Cover image: Photo of Fernanda Pivano and Jack Kerouac in the 1950s, courtesy of Bergamonews.
On a visit to Italy in 2016, my wife and I spent time with an Italian-American friend now based near Bologna in Emilia-Romagna. When the conversation got around to literature, our friend reported something surprising: to most educated Italians, the work of American Beat writers is the most important American literature of the 20th century, perhaps the only contemporary American literature worth reading.
As an American, this opinion puzzled me. I think of Beat literature as a phenomenon of a particular time and place. But her comment got me thinking about what has to happen for literature to get read outside its country of origin. How do readers decide what literature from other countries is worth their time?
Even for the most omnivorous reader, reading involves choices – there is just so much good fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction available. What portion of our reading time do we allocate to literature from outside our home country? How much time do we spend with literature in translation?
In Italy, it appears that the answer to that question is “plenty.” According to one literary agency, over 17% of the books published in Italy are translations from other languages; over 60% of these were translated from English. In contrast, only 3% of the books published in the U.S. are translations.
The history of the U.S. and England as imperial powers has spread the use of English to many parts of the world. The huge and still-expanding market for literature in English means that many talented writers from other countries, from Isabel Allende to Salman Rushdie, have “chosen” to write in my mother tongue. As an English-speaking American, world literature arrives at my front door, like an Amazon package. Italians do not enjoy this luxury – thus, the large market for translation in Italy.
So, here, in no particular order, are some of the factors that play a role in deciding what foreign literature gets read. None of these causes are mutually exclusive, and I would guess that several have to be operating together for a piece of work to overcome the barriers of language and culture.
- Thematic/cultural fit. By this, I mean that themes in author’s work happen to resonate in a different country at a particular time in its history.
- Translator ability. In other words, one or more talented translators connect with the work. Translators must be sensitive and faithful to the spirit of the original and free enough to render it effectively in a different language. Translators can become public champions of the work within the target country.
- A certain intrinsic literary quality in the original work is probably a necessary precondition. The stories, images, and metaphors need to have an intrinsic power strong enough to survive translation.
- Respected and persuasive critics or prominent cultural figures who are respected in the receiving country can champion the work in myriad ways, writing prefaces, reviews, or other commentary and appearing in the media to speak up for its importance.
- Finally, reader prejudice, habit and the limits of our time and attention play an inevitable role in deciding what gets read. Readers have a tendency to think about foreign literature in narrow, reductive categories. Once expectations are set, it can be hard for foreign writers whose work falls outside these categories to break through.
For North American readers, South American fiction may mean the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A South American novelist working in a different style – let’s say, fantasy or science fiction – would likely struggle to break through to North American readers. As readers, most of us are creatures of habit – we come back to the authors, themes, and styles that have given us pleasure in the past. This tendency keeps a lot of valuable work from reaching readers in other countries.
In this essay, I want to use the story of American Beat literature in Italy as a kind of informal case study on how factors like thematic/cultural fit, translators, advocates, and reader habits can shape the appetite for foreign literature in any given place. And since we’re on the subject of the American Beats, I’ll also take a look at how the Beats have maintained interest among U.S. readers over the years.
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So, how did the American Beat writers break through in Italy? To answer the question, one has to go back in time to look at the changing historical relationship between the U.S. and Italy.
At different times, Italian readers have been influenced to different degrees by anti-fascism, anti-capitalism, and anti-Americanism. During and immediately following World War II, the U.S., because of its role in helping defeat fascism in Italy, was associated with intellectual freedom for many Italians. During the 1950s, the image of the U.S. in Italy lost some of its luster, as Italians experienced what one critic called “the postwar rivers of Coca-Cola and economic imperialism.”
Beat literature began to be published in Italy in the late 50s during this period of disenchantment with the U.S., and it was primarily fiction at first. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published by Mondadori in 1959 (Sulla Strada), followed by The Subterraneans in 1960 (I Sotterranei) and William Burroughs’ Junkie (La scimmia sulla schiena) in 1962.
These novels represented a break with American culture of the 1950s by portraying characters who were not working to improve their material circumstances or social standing. They drove back and forth across the continent for the sheer joy of movement, hiked in the Cascade mountains on a spiritual quest, and sought a kind of release from everyday consciousness through drugs, alcohol and jazz. The characters gloried in their poverty and the sense of freedom they had found in it.
It’s important to note that the early Beat fiction contained no explicit criticism of capitalism or its culture. But for some Italian readers, the absence of upward striving in these stories may have been enough to imply a rejection of capitalist ethos.
