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Critical Essay by Thomas J. Ferraro
SOURCE: "Blood in the Marketplace: The Business of Family in The Godfather Narratives," in The Invention of Ethnicity, edited by Werner Sollors, Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 176-208.
In the following essay, Ferraro analyzes the relationship between family and business in Puzo's The Godfather, and how Coppola's The Godfather II and Richard Condon's Prizzi's Honor build upon the original Godfather narrative.
Giorgio introduces me to his friend Piero Paco, hero of the Italo-American breach into American literature. He looks like a massive gangster but turns out to be a plain, nice guy with a lot of folksy stories and no complexes. He doesn't feel guilty about blacks, doesn't care about elevating Italo-American prestige. He's no missionary for wops. No gripes about the Establishment. He just decided in the best American way to write a book that would make half a million bucks because he was tired of being ignored.
"You don't think struggling Italo-Americans should stick together and give each other a push up from the bottom of the pile where they've always been?" I ask him. But he's no struggling half-breed anymore. He's made his pile; he's all-American now.
"I'm not going to push that crap," he says engagingly.
—Helen Barolini, Umbertina (1979)
What, after all, could be more American than the success stories of penniless immigrant boys clawing their way to wealth and respectability by private enterprise? What legitimate American business tycoon ever objected to being called "ruthless," to being credited (like the good boxer) with the "killer instinct"…?
What is more, The Godfather could be seen to represent not only some of the continuing principles of the American way of life, but the ancestral ideals it had somehow inexplicably lost on the way. In Don Corleone's world bosses were respected and loved by their subordinates as surrogate fathers. Men were men and women were glad of it Morality ruled unchallenged, and crime, for the most part, was kept off the streets. Families stuck together under patriarchal control. Children obeyed—fathers, and virtuous wives were not afraid of losing their status to mistresses…. No wonder New York magazine exclaimed (according to the paperback edition's blurb): "You'll find it hard to stop dreaming about it."
—E. J. Hobsbawm, "Robin Hoodo"
In his 1969 blockbuster, The Godfather, Mario Puzo presented an image of the Mafia that has become commonplace in American popular culture. Since Puzo, it has been taken for granted that the Mafia operates as a consortium of illegitimate businesses, structured along family lines, with a familial patriarch or "godfather" as the chief executive officer of each syndicate.1 Puzo's version of the Mafia fuses into one icon the realms of family and economy, of southern Italian ethnicity and big-time American capitalism, of blood and the marketplace. "Blood" refers to the violence of organized crime. "Blood" also refers to the familial clan, and its extension through the fictive system of the compare, or "cogodparenthood." In The Godfather, the representation of the Mafia fuses ethnic tribalism with the all-American pursuit of wealth and power. Since its publication, we have regarded this business of family in The Godfather as a figment of Puzo's opportunistic imagination, which it remains in part. But the business of family in Puzo's Mafia is also a provocative revision of accepted notions of what ethnicity is and how it works—the new ethnic sociology in popular literary form.
During the late seventies and early eighties, there was a short outburst of scholarly interest in The Godfather and its myriad offspring. A consensus about the meaning of the saga's popularity emerges from the books and essays of Fredric Jameson, Eric Hobsbawm, John Cawelti, and John Sutherland. The portrayal of the Corleone family collective allows Americans, in the post-Vietnam era, to fantasize about the glory days of "closely knit traditional authority." The portrayal of the power and destructive greed of the Mafia chieftains permits Americans to vent their rage at "the managerial elite who hold the reins of corporate power and use it for their own benefit."2 The family and business thematics are, in each instance, disengaged from one another. As Jameson puts it: on the one hand, the ethnic family imagery satisfies "a Utopian longing" for collectivity; on the other hand, "the substitution of crime for big business" is the narrative's "ideological function."3 In standard treatments like these, Puzo's narrative is regarded as a brilliant (or brilliantly lucky) instance of satisfying two disparate appetites with a single symbol. This perspective, formulated in the late seventies, seems to have settled the issue of the novel's popularity.
I want to reopen that issue. We need to return to The Godfather because we have too easily dismissed its representation of the Mafia as a two-part fantasy. Of course, The Godfather is not reliable as a roman a clef or as a historical novel: Puzo's details are fuzzy, mixed-up, and much exaggerated.4 "There was things he stretched," as Huck would put it, and everyone knows it. But critics have been too ready to accept his major sociological premise—family and business working in tandem—as pure mythology. The importance of The Godfather lies not in a double mythology, I would argue, but in its taking of the fusion of kinship and capitalist enterprise seriously. Its cultural significance lies not in the simultaneous appeals of "family" and "business" imagery but rather in the appeal of an actual structural simultaneity: the business of family. By failing to pause long enough to consider its surface narrative, critics have underestimated not only the strategies of the novel but the insights and intuitions of its huge audience as well.
Readers have underestimated the business of family because little in traditional theories of the family, ethnicity, and advanced capitalism has prepared them to recognize it. In both scholarly and popular treatments, ethnic culture and extended kinship are interpreted as barriers to the successful negotiation of the mobility ladder, particularly its upper ranks. Southern Italian immigrants and their descendants have long been thought to exemplify the principle that the more clannish an ethnic group, the slower its assimilation and economic advancement.5 Herbert Gans's Urban Villagers, Virginia Yans-McLaughlin's Family and Community, Thomas Kessner's The Golden Door, and Thomas Sowell's Ethnic America essentially update the social-work perspectives of writers such as Phyllis H. Williams and Leonard Covello.6 In 1944, Covello wrote.
Any social consciousness of Italo-Americans within "Little Italies" appertains primarily to sharing and adhering to the family tradition as the main motif of their philosophy of life…. The retention of this cultural "basis" is essentially the source of their retarded adjustment.7
This long-standing tradition of identifying the Italian family structure as a dysfunctional survival runs aground on the Mafia.
Historians and sociologists attest to the difficulty of interpreting the Mafia in terms of a linear model of assimilation and upward mobility. All commentators recognize that the Mafia was not simply transported here; that it grew up from the multiethnic immigrant streets, rather than being passed on from father to son; and that Prohibition was the major factor in shaping its growth. In A Family Business, the sociologist Francis A. J. Ianni concedes these points, only to stress the family structure of the syndicates and the origin of this familialism in southern Italy:
[The Lupullo crime organization] feels like a kinship-structured group; familialism founded it and is still its stock in trade. One senses immediately not only the strength of the bond, but the inability of members to see any morality or social order larger than their own.
Ianni's research tempts him into abandoning the tradition of placing ethnic phenomena on a linear continuum running from Old World marginality to New World centrality.8 His research supports and his analysis anticipates (if it does not quite articulate) the cutting edge of ethnic theory. It is time for the criticism of ethnic literature generally, and of The Godfather in particular, to take advantage of such theory.
Scholars in a number of fields are working to change the way we think about ethnicity, ethnic groups, and ethnic culture. In identifying the social bases of ethnicity, theorists are shifting emphasis from intergenerational transmission to arenas of conflict in complex societies. They argue that we need to examine ethnic cultures not as Old World survivals (whatever their roots) but as strategies to deal with the unequal distribution of wealth, power, and status. In this light, ethnic groups are seen to include not only socially marginal peoples but any groups who use symbols of common descent and tradition to create or maintain power. From a historian's perspective, European family structures and traditions do not necessarily dissolve in the face of capitalism but rather, as they have always done, evolve to meet its changing needs.9 Herbert Gans has spoken of "cost-free" ethnicity among the middle classes, but ethnicity is often profitable as well.10
In his work, the anthropologist Abner Cohen conceives of ethnic groups as "interest groups," in which ethnic symbols function in lieu of more formal structures such as the law. By the symbolic apparatus of ethnicity, he means the emphasis on common history and tradition, endogamy and social boundary maintenance, religion and ritual, and everyday encoded behavior, including "accent, manner of speech, etiquette, style of joking, play," and so forth: the rhetoric and codes of "blood."11 As Cohen explains, the symbolic apparatus of "ethnicity" incites genuine loyalty and emotion, whose power and idiosyncrasy should not be underestimated. But the apparatus also serves utilitarian purposes within society at large, including the economic marketplace. In many of our most familiar examples, the function of ethnic ritual is primarily defensive, organizing a group on the margins of society; but the uses of ethnicity can be quite aggressive as well. The Italian-American Mafia is a case in point. As Ianni and others have demonstrated, it is the ethos of ethnic solidarity that puts the organization into Italian-American organized crime.
In her discussion of The Godfather, Rose Basile Green comes the closest of any critic, I think, to unpacking in Cohen's fashion what she herself calls the "socioeconomic ethnic image" of the Corleone crime syndicate. Unlike almost everyone else, Green takes seriously Puzo's portrayal of the syndicates not as a historical novel about actual gangsters but as a treatise (however romanticized) "dealing with the contemporary strategy of gaining and securing power." Yet her analysis splits into typical parallel paths: crime as a means for social mobility versus the family as a locus of traditional southern Italian responsibility. Although Green identifies "a subtle line between personal interest and structural power," she too fails to make the strongest connection between the private family life ascribed to Don Corleone and the illegitimate enterprise he heads. When Green says that The Godfather explores "the contemporary strategy of gaining and securing power," she means by "strategy" the tactics of bribery, intimidation, the brokerage of votes, intergang warfare, and so forth, with which Don Corleone conducts business outside the confines of his own organization. But the most noteworthy device for gaining and securing power in Puzo's depiction is internal to the Corleone syndicate. The device is not a gun or payola but, quite simply and obviously, that mystified entity the "southern Italian family."12
"Tell the old man I learned it all from him and that I'm glad I had this chance to pay him back for all he did for me. He was a good father."
As narrator in The Godfather, Puzo adopts the familiar role of cultural interpreter, mediating between outside readers and an ethnic secret society. Puzo's agenda, implicit yet universally understood, is to explain why Sicilian-Americans have made such good criminals. The answer, generally speaking, is their cult of family honor. The Corleones believe, with a kind of feudal fervor, in patriarchy, patronage, and protection. The Godfather is saturated with the imagery of paternity, family, and intimate friendship; with the rhetoric of respect, loyalty, and the code of silence; with references to Sicilian blood and the machismo attributed to it; with the social events—weddings, christenings, funerals, meals, and so forth—that embody the culture of family honor. Always the business of crime is interlaced with the responsibilities of family. In the film, for instance, Clemenza frets over a request from his wife even as he presides over the execution of Paulie Gatto: "Don't forget the cannolis!" Don Vito himself is a true believer. He believes in the mutual obligation of kinfolk. He seeks to expand his wealth and power to protect his dependents and to make his protection available to more and more people. He recruits from within his family to keep the business "all in the family" for the family's sake. "It was at this time that the Don got the idea that he ran his world far better than his enemies ran the greater world which continually obstructed his path."13 At the same time, "not his best friends would have called Don Corleone a saint from heaven", there is always "some self-interest" in his generosity (G, 215). For everyone recognizes the wisdom of family honor—Corleone's honor—given the special exigencies of operating in a big way in an outlawed underground economy.
