The Godfather Seen Through The Lens of Elite Criticism (and Vice Versa)

The Godfather Seen Through The Lens of Elite Criticism (and Vice Versa)

Joseph Urgo
The Godfather and American Culture: How the Corleones Became "Our Gang
The Godfather and American Culture: How the Corleones Became "Our Gang
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Chris Messenger achieves a rare convergence of elite and popular cultural criticism by doing for The Godfather (and its spinoffs) what previous critics have done for Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

A blurb by Frank Lentricchia on the back of Chris Messenger’s book calls it “a landmark in the study of popular culture.” Most readers recognize academic hype and know that even the most cautious of scholars will risk indiscretion on a book jacket. But in this case the hyperbolic claim may be understated. Messenger’s book is a phenomenon. I am at a loss to think what manifestation of The Godfather narratives (book, film trilogy, related movies, television programming), or what aspect of authoring, filming, marketing, or what theoretical perspective or intellectual framework Messenger overlooks in this comprehensive, intelligent, and definitive study of what is surely the twentieth century’s most telling fable of the complex intersections of work and family in American culture.

At the same time, Messenger’s hand shakes on the trigger: this is a nervous book. His intellectual anxiety shows as he approaches The Godfather with his thesis that Mario Puzo’s novel does for twentieth century America what Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the nineteenth. Stowe’s novel was an international sensation, not only for its treatment of slavery but for its sentimental revelations, its view of how the world was structured in the United States and why it worked the way it worked. Domestically, her projection of that world was so convincing and so necessary to readers and audiences that the novel was staged repeatedly in cities and towns for decades after its publication. Much of Stowe’s imagination entered popular culture and remains there - Simon Legree, Uncle Tom, the transformative potential of sentimentality. The Godfather follows a similar trajectory. Another international blockbuster novel, The Godfather was followed by a hugely popular film trilogy, one of the century’s most compelling cultural achievements. What Puzo (and Francis Ford Coppola) created has entered popular discourse, to the point where the television series, The Sopranos, can transform the fable into a morality play exploring contemporary work and family issues. “Tony’s problems become more those of a midcareer executive facing obsolescence,” in Messenger’s view, a situation that resonates in too many middle-class homes. “The Sopranos are more a danger to their immediate family and each other than they are a cancer on American society; they toil in an unhealthy and dangerous occupation that is fading” (282). The success of the HBO series is based in its firm understanding of its ideological function, where its characters themselves seem acutely aware of their predicament in an Italian American narrative of assimilation and resistance.

Intellectuals not usually drawn to popular entertainment may find truth in the general Godfather -as-America context, where all morality, all notions of good and evil, are staged within an essentially immoral, criminal, and violent setting. Libertarians may find truth in what Messenger calls the “male dream of anarcho-resistance to regulation and order in a civic society.” The nervousness Messenger displays (or which, perhaps, I am inferring) may stem from the audacity of the book’s governing contrast: whereas Americans in the nineteenth century recognized their most compelling narrative in a story of Christian sacrifice and redemption, in the twentieth we have come to know ourselves as gangsters, a Gunfighter Nation, in Richard Slotkin’s term, no longer cowboys but mobsters, living according to laws of our own making, self-congratulatory for a vicious morality that serves our needs as capitalist “earners.”

Still, Messenger’s hand on the trigger flinches. “To analyze The Godfather is to become something of a metaphorical Corleone family member, seeing from cosa nostra (reconfigured as popular fiction) just what that outside world of elite fiction and criticism looks like from different discriminations and considerations within popular fiction” (33). To maintain his legitimacy, so to speak, Messenger erects an elaborate and entirely appropriate intellectual scaffolding, including (among many other approaches) Kant’s call for “the suppression of unregulated feeling in any system of judgment.” Kant leads Messenger to admit the challenge in popular fiction criticism is “nothing less than striving for a re-association of sensibility between reason and feeling in the service of raising issues about the moral transactions of mob narrative in the life world of The Godfather ” (26). He cites Bakhtin’s notion of the “authoritative word” demanding acknowledgement, one manifestation being “the word of the fathers,” which in Puzo is the word of the godfather. Messenger employs Boelhower on ethnic semiosis to explain the different forms the ethnic subject can take in American fiction. Inspired by Barthes, Messenger explains how popular fiction critics “are moved to restore the ideological component to texts” while elite fiction critics “are moved to poetize what they deem to be complex texts about social and cultural issues, often to the exclusion of such issues” (160). To that end, Messenger offers an extended comparison of Puzo’s novel and Doctorow’s Ragtime, distinguishing an elite text’s aesthetic potential from that of the mob narrative. In the tradition of Dreiser and Jack London, Messenger finds that Puzo shares an “extreme attraction to and repulsion from art and success [which are] in themselves melodramatic (182), and then applies Richard Chase on melodrama. Messenger succeeds, in the end, in making a legitimate enterprise of his meditation on The Godfather phenomenon. But still, the hand shakes. Citing Peter Rabinowitz on reading, Messenger admits that intensive critical scrutiny of The Godfather “fractures my reading responses into conflicting feelings and several judgments” but nonetheless, he “believes the comprehension of The Godfather is a very complex matter, which reaches deep into the history of American fiction and American configuration of the national errand and family” (36)

