Growing up an Italian-American in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of New York city, Marianna De Marco longed for college, culture, and upward mobility. Her daydreams circled around WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) heroes on television—like Robin Hood and the Cartwright family—but in Brooklyn she never encountered any. So she associated moving up with Ocean Parkway, a street that divides the working-class Italian neighborhood where she was born from the middle-class Jewish neighborhood into which she married. This book is Torgovnick’s unflinching account of crossing cultural boundaries in American life, of what it means to be an Italian American woman who became a scholar and literary critic.
Included are autobiographical moments interwoven with engrossing interpretations of American cultural icons from Dr. Dolittle to Lionel Trilling, The Godfather to Camille Paglia. Her experiences allow her to probe the cultural tensions in America caused by competing ideas of individuality and community, upward mobility and ethnic loyalty, acquisitiveness and spirituality.
Torgovnick, a professor of English at Duke University, grew up in Brooklyn, New York's heavily Italian Bensonhurst neighborhood, but she crossed the Ocean Parkway boundary to marry Stu Torgovnick, a Jew from Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay. Her lucid, loosely linked essays, some personal, others more literary, concern such crossings. ``On Being White, Female and Born in Bensonhurst'' takes off from the 1989 racially motivated Bensonhurst killing of African American Yusuf Hawkins to explore the ``simultaneously choking and nutritive power'' of the writer's roots. ``Slasher Stories'' thoughtfully connects the tales of violence against victimized women, often found in women's magazines, with some of Torgovnick's moments under threat or at a loss as mother and teacher. Surprisingly, the feminist author offers a compassionate reading of the seemingly sexist and racist Dr. Dolittle series and defends Mario Puzo's The Godfather as a serious novel. Perhaps Torgovnick's best mix of personal and professional is her critique of Camille Paglia, suggesting that the critic's spiritual ``hollowness'' comes from her internalization of ``the way Italian Americans are trained to think about women''-i.e., that ``woman can be good, but men are always better.''