In his analysis of the ethnic group as an interest group. Abner Cohen stresses the growth potential wherever there is a sector of an economy that has not been organized formally:
Even in the advanced liberal industrial societies there are some structural conditions under which an interest group cannot organize itself on formal lines. Its formal organization may be opposed by the state or by other groups within the state, or may be incompatible with some important principles in the society; or the interests it represents may be newly developed and not yet articulated in terms of a formal organization and accommodated with the formal structure of the society. Under these conditions the group will articulate its organization on informal lines, making use of the kinship, friendship, ritual, ceremonial, and other symbolic activities that are implicit in what is known as style of life.14
The ethnic ethos means sticking together, respecting the authority of the group rather than that of outsiders, defending the group's turf, and abiding by tradition. The reasoning comes full circle, for tradition is equated with group solidarity. The family is the core element of the group and its most powerful symbol. Under the appropriate conditions the ethos of "ethnicity" is by no means anachronistic in the advanced stages of capitalism, no matter how rooted such values might be to the past of particular groups. Wherever ethnicity can facilitate enterprise, capitalism as a system can be said to be one of ethnicity's primary motors, not its antithesis. Focusing on the old moneyed elite of London, Cohen has argued that ethnicity functions among the privileged as well as the impoverished and among "core" castes as well as racial and national minorities. In another case study, the historian Peter Dobkin Hall implicates family and tradition in the mercantilism of Massachusetts elites, 1700–1900.15 As both Cohen and Hall contend, a precondition for capitalized ethnicity is a legal vacuum. Here I wish to add a corollary based on the history of the Mafia: the desire to engage in enterprise, not simply in a vacuum (where there is no law or formal arrangements) but in an economic zone outside the law and against formal arrangements, makes some form of family and ethnic organization a necessity.
The seemingly "feudal" ethos of family honor, deeply internalized, cements individuals together in American crime, structuring syndicates and giving them their aggrandizing momentum. Loyalty and devotion to group honor are the values around which individuals are motivated, recruited, judged, and policed in the Mafia. These values are especially good in binding criminals together and in making criminals out of those otherwise not drawn to the outlaw life. They came into the forefront in America when Prohibition created an enormous unorganized sector of the national economy, legally proscribed, but promoted by immense appetites and the willingness of the actual legal structure to play along, especially "for a price." They are also especially needed to hold together the large-scale enterprises, not structured or protected by law, that prohibition creates but that survive after it: rackets devoted to gambling, loansharking, prostitution, various forms of extortion, and eventually drugs. In legitimate business, a prized executive who sells himself and perhaps a secret or two to another company is regarded as an unexpected operating loss. A caporegime who becomes a stool pigeon can bring the whole system down. The ideology of tradition and of group solidarity, principally of the family, is ideal for rationalizing crime syndicates, in both senses of the term "rationalize": ideal for organizing them because it is ideal for justifying their existence and their hold over their members.
Scholars report that actual mafiosi crime syndicates are family based. In A Family Business, Ianni analyzes the structure of a major American Mafia clan—the "Lupullo" family—abstracting four general rules of organization:
the merging of social and business functions into one kin-centered enterprise; the assignment of leadership positions on the basis of kinship; the correlation between closeness of kin relationship and the hierarchy of positions; and the requirement of close consanguineal or affinal relationship for inclusion in the core group….16
Ianni produces several diagrams to illustrate his thesis: a genealogical table of actual and fictive (godparent-godchild) relations; a flowchart of the subdivisions and their operations within the crime syndicate; and a third table, which combines the preceding two.17 The third table diagrams what Ianni calls the "power alliances" (relations of respect and deference) between leaders within the Lupullo crime hierarchy. The pattern of authority within the syndicate mimics the pattern within the patriarchal clan.
In The Godfather, Mario Puzo provides a narrative equivalent of the Lupullos' power chart. During the wedding scene, Puzo introduces the Corleones in terms of their dual roles as family members and company executives. Vito Corleone is president and chief executive officer, as well as father or godfather to everyone within the organization. Genco Abbandando, "consigliori" (right-hand man), has been his best friend during his American childhood, his honorary brother, the son of the man who took him in and gave him his first job. But Genco is dying, and it is suspected that Tom Hagen, Vito Corleone's "adopted" son, will be taking over as counselor. Vito's eldest, Sonny, operates one of the principal three divisions or regimes of the family. The other two division leaders (capo-regimes), Tessio and Clemenza, are comari of Vito, godparents to each other's children. Fredo, the second son, serves his father as bodyguard and executive secretary. Michael, the youngest son, is the black sheep of the family and has nothing to do with its business. By tradition, the women are "civilians." But Connie's groom, Carlo Rizzi (an old boyhood chum of Sonny), expects, through this marriage, to rise quickly in the syndicate.
The network of nuclear family, extended kin by blood or marriage, and honorary kinship is not simply a structural convenience. The ideology of family operates neither as false consciousness in the vulgar sense nor as rhetoric that is entirely and self-consciously hypocritical. The rhetoric of solidarity works to organize the Corleone syndicate because of its hold over the imaginations and passions of leaders and those in the common ranks alike. As Cohen explains it, ethnic symbols function in lieu of formal structures precisely because of their transutilitarian, emotional appeal. This "dual" nature of symbolization is illustrated especially well in Puzo's depiction of Tom Hagen's admission into the Corleone syndicate.
Sonny Corleone had brought Tom Hagen, an orphaned waif of German-Irish extraction, into the Corleone household, where he was allowed to remain. "In all this the Don acted not as a father but rather as a guardian." Only after Hagen goes to work for Don Corleone is he treated as a fourth son:
After he passed the bar exam. Hagen married to start his own family. The bride was a young Italian girl from New Jersey, rare at that time for being a college graduate. After the wedding, which was of course held in the home of Don Corleone, the Don offered to support Hagen in any undertaking he desired, to send him law clients, furnish his office, start him in real estate.
Tom Hagen had bowed his head and said to the Don, "I would like to work for you."
The Don was surprised, yet pleased. "You know who I am?" he asked.
Hagen nodded…. "I would work for you like your sons," Hagen said, meaning with complete loyalty, with complete acceptance of the Don's parental divinity. The Don, with that understanding which was even then building the legend of his greatness, showed the young man the first mark of fatherly affection since he had come into his household. He took Hagen into his arms for a quick embrace and afterward treated him more like a true son, though he would sometimes say, "Tom, never forget your parents," as if he were reminding himself as well as Hagen. (G, 51-52)
In the scene above, Hagen moves into the Don's inner circle. It is a dual movement, enacted simultaneously, into the inner realm of Don Vito's familial affections and into the ranks of his crime organization. Tom touches the Don's heart by volunteering, despite his origins, to submit himself to the Don's will and risk his life and freedom in the company. By the same token, the Don rewards Hagen's voluntary show of respect with a symbolic "adoption" that signifies the bond of loyalty upon which their futures as gangsters will depend. The symbol of paternity here works emotionally and pragmatically at the same time. Indeed, the father-son bonding is all the more powerful because of its economic component, while its utility depends, in the absence of biological paternity, quite precisely upon the psychological density of the tie.18
So far I have been juxtaposing the sociology of ethnic and familial interest groups with various elements of The Godfather, treating the latter as if it were merely an illustration of the former—as if The Godfather were a kind of sociological tract or social-work guide to the Mafia. Of course, The Godfather is not exposition, but a novel; not sociology, but story. Yet the populist, fictional composition of The Godfather does not mean it is any less effective than the scholarship of Cohen or Ianni as a medium for implicating the ethnic family in capitalism. Puzo uses the resources of fiction—imagery and rhetoric, characterization, and, most of all, narrative—to make a case for the interpenetration of family and business. In the instance of Tom Hagen's admission to the Corleone family, Puzo rigs a set of circumstances and unfolds an event in such a fashion that the strands of father-son emotion and corporate personnel management are not phenomenologically separable. Hagen's recruitment/initiation functions as a microcosm for the interpenetration of family and business in the narrative as a whole. Through melodrama, Puzo undermines the still common assumption that family and business operate as separate spheres. Puzo combines family and business within the same narrative site. He also subverts the reader's desire, in keeping with a purified notion of the family and a vilified notion of the economy, to subordinate one phenomenon to the other, as cause and effect, in any given instance. In The Godfather the syndicate never, or almost never, uses family imagery merely to structure itself in lieu of better alternatives, thereby "corrupting" the forms and values of an otherwise sacrosanct ethnic tribe. On the other hand, the family never engages in business simply to support itself, dirtying its hands to keep head and heart clean. Always the two phenomena are causally intermingled. By the deviousness of situation and event, Puzo contextualizes the ethnic family within the capitalist economy while excavating the contribution of ethnic culture and the rhetoric of ethnicity to illegitimate enterprise.
To a greater extent perhaps than we have become used to in analyzing modernist, high-brow literature, the story line is crucial to The Godfather. Even the critics most hostile to Puzo admit that his great gift is storytelling, including the creation of memorable characters, but especially the creation and maintenance of suspense—of beginnings that captivate, middles the keep you going, and endings that satisfy. In The Godfather, Puzo narrates two plots that lock together into a single, resounding conclusion.19 When the novel opens, a breakdown in filial obedience exposes the Corleone syndicate to "a hostile take-over bid" from the Barzini-Tattaglia group. At the same time, business matters threaten the lives of Corleone family members and precipitate dissent among them. This double crisis is the hook that captures our attention: a business in trouble, a family in trouble. We cheer for a solution to both crises—nothing less will satisfy—and Puzo contrives brilliantly to give it to us. Both crises, potentially disastrous, are solved when Don Vito's youngest son, Michael, ascends to his father's place and successfully squelches the Barzini-Tattaglia threat. It is a stunning illustration of the structural logic of family business in narrative terms. The return of the prodigal son alleviates the problem of managerial succession, while the resurrection of the syndicate's power base restores the primacy of family values and commitments. Puzo's story is "dual" in the sense that the ethnic symbols of the Mafia are dual and that Tom Hagen's adoption as a Corleone is dual. So tightly constructed is Puzo's plot around the theme of duality that the novel's denouement seems inevitable. To save the business, you must regroup the family; to save the family, you must regroup the business.
In The Godfather, Puzo uses Connie Corleone's wedding to illustrate the overlapping structures of family and business in the American Mafia of the 1940s. In the Godfather film (the lens of which constantly obscures our view of the novel), Coppola plays with a contrast between the beneficent private life of the Corleones (the sunlit wedding feast) and their business escapades (inside the darkened house, inside their hearts of darkness).20 Yet, Coppola's moral allegory reifies a distinction between the private and the corporate, home and work, explicitly undermined by the novel. In Puzo's design, business associates are the proper wedding guests, because one's family and friends are one's proper coworkers and retainers. The specter of communal solidarity, embodied in the wedding, marks a plateau of harmonious unity from which the Corleones are about to fall. As Puzo introduces the members of the Corleone family at Connie's wedding and their environment, he not only unpacks the functional interdependence of family and business. He explicates and foreshadows a disturbance in family-business equilibrium, reciprocally engendered, mutually threatening, that is the medium for the Godfather narrative. As Puzo imagines it, the incipient threat to the Corleone empire is analytically inseparable from the breakdown in the familial solidarity of the syndicate—including Genco's death, the Don's creeping senility, Sonny's disobedience, the disloyalty of Carlo and Tessio, Hagen's intransigent foreignness, Michael's rebellion. At the same time, tensions in the family arise directly out of the involvement in the business of crime.
