May 2023 All Things Italy
End of Year, End of Career?
May marks the end of the school year for many of us in the US. It’s full of proms, award ceremonies, banquets, graduations, and graduation parties. Those with children in school, and those of us with careers regulated by university calendars see the month as a time of endings. Yet for some, as the word “commencement” suggests, think of new beginnings. Vacations, gardening, flowers bursting into bloom, new homes, and new careers. Such events have been on my mind as I’ve just returned from a trip that included some time with family and friends. With family in Connecticut I discussed summer positions for a college student, prom and prom dresses, dates and who’s driving.
I also spent some time researching in the New York Public Library and the Rhode Island Historical Society. My primary reason to be in Rhode Island, however, was a retirement celebration at Brown University. In denial about these important events before, or simply ignoring them, I’ve begun to realize that these mileposts, too, are among the events of the school year’s end. But does “retirement” mean end-of-career? I think not.
The event I attended last month in particular merits attention in this month’s newsletter, because the celebrated subject has devoted a long career to studying many topics Italian. Many of you, if you are unfamiliar with it now, will find much of Professor David I. Kertzer’s work of interest. Among his fourteen books, one of which won the Pulitzer Prize in Biography, are on Italy. And several he wrote for a broader audience than academic readers.
As I share a bit of his work on Italy with you, I also dip into some of what I shared and experienced at the event celebrating his career. The celebration was remarkable in part because it ran almost all day, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. There were breaks for coffee and lunch, of course, and a reception followed. I figured with this length and our busy lives, attendees would come and go. Yet we were magnetized by the day’s energy. Most of us gladly devoted our day to honoring this beloved professor, university administrator, and award winner. We were charged by the electricity running through the room.
As one after another of us, touched by Kertzer’s life and work, shared stories of our invigorating contact with him, we realized our experiences were not unique. We shed a few tears of joy. We released our emotions with laughs. And most of us expressed our belief that there will be more good work to come from Professor Kertzer. (In fact, just last week Brown University Library released an e-book he edited on Nicholas Brown, the American consul in Rome during the 1848 revolution. The list of contributors and the essay topics again demonstrate his ability to draw others in.)
Here’s a version of what I shared in Providence:
I sat down to read some of Kertzer’s work as an academic, preparing for a seminar at the American Academy in Rome in 2013. He was co-leading the NEH-funded seminar with another scholar of Italian history. I picked up The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (Knopf 1998), one of the titles on our long reading list, knowing little of the author beyond brief professional blurbs and the lengthy biographies of publications I found online. But as I began to read the story of this young Jewish boy in Bologna, kidnapped and raised by Roman Catholic authorities during the reign of Pope Pius IX, I felt I knew not only Edgardo and his family but also Kertzer, the author. They were all with me in my living room.
It was as though I was no longer in Springfield, Missouri, in 2013 but was back in Bologna and Rome in the mid-nineteenth century. Yet this was not a historical romance I was reading. It was serious non-fiction, capturing the complexities of the lives of flesh-and-blood people, who lived with the tensions of political and religious controversies which ripped families and communities apart. I was not the only one gripped by this fascinating story. Steven Spielberg announced in 2016 plans to produce a film version of Edgardo Mortara.
After this title, I turned to several others. None disappointed me. Next for me was Prisoner of the Vatican: The Pope’s Secret Plot to Capture Rome from the New Italian State (Houghton Mifflin 2004). Just after I met and worked with Kertzer in Rome in 2013, The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe (Random House 2014) appeared and won the Pulitzer. After that, I read The Pope Who Would be King: The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe (Random House 2018), which helped me with Engaging Italy. And, most recently, I have begun The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler (Penguin Random House 2022). The latter two, according to his website, are in production as documentary films.
You can drill down on these titles on his website, where you will also find links to interviews and reviews.
After reading several of these works, which appeal to a larger audience than the academic world, I decided to ask him for advice. Always generous with this time, and also very modest, Kertzer recommended that I read Amalia’s Tale: A Poor Peasant, an Ambitious Attorney, and a Fight for Justice (Houghton Mifflin 2008). With attention to craft, I flew through this account of an impoverished wetnurse from a hillside village outside Bologna. (The others I had read more for the stories of individuals within their historical and social contexts.)
I was swept up by the story of Amalia, who suffered syphilis caught from the orphan she fed and fostered, and the attorney who took up her cause. I was able to see in this book how Kertzer set the scenes and built dramatic tension. But beyond that, I also began to realize a common thread in all these works. In each the contemporary relevance of a past social and political controversy rises to the top. Without bludgeoning his readers with cases of humanitarian suffering and conviction for justice, he deftly allows us to sense them as he tells stories of the past.
