John Fante feature image

John Fante

Alessandra Senzani
English 6923: Working Class Literature
Fall 2003

Introduction


John Fante’s is a dramatic life story of humble beginnings, ambition and early successes, tenacity, hope, disappointment after disappointment, and in the end more acclaim than he had allowed himself to expect. (Kordich)

John Fante was born on April 8 1909 in Denver, Colorado to an Italian stonemason, Nick Fante and an Italian American homemaker, Mary Fante. His Italian ancestry is one of the leitmotifs throughout his literary production, as well as his Catholic upbringing, from his fervently Catholic mother to the parochial Jesuit schools he attended as a boy. Fante never finished college though he briefly enrolled both at the University of Colorado and Long Beach City College in Los Angeles, where he moved in 1930. Here he worked odd jobs, while attempting to start a career as a writer. During the same period, he started corresponding with H.L. Mencken, the editor of the journal American Mercury, who strongly influenced his writings and career. Thanks to Mencken, in 1932 Fante published his first short story “Altar Boy,” and the collaboration between the two friends continued throughout Fante’s life. In 1933, a friend introduced Fante to Hollywood screenwriters, and he soon started a second career working for Hollywood studios, while still writing fiction and publishing short stories. However, his first attempts at a novel were repeatedly rejected and he had to wait until 1938 to see his first novel Wait Until Spring, Bandini published. During the Los Angeles years, Fante led a comfortable life thanks to his work for Hollywood, but he often complained about the superficiality of that environment and the negative effects it had on his writing, which would be the object of his last novel, Dreams form Bunker Hill (1985). In his work, Fante always returns to his working-class origins, and his protagonists feel most comfortable with people of that background, although their lives are a continuous attempt to move up. This constant struggle with a person’s class and ethnic affiliation is the central concern in all of Fante’s texts and partially in his own life. In 1978, Fante lost his eyesight and the use of his legs due to diabetes; despite this life-consuming disease, he continued writing with tenacity even when forced to dictate his last novel, Road to Los Angeles, to his wife. On May 8 1983, Fante died of diabetes just as his talent as a writer was starting to be appreciated thanks to the reviews by Bukowsky who promoted the 1980 republication of Fante's most acclaimed novel, Ask the Dust (1939). In the years following Fante’s death, many of his manuscripts were finally published, and today he is recognized as one of the major Italian-American authors.

Discussion of author's work

“His name was Arturo, but he hated it and wanted to be called John. His last name was Bandini, and he wanted it to be Jones. His mother and father were Italians, but he wanted to be American. His father was a bricklayer, but he wanted to be a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs.”
(Wait Until Spring, Bandini )

John Fante’s writings collectively tell the story of assimilation, of ethnic and social struggle. They are realistic accounts of working people’s struggles for a better life and integration into mainstream American society. Although Fante is mostly known and studied as a representative voice in Italian-American literature, his work can also be interpreted through the lens of working-class criticism. As the brief biographical notes illustrate, Fante’s background is definitely working-class, which endows his writings with authenticity and an interior perspective into working-class experience that is best appreciated in the so-called Bandini Saga. This is a cycle of four novels loosely linked by their common protagonist, Arturo Bandini, Fante’s literary alter-ego. Many other features also identify Fante as a working-class author: the tension between working-class community and the writer’s individualism, the representation of class and ethnic conflict, the representation of work, and the rich realism Fante employs to depict the sufferings of working-class people.

