Viscusi, Robert 1941-
VISCUSI, Robert 1941-
Born April 4, 1941; son of Joseph (an automobile mechanic) and Vera Di Rocco (a seam-stress) Viscusi; married Ann Dolan, June 20, 1976; children: Robert Jr., Victoria. Ethnicity: "Italian American." Education: Fordham College, B.A. (English), 1962; Cornell University, M.A. (English), 1963; New York University, Ph.D. (English), 1979.
Home—Brooklyn, NY. Office—Wolfe Institute for the Humanities, Brooklyn College, Brooklyn, NY 11210; fax: 718-951-5249. E-mail—[email protected].
Teaching fellow, New York University, 1964-68; Brooklyn College, City University of New York, New York, NY, adjunct lecturer, 1968-70, lecturer, 1973-74, adjunct lecturer, 1974-75, lecturer, 1979-80, instructor, 1980, assistant professor, 1981-83, associate professor, 1984-85, professor, 1986—, Claire and Leonard Tow Professor of English, 1999-2000, faculty associate of the Humanities Institute, 1981-82, director of the Humanities Institute, 1982-88, executive officer of the Humanities Institute, 1988-89, executive officer of the Ethyl R. Wolfe Institute for the Humanities, 1989—; Kean College of New Jersey, instructor, 1970-73, adjunct instructor, 1975-78; Saint Peter's College, adjunct instructor, 1975-78. Visiting assistant professor of Italian, New York University, 1980; visiting professor, University of Paris, 1986.
Italian American Writers Association (president), Golden Key Honor Society, Phi Beta Kappa, Pi Delta Phi (honorary member of Alpha Theta chapter).
Named "Man of the Year," UNICO National, 1982; distinguished and outstanding service recognition, Italian Culture Club and Academic Club Association, 1984; National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, 1986-87; PSC-CUNY fellowship, 1988-89; faculty fellowship, John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, 1990-91; Distinguished Trustee Award, La Scuola New York, 1996; American Book Award, 1996, for Astoria; Outstanding Contribution to the Italian American Community, American Italian Cultural Roundtable, 1997; National Italian American Foundation grant, 1998-99; Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York grant.
Max Beerbohm; or, The Dandy Dante: Rereading with Mirrors, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), c. 1986.
(Editor) Browning Institute Studies, 1988: Victorian Learning, Armstrong Browning Library (Waco, TX), 1989.
An Oration upon the Most Recent Death of Christopher Columbus (poetry), Bordighera Publications (West Lafayette, IN), 1993, third edition, 1998.
Astoria (novel), Guernica Editions (Tonawanda, NY), 1995, second edition, 2002.
A New Geography of Time (poetry), Guernica Editions (Tonawanda, NY), 2003.
Contributor to books, including Blood Brothers, edited by Norman Kiell, International Universities Press (New York, NY), 1983; Italian Americans in the Professions, edited by Remigio Pane, American Italian Historical Association (New York, NY), 1983; The Family and Community Life of Italian Americans, edited by Richard N. Juliani, American Italian Historical Association (New York, NY), 1983; The Writer's Mind: Writing as a Mode of Thinking, edited by Janice Hayes and others, National Council of Teachers of English (Urbana, IL), 1984; Il passato perpetuo/fotografie di Ernesto Bazan; due saggi di Robert Viscusi e Jerre Mangione; presentazione di Giulio Andreotti, by Ernesto Bazan, Novecento (Palermo, Italy), 1985; The Italian-Americans through the Generations, edited by Rocco Caporale, American Italian Historical Association (New York, NY), 1986; Italian Ethics: Their Languages, Literature, and Lives, edited by Dominic Candeloro, Fred L. Gardaphe, and Paolo A. Giordano, American Italian Historical Association (New York, NY), 1990; American Declarations of Love, edited by Ann Massa, Macmillan (London, England), 1990; From the Margin: Writings in Italian Americana, edited by A. Tamburri, P. Giordano, and F. Gardaphé, Purdue University Press (Lafayette, IN), 1991; British Writers, Supplement 2, edited by George Stade, Scribner's (New York, NY), 1992; Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry, edited by Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1994; Social Pluralism and Literary History: The Literature of the Italian Emigration, edited by Francesco Loriggio, Guernica (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1996; Franco Accursio Gulino: Design and the Embalmer, Sellerio editore (Palermo, Italy), 1997; Beyond the Margin: Readings in Italian Americana, by Paolo A. Giordano and Anthony Tamburri, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (Madison, WI), 1998; Adjusting Sites: New Essays in Italian American Studies, edited by William Boelhower, Forum Italicum (Stony Brook, NY), 1999; Il sogno italo-americano, CUEN (Napoli, Italy), 1999; The Italian American Heritage: A Companion to Literature and the Arts, edited by Pellegrino D'Acierno, Garland (New York, NY), 1999.
