Italian Immigration Literature Review





Italian Immigration:

A Review of the Literature




Madalyn Ullestad







History 297

Prof. Ferrell and Mr. Bales

April 13, 2018








“I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.”



How history has been studied throughout time has gradually changed and shifted. The way Italian immigration has been written about has also changed. This literature review covers various works ranging from the 1970s to past few years. These monographs start as narratives and develop into analytical works. With a large number of books and scholarly articles about the subject of Italian immigration, this literature review only examines a small portion of those selected due to added significance to the topic. The literature gradually moves away from stereotypes, such as association with organized crime and Al Capone, the works begin to study culture, race, ethnicity, and identity while still looking at overarching themes of politics and economics. These selected authors ask the “why” and “how” rather than just the “what.”






From 1900 to 1915, over three million Italians immigrated to the United States, making  up a vast portion of the nation’s demographics and social history. The flow of these immigrants was a constant stream. Starting with Italians from the northern regions of Italy and progressing to the southern regions, such as Sicily, the immigrants came for new economic opportunities. Whether it was for new economic opportunities, better jobs, or to escape poverty, the constant flow of people continued into America’s borders. The historical study of Italian immigration shifts from being descriptive narratives (influenced mainly by political) to works written primarily about race, ethnicity, and identity, and exploring the how’s and why’s of the topic. Over the years, the books change from being simple descriptions of the past to more analytical studies.

The way one studies history has progressed from looking at the past in a black and white mind set, to an interconnecting range of subjects. One event can be looked at by multiple viewpoints and the “conclusion” is never clear and concrete. Changes in the discipline, conflicting arguments, and new sources develop the study. This is how the literature has changed for Italian immigration. Twenty first century works are vastly different than the ones from the 1970s and build upon each other. The topic of Italian Immigration is everchanging, and the way one writes about it is shifting too.

Sources revolving around Italian Immigration range from the 1920s to the twenty first century with an array of diverse topics and methods. The literature published in the early twentieth century are primarily autobiographical works written by second-generation Italian immigrants.[1] Works such as the 1921 book The Soul of an Immigrant written by Constantine Panunzio and Men of Silence by Louis Forgione in 1928 are personal recollections and not useful to this literature review.[2] While these books are about Italian Immigration, they are more primary sources. The sources then experience a large time gap. Works are not as common in the forties and fifties due to World War II and the rise of communism but pick up again in the sixties with the start of narrative works. Italian immigrants faced discrimination during the war and were associated with socialism, therefore resulting in a limited number of works about the history of Italian immigration. These books emphasize the political situations of Italian immigration such as immigration laws and the data of the immigration. Many sources from this time period focus on Al Capone, big city bosses, and the Mafia.[3] While these books are interesting and contain analysis on Italian Immigration, they are too specific on small subtopics and do not add substantial information to the overall subject of the history of Italian immigration.. Progressing into the seventies, the books start to focus on social history. While still primarily narratives, they begin to subtly analyze more than the “what.” Initially starting in the nineties, works concentrating on ethnicity and race appeared. Most of these secondary sources are scholarly articles. Short works about Italian Immigration such as James Barrett’s and David Roediger’s 1997 article titled “Inbetween People’s: Race, Nationality, and the ‘New Immigrant’ Working Class” from the Journal of American Ethnic History and the 1992 artile “Americanization from the Bottom Up: Immigration and the Remaking of the Working Class in the Unites States, 1880- 1930” written by James R. Barrett, are specific to the topic of Italian Immigration and are far more common than books.[4] The literature for this review starts in the 1970’s and continues until 2016. The sources are significant works on the topic of Italian immigration. They add importance to topic and best represents the progression of how the literature changes. They begin with a narrative approach and as the historiography of Italian Immigration evolves, so do the works.

