The Anarchist Bastard

Growing Up Italian in America

By Joanna Clapps Herman

Subjects: Italian American Studies, Memoir, Autobiography, Biography And Memoir, Ethnic History, Immigration
Series: SUNY series in Italian/American Culture, Excelsior Editions
Paperback : 9781438436326, 258 pages, October 2013
Hardcover : 9781438436319, 258 pages, March 2011

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Table of contents

With and Without Words: An Introduction


My Homer

II. THE UNSAYABLE:The Clapps Family

Peter and His Brothers

Paulie e ’u Gagaron’

My Father Telling Stories

Oak Street


Canio Becomes a Citizen

The Aviglianese Society


Rocco Lauro and the Sausage

Local Politics

The Boys

The Shop




The Anarchist Bastard


Waiting for Vito

Tre’ Casc’

Keeping Company

Flesh and Bone

Both Are True


Before and After Tinfoil

Stitching: Our Voices Together

Coffee And

Words and Rags

My Aboriginal Women

Uffa, Jojo, The Monkey

Dropping in on Sandy

Notes of an Unredeemed Catholic


’U Bizz’ di Creanz’: A Piece of Politeness

In Absence

Without My Tribe

The Discourse of un’ Propria Papon’

Lotions, Potions, and Solutions

And La La La

Psychic Arrangements

A tribute to the Italian American family and its trying bonds of love.


Finalist for the 2011 ForeWord Book of the Year in the Autobiography/Memoir Category

"I was born in 1944, but raised in the twelfth century." With that, Joanna Clapps Herman neatly describes the two worlds she inhabited while growing up as the child of Italian American immigrants in Waterbury, Connecticut, a place embedded with values closer to Homer's Greece than to Anglo-American New England, where the ethic of hospitality was and still is more Middle Eastern and North African than Anglo-European, and where the pageantry and ritual were more pagan Mediterranean than Western Christian. It was also a place where a stuffed monkey wearing a fedora sat and continues to sit on her grandmother's piano, and a place where, when the donkey got stubborn and wouldn't plow the field, her grandfather bit the animal in a fury. In essays filled with wry humor and affectionate yet probing insights, Herman maps and makes palpable the very particular details of this culture—its pride and its shame, its profound loyalty and its Byzantine betrayals.

Joanna Clapps Herman teaches creative writing in the MAW program at Manhattanville College and at the Center for Worker Education, a division of City College of New York. She is the coeditor (with Carol Bonomo Albright) of Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian Americana and (with Lee Gutkind) of Our Roots Are Deep with Passion: Creative Nonfiction Collects New Essays by Italian-American Writers. She lives in New York City.


"…[an] eloquently written collection of essays … Herman richly tells about growing up in an environment split between modern suburban surroundings and the Old-World values, customs, and traditions of her deep-rooted Italian family." — Bronxville-Eastchester Patch

"…a haunting, tender, yet unsparing memoir … Herman gives voice to the stories that wouldn't be told, to those whose stories, told only after their deaths, were unsayable." — Feile-Festa

"[Herman's] deep love for the Becce and Clapps families and their traditions, as well as her honest dismay of the madness and violence that surfaced in both clans, makes for arresting reading … Herman's book not only entertains, but also serves as a model for writers who themselves aspire to memoir." — Connecticut Muse

"[Herman's] tale covers the good and the expected … What sets the book apart from other Italian-theme literature, however, is that [she] also bares many of her family's failings and serious flaws, shedding light on some dark corners of the family's past … the book is ground-breaking and commendable. It is a book that goes beyond rosy stereotypes and gets closer to depicting reality. It is a book that all generations of Italian Americans might read and use as a basis for further discussion on what it really means to grow up Italian American." — CiaoAmerica

"…this unique, deeply personal collection of [Herman's] essays is at once an emotional narrative of her memorable family and also an exploration of the ties between past and present, Italy and America. Herman's situation is unique, and yet any reader who has experienced what it means to have family ties of any kind can relate to her story." — Italian American Digest

"Joanna Clapps Herman comes to us palms up, arms outstretched, her naked wounds open for the doubtful hand to reach into her riven side. This is the genuine article … She carries us like a tour guide back to her roots, intoxicating us along the way … This kettle of family history boils with the aroma of Old Italy and metropolitan America, savory rich in sorrow and joy, humor and rage." — San Francisco Book Review

"…a rich collection of essays about [Herman's] huge, brawling Italian-American family, critical yet full of love, respectful yet unsentimental, quietly unsparing." — New Haven Advocate

"The Anarchist Bastard is not just the story of the Clapps and Becce family, but the story of a particular Italian-American way of life in which Herman rejoiced and chafed … The tension between Herman's love of her family's intimacy and her own struggle to become an individual apart from that culture ripples through the stories." — Waterbury Republican-American

"The Anarchist Bastard is eye-opening―vibrant, original, and deep in what it has to say about ancient tradition and its life in America. It did what the best writing does―it made me see the world differently. A beautiful book." ― Joan Silber, author of Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories

"The Anarchist Bastard is a book for anyone interested in family, words, Italy, or the weight of the past in its present incarnations. This is a rich stew, full of delicious chunks of Italian American life, with spices of the Old Country in the rich broth of modern American life. Joanna Clapps Herman digs into her ethnic past, putting flesh and bones on any number of remarkable ghosts. A beautiful and entertaining memoir that deserves a wide audience. Her writing is pungent, fluid, and appealing—a fabulous book." — Jay Parini, author of The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy's Final Year

"In The Anarchist Bastard, Joanna Clapps Herman stares fervently and lovingly into her Italian American heritage, surveying the effects of the brutal poverty of southern Italy brought to America. A clever alchemist and gifted storyteller, she mixes humor and sadness, anger and tenderness, extracting wisdom from every ounce of pain. Along the way, the reader inhales the rich aroma of simmering espresso, savors the sweet pasticceria, follows the needle that threads their lives—and discovers a piece of herself in the Clapps family journey." ― Maria Laurino, author of Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom

"In this domestic epic by Joanna Clapps Herman, unforgettable figures encounter one another on the familial battlefield of love and rage. In the fantastically depicted Waterbury, Connecticut, ancient rituals survive and thrive, exquisite and excruciating. Ferociously devoted to the world and characters of her origin, Herman depicts them with ruthless though always empathetic precision. Her voice, tender and haunting, draws us into a narrative dimension between Italy and America, between myth and history, and we cannot help but marvel at its beauty, lyricism, abundance, and relentlessness. A precious chest of stories, The Anarchist Bastard will be counted among the most important Italian American memoirs." — Edvige Giunta, author of Writing with an Accent: Contemporary Italian American Women Authors

"In this deeply personal and elegant collection of essays, Joanna Clapps Herman brings to life her memorable Italian American family without shying away from the often painful truths that come with honest examination. At the same time she deftly illuminates the universal challenge of the modern American woman who yearns to understand yet transcend her immigrant family heritage, thus brilliantly filling a gap in the canon of contemporary immigrant literature." ― Amanda Lydon, Manager and Curator, Tenement Talks