Of Italian-Americans, Messenger quips, “It’s a curious fate to be an ‘unprotected’ ethnic minority where all bets are off in contemporary politically correct discourse” (9). The portrayal of Italians in Godfather narratives, from Puzo’s novel through The Sopranos, is unparalleled in contemporary representation, made possible only because Italian Americans are the twentieth century’s quintessentially ambivalent ethnic group. Their representatives may be found assimilated throughout the social order (academic, government, corporate) while at the same time they cultivate iconic outsider status through tales of the mafia - an organization which, as Tony Soprano tells his daughter, does not exist. Puzo, who at the beginning of his career had ambitions for elite fiction, emerges as the national snitch. Messenger explains that Puzo “cashes in the dream of art to identify with the dream of Don Corleone, the father who will never fail his family or cease to control his life. Corleone power will thrill millions, but when the tumblers finally fell and the safe door swung open to great success, the safe was empty, as far as Puzo was concerned. Puzo had no identity after The Godfather ” (75). For sociological reasons beyond the scope of Messenger’s study, Italian Americans are available for the kind of scrutiny and mythmaking which would be impossible for Asian or Hispanic immigrants, for example, despite the efforts of various anti-defamation groups supported by Italian American doctors and lawyers. “The real melting pot in The Godfather contains Puzo’s amalgam of crime, business, and family in sentiment and sensation, melodrama’s twin muses.” As such, Godfather narratives, right through a most recent manifestation in The Sopranos, play out the core anxieties of assimilation and identity in the context of corporate capitalism. “The Corleones’s inexorable drive to authority in a country that believes in its collective destiny: to ‘make manifest’ beyond all reasonable doubt and to do so within violence that is ‘just business.’” As a result, Messenger concludes, “Puzo’s mob narrative has become a compelling version of our national story” (200).

What Puzo does best, in Messenger’s hands, is to align the central tropes of Godfather narratives to recognizable phenomena in elite fiction and literary theory. One example is the traditional Italian code of omerta, which governs “what can or cannot be said according to situation” and which is “a male constant that leads to an extraordinary if isolated power” (122). Messenger finds links between this “Italian American ethnic silence” and “the silence of modernism;” links to such phenomena as absent centers and the presence of unnamed things in high-culture literary criticism. However, “silence is observed and performed by Puzo’s Sicilian-Americans in The Godfather but is not credited there by elite literary criticism, which wants to privilege silence only when it is metacommentary on language and history, not when it is an ethnically based custom of language and gesture” (123). What Messenger has located here and elsewhere are instances of simultaneous enactment, where elite and popular culture may exist in separate spheres, but whose universes are unmistakably parallel. Another example is the bella figura, “the attention to form of presentation governing social situations and the code that expresses an individual’s public utterance and social script.” Bella figura “governs oral communication and shapes its social pragmatics while providing its theatre” and, coincidentally, looks a lot like what elite critics might call professionalism. Most important is the maintenance of an impeccable coolness in the eyes of others, “especially in public appearances where indirectness and forms rule over frank exchange. For a Corleone to become impetuous, imprudent, impatient, to ‘not get the message,’ is to place the family at considerable risk and its enemies in real danger” (113).

Messenger may be too insistent in his claim that “At this point in critical debate, elite literary silences have cultural capital, whereas the silences in ethnic performance do not” (127), and the book is flawed only by a recurring implication that we should have known this all along. In fact, “we”, in the sense of mass culture, have indeed known it - as shown most recently by the massive cross-race, -class, and -gender audience attracted to The Godfather. Tony Soprano is the new century’s “representative man,” a man “confused by business, wife, children, parents, and self,” according to Messenger. “He has assimilated even in the face of his own protests as an Italian American victim…. He is America’s most powerful and potentially most dangerous enduring dream” (288). The danger is in Soprano’s enactment of violent solutions to business and family problems, a fantasy of justice which continues to dominate the popular imagination. According to Messenger, this is indeed the most troubling element of the Godfather phenomenon, and may also be the reason for its mass appeal. “The question of who has the right to use violence in a society, if anyone, and how that right is sanctioned, censured, and qualified in fiction” (297) is the recurring and unanswerable question which draws audiences to these narratives. Perhaps the persistence of the question is the very reason that “the Corleones became ‘our gang.’”

(Chris Messenger reviewed Tom LeClair’s novel, Passing Off, in the summer of 1998.