The Italians in Chicago, 1880-1930: A Study of Ethnic Mobility written by Humbert S. Nelli was published in 1970 and covers the topic in a descriptive style.[5] Humbert Nelli is a history professor at the University of Kentucky and has written many books concerning Italians. Nelli’s purpose in this book is to describe and analyze the experience of Chicago’s Italian community from 1880 to 1930. He moves from “Rural Italy to Urban America,” “Patterns of Settlement,” “Economic Activity,” and “Italians and Crime.”[6] Nelli progresses through the broad subjects for Italian Immigration to define that part in history. This book is more of an account of the immigrants rather than a source of analytical work. The Italians in Chicago has many basic facts about Italian immigration, such as geographical points using accounts of social workers, newspapers, and government primary sources. He argues that the main problems these immigrants faced were because of the movement from rural communities to urban centers for work. This book, while primarily a descriptive piece of literature, occasionally challenges stereotypes about immigration. Nelli argues that the ethnic ghettos were Italian immigrants lived were temporary, contrary to popular belief that immigrants tended to remain in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. This book also falls into the category of books that associate Italian Immigration with organized crime. Following the prior works from the 1960s that revolved around the subtopic of organized crime, Nelli states that most Italians were involved in criminal activities and “even facilitated immigrant adjustment.”[7] The rest of the book focuses on patterns of movement following them from their “desire to leave ethnic enclaves” to places such as “Lincoln Park, Lake View, and the North Center areas.”[8] This book provides a detailed account of the history of Italian Immigration yet does not offer insight into the personal struggles of the immigrants or an attempt the analyze any of the information. There is very little analysis of the past events, but they are clearly defined for the reader, reading more like a textbook. Nelli clearly researched extensively with government and private documents, articles, and books but the book is a product of it’s time for this topic; an eloquent account of Italian Immigration filled with facts and no inquiry into the why.

In the 1982 book titled From Italy to San Francisco: The Immigrant Experience by Dino Cinel, an Italian-American historian, and a Distinguished Professor of Italian-American Studies at City University of New York, is a descriptive narrative that is supported by vast research.[9] His thesis is that the Italian immigrant experience “one of change within continuity.” He writes about emigrants from nine Italian communes following three generations (utilizing statistics from the US census, a data base, tables, maps, and geographical factors to strength his argument) this book focuses on one city, San Francisco, and recognizes that Italians were treated differently in the West than they were in the East. This book starts to analyze the geographical differences which is important to the overall literature. This is something that starts to show up again in literature regarding Italian immigration. Cinel notes that in the East of the United States, Italian immigrants faced far more discrimination. While Nelli focused on describing the history of the immigration, Cinel attempts to start asking the why they immigrated. It’s the start of investigation into the subject. He concludes that the “poverty push” was the main reasoning.[10] While describing the experiences of the immigrants, he recognizes there was some prejudice but questions whether or not this city lifted the immigrants up or put them down. It is noted that Italians were placed in the middle of races. They were discriminated against but did not face the hardships that African Americans faced. There is a shift in the focus of the study. This is the beginning of historians questioning how the Italian Immigration experience was affected due to their ethnicity, a frequent issue in later studies.

Written by David Richards and published in 1999, Italian American: The Racializing of an Ethnic Identity, is one of the first significant work exploring the racial issues related to Italian Immigration.[11] Richards, a professor of criminal and constitutional law at NYU School of Law, felt that there were not enough studies on Italian Immigration and examines how racism targeted immigrant groups. His work is a reaction to a book about immigration, but Italians are not covered. His thesis is that

American racism could not have had the durability or the political power it has had, either in the popular understanding of American culture or in the corruption of constitutional ideals of universal human rights, unless new immigrants, themselves often regarded as racially inferior, had been drawn into accepting and supporting many of the terms of American racism.[12]


The main argument is that Italian immigrants were reluctant to change popular opinion about them. Richards’ book revolves around ethnicity, racism, culture, and identity research into court cases and a wide range of books and articles. With a PhD in law, he uses court cases to strengthen his argument about racism and discrimination. In his introduction, Richards states that he is offering a “new methodology” to this topic therefore evolving from being a narrative of facts to interpreting how “political philosophy, history, and law” affected the multicultural identity of immigrants.[13] Tying nationalism to his thesis, Richards blames both the United States and Italy for infringing on “universal human rights.”[14] This book explores the gradual change of identity for Italian immigrants. Progressing from Nelli, this author directly analyzes the historical data. Improving on Cinel’s work, this book directly argues that Italians faced racial discrimination, but they learned to accept the terms of racism. Richards addresses the injustice and discrimination that these people faced and examines how the foundational beliefs in this country set by the Constitution played a role in the formation of “multicultural identity.”[15]  Richards does not bring up “whiteness” in this book which is an issue that authors will start to question. This book is the beginning of how Italian immigration is currently being studied.