If Italian readers had to infer an anti-capitalist message in Kerouac’s and Burroughs’ fiction, Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” required no strained interpretation. Ginsberg’s long, incantatory poem is a denunciation of everything that seemed wrong about American capitalism and its culture. It evoked Ginsberg’s sense of being trapped in an irrational system, an infernal machine that seemed bent on destroying the world through its greed.
Ginsberg begins the poem by cataloging the damage being done to his generation by the cogs and gears of this machine:
who burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism,/
who broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons
The images of human bodies as the raw materials of industry, with echoes of the holocaust, give “Howl” a horrifying potency. Another theme, one that recurs throughout Ginsberg’s work, is the theme of madness as a perverse form of protest against a mechanized, oppressive system. Among the many depictions of madness in the poem is the following:
…who demanded sanity trials accusing the radio of hypnotism & [and] were left with their insanity & [and] their hands & [and] a hung jury
who threw potato salad at CCNY [City College of New York] lecturers on Dadaism and subsequently presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse with shaven heads and harlequin speech of suicide, demanding instantaneous lobotomy,
The images of weaponry and the threat of nuclear war stalks “Howl.” This sense of threat must have resonated with Italian readers, who, like much of the world, lived in the shadow of the two nuclear-armed superpowers during the cold war years.
“Howl” was more than a protest poem. Like Walt Whitman had in Leaves of Grass, Ginsberg uses the self as a kind of microcosm of the larger society, acknowledging the evil and shame within his own soul. In many ways, the poem itself reads as Ginsberg’s attempt to exorcise these evils from his psyche.
Poetic form was another aspect of Beat poetry as a revolt. The movement toward “free verse” was already well established in American poetry by the time “Howl” appeared. But Ginsberg’s words in “Howl,” seemed to push outward against the most basic structural elements of poetry – like line length – as if they were prison bars. This sense of friction between content and structure becomes a kind of metaphor, heightening the poem’s sense of entrapment and enclosure. Within the logic of the poem, the poet must break the structural elements of poetry, as if structure itself was a tool of social repression.
With this radical logic, Ginsberg seemed determined to overthrow even the limited formalism of a generation of poets influenced by T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost. Since Eliot and Frost were known for a kind of cultural and spiritual conservatism, it’s possible that the Beats rejection of formalism enhanced their appeal among intellectually oriented Italian readers.
Fernanda Pivano, a prominent Italian critic and scholar of American literature, first read the poem in 1957, and spent several years in translating it, often corresponding with Ginsberg to clarify the meaning of passages that would have been obscure to Italian readers. Her translation was published in 1965 in the collection Hydrogen Jukebox (Jukebox All’idrogeno). Though it has been disparaged as overly literal, Pivano’s translation of “Howl” and her notes were used by translators to render the poem in other languages in the years that followed.
Pivano believed strongly in the centrality of sexual freedom in the struggle against fascism. In an interview in 1977, she discussed her upbringing, her first knowledge of the Beat writers, and her feelings about the importance of sexual freedom:
“I had had a very strict Victorian upbringing, and there was really no talk of sex … at least for the nice young ladies. Then, I encountered these American poets… William Carlos Williams first told me about Allen Ginsberg… and then in Paris … I found this issue of the Evergreen Review about the San Francisco “scene’ and the first reading of “Howl.” And so I got into this movement, which was a very, very beautiful, very anti-fascist movement.”
“My intellectual political base was antifascism, …. which was the defense of freedom at all levels, and that of homosexuality: I understood that it was the first, most urgent freedom to be proposed to men….Dictatorships never accepted these libertarian things.”
Thus, the explicit homoerotic and heteroerotic imagery in “Howl” and the sexual candor of “On the Road” made these works, for Pivano, inherently anti-fascist. In her introductions to these works and others in the decades that followed, she introduced them to Italian readers in anti-fascist, libertarian terms.
A short excerpt from the 1995 preface to her collection Poetry of the Last Americans (Poesia degli Ultimi Americani) gives you a flavor for Pivano’s advocacy. Describing the time of the book’s first publication in 1964, she writes:
…With these poems, they [young people of the time] announced their refusal to be victimized by a technocracy enslaved to capital or to be manipulated by a mass media enslaved to politics or consumerism…
We collected these poems, poems that were read passionately, that were carried by the hitchhiking boys for years in their sleeping bags with the other symbols of the society within society, On the Road by Kerouac or “Howl”. They contained free verses, haikus, choruses, and quoted Moby Dick, or sang hymns in honor of Marilyn Monroe, or screamed Gregory Corso’s famous immortal protest in “Love Letter to the Bomb”, the poem that mocked those who made a show of hatred for the bomb while tolerating the quiet, quotidian violence woven into the fabric of our lives.
