement.

Paying homage to the wisdom of the blind Homer, she credits him for helping her see. Using the epics of the Iliad and Odyssey as guides, she comes to the realization that the essence of her family’s embedded values was closer to ancient Greece than the time period she grew up. Born in 1944, she concludes that the life she lived with her big, loving, complicated, controversial Italian family in Waterbury, Connecticut was taken from the pages of Homer’s Odyssey, that the time period was more 15th century BC than twentieth century America.

She states that “much … of their family life had to do with pre-Christian, prehistorical ideas of pride and honor, shame and hospitality, of singing and storytelling, the palpable reality of dreams, and a strict code of what it meant to be a man and a woman. What was emphasized was shame not anxiety, honor not accomplishment, hospitality rather than individual ambition, song and storytelling, not writing.” As a result, her loyalties were to her tribe first and the road to self-discovery for this second generation Italian woman would not come until she left home in the sixties.

Included in her memoir are beautiful photographs of her family that speak of days long gone by, of cherished memories and traditions: Beatrice and Giuseppe on their wedding day; Peter and his brothers; Grandma Becce and Uncle Rocky roasting a pig; Four Becce sisters as children in front of the old barn; Grandpa Becce with the sheep and feeding the pigs; Mom and Dad just as they have fallen in love.

These photographs don’t tell the whole story. In The Anarchist Bastard, Herman gives voice to the stories that wouldn’t be told, to those whose stories, told only after their deaths, were unsayable. To speak such personal truths was forbidden – that her beautiful, generous, welcoming Italian family had its share of dark, shocking painful secrets. She reveals the other side of her grandfathers’ love of family and generous spirit, the legacy they brought with them from their homeland, the side that made them believe that “if they weren’t able to rule their families with fury and violence, they were less than men.”

Herman describes her grandfather, Vito Becce, as a first-born Italian male, who ruled with all the tyranny of the minor feudal lord he was. All his subjects, his wife and children as well as his rabbits, chickens, goats, sheep, cows, horses and asses on his farm answered to him and him alone, the anarchist bastard. He once offered all of his son-in-laws a reward for following his dictum: “He’d give fifty dollars to the first one who gave one of his daughters a black eye.”

He repeatedly condemned all his daughters that they would never make good housewives. Rose, the first child born in America, Herman’s mother, was his favorite daughter and right hand. Yet long after she married, she had recurring nightmares of the murderous man who came to get her and to tell her she hadn’t done enough, that she wasn’t good enough. She would scream, call for her husband Peter and then would rise from her sleep and wash the floor again and again.

Giuseppe Clapps was the privileged oldest surviving Italian son and the first member of his family sent to America. His older brother was to follow, when he tragically died at 19 and Giuseppe, “il secondo,” abruptly became “il primo.” What impact this had on him is uncertain, but when he married, he subjected his family to such meanness, violence and cruelty that many blamed him when his wife Beatrice descended into madness. She gave birth to one child after another, at one point, three in five years and of her five children, only two survived. She suffered a mental breakdown and was institutionalized by the time Peter, the author’s father, was six. A violent alcoholic, bully, and ladies man, Giuseppe Clapps once beat his daughter so badly he broke her nose because someone told him she had been talking to a boy. Often, his children were removed to save them from his violence.

The three brothers, Peter, Frank and Michael grew to be young men, but Peter was the only one to survive, and Giuseppe Clapps’ only remaining son. His life, full of rage and fear, was one fierce struggle to overcome their untimely loss and to endure his father’s tyranny.

Despite the violence, death, misery and madness, Peter and Rose find each other and marry, creating a stable, happy home life for their children, becoming the parents they wished they had and giving their daughters the legacy of their love. They remained happily married for over sixty years.

Joanna Clapps Hermann tells a story of her father, the outdoors man who walked the steel beams against the wind in the heat and icy cold with no gloves, his hands swollen and cracked doing the work he loved to support his family. This same man loved reading to his daughters. Often after dinner, he would tell his wife he wanted his daughters to stop cleaning the kitchen because he wanted to read to them. One night, he read from Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, one of his favorite books. Rose, annoyed at the delay, was also “pleased but puzzled . . . that this reader of the high steel, this Heathcliff of her own, is her husband.” Afterwards, he says to them. “I want you to listen, listen very carefully… You have to appreciate the setting to see what a good writer she is, you have to understand just listen to the way she puts this. . .”

Herman concludes that he taught them that “the words written on the moors of one century can be taken in the middle of a dirty kitchen in the next and make someone say, ‘listen to this.’ And they all listened…. Rapt, mesmerized.”

Transporting me from that time to the present, from Basilicata and Connecticut to New York, Herman has kept me rapt and mesmerized in this memoir. Wondering what it might have been like to have known her unforgettable family, through the gift of her storytelling, she has helped me to recognize and reflect on my own family’s southern Italian roots.