American Uncles and Aunts: Generations, Genealogies, Bildungs in 1930s Novels


  • Cinzia Scarpino Università degli Studi di Milano



The essay focuses on the characters of uncles and aunts as they emerge in four novels written in the 1930s by two second-generation immigrant novelists and two American women writers: Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934), Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete (1939), Josephine Herbst’s Pity Is Not Enough (1933), and Catherine Anne Porter’s Old Mortality (1937). In their portrayal of a growing-up young male and female protagonist sharing many autobiographical traits with the authors, these works can be considered late versions of American Bildungsromans in which the presence of uncles and aunts seem to function as an alternative – or complementary – model to the parental one and to play a pivotal role in the (possible or impossible) Bildungs of nephews and nieces.   

Starting with a brief survey on the rediscovery and mapping of anthropological, ethnological and folkloric genealogies (including recent immigrants’ stories) and their unprecedented entrance into  official national narratives during the Great Depression, the essay attempts to show how the figures of uncles and aunts play strategic roles in both the working-class and immigrant Bildungs (or “anti-Bildungs) represented in Call It Sleep and Christ in Concrete, and the female middle-class Bildungs (or “awakenings”) evoked in Pity Is Not Enough and Old Mortality.

Whereas Roth and di Donato simultaneously mark the coming of age and the modern watershed of the hyphenated literary tradition of Jewish-American and Italian-American novels by creating impossible narratives of “development” built around ghetto children, Herbst and Porters’ works seem to stem from the genre of the sentimental novel and the novel of “awakening” and to twist them into a modernist version of possible female Bildungs.


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Biografia autore

Cinzia Scarpino, Università degli Studi di Milano

Cinzia Scarpino is currently post-doctoral fellow at the University of Milan, working
on a project on American fiction in the Great Depression. She is author of US Waste.
Rifiuti e sprechi d’America. Una storia dal basso (Saggiatore 2011), a book on waste in
American history and culture which tackles history, cultural geography, environmental
history, and photography; and co-author with M. Maffi, C. Schiavini, M.S. Zangari of
Americana. Storie e culture degli Stati Uniti dalla A alla Z (Saggiatore 2012). She has
published essays on Melville, Raymond Carver, Grace Paley, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion,
and on the representation of “catalogs” in American literature and culture. She has
also dealt with US television series, focusing on The Sopranos (“Between God(fathers)
and Good(fellas): To Kill, To Slur, To Eat in Tony Soprano’s Words”, Peter Lang 2011),
and co-curating with D. Izzo I Soprano e gli altri (Shake 2008) and with D. Izzo and F.
Iuliano The Wire e gli altri (Editori Riuniti 2012) in Ácoma, no. 3. She is member of the
editorial board of Ácoma (International Journal of North American Studies) and of
di/segni online book series (Dipartimento di Lingue e Letterature Straniere, Università
degli Studi di Milano).




Come citare

Scarpino, Cinzia. 2013. «American Uncles and Aunts: Generations, Genealogies, Bildungs in 1930s Novels». Altre Modernità, n. 9 (maggio):158-83.



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