At the opening of the novel, Don Corleone is nearing retirement, which has him justifiably worried about the leadership of the syndicate. In standard corporate management, such a problem can be handled either by promotion of the best available personnel from within company ranks or by recruitment from outside the company (intercorporate "raiding"). But for the Corleones, of course, the problem of the company executive is strictly a family matter, and that makes it a problem indeed. The right-hand man, Genco Abbandando, dies on the day of the wedding, leaving Don Corleone no choice but to promote Tom Hagen, an adopted son whose German-Irish descent precludes consideration for the top post of don. Both Clemenza and Tessio, the two capo-regimes, are nearing retirement themselves; moreover, they are not quite family enough. Of the don's own sons, neither Sonny nor Fredo seems finally to have the mettle to be don, while Michael, once favored to head the family, is now an outcast:
[Sonny] did not have his father's humility but instead a quick, hot temper that led him into errors of judgment. Though he was a great help in his father's business, there were many who doubted that he would become the heir to it…. The second son, Fredrico … did not have that personal magnetism, that animal force, so necessary for a leader of men, and he too was not expected to inherit the family business…. The third son, Michael, did not stand with his father and his two brothers but sat at a table in the most secluded corner of the garden. (G, 17)
The leadership vacuum, familially engendered, is the weak link that tempts the Barzini-Tattaglia consortium (fronted by Sollozzo, the drug dealer) to take over the Corleone rackets. Weaknesses in the character of family members and in their relations with one another expose the Corleone family to, quite literally, a hostile takeover bid.
Concomitantly, and inseparably, business tensions have precipitated disputes within the intimate family circle. Michael has fallen out with his family because he objects to the way its members make a living, committing himself instead to the defense of his country and the "straight arrow" mobility of a Dartmouth education. Connie's old-fashioned Sicilian wedding seems to symbolize the unity of the Corleone generations. Yet the garden celebration actually screens dissent between Connie and her father, traceable to Corleone involvement in the rackets. "Connie had consented to a 'guinea' wedding to please her father because she had so displeasured him in her choice of a husband" (G, 20). The persistence of the Corleone syndicate means that one of the qualifications for a Corleone son-in-law is potential for criminal leadership. Don Corleone objects to Carlo Rizzi as his daughter's husband not because he doubts Carlo's qualities as a mate but because he questions Carlo's ability and trustworthiness as a gangster. For his own part, Carlo marries Connie not only out of love but also because he hopes to rise in the Corleone syndicate. When Don Corleone violates the principle of familial promotion, providing Carlo with a living but not an executive role, Carlo seeks revenge on his father-in-law and the family. Carlo sets up the assassination of Sonny, bringing the syndicate to the brink of disaster. By Puzo's design, as demonstrated in this instance, any analysis of family-business disrepair comes full circle: we trace family problems to business questions, only to find the intrusion of business into family life returning to haunt the business.
Carlo's betrayal, like that of Paulie Gatto and ultimately of Tessio himself, illustrates the point of vulnerability in a family business within a competitive market. The principles of maximizing profits and employing insiders are not always compatible. Syndicate leaders are tempted, for the sake of performance, to slight certain inept family members. Syndicate members are tempted, for personal gain, to betray their organizations. As long as a doctrine of familial loyalty is obeyed to the letter, neither temptation wins the day. But when family principles break down, the company is in danger.
The leadership vacuum in the Corleone syndicate is filled by the reestablishment of order in the Corleone patriarchy, when Michael returns to his family, his descent culture, and his filial "destiny." In The Godfather, the crisis of managerial succession is a crisis, as Cawelti notes, of "family succession" which can be solved only familially.21 Puzo resolves the dual crisis by having Michael grow a familial conscience and an ethnic consciousness, mandating his ascent to his father's position as patriarch. At the novel's opening, Michael is a family pariah—scomunicato, excommunicated.22 Before the war, Michael was the chosen heir to his father's regime, but later he refuses to have anything to do with the business and barely anything to do with the members of his family. He courts an "Adams" for a wife. Puzo's narrative counteracts the seeming decline of the Corleone syndicate by charting Michael's rebirth as a Corleone family member and a businessman of crime.
Michael's return as a once prodigal son is enacted in a steplike progression that mirrors the rhythms of religious initiation—baptism, confirmation, the sacrament of marriage or the priesthood. Killing Sollozzo and the police captain. Michael commits himself to his father's honor and a life of crime, simultaneously. In Sicily, he is symbolically rebaptized a Sicilian, learning the history of the Italian Mafia, converting to the old traditions, even taking a local wife (subsequently killed). Back in America, he is apprenticed to his father. When Don Corleone dies, Michael takes over the business and the family, becoming godfather to Connie's firstborn and "Don Michael" to his business associates. During the actual christening of his godson (as Coppola depicts it), Michael's henchmen execute a series of murders that restore the internal solidarity of the Corleone syndicate and enlarge its boundaries and standing. When he acts his father's part, even Michael's face begins to resemble Don Vito's in his prime. Puzo's drama of monarchical, Oedipal succession reverses the familiar convention of second-generation "orphanhood" with which the novel begins.23
Any analytic attempt to separate what Michael does out of an emotional recommitment to his father or his ethnic past from what Michael accomplishes out of a pragmatic enlistment in his father's company is doomed to echo in the wilderness. Readers even vaguely familiar with the Godfather narrative know that the brutal simultaneous killings at the end of the novel reestablish and indeed improve the Corleones' standing in the American Mafia. But it is less well recognized, and the film underplays, how the ending reintegrates the Corleone household. Critics argue that Puzo deploys family imagery to win sympathy for Michael's otherwise morally egregious plans. Critics misconstrue the strategies of the novel, however, when they subordinate the familial pleadings of the narrative to its capitalist melodrama, as if the reintegration of the family were merely an ideological cover for the reincorporation of the syndicate. The two structures are interrelated; neither can rightly be subordinated to the other.
Standing godfather to his nephew, Michael accepts family leadership and embodies family unity, literalizing his newly won title as patriarch of an extended family, crowned "Don" Michael Corleone. Michael tightens the family circle around him. Hagen returns from Nevada. Traitors to family honor—Gatto, Rizzi, Tessio—are weeded out. Michael's success in restoring the Corleone empire is as much the act of a truly obedient son as his godfatherhood is a basis for taking over the syndicate, for the crime organization becomes a structure on which the Corleones are reunited. Coppola's film version leaves us with a trace of dissent in the air, ending with Kay's recognition of Michael's ruthless criminality. In the novel, Puzo restores the equanimity of husband and wife and, by symbolic extension, of the Corleone family at large. Tom Hagen explains to Kay why it was necessary, from the standpoint of their ethos, for Michael to order the executions of Carlo Rizzi, Tessio, and the others. Kay acquiesces to Hagen's explanation and Michael's desire that she come home. She undergoes a rite of cultural self-transformation, to make herself into the kind of Italian-American woman the criminal environment expects. Whereas the film ends with Kay's anguish, the novel ends with Kay's conversion to Catholicism. Every morning she goes to mass with her mother-in-law, there to say, in the final words of the novel, "the necessary prayers for the soul of Michael Corleone" (G, 446). The peace of the Corleones is thereby restored. Michael does not mend matters with Kay simply to make the company perform better, any more than he restores the power of the syndicate simply to win his wife back and reintegrate his family; as Puzo has rigged the plot, the two go hand in hand.
The single aspect of The Godfather that seems to have made the deepest impact on the American public is Puzo's use of the central symbol of "the family." This symbol's influence has virtually changed overnight the American public's favorite term for a criminal organization.
For its depiction of an ethnic subculture that functions as an interest group, The Godfather would warrant attention from scholars—even if, like The Fortunate Pilgrim, the novel had disappeared into obscurity upon publication. But the novel has had a major impact on popular culture. The figure of "the godfather" outstrips all but the most ubiquitous cultural symbols, falling somewhere between Huckleberry Finn and Superman, perhaps better known than Uncle Sam himself.24 The novel has possibly been the best-seller of all time. By 1971, when the first film was released, there were over one million hardcover copies in circulation—multiple copies in every library in every town in America—with at least ten million more paperbacks.25 Historically, the reading of the novel framed the film—not, as in academic criticism, the other way around. The novel still sells, another five or ten million to date, in a $1.95 paperback series of "classic bestsellers." The most immediate spin-offs were the two films; versions of those films rearranged for television; and the video format, which frequently offers both films on a single cassette. By 1975, 260 more books on the Mafia theme had been released, principally of the hard-boiled variety.26 In 1984, Puzo himself tried again with The Sicilian, his fictional account of Salvatore Giuliano. Ethnicity in crime has figured in several major films, including The Cotton Club (coscripted by Coppola, Puzo, and William Kennedy), The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight, Mean Streets, Broadway Danny Rose, Heart of the Dragon, Scarface, and Once upon a Time in America. The popularity of the family "dynasty" sagas, especially in their many ethnic varieties, can be traced in part to Puzo's model. More telling still has been the ceaseless production of Godfather clones, emphasizing the fusion of family and crime. Practically a genre of their own, they include (auto)biographical works like Gay Talese's Honor Thy Father, Joseph Bonanno's Man of Honor, and Antoinette Giancana's Mafia Princess; novels like Vincent Patrick's Family Business and Richard Condon's Prizzi's Honor; academic studies like Francis A. J. Ianni's A Family Business; and films and teleplays, including "Our Family Honor," ABC's ill-fated attempt to combine Italian-American gangsters with Irish-American cops.
What are we to make of the lasting fascination with The Godfather? Since its appearance, scholars have recognized The Godfather as an artifact of what is called, perhaps misleadingly, the "new ethnicity." The timing of the novel and its immediate offspring, from the book's publication in 1969 to the television series in the late seventies, corresponds to the rise of a celebratory attitude toward ethnic identity. This celebration encompassed not only groups by and large still marginal—blacks, Indians, newcomers from Asia and the Hispanic Americas—but also the descendants of European immigrants, including the Italians, who were increasingly well established in the middle classes. Necessarily, the connections drawn between the increased salience of ethnicity and The Godfather's popularity have been premised on the prevailing interpretation of The Godfather as a two-part fantasy, in which family sanctuary and successful corporate enterprise are polar opposites. My reading of The Godfather, emphasizing the complicity of family and business, calls for a reexamination of the novel's role in the new ethnic self-consciousness. Both the popularity of The Godfather and the celebration of ethnicity are complex phenomena, reflecting a myriad of attitudes toward race, class, and gender as well as toward ethnicity—attitudes often in conflict with one another. By claiming that The Godfather articulates the business of family, I do not wish to mute these other voices. My ambition is to point the way toward evaluating the voice of family business within the larger cacophony of debate.