Some aspects of the Beats’ anti-capitalist image in Italy may be accidental. The American poet Jack Hirschman seems to have played an inadvertent role in linking the Beat writers with anti-capitalist perspectives in the mind of the Italian public. Hirschman, a committed Marxist, visited and toured in Italy extensively, reciting his poetry to a jazz accompaniment in a highly theatrical style. Hirschman’s performance style suited Italians’ preference for poetry performance. While Hirschman was not a Beat himself – he criticized the Beats for being “bourgeois” and using drugs – his age, flamboyance, and affinity for jazz may have led Italian readers to think of him that way, thus enhancing the perceived links between Beat literature and anti-capitalism.
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Here in the United States, cultural gatekeepers like Pivano generally have less influence, and there is no single literary critic of equal prominence who has particularly championed the work of the Beats. Nevertheless, the Beats retain a certain rebellious allure for many U.S. readers.
I happen to live near San Francisco, the site of the first public readings of “Howl” in 1956 and one of the centers of gravity for the Beats as a social movement. Of course, the city is also well known as one of the inflection points of the hippie movement of the late 1960s, and the legends of these two movements inspire a slightly incongruous form of civic pride.
Any respectable tour of the city will include a stop at City Lights bookstore, at the corner of Columbus and Broadway in North Beach. Behind the bookstore, Jack Kerouac alley glows with the psychedelic colors of the hippie movement he inadvertently helped inspire. Across the street, the Beat museum showcases a variety of literary and personal memorabilia in a shrine-like setting.
Despite these forms of civic recognition, I have the distinct impression that many U.S. readers revere their work the way one reveres the name of a distant, honored forbear – that is, with a kind of vague reverence not based on direct personal knowledge. This feeling is particularly prevalent among the millions of baby boomer readers, many of whom participated in the hippie era in the U.S. or were touched by it in one way or another.
Another part of the allure of the Beats in the U.S. may have to do with the American public’s expectations of writers, poets, and other creative artists. In the 20th century, the most influential American poets have included a physician (William Carlos Williams), an insurance executive (Wallace Stevens), and a sometime banker with Lloyds of London (T. S. Eliot), who all wrote poetry “in their spare time,” as we like to say in the U.S. It is sometimes disappointing for Americans to accept that a poet or novelist can be ordinary in appearance and manner. On some level, we want our poets to be shamans, visionaries, medicine men. We want them to act differently, to live up to our expectations of eccentricity, to take risks on our behalf, to act on the impulses that we have perhaps shelved in pursuit of more predictable or tangible rewards.
Kerouac and Ginsberg easily fulfilled these expectations for unconventional behavior and appearance. When Kerouac appeared on the Steve Allen show in 1959, the American public discovered a gratifyingly eccentric type of literary figure: a man who recited poetry over jazz piano riffs. By the mid-60s, Ginsberg had assumed the look with which he’s now associated: a kind of cross between a Talmudic scholar, yogi, and proto-hippie, with his thick, dark shoulder-length hair and beard, broad, domed forehead, and thick-framed glasses.
My late father, who knew them both briefly in the late 40s, told me of walking with the two of them along a city street in Manhattan one evening. Suddenly, Ginsberg collapsed to the pavement and began to roll back and forth across the sidewalk. Kerouac stood by nodding and saying “Yeah, yeah” approvingly, as if listening to a Charlie Parker solo. My father, an aspiring novelist with a conventional upbringing in the mid-west, was suitably impressed. These guys were definitely different. Perhaps, they were the real thing.
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (1958), Viking, New York
“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, (1956), City Lights Publishing, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49303/howl
“Il mito americano nella letteratura italiana”, https://www.studenti.it/pavese_vittorini1.html
“La Liberta, il Sesso e le Dittature”, Intervista a Fernanda Pivano di Giorgio Bozzo e Andrea Marchetti, (1977). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBHJkwrbFOE
“L’Urlo di Fernanda Pivano: The History of Publication of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ in Italy”, Andrea Romanzi, 2022 – https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02614340.2021.2015992
On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957), Viking, New York
Poesia degli Ultimi Americani, a cura di Fernanda Pivano, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1964
Thanks to Pina Piccolo, for pointing me toward good sources on the Italian reception of the Beats, for her feedback on early drafts, and for her many shrewd observations about Italian readers.
Thanks to Melina Piccolo for her help with translation from the Italian.
Thanks to Maria Cristina Echavarren for copy-editing.
Clark Bouwman is an essayist and poet who lives in Richmond, California. His work has appeared previously in The Dreaming Machine, The Antonym, Gargoyle, Minimus, The Tacoma Voice, and in the collection Music Gigs Gone Wrong, Paycock Press (2022). He maintains a blog which includes many of his essays at https://from-where-i-stand.com/