The Bandini Saga narrates the coming of age of a writer; it thus best represents the typical tension between working-class community and the artist’s individualism. The first novel, Wait until Spring, Bandini, employs a plurality of narrators creating a sort of choral account of the Bandini’s life. Arturo, however, is set apart from his family because of his ambition to be American and rich; he constantly vacillates between his attachment towards his family and his individualism. This inner struggle is exacerbated in the second novel, Road to Los Angeles that centers on Arturo’s adolescent narcissism. Arturo works odd jobs, but he feels intellectually superior to his family and co-workers; his writings and philosophic readings become symbols of his ambition. Fante counterbalances this increasing individualism by dedicating much of the narration to the realistic description of the harbor communities of immigrant and poor workers. In the end, Arturo leaves behind his family, in pursuit of success in the big city, where we find him at the beginning of Ask the Dusk, the third novel of the saga. Here Arturo experiences his first successes as a writer. He still retains a certain narcissistic attitude, but he gradually returns to his working class origins. He tells the story of the other poor tenants in the hotel that functions as a sort of community and he seeks the companionship of the poor Mexican waitress Camilla. He writes his first novel about the Jewish housekeeper Vera Rivken and he defines his narration as “a slice out of life,” namely a working-class life. It is this lack of authenticity that Arturo complains about in the last novel of the saga, Dreams from Bunker Hill. Here, Arturo has moved to the middle-class neighborhood of Bunker Hill, thanks to his work as a screenwriter for Hollywood Studios. However, he has never felt so unproductive and he soon starts despising the superficiality of the new environment. After seeking inspiration onto a fishing island, he decides to go back home to Colorado, to his working-class and Italian origins. Yet, this trip results in a disaster and he is compelled to go back to Los Angeles. At the end of the novel, we find him moneyless and friendless in a shabby room sitting in front of his typewriter in search of the poetic working-class realism he had mastered in Rivken’s story.

Arturo is an extremely class conscious character; yet, his being a second generation Italian American and a writer positions him in an ethnic and social limbo. He exploits his situation to alternately identify with and set himself apart from other ethnic and working-class people. Despite the lack of any overt political purpose, Fante’s novels, thus, construct a picture of American society that draws attention to its class system. Arturo defines himself in contrast with the rest of society: in Wait until Spring, Bandini, not being American and being poor shapes his identity. In Ask the Dusk, instead, being an American citizen and a writer positions him above the immigrant and poor Mexican workers that populate his neighborhood. Fante, thus, illustrates the relational nature of class and emphasizes its potential for both conflict and attraction. In the first novel, the adulterous relationship between Svevo, Arturo’s father, and the rich American widow, Hildegarde, symbolizes, on the one hand, the incommunicability between people of different classes and, on the other, the fascination that the otherness implies. In the second novel, Arturo’s love for the poor Camilla stresses the affinity between subordinate social groups, but also the competition between them to move up and assimilate into American society.

Finally, Fante’s representation of class and ethnicity owes its effectiveness to the author’s vivid realism and poetic simplicity. Fante vividly portrays working-class lives thanks to the overwhelming quantity of detailed descriptions of work, poverty and lack of food. In his novels, working-class life revolves around work and the latter almost acquires an aesthetic quality. Svevo makes of his work his art, so that the fireplaces he builds are like pieces of fine art; Arturo, instead, makes of art his work and reasons for life. Yet, Fante also represents the physical pains of most working-class jobs; Svevo fights against the cold to complete his work; Maria sacrifices his youth and beauty to look after her children and take care of a uncomfortable house, and, finally, Camilla’s class and ethnicity are symbolized by her aching feet that feel comfortable only in the torn and consumed Mexican huaraches. Given the historical period in which Fante’s novels are set, being working class also means being poor and not being able to provide for one’s basic needs. Both Wait until Spring, Bandini and Ask the Dusk abound with descriptions of the hungry Arturo and his longing for meat and rich Italian dishes. Clothes are also a powerful indicator of class and Fante uses them to sketch his characters, from Camilla’s shoes to Arturo’s purchase of a fine, middle-class suit with his first check. Yet, in the end, Arturo remains faithful to his working-class origin which fits him best as his old and torn clothes do, while the fine suit only makes him feel uncomfortable, it scratches and irritates him as the middle-class milieu of Hollywood does in Fante’s last novel.