Scholars like Jameson and Cawelti, working within the frame of traditional Godfather interpretation, seek to locate in the novel an anticapitalist energy—not an overt critique so much as an impulse, the energy of a potential critique partially veiled and misdirected. Both critics argue that Puzo portrays the Mafia as the center of a capitalist conspiracy and, simultaneously and irreconcilably, as a refuge from the conspiracy of capitalism. Because Puzo's Mafia functions as "the mirror-image of big-business," its brutality provides a focus for anticapitalist anxiety and an outlet for anticapitalist anger.27 Similarly, the juxtaposed, equally powerful image of the family reflects, in Jameson's terms, a "Utopian longing" for escape from the prison house of capitalism. "The 'family' is a fantasy of tribal belongingness," echoes Cawelti, "that protects and supports the individual as opposed to the coldness and indifference of the modern business or government bureaucracy."28
In the standard view, The Godfather's putative double fantasy reflects the misdirected energies of the new ethnicity; the new ethnicity arises from frustration with capitalism yet mutes its resistance in clamor about the decline of the family and traditional values.29 My analysis of The Godfather suggests we might hesitate, however, before accepting the majority opinion, that the family in the novel embodies a refuge from capitalism. We need especially to question whether a case for the subversive nature of The Godfather can rest on the myth of the Italian-American family as a precapitalist collectivity, when Puzo mounts all his forces to undermine this false dichotomy. The representation of the southern Italian family in The Godfather is not the kind of saccharine portrayal of innocent harmony—the haven in a heartless world—that scholars take as the benchmark of ethnic nostalgia. In The Godfather, capitalism is shown to accommodate, absorb, and indeed accentuate the structures of family and ethnicity. Americans respond to The Godfather because it presents the ethnic family not as a sacrosanct European institution, reproduced on the margins of America, but as a central American structure of power, successful and bloodied.
The desire of scholars to identify ethnic pietism as a locus of anticapitalist energy has blinded them to an alliance between the new ethnicity and procapitalist celebration of the family. This alliance is an insufficiently recognized strain in recent popular culture. At least until World War II, and perhaps into the 1970s, the dominant attitude toward the ethnic family in the United States assumed its incompatibility with capitalism, whether ethnicity was favored or not. The rabid Americanizers of the early decades attempted to strip immigrant workers of their familial and cultural loyalties. Among immigrants themselves, many feared that the price of upward mobility might be family solidarity, even as most in their midst deployed the family as a basis for group enterprise and mutual financial support. And intellectuals who were skeptical of capitalism, whether partly or wholly, based one strand of their critique on the damage that capitalism supposedly inflicted upon traditional family cultures. These family doomsayers tend less and less to be nativist Americanizers and guardians of ethnic tradition, but the nostalgia among scholars remains loud and clear. While the myth of the natural ethnic family still holds sway among intellectuals, the general public has come increasingly to accept and indeed welcome the idea of compatibility between ethnicity and capitalism. To accent the Italian example, for instance, public figures ranging from Lee Iacocca to Geraldine Ferraro and Mario Cuomo emphasize the contribution of family values to their own success stories, occasionally stretching our imaginations.30 Similar rhetoric appears in the reemergence of the critique of the black family, in the widespread lauding of Asian- and Caribbean-American merchants and their schoolchildren, and in the general appeal for a new American work ethic. In this light, The Godfather feeds upon a strain of American rhetoric and expectation that has reached full salience only in the last decade.
Perhaps no artifact of American culture, popular or serious, has made the case for the business of family with quite the force of The Godfather. At no time in United States history has ethnicity enjoyed the vogue that it first achieved in the years of The Godfather's greatest popularity and, in large measure, now maintains. The congruence is no coincidence. The Godfather does indeed participate in the new ethnicity by celebrating the ethnic family. But the Mafia achieves its romantic luster not because Puzo portrays the Italian-American family as a separate sphere, lying outside of capitalism, but because the Italian-American family emerges as a potent structure within it. The ethnic family in The Godfather feeds off a market sensibility rather than undermining it.31 The Corleones can provide protection from the market only because they have mastered it. Indeed, the height of romance is reached in The Godfather with Puzo's choice of the Mafia as a model for family enterprise, for illegal family enterprises are capable of growing and expanding to an extent that the structure and regulation of legitimate capitalism will ultimately not support.
If The Godfather does indeed harbor anticapitalist energies, as a thorough reading of the novel might suggest, then perhaps scholars have been looking for that energy in the wrong places. Jameson concludes.
When indeed we reflect on an organized conspiracy against the public, one which reaches into every corner of our daily lives and our political structures to exercise a wanton and genocidal violence at the behest of distant decision-makers and in the name of an abstract conception of profit—surely it is not about the Mafia, but rather about American business itself that we are thinking. American capitalism in its most systematized and computerized, dehumanized, "multi-national" and corporate form.32
Jameson and the others may be correct in insisting that fascination with The Godfather is motivated, at a deeper level, by anticapitalist anxiety. But the real scare occasioned by The Godfather, however much suppressed, is about capitalism not in its "most systematized and computerized, dehumanized" form, but rather in its more "intimate" varieties—ethnic, familial, personal. My reading of The Godfather suggests that if we wish to press charges against capitalism, we press charges against family and ethnicity, too. One strand of rhetoric in twentieth-century America, familiar to us from Howell's Hazard of New Fortunes and sources pervasive in our culture, suggests that Americans can go home to escape the specter of capitalism. Professionals often complain about taking work home with them, mentally if not literally. How much more frightening, then, is the alternative represented by Puzo: when some Americans go home to papa, they end up confronting the boss. Critics have been quick to interpret the brutality of the Mafia as a symbol for the violence to the individual inherent in capitalism, and to assume that the family represents an escape from that violence. Yet the melodrama of The Godfather implicates the family not only in the success of the Corleone empire but in its cycle of self-destructive violence as well. Michael reintegrates the family business only after burying a brother, murdering a brother-in-law, alienating a sister, and betraying the trust of his wife. For Americans who experience family and economy as interwoven pressures (if not actual combined enterprises), the Mafia genre may allow a focusing of resentments, even if, inevitably, a Mafia analogy overstates them. For the cost of employing blood in the marketplace is finding the company at home.
My speculations notwithstanding, there is no direct way to study popular opinion and pinpoint the popular interpretation of The Godfather. Indeed, it would be a mistake to assume there is any single interpretation (any more than there is a single "mind of the masses"). The great strength of popular literature may be its ability to entertain different, even contrary readings. But we can at least consider how other American artists catering to mass audiences have read the message of Puzo's novel. Two of the novel's best offspring—the film Godfather II (1974) and Prizzi's Honor (1982) by Richard Condon—illuminate the novel's reception. Although Puzo receives credit for the Godfather II screenplay, along with Coppola, the film offers a perspective on the Corleones very different from either that of the novel or that of its reasonable facsimile, the first film. Pauline Kael actually throws almost all the credit for Godfather II to Coppola: "This second film … doesn't appear to derive from the book as much as from what Coppola learned while he was making the first."33 For our purposes, however, it is not essential to distribute praise or blame, but simply to note that the film differs significantly enough from the original narrative to constitute a "rereading" of it (even if it is, in part, Puzo's own). Whereas the original Godfather narrative winds the fates of the Corleone family and the Corleone business together. Coppola's Godfather II separates the two strands. In Prizzi's Honor, on the other hand, Richard Condon uses all the devices in Puzo's novel, plus some of his own, to bond family and business tighter than ever. Prizzi's Honor surgically extracts Puzo's theme from underneath his excesses and Coppola's sermonizing and exposes it to a scintillating parody. The greatest testament to The Godfather has been paid not by critics or scholars but by Condon and John Huston, who directed the 1985 film version from Condon's own screenplay. Together, Godfather II and Prizzi's Honor can be construed as leading voices in a debate about the meaning of Puzo's novel and the future of the genre in which all three works participate.
This time I really set out to destroy the family. And I wanted to punish Michael.
Among scholars and film critics, Godfather II is commonly regarded as a greater work of art than the first movie, and infinitely preferable to the novel. In the standard interpretation, the second film sheds the Mafia of its sentimentally familial wrappings and reveals it for what it is and perhaps has always been: capitalistic enterprise in its most vicious form. Pauline Kael interprets this revelation moralistically. Godfather II is to be praised for eliminating the illusion that there might be anything desirable about the Corleone crime family.35 Fredric Jameson stresses the historicity of Godfather II. For him, Godfather II explodes the illusion of the Mafia's "ethnicity" by attributing its origins to social arrangements in "backward and feudal" Sicily and its growth in America to the advanced stages of capitalism. The second film, according to Jameson, submits the themes of the first "to a patient deconstruction that will in the end leave its ideological content undisguised and its displacements visible to the naked eye."36 For both Kael and Jameson, the deconstruction of the family and the ethnic group is a precondition for truth. But to my mind, it is they along, with Coppola himself, not Puzo, who run the greatest risk of romanticizing the Sicilian-American family.
Godfather II narrates the further adventures of Michael Corleone, interspersed with flashbacks to the early days of his gangster father, Don Vito Corleone. The film is a political morality tale with a vengeance. In the original narrative, as Don Vito's business goes, so goes his family: their fates are intertwined. But in Godfather II Michael promotes his criminal enterprise at the expense of his personal family, group solidarity, and the Italian-American heritage. The central plot is a Byzantine series of maneuvers between Michael Corleone and the Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (modeled on Meyer Lansky). In their struggles, both Michael and Roth use a Corleone capo-regime, Pantangele, now living in the old Corleone house on Long Island, as a pawn. To counter Roth, Michael manipulates the imagery of the criminal "family"—Roth as Michael's "father." Pantangele as his "godson"—with complete cynicism. He succeeds by deliberately evacuating the idioms of family and ethnic solidarity of all meaning except as short-term (and shortsighted) instruments in a (transethnic, transfamilial) quest for power.
In the process, Michael's multinational crime outfit is reduced to merely a conglomerate of illegal enterprises. The network of ties with his father's retainers back in New York City unravels; Michael's nuclear family falls completely apart: and the southern Italian ethos that structured his father's world is vanquished entirely. Michael's evil is measured on a scale marked out in emphatically familial and ethnic units. The detail is endless. At the novel's end, Michael arranges the deaths not only of Roth (his "father") and Pantangele (his "son") but of his natural brother Fredo. Fredo has traded information with Roth: but he has also served as the only real father that Michael's children have ever known. Michael wins the trust of his partners and underlings only by blackmail, bribery, and the promise of mutual profit; such trust lasts only as long as convenient for all parties; and such relations frequently end in death as well as dissolution. Family and community have disintegrated among the Corleones. In the opening scene, the band at his son's first-communion party cannot play a tarantella but at Pantangele's frustrated urgings, comes up with "Three Blind Mice." In his portrayal of Michael, Coppola draws upon one of the most familiar of ethnic themes—second-generation infidelity—chastising him accordingly.