Also author, with L. Ballerini, F. Weinapple, and J. Krase, of a proposed television series for Italian National Television titled Oggetto Smarrito: The Cultural Dialectic of Italian America. Contributor of essays to professional journals, including English Literature in Transition: 1880-1920, Princeton University Library Chronicle, Spirales: Journal International de Culture, Studi emigrazione, Differentia: Review of Italian Thought, Italian Americana, Italian Journal, and Bridge Apulia/USA; contributor of poems to Brooklyn Review, Exquisite Corpse: A Journal of Letters and Life, Bridge Apulia/USA, Gradiva, Polytext, Footwork: Paterson Literary Review, Voices in Italian Americana, Italian Americana, Lines, and 0to9. Author of monthly column in Italian American Writers Association Newsletter. Associate editor, Browning Institute Studies, 1985-89; member of advisory board, Italian Americana, Voices in Italian Americana: A Literary and Cultural Review, Differentia: Review of Italian Thought, VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, and Italian Journal.
WORK IN PROGRESS:
English as a Dialect of Italian, essays on Italian American Writing.
When many Americans think of Italian-American writers, the first images that typically springs to mind are Mafia stories by authors such as Mario Puzo. As president of the Italian American Writers Association and author of the acclaimed novel Astoria, as well as the well-received poem An Oration upon the Most Recent Death of Christopher Columbus and numerous essays on Italian-American literature, Robert Viscusi has striven to amend this mindset; he strongly believes that writers such as Dana Giola, Anthony Valerio, and Carole Maso deserve a wider audience. As Felicia R. Lee explained Viscusi's position in a New York Times article, the author feels that "the struggle is not about feelings but about helping the larger culture understand Italian-Americans in a way that has 'nothing to do with a social club on Mott Street.'" In addition to promoting the work of other Italian Americans, Viscusi's own writings have gone a long way toward changing attitudes about this area of literature. His groundbreaking debut novel, Astoria, won an American Book Award in 1996, and his poetry reexamining the legacy of Christopher Columbus, a reaction against those who protested Columbus's legacy during the 500th anniversary of his voyage to the New World, has provided plenty of material for literary academics to ponder.
Before these works were published, however, Viscusi released his scholarly study Max Beerbohm; or, The Dandy Dante, a biography of nineteenth-century caricaturist and parodist Beerbohm. Beerbohm, who was friends with such luminaries as W. B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, and Aubrey Beardsley, appeared on the surface to be a very modest person who, according to Kerry Powell in Victorian Studies, considered himself a "small" writer. As Choice reviewer R. T. Van Arsdel explained, however, it is Viscusi's position that Beerbohm's "preoccupation with smallness" was, in reality, "a screen for 'planning to establish himself as a "great,"' … an entirely original assessment." Viscusi bases this theory on two works: a story from the Yellow Book titled "The Happy Hypocrite," and, more substantially, the novel Zuleika Dobson. This novel, which has typically been regarded as an elaborate myth about unrequited love, attempts to portray Beerbohm as both a Dante and a dandy. Viscusi furthers this supposition by describing Beerbohm's imitation of Dante's rise from Hell to Heaven. A Virginia Quarterly Review critic noted that in his analysis Viscusi "blend[s] biography and criticism in order to delineate true 'dandyism.'" Powell concluded, "By his own admission, Viscusi has framed an unlikely argument, bold and allusive, at times both complicated and brilliant." The critic further noted that Max Beerbohm "will become for all those with a serious interest in 'the incomparable Max' a volume they cannot ignore."