Annotated Bibliography

Selected Works by the Author

Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938, 1983).
This is Fante’s first novel. It is set in Roklyn, Colorado and tells the story of the Bandini family during a winter. The novel introduces the character of Arturo Bandini that was going to become Fante’s literary alter-ego. However, it is rather a choral novel that, by employing multiple narrators, depicts the separate stories of an unemployed bricklayer, the father, a very religious homemaker, the mother, and a young boy who dreams to be American and rich.

Ask the Dusk (1939, 1980).
This is the second novel Fante published and probably the most critically acclaimed one thanks to Bukowsky’s appraising preface to the 1980 edition. It portrays Arturo Bandini’s first successes as a writer in Los Angeles. Arturo seems here to have come to terms with his Italian ancestry, though he still nurtures a conflictual relationship with other ethnicities. The main characters in the novel are Arturo and Camilla, a Mexican waitress he falls in love with.

Dago Red (1940).
This collection of Fante’s first short stories includes the first one he published “Altar Boy” and “The Odyssey of a Wop.” All the stories in this anthology explore the theme of ethnic identities and conflict that dominates much of Fante’s writings.

Full of Life (1952, 1988).
This was Fante’s most successful novel during his lifetime, despite being rather unusual of his literary production. It is a family comedy that narrates of a young couple waiting for the arrival of its first child. The tranquility of their family life is disrupted when they resort to the husband’s Italian stonemason father to fix the kitchen floor. The father brings with him the traditions of the old country and soon starts affecting the couple’s behavior and beliefs. The young couple goes through a process of ethnic cultural reappropriation that leads to more wisdom and understanding.

Dreams from Bunker Hill (1982).
This book was Fante’ s last nove, which he dictated in an episodic style to his wife after he lsot his eyesight to diabetes. Fante returns to his alter-ego Arturo Bandini and though he does not explicitly refer back to the other books, the novel feels like a continuation of Ask the Dusk. Arturo still lives in Los Angeles, writing short stories and struggling with his career; yet, he manages to lead a comfortable life by working for Hollywood studios. This economic improvement, however, parallels his loss of inspiration, literary purity and motivation; in the end, Arturo flees the superficial world of Hollywood to end up poor again in front of his typewriter.

Road to Los Angeles (1985).
This is actually Fante's first attemt at a novel, but, having been repeatedly rejected during his life time, it was published only posthumously. It tells the story of Arturo at the beginning of his career as a writer, a profession he uses mostly to set himself apart from his working-class background. Fante represents here the figure of the solitary artist who is emarginated from society and bears a certain cultural and intellectual superiority towards the people surrounding him. However, the poor citizens of Los Angeles, in particular of the harbor area, could be considered a sort of second protagonist.

Selected Works about the Author

Collins, R. John Fante: A Literary Portrait. Toronto: Guernica. 2000.
Collins chronologically comments on Fante’s life and work. He intersects criticism on Fante’s novels with biographical notes in order to stress the strong link between the two. Collins’s illustration of the writer expands the readers’ understanding of the many issues Fante dealt with in his work and stresses the significance of Fante’s working class and ethnic background for his writing.

Cooper, S & Fine, D. (eds.). John Fante: A Critical Gathering. London: Associated University Presses. 1999.
This first collection of critical essays on John Fante, drawn from the first International Conference on Fante held in Long Beach, California in 1995, includes topics such as the significance of Catholicism and the rite of Confession in Fante’s work; the representation of gender roles; the representation of ethnic identities and the related conflicts; the echo of social protest and Fante’s position within the modernist literary tradition. This is an excellent collection to gain insight in the richness of Fante’s work.

Cooper, S. Full of Life: a Biography of John Fante. New York: North Info Point Press. 2001.
This is probably Fante’s most detailed and accurate biography. Cooper vividly captures the dramatic experiences that deeply affected John Fante both as a person and a writer. The biography unmasks the major concerns in Fante’s life showing their relevance in his writings.