The loss of family/ethnicity, coupled with the consummation of Michael's business deals, spell one thing: Michael has Americanized. The Corleone empire has become, in Hyman Roth's phrase, "bigger than General Motors and AT&T." But it has cost Michael and his people their inheritance. It is an old story. By the film's end, Coppola has used Michael to update Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky, outfitting the Russian-Jewish merchant as a 1970s CEO in Sicilian garb. Like Levinsky, Michael trades his roots for rubles. The film exploits that peculiarly American paranoia of cultural and social orphanhood amid fortune and fame. Isaac Rosenfeld called Cahan's novel "an exemplary treatment of one of the dominant myths of American capitalism—that the millionaire finds nothing but emptiness at the top of the heap."37 Reviewing Godfather II in Commentary, William Pechter concluded that Michael was "another instance of that unrevivably exhausted cliché: it's lonely at the top."38
By comparison, Michael's father had found the top of his heap quite rewarding:
And even Don Corleone, that most modest of men, could not help feeling a sense of pride. He was taking care of his world, his people. He had not failed those who depended on him and gave him the sweat of their brows, risked their freedom and their lives in his service. (G, 215)
At the end of the original narrative, Michael has lost his brother Sonny and the enforcer Luca Brasi to the five-family war; his capo-regime Tessio and brother-in-law Carlo Rizzi to treachery; and, possibly, his sister Connie, because of Carlo. But around him coalesces a new family regime: his mother, new wife Kay, Fredo, Tom Hagen, Clemenza and his men, the new capo Rocco Lampone and his men, and Albert Neri. In Puzo's Godfather, family and business work in tandem, although with no guarantee of perfect profits or perfect harmony. Godfather II rends them asunder once again.
Ironically, Godfather II would seem to have been more hospitable than the original narrative to the twin appetites identified by Cawelti, Jameson, and other critics. Formal analysis suggests that if Americans in the seventies needed to vent rage at capitalism or fantasize about ethnic solidarity, then Godfather II would be the better vehicle for doing it. In the original story, the "mirror-image corporate capitalism" thesis is compromised, as Stanley Kauffmann has noted, by the unconventional "blood-bonds of loyalty" in the Mafia.39 In Godfather II, those bonds are broken and Michael Corleone's operations are identified as mainstream big-time capitalism. In the original story, nostalgia about the Italian-American family is compromised by the Corleones' criminal enterprise. In Godfather II, the linear narrative of assimilation (Levinsky-style) feeds a yearning for a time when the Sicilian family withstood the ravages of individualism, personal greed, and the capitalist dynamic. For the television special (a mini-series first broadcast in 1977), Coppola rearranged films I and II into chronological order, neatly literalizing this romantic revision.
From directors to actors and critics, the professional film community bestowed raves upon Godfather II, hailing it as a sign that Hollywood could still produce art and rewarding it with the "Best Picture" Oscar for 1974. Yet the public reacted with an indifference that was more than a little surprising, given the unparalleled success of the novel and first film as well as the usual appetite for sequels. William Pechter accurately noted at the time, "I know of no one except movie critics who likes Part II as much as part one."40 Public coldness to Godfather II has, if anything, deepened over the years. Curiosity brought millions into the theaters to see Godfather II the first time around, but most viewers told their friends afterward not to bother, nor did they return for a second showing. America's notorious disdain for unhappy endings may account for the film's unpopularity. Yet, having said so, we need to specify what, after all, makes Michael's triumph over his enemies, both Hyman Roth and the Senate Investigation Commission, so unsatisfying for so many.
As I have argued, Godfather II reasserts in unmistakable terms an antithesis between ethnic familial solidarity and success in capitalist enterprise. Perhaps the unpopularity of the film signals in part a resistance to this delusive dichotomy. Many intellectuals favor the film because they cling to the idea of a naturalistic, precapitalistic family. Most Americans, on the other hand, increasingly believe in the compatibility between family values (which ethnics are now thought to epitomize) and the capitalist system. The original narrative promotes changing expectations; the sequel disappoints them. Certainly, the general audience resents the condescension in Godfather II, in which Coppola assumes he must strip the Corleones of all redeeming value in order to communicate the social costs of their megalomania. Moviegoers are unhappy less with the villainy of Michael's empire, which they acknowledge, than with the film's underlying, regressive sociology: that the breakup of family life is a necessary precondition for syndicate expansion. The tendency in our own era is no longer to underestimate the compatibility of the ethnic family and capitalism. The desire is now to overestimate, and hence romanticize, the growth potential and structural flexibility of the ethnic family business. In the final analysis, Godfather II strips the original narrative of its populist sociology, returning to the well-worn conventions of "up from the ghetto" novels. In Prizzi's Honor, on the other hand, Richard Condon restores the Mafia genre to its original source of strength—the icon of family business—generating a parody of Puzo's novel that is, at the same time, an interrogation of the business of family.
They had to have at least two minds: the group mind that made them need to be a part of a family, and a separate individual mind that let them survive inside the grinding, double-crossing mass of their families, betraying their own people for money again and again, fifty thousand times. She was sure that it was the macho disease that made the Sicilians so fucking dumb. The family lived only for power—and money, because it meant more power…. Money, beyond a point that they had left behind long before, was only grease for the chariot. All those who followed behind the chariot gained money but, in appropriate measures, they were following the chariot because of the prodigious power on the chariot.
Prizzi's Honor, like The Godfather, begins with a wedding as an occasion to bring the Prizzis together and explain the structure of their syndicate and their relations with other families:
Corrado Prizzi's granddaughter was married before the baroque altar of Santa Grazia de Traghetto, the lucky church of the Prizzi family…. Don Corrado Prizzi, eighty-four, sat on the aisle in the from pew, right side of the church…. Beside Don Corrado sat his eldest son, Vincent, father of the bride, a cubically heavy man…. Beside Vincent was his brother, Eduardo, and his third "natural" wife. Baby…. Directly behind Don Corrado sat Angelo Partanna, his oldest friend and the family's counselor…. Behind the first two rows on the right side of the church, captured like pheromones in the thickening smell of hundreds of burning beeswax candles, in serried ranks, row upon row, were lesser Prizzis, one more Partanna [Charley], and many, many Sesteros and Garrones.41
Men from these four families—Prizzis, Partannas, Sesteros, and Garrones—constitute the upper levels of the Prizzi organization. The central character of the novel, Charley Partanna, bears a surname that is the name of a town in Sicily (destroyed by earthquake in 1969), like Vito Corleone. On the internal cover of the hardcover (immediately following the epigraph page of the Berkley paperback), the web of command is diagrammed in a chart reminiscent of Francis A. J. Ianni's breakdown of the Lupollo family…. This structural diagram combines genealogy with company organization, suggesting that not only corporate leadership but also the relation between the units themselves is familial. A web of marriage unites the Prizzis with other Mafia families. "Heavily larded among them were relatives from most of the principal families of the fratellanza in the United States. Sal Prizzi had married Virgi Licamarito, sister of Augie 'Angles' Licamarito, Boss of the Detroit Family …" (PH, 12). Condon explains the system of "profitable repair" operating between the Prizzis and the noncriminal sector of society—"the New York City Police Department … the multinational conglomerates, the Papal Nuncio, the national union leaders,… the best and brightest minds of the media, the district attorney's office, the attorney general's office, and the White House staff"—all of whom are represented at the wedding (PH, 12-13). To an even greater degree than Puzo, with more irony yet more telling detail, Condon explicates the mechanisms of power, responsibility, cash flow, and production: precisely how the semiretired don, counselor Angelo Partanna, boss Vincent (chief operating officer), and underboss Charley, who is in disfavor with Vincent but not with the don, are related; how Eduardo heads the legitimate side of their operations, which does the laundering for the rackets, in what ways the Prizzis differ from other Mafia crime outfits; and so forth. "They took a poll and sixty-seven percent of the American people think that what they all call the Mafia is the most efficiently run business organization in the whole country," quips one of Condon's characters (PH, 122).
At times in The Godfather, Puzo's narrative commentary suggests a tongue-in-cheek guide to the manners and mores of the Mafia. Prizzi's Honor serves the Mafia as Lisa Birnbach's Preppy Handbook serves the old-boy, old-money networks of the Northeast. The Prizzis call themselves a brotherhood—fratellanza—but they mean by that not a coterie of equals but a male hierarchy: "you must obey your superiors, to death if necessary, without question," swears the initiate, "for it will be for the good of the brotherhood" (PH, 43). The Prizzis operate as a unit in both their personal and their business lives, decisions being controlled from the top and always with a mind to "Prizzi's Honor." The main protagonist, Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson's role) personifies the system. In the opening scenes of the film, we see, in quick succession, the birth/baptism of Charley Partanna, the brass knuckles he is given for a birthday present, and his blood-rite initiation into the Prizzis. Charley's father is Don Corrado's consigliere.42 Charley is the don's godson. Charley calls Don Corrado "padrino" ("little father"), a diminutive meaning "godfather." At seventeen, Charley becomes a made man in the family; in his thirties, he becomes the enforcer and underboss; now, in his mid-forties, he is the heir apparent to the family, after the don's son Vincent ("Domenic" in the film) and the don himself. "As we protect you, so you must protect Prizzi Honor" is the Mafia creed (PH, 42). There is no functional distinction, as the Prizzis understand it, between Charley's "birth" into the Prizzi family and his "initiation" into it. From birth, he has been destined to be, in turn, a dependent of this clan, a soldier, its chief executive in charge of security, and, ultimately, boss and don. "Both men, father and son, had been bred to serve their feudal lords" (PH, 53). There is no more distinction between Charley's biological descent and cultural election that between the familial and professional nature of the Prizzi organization.
Condon focuses throughout the novel on the interdependence of family and business, the personal and professional, playing his comedy on the tensions between them. No pretense of separation is maintained. Boss Vincent resents underboss Charley, for a scandal caused by his own daughter, Maerose; so Vincent deals not through Charley, as custom dictates, but through his father, Angelo. The personal penetrates the professional, and vice versa. Business is conducted in homes as well as in offices, and frequently over meals. Don Corrado lives in a grand old city mansion, "as befitted a business executive," but owns neither the home nor any of its contents, out of respect for both "the rules of humility and austerity" and the diligence of the Internal Revenue Service. Don Corrado's house, literally, is his business quarters. The lack of private lives is underscored by the virtual absence of women in the inner sanctum of the Prizzi family, a literalization of both Mafia mythology and Puzo's narrative precedent.43
The structural hierarchy, male bonding, and Sicilian cult of honor constitute the context for the action of the novel. Like that of The Godfather, the plot in Prizzi's Honor involves a botched caper that exposes the Prizzis to hostile maneuvers by the other New York families and leads to a crisis of managerial/familial succession: familial double-crosses, with Charley acting Michael's role as the prodigal son, who temporarily turns against the family; and a murderous resolution that brings the appointed heir to power, restores the primacy of the crime organization, and resolidifies the nuclear and extended family of the new don. The details in Condon's novel and in Huston's film echo those in Puzo's and Coppola's works in an amusing game of one-upmanship. A wedding initiates both works, but Puzo/Coppola produce an adman's fantasy of a Sicilian garden party. Condon and Huston, on the other hand, produce a credible representation of an actual Brooklyn wedding: the women dressed in black, not white; a VFW hall, rather than a garden; Sinatra tunes as well as old folk songs; and so forth. The closer attention one pays, from first phrase to last, the funnier and more pointed the connections. More important than the refinement of The Godfather's cultural milieu is Condon's brilliant plot conceit, which highlights and at the same time satirizes the family-business mentality of the Prizzis.
