Not surprisingly, Professor Gardaphe and his students share a laugh in his course "Funniest Fiction."
Fred L. Gardaphe grew up in Melrose Park, a gritty Italian-American suburb of Chicago. He entered academe as a refuge from the violence that took the lives of three of the most important men in his life. His grandfather was killed during a hold-up of his pawnshop. His godfather was shot as he tried to hold up a local golf course. Organized crime allegedly had a hand in his father's unsolved murder.
But Gardaphe never turned his back on these family tragedies. Instead, he examined them with a scholar’s eye and went on to play a central role in the establishment and growth of Italian American studies in recent years. Programs now exist at about a dozen institutions in the United States, including QC.
Italian immigrants have left an indelible mark on American culture—from their cuisine to the stereotyped Italian gangster that fascinates American moviegoers. Yet little attention has been paid to the experiences of immigrants and their American-born children.
It is a gap Gardaphe has helped fill with a prolific stream of writing, including From Wiseguys to Wise Men: Masculinities and the Italian American Gangster (2006). He is currently working on a book about the role of humor in Italian American communities, including what he sees as a notable lack of irony among second-generation Italian Americans. “Everything you can laugh about in Jewish culture,” he says, “you get into a fight about in Italian-American culture.” Gardaphe is also revisiting the killings of his male relatives in a memoir, Living with the Dead.
Gardaphe was recruited to Queens in the beginning of 2008 after a decade spent building up an Italian-American studies program at SUNY, Stony Brook. Queens’s student body is ethnically very mixed, and many students work full or part time. Maybe that’s why QC feels “more connected to the rest of the world,” says Gardaphe. Students here seem “a lot more willing to learn new things” than young people at other institutions.
Favorite books: Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: While countless young people have been inspired to roam by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, it was Whitman’s poem, “Song of the Open Road” (in Leaves of Grass) that set Gardaphe off, at age 20, on a hitchhiking trip across the United States. He also loves Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain which, with its witty use of irony, says Gardaphe, opened for him “a whole new level of communication.”
Favorite musician: Van Morrison, “the Frank Sinatra of my generation.”