Gardaphe, F. L. “Evviva John Fante!” In Gardaphe, F.L. Dagoes read: tradition and the Italian/American writer. Toronto, New York: Guernica. 1996, 97-99.
This short chapter in Gardaphe’s longer book on Italian American writers reviews the latest books published in 1985 by Black Sparrow Press and highlights the forgotten talent of John Fante and his role within Italian American literature.

Gardaphe, F.L. “Left Out: Three Italian American Writers of the 1930s.” In Gardaphe, F.L. Leaving Little Italy: Essaying Italian American Culture. New York: State University of New York Press. 2004. 53-65.
In this chapter, Gardaphe calls for more critical recognition of the work of three Italian-American authors of the 30s, Fante, Mangione and Di Donato. He gives reasons for their erasure from the literary criticism of the period and shows their fundamental role in rooting Italian American literature. In his analysis, of the three authors, he concentrates in the representation of Catholicism and its influence on content and style.

Gardaphe, F.L. “The Consequences of Class in Italian American culture.” In Gardaphe, F.L. Leaving Little Italy: Essaying Italian American Culture. New York: State University of New York Press. 2004. 67-81.
Although this chapter in Gardaphe’s latest critical book does not focus specifically on Fante, it is one of the first attempts to analyze the intersections of class and ethnicity in Italian American writings. Gardaphe identifies forms and contents representing working-class culture that are peculiar to Italian American literature. His analysis focuses on the representation of work and its religious and aesthetic overtones that can be found also in Fante’s work. This essay is, therefore, a useful resource to gain insight into Italian American literature and it offers the necessary methodological frame to investigate class and ethnicity.

Kordich, C. J. John Fante: His Novels and Novellas. New York: Twayne Publishers. 2000.
This is probably one of the most comprehensive volumes on the author, John Fante. It opens with a biographical chapter that introduces the next four analytical and critical sections. The four chapters are thematically organized; the second one focuses on Fante’s representation of boyhood and its conflicts; the third looks at the cycle of works set in Los Angeles that focuses on the attempts of young men to become writers; the fourth concentrates on the depictions of adulthood in Fante’s later novels. The fifth summarizes the main themes of Fante’s literary production and assesses its contribution to American Literature. Kordich’s comprehensive analysis highlights Fante’s concern with the construction of ethnic and social identities; by looking at every piece of writing produced by Fante and constantly comparing his different works, Kordich successfully detects the constant threads that link together the author’s life and his many works.

On-Line Resources

Spirit of America Bookstore: John Fante
A short biography of the author and a full list of his novels, screenplays and short stories with links to amazon.com. It also offers links to Fante related websites in French and Italian. It is particularly useful for those interested in Fante’s work for Hollywood studios.

Tale of Immigration: John Fante, Romanzi e Racconti
Review of a new Italian edition of Fante’s most acclaimed works.

Shanghaied in Tinseltown
Article by Neil Gordon that tries to find an explanation for Fante’s late success and critical recognition.

A Truly Famus Unknown Writer
New York Times's review by Janet Maslin of Cooper’s new anthology on Fante , The John Fante Reader. She points out some of the major themes the Italian American author dealt with and demands for more recognition of his forgotten talent.

Full of Life: The Biography of John Fante
Rubert Wondolowski reviews the book Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante by Stephen Cooper. The articles concentrates mostly on Fante’s catholic upbringing and its representation in his fiction.

John Fante, Italia
This webpage introduces the work of John Fante to Italian readers and it is fully written in Italian. Angelino and Rescigno comment on the author’s production in general and then review three of his novels: The Brotherhood of the Grape, Ask the Dusk and Full of Life. The site also offers a complete biography, filmography and bibliography. This webpage is also significant because it reflects the increasing interest that Fante’s fiction is receiving in Italy, his country of origin; at the Festival dei Popoli, the major festivals in Italy for documentaries, Giovanna Di Lello, for instance, presents this year her film, John Fante. Profilo di scrittore, on the life and work of the Italian American author.