Prizzi's Honor is, in the words of a Playboy reviewer, "the best episode of As the Underworld Turns since Puzo's Fools Die."44 The reference to the soap opera is not gratuitous, since the action of Prizzi's Honor involves a problem marriage between its central characters, Charley and Irene (née Maida Walcewicz) Walker, who is a free-lance assassin, or "contractor," in the occasional employ of the Prizzis. The marriage between Charley and Irene violates the sanctity of the Prizzis' family business. Irene is a Catholic Pole, whose former husband (murdered by Charley on orders from the don) is a Russian Jew. "How come you aren't a wop and I meet you at Teresa Prizzi's wedding?" asks Charley, who falls in love and marries her against that logic (PH, 33). Irene's foreign background is merely a symbol for her real outsiderhood. "You and this woman see everything with the same kind of eyes," Maerose tells Charley, knowing better and setting Charley up for a fall (PH, 96). True, both Charley and Irene kill people for the mob; otherwise, though, their operations are like night and day, "Let's see how it goes," warns Angelo. "A mixed marriage" (PH, 144).
The film plays up the comedy of middle-class manners between Charley, an Italian chauvinist, and his wife, Irene, who wants to keep on working after marriage. In the novel. Irene's sexual autonomy is, quite explicitly, a corollary of her independence in the marketplace of crime. Irene is a loner, a one-woman company, an entrepreneur whose approach to business exemplifies the norms of a free market:
The fantastic thing about Charley was that he was a Boy Scout. Charley paid his dues to his life. Charley believed…. Charley knew he was serving a purpose, not a buck…. It was different for [Irene]…. She wasn't locked into any family, she was a straight, commercial freelance who couldn't expect any protection from anybody if she didn't do the job right…. (PH, 117-18)
While Charley is a sottocapo, Irene is a contractor. The idiom is perfect. Irene makes deals independently, strictly on a cash basis, accepting no retainer and maintaining no ties to any particular outfit. As a cover, Irene is a tax consultant. To her the world operates simply as the circulation of dollars; loyalty is just a matter of the origin of the next paycheck. She is therefore the perfect foil to a family-business mentality.
Just prior to the novel's denouement, the Prizzis appear to be in shambles. No money is coming in, the Filargi caper has soured, and the other families are maneuvering to take over the entire business. Vincent has been assassinated, and Charley is turning traitor. The Prizzis suffer as the Corleones suffer after Sonny's death. Condon resolves the crisis by duplicating one strand of The Godfather's narrative logic, turning the family over to the rightful heir—in this case, Charley. Don Corrado offers Charley the position of boss, second-in-command, with the promise of that of don after Don Corrado's death. The Prizzis need Charley, yet Charley needs to earn that promotion. Charley must repair the family's relations with the other syndicates and with the police; and, in the dual logic that organizes these narratives. Charley must prove his fidelity. The price is steep: he must deliver Irene to the cops himself—dead. "Zotz her? Clip Irene?" (PH, 294). The borderline in Charley's decision is clearly demarcated. Will he honor his contract with Irene or the Prizzis' ethic of familial loyalty?
"The family were what he had been since Sicily started breeding people. They were his food. They had been with him forever. There were hundreds of thousands of them, most of them ghosts, some of them bodies. They were all staring at him, waiting to know what he would do" (PH, 296). The weight of all the Prizzi tradition, his respect for his padrino and father, who are waiting for his decision, and Charley's training and dreams overdetermine the decision:
He thought of becoming Boss of the Prizzi family. His entire life had pointed him toward that. He had trained for that since he was thirteen years old and now it could happen. He could feel the power as if it were the texture of fine, strong cloth between his fingers. He could taste it as if his mother had come back to cook one more glorious meal for him. He though of the money … eight million dollars a year, every dime tax free, every dime safe in Switzerland…. (PH, 269)
Becoming boss means filling his father's shoes, his mother's expectations: family is money is destiny when you are born into the Prizzis. Eight million dollars and Mom's home cooking, too! In Prizzi's Honor, as in The Godfather, the working out of the Oedipal crisis prompts the return of the prodigal son and the reintegration of the crime family. Charley's quest for power runs along pathways of filial obedience; the strength of the Prizzis depends on Charley's urgency to obey. Being asked to become don is for Charley, as for Michael, an offer he can't refuse.
Charley sets Irene up for the kill, by telling her that the don accepted her terms of settlement, paying all she asked. Irene knows that Charley is lying, because the don would never settle the Las Vegas score by returning the money she stole from the Prizzis.45 She considers the love-match canceled. In accordance with her own methods, Irene prepares to kill Charley, transmuting the marriage contract into a murder contract in her mind: "She didn't feel the grief anymore. Charley was a contract she had put out herself, and had given to herself; full fee" (PH, 305). In contrast to Irene's cold-bloodedness, Charley feels the righteous conviction of Praise duty:
[Irene] had a different and much paler, thinner meaning when he judged her beside the total meaning he got from his family. He was now Boss of that family. He had to set an example that would be remembered as long as the family stood. He saw dimly that it was right to sacrifice the woman he loved so that the family could go on and on fulfilling its honor, which was its meaning. He suddenly saw clearly that Irene had stepped so far out of line that there was nothing left to do but to whack her. (PH, 300)
Charley kills Irene before Irene is able to kill him. Charley wins not because he is technically more proficient or luckier but because he has the emotion of Praise honor motivating him and the full force of the Praise clan backing him up. However much the business of family causes friction (the "grinding, double-crossing mass of their families"), still there is a corporate front (PH, 103). Irene dies because she stands alone, without a family, without protection.46 The structural equivalent in The Godfather is the death of Carlo Rizzi, kin by marriage, but an outsider, a traitor. In the ending of each novel, the integrity of the crime family is reinstated by sacrificing a "family" member whose membership was suspect in the first place and compromised by that member's activities. The murder of Irene is also an ironic footnote, highlighted in the film, on the conventions of romantic love so favored in American popular culture.
"The surprise ending will knock your reading glasses off!" runs a blurb on the paperback, credited to the New York Times. Yet the eliminating of Irene, and Charley's having to do it, is a perfect culmination for the novel's strategy of playing feudal capitalism off against free-market independence. Alternatively, Charley and Irene could flee the Prizzis and go together to Hong Kong, where they would be outfitted with new identities. (Irene's past misdeeds to the Prizzis, and the current difficulties with the police, preclude Irene's remaining with the family.) This alternative ending would require a conversion in Charley's character, to the point where he could see himself turning his back on history for autonomy and romantic love. But at least such an ending would remain consonant with the hypothesis of the narrative—namely, that feudal capitalism, which dominates the American underworld, operates by sacrificing individualism to the group. Readers and film viewers are surprised because they expect a dreamy ending, in which Charley gets his family and Irene, too. Such an ending, however, violates the business of family in the world of the Prizzis. The principle of family honor precludes romantic love because romance presumes a free-market logic of one-to-one relationships. In the film, the overlay of sappy music and the casting of Nicholson as Charley, who acts superbly but is mistaken for Nicholson the loner, tips expectations in the direction of a romanticized ending. To conclude with Charley as the don, while still happily married to Irene, would be to entertain a fantasy of irreconcilables (of the sort that scholars characteristically misattribute to The Godfather). In the final chapter, Charley calls up Maerose, initiating their reconciliation. Maerose and Charley are now both outcasts who have returned to the family. Maerose's claim on Charley is ethnic. She reminds him in the film. "We grew up together, Charley. We are the same people." By marrying Maerose, Charley reunites the Prizzis and Partannas in the incestuous bond that maintains the power of their family.
What are the implications of Praise's Honor as a revision of The Godfather? Like Puzo, Condon makes it clear from start to finish that the theme to be pursued in a Mafia narrative is the question of business and family. Condon's comedy is effective because we, as readers, already understand the structural interdependence of business and family in the Mafia and accept it basically as truth. Condon does not mean, of course, to celebrate the business of family. Whereas Puzo provides a thin coat of narrative irony, Condon paints in layers and layers of satire, usually comic, but occasionally courting a grimmer dimension. From start to finish, Puzo eliminates no more than a dozen or so mobsters, who deserve it anyway. Condon burns down the Palermo Gardens nightclub, with 89 people dead, 217 severely burned, and 4 blinded, most of them innocent guests and "civilians." Condon also corners his main character into killing his wife. Both Godfather II and Praise's Honor submit the Mafia to moral scrutiny. Godfather II depends on a romanticized ideology of family for its critique, so that Coppola, in the final analysis, is caught within a family-business hermeneutic circle. Praise's Honor adopts a position truly contrary to that of the family-business mentality; it assumes, in the figure of Irene, the possibility of a free marketplace, in which individuals function independently of one another and the realm of the personal is uncluttered by the operations of business. In so doing, Condon is able (like Puzo in the first novel) to question the naïveté of free-market spokesmen and ethnic romanticizers, who think that the domains of "family" and the "group" are extra-economic. But Condon accomplishes something far more emphatically than does either Puzo in The Godfather or Coppola in Godfather II: that is, to chart the special costs of doing business familially.
In Praise's Honor, the family business grows beyond its members' need for wealth, annexing their freedom to its own dynamic, the growth of the syndicate. "Money, beyond a point that they had left long before, was only grease for the chariot" (PH, 103). The Praise organization empowers its members, but it also imprisons them, psychologically and literally. Other, more legitimate forms of family business may not police their boundaries with quite the brutality of the Prizzis, but they may not prosper as much either. In The Godfather, the loss of individual liberty among the Corleones, however implicit, is buried under the glorification of familial loyalty, whereas Richard Condon's carefully developed "surprise" ending etches in the popular consciousness an image of familial tyranny to give nightmares: Charley knifing Irene, in the throat, from the marriage bed.
As an analysis of the mechanics of family capitalism and a critique of its appeal, Praise's Honor supersedes The Godfather. Let us not forget, however, that Puzo made the way for Condon's accomplishment. Puzo is often maligned for exploiting the stereotype of Italian-American criminality, which has long been used to discriminate against the general Italian-American population. But, in the final analysis, The Godfather does not so much rehash an old tale, whatever its strands of inheritance, as tell a new one. In The Godfather, Puzo refashions the gangster genre into a vehicle for reversing the traditional antithesis between ties of blood and the American marketplace. In so doing, he transforms the stock character of the Italian-American outlaw into the representative super(business)man; and he transforms the lingering image of immigrant huddled masses into the first family of American capitalism.