Are Italians White? How Race is Made, written by Jennifer Guglielmo, an historian of labor, race, women, migration, and activism at Smith College, and Salvatore Salerno, a sociologist, was published in 2003.[16] This book continues with the pattern of ethnicity and identity that David Richards began four years earlier.[17] Guglielmo and Salerno write a book about how racism affected the Italian Immigration experience and culture. Building on Richards approach to racism, these authors study identity but address “whiteness”. This book directly correlates with the 2 in the study of immigration. The literature changed from narrative works, to looking at the social history of a group. A collection of poems, essays, and writings by nineteen other authors, this book focuses on immigrant experiences and how “race is defined and categorized” in the United States.[18] Guglielmo traces the initial racism of Italians to Italy itself, same as Richards, arguing that the racial tensions began between northern and southern Italians. The authors critically examine how race is a social construct and while Italian immigrants faced hardships and discrimination, they were still considered “white” by the general population.[19] Essays in this book analyze how the Italian immigrant identity developed into being white. Overtime, Italian immigrants began treating African Americans as inferiors and asserted themselves in the white community. The book points out that Italian Immigrants were an “inbetween ethnicity.”[20] This is different from Richards who gave Italian immigrants a “multicultural identity”, who were not quite fully white but not considered as inferior as African Americans. Dino Cinel also made this point. There were racial distinctions between the ethnicities, but Italian Immigrants fell somewhere in the middle and while not “white Americans” they were among “white ethnics.”[21]

Thomas A. Guglielmo’s 2004 book, White on Arrival: Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, is a combination of Richard’s Italian American and Guglielmo and Salerno’s Are Italians White?[22] Guglielmo, an American Studies professor at the University of Notre Dame, who has written several other works regarding Italian Immigration, argues that while Italian immigrants faced injustice, they were considered “white on arrival”.[23] This argument proves various US censuses and naturalization laws. Richards argues that Italian immigrants did not fight or have to assert themselves as white. He supports this point and explains that these immigrants did not have to do that until after World War II, they were “white ethnic” from the start which ties in Jennifer Guglielmo’s and Salvatore Salerno’s argument.[24] These immigrants were treated as in between the races. White On Arrival includes geographical factors, just like the earlier works such as Cinel’s book, and recognizes that areas of the United States varied on the treatment.[25] In the West, Italian Immigrants faced hardship but not nearly as much in the East and especially not as much in the highly marginalized South. Guglielmo admits that their whiteness was occasionally questioned by some but was still widely accepted by the majority of the population and the government. “Naturalization law, censuses, courts, newspapers, unions, employers, neighbors, realtors and politicians” are part of the evidence that Guglielmo utilizes to strengthen his argument.[26] With his use of laws, newspapers, dissertations, master theses, interviews, newspapers, oral histories, and cartoons, White on Arrival has become one of the most significant sources on Italian Immigration. The strong argument that Italian immigrants were actually considered white influences the literature immensely. Building on Are Italians White, this is contrary to previous arguments made many authors such as Richards.  Moving from a detailed account of immigrant experiences, Guglielmo transforms this subject by pulling from previous works and thoughtfully contextualizes racial perceptions of Italian Immigration. Developing past the argument that Italian immigrants faced huge racial discrimination upon arrival, Guglielmo changes the way the study of immigration views Italians.

Stefano Luconi appeared in the Journal of Transatlantic Studies, in 2016 with “Black Dagoes? Italian immigrants’ racial status in the United States: An Ecological View”[27] This article discusses the geographical differences such as Cinel and Richards, the transformation of Italian immigrants’ identity, and how these Italians “held a middle ground between whites and blacks.” This article combines points made by previous authors into one cohesive essay. In his introduction, Luconi cites Thomas Guglielmo’s argument that “in spite of being victims of racial prejudice and stereotypes, Italian immigrants in the United States were ‘white on arrival’.”[28] Focusing on the racial approach to Italian immigration, Luconi expands even more. He mentions, as do previous texts, that geography was a main contributor to the amount of discrimination faced and that Guglielmo’s 2004 conclusion cannot be “generalized” to the entirety of the nation.[29] His article compares different experiences from different regions with racial classification. Luconi argues that the discrimination against Italian immigrants was significant (naming several examples of race violence.) Both authors agree that Italian immigrants did not assert their “whiteness” until after World War II due to “participation in the race upheavals on the Caucasian side.”[30] Luconi concludes that racial issues are a result of complicated relationships between groups and the previous public opinion that race relations were white and black, are just not true.