Viscusi's first major work to address the identity of modern Italian Americans is his ambitious poem An Oration upon the Most Recent Death of Christopher Columbus. The work was written as a reaction to events in 1992 in which many Americans protested celebrations that were being held in honor of the 500th anniversary of Columbus's 1492 voyage. Columbus, who had for so long been regarded as a hero in American history books, was now being portrayed as a villain of sorts, a precursor of the European colonization of the Americas that many people were beginning to regard as a hostile invasion. Viscusi saw his poem "as a way to temper the debate with a better understanding of Italian-American reality," explained David Gonzalez in the New York Times. In the poem, which actually centers on Italian-American history and immigration, Columbus is seen as a symbol of Italian-American identity that is being threatened by revisionist historians. Ethnic—as well as national—identity, then, is something that Viscusi is struggling to hold on to. "Columbus is central to the very history and myth of America," explained Peter Carravetta in Differentia, "and his is … a major point of reference in the cultural unconscious of the Italian Americans." Although Viscusi acknowledges that there is much mythology surrounding Columbus that disguises a dark side to American history, "the Oration is singing the disintegration of America with bitter and melancholy tones, and though it does not conflate the myth of Columbus with that of America, it does expound how one has been the analogon, at times, or the metaphor, of the other, how both have been shorn of their former grandeur and recklessness, and how the way Columbus Day is sinking in the popular estimation, so may soon America become a ghost of its more demonic self." Viscusi's poem, Carravetta concluded, "is a major addition to the growing body of Italian American literary culture … [that] will stand out as a rich, problematic, indeed troubling and yet unavoidable critical ganglion in the current literary history network."
Viscusi followed up Oration two years later with his critically acclaimed autobiographical novel, Astoria. Like his poem, the novel's central theme concerns the migration of Italians to America and their sense of ethnic identity. The title comes from the name of an Italian neighborhood in Queens, where Viscusi's mother was raised. But the term "Astoria" also has a dual meaning of both "history" and "fiction." Thus, the name "Astoria" represents Italy for Viscusi. Written at a time when he was mourning his mother's recent death, the narrative drowns in nostalgia while the author attempts to describe the past in terms of the future so as to explain how he has been shaped by his environment. In the story, the narrator travels to Paris in 1986 to teach at the university. The journey, however, also inspires much personal reflection on his Italian-American background, as well as on his role as an educator with a more than passing interest in the philosophies of Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan.
In Paris, the narrator is stunned to find his mother buried in Napoleon's tomb. After this, he finds that everywhere he goes, from Rome to New York City, he finds his mother memorialized in one way or another, and that this always leads him back to Astoria. Endeavoring to rid himself of his mother's hold on him, he writes books and theorizes about what he is experiencing, but he cannot escape her as she symbolizes the Great Migration of his Italian ancestors. Describing Viscusi's complicated work variously as a "metanovel," "autobiography," "epiphany," "post-colonial allegory," and "a revisionist historical fiction," Peter Carravetta said in his Melus assessment that Astoria "is a memoir, a tortured recounting of the irreparable loss, a testament of filial love.… The author becomes narrator, and as narrating voice can finally let go, uttering the portentous question: Who was my mother? and therefore: Who were my forebears. Who, what, am I as a result of being the descendant of these and only these special people?" A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the novel a "difficult and sometimes rewarding debut" that "buries some genuine wit and moments of real insight in a relentlessly self-conscious fiction." Library Journal critic Ellen R. Cohen concluded that Astoria "will appeal to readers who relish extensive philosophical ruminations."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Boelhower, William, and Rocco Pallone, editors, Adjusting Sites: New Essays in Italian American Studies, Forum Italicum, 1999, pp. 57-71.
Chelsea, Volume 60, 1996, Adele La Barre Starensier, review of Astoria, pp. 135-137.
Choice, June, 1986, R. T. Van Arsdel, review of Max Beerbohm; or, The Dandy Dante, p. 1545.
Differentia, spring-autumn, 1994, Peter Carravetta, "An Other Columbiad," pp. 311-320.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1995, review of Astoria, p. 810.
Library Journal, August, 1995, Ellen R. Cohen, review of Astoria, p. 121.
Melus, fall, 1999, Peter Carravetta, "Figuras of Cultural Recognition: A Reading of Robert Viscusi's Astoria," pp. 141-154.
New York Times, October 11, 1997, David Gonzalez, "A Poet Finds a New Muse in Christopher Columbus"; April 22, 2001, Felicia R. Lee, "Italian Stories, without Bullets."
Queen's Quarterly, autumn, 1986, Paul Boytinck, review of Max Beerbohm; or, The Dandy Dante, pp. 688-690.
Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice, spring, 2000, Santa Casciani, "[Re]creating Italian American Historiography: Astoria and the Truth of Narrative," pp. 7-19.
Victorian Studies, summer, 1987, Kerry Powell, review of Max Beerbohm; or, The Dandy Dante, pp. 558-560.
Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1986, review of Max Beerbohm; or, The Dandy Dante, p. 123.
Italian Academy,http://www.italianacademy.columbia.edu/ (March 24, 2001).
Italian American Writers' Association,http://www.iawa.net/ (March 24, 2001).*