1. It is not unreasonable to assume that Puzo derived his emphasis on the familial aspect of the Mafia from the reports of Joseph Valachi, whose Senate hearings were in 1963 and whose book came out in 1967. In The Italians, itself a nonfiction leading seller of 1964, Luigi Barzini summarized how Valachi's testimony reshaped common American ideas about organized crime:
The convicted American gangster, Joseph Valachi … explained the facts of life of the Sicilian village, probably as old as Mediterranean civilization, the principles guiding Homeric kings and heroes in their decisions, to a Senate committee and an awestruck twentieth-century television audience. He patiently pointed out that an isolated man was a dead duck in the American underworld; that he had to belong to a family, his own, or one which accepted him; that families were gathered in alliances, and the alliances in a loose federation called Cosa Nostra, governed by an unwritten code.
Luigi Barzini, The Italians (New York: Bantam, 1965), 284.
Puzo may have derived his view of the Mafia, then, not only from his Hell's Kitchen experience but from Valachi, either directly or through Barzini's explication (Don Corleone's biggest competitor is named Barzini). But if Valachi first introduced the notion of family crime, and Barzini explicated it, it was Puzo who made the symbol ubiquitous.
2. The preceding two quotations are from John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976), 78. The tandem reappears in John Sutherland's Bestsellers and in essays by Fredric Jameson and Eric Hobsbawm. E. J. Hobsbawm, "Robin Hoodo: A Review of Mario Puzo's The Sicilian." New York Review of Books, Feb. 14, 1985, 12-17; Fredric Jameson, "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture." Social Text I (1979). 130-48; John Sutherland, Bestsellers: Popular Fiction of the 1970s (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), chap. 3.
3. Jameson, "Reification and Utopia," 146.
4. Puzo's own, scattered comments on the social realities behind The Godfather reveal little. In an interview, he emphasizes that the novel was meant to be not realistic but romantic: "To me The Godfather isn't an exposé; it's a romantic novel." As quoted by Tom Buckley, "The Mafia Tries a New Tune," Harper's, Aug. 1971, 54. In The Godfather Papers, Puzo claims to have written the novel "entirely from research," then testifies that actual mafiosi found his fictional depictions very true to life. Mario Puzo, The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions (New York: Putman, 1972), 35.
5. Puzo's autobiographical novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim (1964), seems on its surface to exemplify the long-standing tradition of interpreting Italian-American familialism as a barrier to mobility. One reviewer wrote. "The writer renders with fidelity the life-style of an Italian-American community in which Old Country values of propriety, order and obedience to established authority collide with New World ambition, initiative, and disdain for tradition." Sheldon Grebstein, "Mama Remembered the Old Country," Saturday Review, Jan. 23, 1965, 44. Yet, I would argue, the novel harbors a countervailing analysis, demonstrating how the Puzo family used traditional values to ensure a steadily progressive mobility, culminating in Mario's freedom to become a writer.
6. Herbert J. Gans, Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans (New York: Free Press, 1962); Virginia Yans-McLaughlin, Family and Community: Italian Immigrants in Buffalo, 1880–1930 (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977); Thomas Kessner, The Golden Door: Italian and Jewish Immigrant Mobility in New York City, 1880–1915 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977); Thomas Sowell, Ethnic America (New York: Basic, 1981).
Most Italian immigrants to the United States originated from the Mezzogiorno, the regions of Italy south and east of Naples, including Sicily. The traditional view of Italian-American ethnicity is extrapolated from several very well known, mid- to late-twentieth-century studies of southern Italy: Phyllis H. Williams, South Italian Folkways in Europe and America: A Handbook for Social Workers, Visiting Nurses, Schoolteachers, and Physicians (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1938); Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli, trans. Frances Frenaye (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1947); Edward Banfield, Moral Basis of a Backward Society (New York: Free Press, 1958); and Ann Cornelisen, Women of the Shadows (New York: Dell. 1976). These essays prompted American social workers like Leonard Covello and scholars like Herbert Gans, Rudolph Vecoli, Thomas Sowell, Thomas Kessner, and Virginia Yans-McLaughlin to adopt a variant on the "culture of poverty" argument for blue-collar Italian Americans, although Cornelisen, for one, warns against approaches based on "residual vestiges of peasant mentality." Cornelisen, Women of the Shadows, 220.
For an overview of traditional scholarship on Italian Americans, including an analysis of its limitations, see Micaela di Leonardo, The Varities of Ethnic Experience: Kinship, Class, and Gender among California Italian-Americans (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1984), 17-25, 96-108.
7. Leonard Covello, "The Influence of Southern Italian Family Mores upon the School Situation in America," in Francesco Cordasco and Eugene Bucchioni, eds., The Italians: Social Backgrounds of an American Group (Clifton, N.J.: Kelley, 1974), 516. Covello's extremely influential essay was originally written as a dissertation in 1944 and finally published as The Social Background of the Italo-American School Child: A Study of the Southern Italian Family Mores and Their Effect on the School Situation in Italy and America (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1972).
8. Francis A. J. Ianni, with Elizabeth Reuss-Ianni, A Family Business: Kinship and Social Control in Organized Crime (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1972), 55. Ianni notes that "the acculturation process works in crime as elsewhere" (61), but nonetheless traces the familial structure of the Luppollo syndicate back to Italy: "The origins of this familialism are Italian and not American" (155).
The urgency to place the Mafia along an Old World-New World continuum resurfaces in the work of the historian Humbert S. Nelli, who adopts the opposite position from Ianni's. Nelli concedes the "group unity" and "cooperative effort" of Italian-American mobs, but stresses almost entirely the individualism and "American way of life" of the gang leaders. See Humbert S. Nelli, The Business of Crime: Italians and Syndicate Crime in the United States (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976), 255-57.
Scholars of the Mafia in southern Italy also insist on the evolving interdependence of familial and/or fraternal organization and capitalist enterprise. The Italian Mafia in recent years is thought to have been restructured in imitation of the Italian-American Mafia. See Pino Arlacchi, Mafia Business: The Mafia Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans., Martin Ryle (New York: Schocken, 1986); Anton Blok, The Mafia of a Sicilian Village, 1860–1960: A Study of Violent Peasant Entrepreneurs, with a foreword by Charles Tilly (New York: Harper & Row, 1975); and E. J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries, 2d ed. (New York: Praeger, 1963), chap. 3.
9. Eli Zaretsky, Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1976). Zaretsky's small book, little known, is an extraordinarily lucid reappraisal, spanning several centuries, of the relation between Western family structure and capitalism.
10. For a review essay on what I am calling the new ethnic theory, consult Werner Sollors, "Theory of American Ethnicity, or: "? S ETHNIC?/TI AND AMERICAN/TI, DE OR UNITED (W) STATES S SI AND THEOR?" American Quarterly 33 (Bibliography, 1981), 257-83. I am myself indebted to this article for bringing Abner Cohen, among others, to my attention.
The rise of the new ethnicity, as represented in the work of Michael Novak, Peter Schrag, Richard Gambino, even Glazer and Moynihan, has prompted severely critical responses, primarily from the political Left. Typically, the work of the ethnic demythologizers challenges the romance of ethnicity either by dismissing ethnic cultural difference altogether or by reducing difference to a variable entirely dependent upon class. In Stephen Steinberg's The Ethnic Myth, ethnicity is, for all explanatory purposes, entirely discounted. In Herbert Gans's very influential work, family values are interpreted as the product of working-class status and are hence "panethnic," shared by blue-collar folk of all backgrounds, whereas the ethnicity of the middle class is what Gans calls "symbolic," meaning that it is private, a matter of individual identity and friendship without socioeconomic significance. Tellingly, Gans says middle-class ethnicity is "cost-free" without inquiring into its profitability; the middle-class family is implicated in capitalism, once again, only as a buffer or safety valve for the system. See Steinberg, The Ethnic Myth: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in America (New York: Atheneum, 1981); Gans, "Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America," in Herbert J. Gans et al., eds., On the Making of Americans: Essays in Honor of David Riesman (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1979); Gans, foreword to Neil C. Sandberg, Ethnic Identity and Assimilation (New York: Praeger, 1974).
11. The quote is from Abner Cohen, Two-Dimensional Man: An Essay on the Anthropology of Power and Symbolism in Complex Society (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1974), 99. See also Abner Cohen, "Introduction" to Urban Ethnicity, ed. A. Cohen (London: Tavistock, 1974), ix-xxiv.
Major critical efforts to reconceive ethnic literature in the light of new ideas about ethnicity include William Boelhower, Through a Glass Darkly: Ethnic Semiosis in American Literature (Venice: Edizioni Helvetia, 1984); Jules Chametzky, Our Decentralized Literature: Cultural Mediations in Selected Jewish and Southern Writers (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1986); Mary V. Dearborn, Pocahontas's Daughters: Gender and Ethnicity in American Culture (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986); and Werner Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986).
12. Rose Basile Green, The Italian-American Novel: A Document of the Interaction of Two Cultures (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1974), 355, 357, 364.
For a brief yet elegant discussion of The Godfather, in the context of an overview of Italian-American literature, see Robert Viscusi, "De Vulgari Eloquentia: An Approach to the Language of Italian American Fiction," Yale Italian Studies I (Winter 1981), 21-38. Implicitly challenging traditional accounts of ethnic literature, Viscusi acknowledges the inventive role of the imagination in the creation of a post-European ethnic culture. His language-oriented approach is itself calculated to invent terms in which we might appreciate a previously ignored literature. By emphasizing the linguistic savvy of Italian-American writing, Viscusi means to present this literature in the strongest possible light, given the bias toward language of the journal sponsoring his essay and, more important, of the critical community it represents. Whereas Viscusi's highly "literary" approach seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with business, is it a coincidence that the most important property he attributes to Italian-American literature is its ability to "be diplomatic, to negotiate the terms on which Italian America can exist" (emphasis mine)?
13. Mario Puzo, The Godfather (New York: Putnam, 1969), 216. Further references to this edition are given in parentheses in the text.
14. Cohen, "Introduction," xvii.
15. Peter Dobkin Hall, "Marital Selection and Business in Massachusetts Merchant Families, 1700–1900," in Michael Gordon, ed., The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective, 2d ed. (New York: St. Martin's, 1978), 101-14.
For other discussions of ethnicity, economics, and ethnic businesses, see Ivan H. Light, Ethnic Enterprise in America: Business and Welfare among Chinese, Japanese, and Blacks (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1972); John Bodnar, Roger Simon, and Michael P. Weber, Lives of Their Own: Blacks, Italians, and Poles in Pittsburgh, 1900–1960; Thomas Sowell, Race and Economics (New York: McKay, 1975).
16. Ianni, A Family Business, 157.
17. Ibid., 64-65, 92, 116-18.
18. The don reminds Tom of his real background, less to take away from the meaning or Tom's initiation into the don's nuclear family than to highlight, by contrast, that meaning. Tom's marriage to an Italian-American, like his adoption by Don Corleone, constitutes a rebirth as an Italian-American on his wedding day.