These modern works reshape and reevaluate Italian Immigration. A stereotype that all immigrants were treated badly and that Italian immigrants were on the same level as of African Americans in terms of discrimination was largely overexaggerated. Time has altered how Italian Immigration is studied. A pattern emerges following the literature. Starting with autobiographies and accounts of immigration experiences, to detailed narratives of the history, to contextualizing works that explore racial identity, the historiography of this subject has developed rapidly. The 70s through the 90s don’t cover “white ethnicity” but rather follow the study of social history of immigrants. Starting at the turn of the century, the discipline changes and race, ethnicity, and identity become the focus of immigration. Modern historians no longer just describe past events but explore the why’s and how’s. They pull in other subject such as politics, economics, culture, ethnicity, and racial patterns in order to find a conclusion.










Barrett, James R. “Americanization from the Bottom Up: Immigration and the Remaking of the Working Class in the United States, 1880-1930.” Journal of American History 79, no. 3 (1992): 996-1020.


Barrett, James R., and David Roediger. “Inbetween Peoples: Race, Nationality and the “New Immigrant” Working Class.” Journal of American Ethnic History 16, no. 3 (1997): 3-44.


Cinel, Dino. From Italy to San Francisco: The Immigrant Experience. Stanford, Cali: Stanford University Press, 1982.


Forgione, Louis, and Littlefield, Walter. The Men of Silence. E. P. Dutton &, 1928.


Gottfried, Alex. Boss Cermak of Chicago: A Study of Political Leadership. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962.

Guglielmo, Jennifer, and Salvatore Salerno. Are Italians White? How Race Is Made in America. New York: Routledge, 2003.


Guglielmo, Thomas A., White on Arrival Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.


Kobler, John. Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971.


Luconi, Stefano. “Black Dagoes? Italian Immigrants’ Racial Status in the United States:An Ecological View.” Journal of Transatlantic Studies 14, no. 2 (2016): 188-99.


Nelli, Humbert S.,Italians In Chicago, 1880-1930: A Study in Ethnic Mobility. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Panunzio, Constantine M. The Soul of an Immigrant. Macmillan Company, 1921.


Richards, David A. J., Italian American: The Racializing of an Ethnic Identity. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

[1] Constantine M. Panunzio, The Soul of an Immigrant (Macmillan, 1921).

[2] Louis Forgione and Walter Littlefield, Men of Silence, (E. P. Dutton, 1928).


[3] John Kobler, The Life and World of Al Capone (New York: Putman, 1971).

Alex Gottfried, Boss Cermak of Chicago: A Study of Political Leadership. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962).



            [4]                 James R. Barrett and David Roediger, “Inbetween Peoples: Race, Nationality and the “New Immigrant” Working Class,” Journal of American Ethnic History 16, no. 3 (1997): 3-44.

James R. Barrett, “Americanization from the Bottom Up: Immigration and the Remaking of the Working Class in the United States, 1880-1930,” Journal of American History 79, no. 3 (1992): 996-1020.


[5] Humbert S. Nelli, Italians In Chicago, 1880-1930: A Study In Ethnic Mobility, (New York: Oxford, 1970).

[6] Nelli, Italians In Chicago, table of contents.


[7] Nelli, Italians In Chicago,134.

[8] Nelli, Italians In Chicago, 159.

 [9] Dino Cinel, From Italy to San Francisco: The Immigrant Experience, (Stanford Cali: Stanford University Press, 1982).



[10] Cinel, From Italy to San Francisco, 42


[11] David A. J. Richards, Italian American: The Racializing of an Ethnic Identity (New York: N. Y. Press, 1999).


[12] Richards, Italian American, preface.


[13] Richards, Italian American, 5.


[14] Richards, Italian American, preface.


[15] Richards, Italian American, 76.


[16] Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno, Are Italians White? How Race is Made in America, (New York: Routledge, 2003).


[17] Richards, Italian American, 33.


[18] Guglielmo, Are Italians White?, 8


[19] Guglielmo, Are Italians White?, 11


[20] Guglielmo, Are Italians White?, 18.


[21] Guglielmo, Are Italians White?, 34.


[22] Thomas A. Guglielmo, White on Arrival Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004),


[23] Guglielmo, White on Arrival Italians, 13.


[24] Guglielmo, White on Arrival Italians, 45.


[25] Guglielmo, White on Arrival Italians, 56.


[26] Guglielmo, White on Arrival Italians,32.


[27] Stefano Luconi, “Black Dagoes? Italian Immigrants’ Racial Status in the United States: An Ecological View,” Journal of Transatlantic Studies 14, no. 2 (2016): 188-199.


[28] Luconi, “Black Dagoes?”, intro.


[29] Luconi “Black Dagoes?”, 188.


[30] Luconi, “Black Dagoes?”, 188.


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