I’ve recommended these books to many friends. At least one has thanked me for the recommendation of the Edgardo Mortara account. If you’re a lover of “All Things Italy” and also like history and its relevance to contemporary culture, pick up one (or more) of his titles for your summer reading. You will not be disappointed.
What I realize now is that one reason these books resonate with contemporary readers is that they are motivated by the writer’s passions. Kertzer has long been an activist for social justice—since his college days. And he draws from a family heritage of not simply learning and writing for self but for helping others. His father, Rabbi Morris Kertzer, was also an author and well known for his work to foster human relations, especially between Christians and Jews. Similar cares and concerns come into David Kertzer’s career. This passion for others became obvious in the event celebrating him last month.
End of Career, or Later Vocations?
The event celebrating Kertzer goes beyond sharing these books on Italy for my Italy-loving readers. It’s also about the topic “end of career.” That topic is one which I began writing about in my blogs four years ago. Then I chose the phrase, “later vocations” as I interviewed people who had transitioned from one calling to another, especially after the post-college phase of early career-building. I wrote with admiration of those like photographer Paul Green, who struck out on new adventures later in life, taking risks as they said goodbye to the familiar.
The phrase “later vocations” also made its way into Engaging Italy. (See a short explanation here.) The book focuses on American women who became expats later in life. Now, however, as I reflect on Kertzer’s career—50 years in academic life & writing—I see that he made many of those risky transitions even while remaining within the same career. And now, is he at the end of that career? Likely not, as all of us at the celebration recognized. He’s merely shifting from some parts of it—formal teaching and service—to emphasize others. We all know other projects are in the works.
The “later vocations” reflections and David Kertzer’s career emerge from considerations of my own path, of course. I’m nowhere near a 50-year career in academic life (but—gulp—I am nearing four decades!) Nor am I anywhere near achieving Kertzer’s success with publishing. But I have been contemplating a transition from full time academic life since 2015-16, as I took my last sabbatical. I wondered then, would I take a fourth sabbatical in 2022-23?
I applied for and was awarded a sabbatical, as I wrote last year. Yet even as I looked forward to it last May, I was not sure whether it was the best choice. I waffled a bit. I talked with wise mentors. I likely drove my closest friends crazy with the subject. Finally, I made the decision to sever my teaching and service ties with Missouri State, to shift my emphasis. More writing, more travel, less teaching, less service.
Later this month I relinquish the “Clif & Gail Smart Professor of English” title and take on “Emerita.” So far it feels good—as long as I don’t think of “Emerita” as Old with an upper-case O. Or as a death sentence.
This month I still see May as the end of the year. It’s impossible, however, for me to see it as the end of career.
As of now I plan to move forward with “All Things Italy”–thanks to feedback from many of you through the past couple of years. I will continue to share book and movie reviews. And I hope to have more to share about travels and experiences abroad, sometimes “off the beaten path.” Next month I head back across the Atlantic to lead a small group (fewer than 10) on a Rome, Siena, Assisi trip.
Until then, I will keep dreaming and learning of Italy. I hope you will keep sending your questions and responses along. They keep me going!
A Giugno! (Until June!),
Engaging Italy Updates
When I walked into the New York Public Library Manuscripts Division in the Schwarzman Building, a copy of Engaging Italy surprised me! They had, no doubt, pulled it out to greet me. Nonetheless, it was exciting to see it there on display, where I began reading letters of Caroline Crane Marsh in January 2015. Much has happened since then. I returned as a research fellow in 2018. This past month I looked through more of the Crane Family Papers held there. (They should play into a future publication–stay tuned!)
If you’ve not yet ordered a copy of Engaging Italy, now’s a perfect time. SUNY Press is running a spring sale of 50% off. Use the code SPRING23 at check out. Here’s the link.
Upcoming Talks & Trips
Next month I travel to Italy with a small group. Our focus is on political contexts of early saints, martyrs, and mystics–with an emphasis on changes inevitable with the cultural exchanges of people and ideas. As usual, we connect the past with today’s contemporary concerns. We’ll start with three full days in Rome and move from there to Orvieto, Siena, La Verna, Assisi, and Ostia. St. Catherine, St. Clare, and St. Francis will be among those whose lives and works we consider. Look for some photo updates on social media and in next month’s All Things Italy.
Are you or a group you’re a part of interested in a talk or a trip? Feel free to reach out to let me know of your interest and how we can work together to craft an event.