19. There is much excess baggage in this sprawling, desperately populist novel: great detail on postures of war between the families, which Sutherland deviously and persuasively attributes to Puzo's reaction to World War II (Bestsellers, 45); well-stroked portrayals of the making of the Corleone soldiers, including Rocco Lampone, Luca Brasi, and the ex-cop Albert Neri; speculations in the National Enquirer vein into the activities, both private and public, of Frank Sinatra and friends; painfully unnecessary excursions into the sexual lives of Sonny, his mistress Lucy Mancini, and Dr. Jules Segal. In my experience teaching the novel, the reactions to these tangents vary. Sinatra merits a passing interest, the sex lives of Sonny and the doctor hardly any at all. The passages that chronicle the making of McCluskey the bad cop and Neri the enforcer are avidly read; similar chronicles become hallmarks of the Mafia genre subsequently. In The Godfather, the tangents do not so much detract from the main narrative as fill it out during its middle stretches, sustaining interest while holding final revelations in abeyance.
20. "The visual scheme is based on the most obvious life-and-death contrasts; the men meet and conduct their business in deep-toned, shuttered rooms, lighted by lamps even in the daytime, and the story moves back and forth between the hidden, nocturnal world and the sunshine that they share with the women and children." Pauline Kael, "Alchemy: A Review of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather." New Yorker, March 18, 1972, 132.
21. "The novel is a tale of family succession, showing the rise of the true son and heir and reaching a climax with his acceptance of the power and responsibilities of Godfather. It tells how Michael Corleone comes to understand his father's character and destiny and then allows himself to be shaped by that same destiny." Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, Romance 52-53.
In his review of the first Godfather film for Commentary, William S. Pechter was perhaps the first critic to emphasize that while the icon of "the Godfather" meant Don Vito Corleone, the narrative belonged to Michael:
What is the family whose claims override all others in The Godfather? It is, for one thing, a patriarchy, and the story the film has to tell is basically not Don Corleone's but Michael's: a story of his initiation into the family by an act of murder, of the succession of the youngest, most assimilated son to the patriarchal powers and responsibilities and the ethnic mystique of his father.
Pechter, "Keeping Up with the Corleones," Commentary 54 (July 1972), 89.
22. "[The southern Italian peasant] despised as a scomunicato (pariah) anyone in any family who broke the ordine della famiglia or otherwise violated the onore (honor, solidarity, tradition, 'face') of the family." Richard Gambino, Blood of My Blood: The Dilemma of the Italian-Americans (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974), 4.
23. Mary Antin wrote in 1912, "I was born, I have lived, and I have been made over…. Did I not become the parent and they [her parents] the children, in those relations of teacher and learner?" Antin, The Promised Land (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912), xii. In 1981, Richard Rodriguez echoed Antin's Emersonian image of self-birth, in an aside to "my parents—who are no longer my parents, in a cultural sense." Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (Boston: Godine, 1981), 4.
24. Claude Brown reports that "godfather" ranks among the most popular handles, or nicknames, of black inner-city America. New York Times Magazine, Sept. 16, 1984, 38. I have a suspicion that The Godfather is also a secret vice for very different segments of American society. More than one professor of English has confessed that Puzo may, after all, have some considerable gifts. A black woman, also an English professor, told me she had read the novel five times and once saw the film at a theater three days in a row! I hope, by explaining my own fascination with the text, I do not deprive others of the mystique of a favorite vice.
It is also a wonderful fact, without being a coincidence, that Puzo's major project after The Godfather screenplays was scripting Superman: The Movie and Superman II. For what is the story of Superman if not a meta-narrative of immigration, about a refugee whose power derives from his dislocation, whose secret identity is hidden under a disabling Anglo-conformity (as Clark Kent), but whose true promise is revealed in his fight "for truth, justice, and the American way"? And who, conversely, is Don Corleone if not the latest in a continuing series of ethnic supermen? For a discussion of superman imagery in the context of American ethnicity, consult Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity, chap. 3.
25. "The Making of The Godfather," Time, March 13, 1972, 61. By 1980, reports John Sutherland, The Godfather's publishers were claiming worldwide sales of fifteen million. The title Sutherland gives the novel, "the bestseller of bestsellers," echoes nicely the Sicilian phrase for the boss of bosses, capo di tutti capi. Certainly, no other contemporary work has sold as well. How one compares a present-day popular novel with, say, Gone with the Wind or Uncle Tom's Cabin is no easy matter. Sutherland, Bestsellers, 38, 46.
26. For a review of the Mafia literature from 1969 to 1975, see Dwight C. Smith, Jr., "Sons of the Godfather: 'Mafia' in Contemporary Fiction," Italian Americana 2 (Spring 1976), 191-207; the statistical reference is from p. 192. A shorter bibliography appears in Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, Romance, 304n.
27. In Jameson's view ("Reification and Utopia," 145), the butchery of the Corleones symbolizes the "wanton ecocidal and genocidal violence" of capitalism in America. Cawelti adds (Adventure, Mystery, Romance, 78). "I suspect there is a definite relation between the fascination with limitless criminal power … and the public's reluctant awareness of the uncontrollable power of violence in the hands of the government."
28. Jameson, "Reification and Utopia," 146; Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, Romance, 78.
29. "At a time when the disintegration of the dominant communities is persistently 'explained' in the (profoundly ideological) terms of the deterioration of the family, the growth of permissiveness and the loss of authority of the father, the ethnic group can seem to project an image of social reintegration by way of the patriarchal and authoritarian family of the past," Jameson, "Reification and Utopia," 146-47.
30. Well into the seventies, even after the rise of the new ethnicity, it was conventional to attribute the poor performance of Italian-Americans in the professions, the arts, the American Catholic church, politics, and big business to the tenacity of familial values and southern Italian culture. In the last few years, however, the conspicuous rise of Italian-Americans has reversed the age-old formula. Stephen S. Hall wrote in a 1983 cover story for the Sunday New York Times Magazine:
Is there a single thread that runs through all these [stories of successful Italian-Americans]? If anything, it is the unusual propensity to merge, rather than separate, the professional and the personal. Borrowing from a culture in which the extended family can easily include 30 to 40 "close" relatives, Italians thrive on community. They are accustomed to large numbers of people, and they seem to have developed an emotional facility in dealing with them. Even in large companies, they have a knack for keeping things on a human scale. "The professional community," explains one Italian-American psychotherapist, "becomes the next family."
Hall, "Italian-Americans: Coming Into Their Own," New York Times Magazine, May 15, 1983, 29.
31. It is amusing to speculate how Puzo's usage of ethnicity in his career as a writer parallels, broadly speaking, the usage of ethnicity depicted in his novels. Puzo began his career in the now venerable fashion of aspiring American literati, with a novelistic account of his years as an expatriate (in postwar Germany), The Dark Arena (1955). Only subsequently did he specialize in ethnic narrative and become known as a specifically Italian-American writer. With The Fortunate Pilgrim (1964), Puzo was able to promote himself as an earnest realist, little known but "serious," as if Italian-American writers toiled honestly on the margins of the American literary community just as their characters worked on the margins of the American economy. With The Godfather (1969) and its offspring, Puzo launched himself on a career as both a popular novelist and a Hollywood screenwriter, exploiting ethnic materials for power and profit, as if in faint imitation of the exploitation of family and ethnicity by his Mafia characters.
32. Jameson, "Reification and Utopia," 145.
33. Pauline Kael, "Fathers and Sons," New Yorker, Dec. 23, 1974, 64.
34. Francis Coppola, as quoted by William S. Pechter, "Godfather II," Commentary 59 (March 1975), 79.
35. "Many people who saw 'The Godfather' developed a romantic identification with the Corleones; they longed for the feeling of protection that Don Vito conferred on his loving family. Now that the full story has been told, you'd have to have an insensitivity bordering on moral idiocy to think that the Corleones have a wonderful life, which you'd like to be part of." Pauline Kael, "Fathers and Sons," 64. See also her review of the first film: Kael, "Alchemy," 132-44.
36. Jameson, "Reification and Utopia," 147.
37. Isaac Rosenfeld, "David Levinsky: The Jew as American Millionaire," in Abraham Chapman, ed., Jewish-American Literature: An Anthology (New York: New American Library, 1974), 619.
38. Pechter, "Godfather II," 79.
39. Stanley Kauffmann, "On Films," New Republic, April 1, 1972, 26.
40. Pechter, "Godfather II," 80. Pechter, furthermore, is the only critic I know who prefers the first film to the second, and the only one to recognize the retrospective romanticization of Godfather II. He emphasizes how "the schematic ironies of Part II—that Michael's fall should parallel his father's rise—dictate that the young Vito Corleone be glorified (as a pre-organization-man gallant bandit) far beyond any such romanticization in part one." I would stress less the explicit romance of Vito as bandit than the implicit romance of the more mature Vito's family. The precondition to Michael's fall is a state of grace, represented not by young Vito but by the Corleone family of his youth.
41. Richard Condon, Praise's Honor (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1982), 11-12. Further references to this edition are given in parentheses in the text.
42. [Puzo uses the term consigliori, with an "o" and an "i," throughout The Godfather; Condon spells it "consigliere," with the "e"s, in the Italian fashion. Condon's spelling seems to be much the more common usage.] Both authors liberally spray italicized words throughout their novels, in a longstanding tradition of ethnic representation. Condon uses even more Italian terms than Puzo (Charley is always cooking up something) and takes care to spell correctly in (western) Sicilian dialect. This is another instance of Condon's fine-tuning of Puzo's detail.
43. Don Corrado, Angelo Partanna, and Vincent Praise are all widowers (exceedingly strange, in a world in which men kill men, that these three have outlived their womenfolk). Eduardo takes mistresses but does not marry. And Charley, who lost his mother as a child, is a bachelor pressing fifty. These men "mother" each other, incorporating the female realm into the male, the personal into the professional. "[Angelo] swore to God he didn't know how Charley did it. 'I'm telling you, Charley, I close my eyes and I think your mother cooked this.'" Appropriately enough, the one significant Praise female, Maerose (the only Praise who cooks better than Charley), is an outcast. Exiled, Maerose spends the course of the novel conniving to be forgiven for her sins and readmitted to the family.
44. I am quoting the blurb from the 1985 movie tie-in paperback edition: Richard Condon, Praise's Honor (New York: Bantam, 1986).
45. It is preposterous that Irene could keep the money from the Las Vegas scam, not to mention her life. It is also preposterous that Charley would not imagine Irene's participation, especially after learning the nature of her profession. The novel assumes that Charley is willing to cover for Irene; the film supposes that Irene lies to Charley and that Charley is so in love that he is willing to take her word.
46. Operating within the mob's sphere of influence, never mind subcontracts, is tricky business. As Barzini paraphrases Valachi, "An isolated man was a dead duck in the American underworld;… he had to belong to a family, his own, or one which accepted him." Barzini, The Italians, 284. Henry Hill's autobiography, written with Nicholas Pileggi and entitled Wiseguy, could restore the image of the mob outlaw to respectability.
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