Unto the Sons

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Although this saga of three generations of the Talese family is based on fact, the book makes use of the techniques of an epic novel. It centers on the trials and tribulations of a small number of characters; it has a universal theme; it has a structural beginning, middle, and end; and it uses fictional techniques to create dramatic scenes and dialogue. Consequently, although the idea of reading more than six hundred pages of family history might sound deadly dull, Talese’s magnum opus is a fascinating account that seizes the attention so irresistibly that a reader may find it hard to put it down.

Although there are autobiographical elements in Talese’s book, this is not an autobiography in the usual sense. Unto the Sons begins with Talese writing in the first person about himself as a preteen during World War II in Ocean City, New Jersey. The thematic focus is on the contrast between Talese, an all-American boy enamored of baseball and the great Joe DiMaggio, and his Italian immigrant father, who knows little of either. Among the many specific details and events that dramatize the boy’s relationship to his father in this first section, perhaps the most touching and telling is when Talese skips work in his father’s tailor shop to practice fielding against a brick wall in the parking lot. Surprised by his father, the boy nervously throws the ball to the startled man and watches horrified as his father awkwardly extends his hands. The ball bounces off his neck and shoulder. Picking the rubber ball up as if it were a strange object, Talese’s father makes a feeble attempt at returning it. Talese recalls that although his father tried his best, the results were pitiful; thus it was a sorrowful moment for both of them.

After this personal prologue, Talese himself disappears from the book for the next five hundred pages, not to reappear until the conclusion, after the history of the family has traversed more than a hundred years and the narrative has been brought forward again to Ocean City, New Jersey, during World War II. At the end of the book, Talese writes about himself in the third person and refers to his father as Joseph, as if the preceding five hundred pages have transformed the historian/chronicler and his family into fictional characters. The central conflict in this last section is within the tormented consciousness of Talese’s father, as he tries to come to terms with the fact that his beloved Italian homeland is at war with his adopted country, America. After U.S. bombers have destroyed an abbey in southern Italy that was famous as a cradle of learning during the Dark Ages, the young Gay Talese comes into his bedroom to find his father crushing his model American airplanes. The book ends with the son crying to his father that he hates him, while the father can only respond—echoing something his grandfather once told him when he was a tailor’s apprentice—“Those who love you, make you cry.…”

Although the central figures of Unto the Sons are members of the Talese family, this is actually a book about the millions of Italian immigrants who came to the United States during the early part of the twentieth century, personalized and made real by being typified by Talese’s ancestors. Part of what makes the book work is that like literature, it is not concerned merely with historical time, but rather with actions and events that, even as they take place in a particular period, embody eternal archetypes.

Talese does not take a strictly chronological approach to his account. Like a novel, it has a thematic structure. After presenting the conflict between himself and his father, he shifts to Joseph’s childhood and his own coming-of-age conflict in Italy in the first decade of the twentieth century. Talese uses his father’s desire to come to America as a transition back in time to his grandfather Gaetano’s immigration. Throughout the book, political and cultural events are interwoven with family history to create the sense of a personal and cultural milieu. For example, information about the nineteenth century Italian general and nationalist leader Giuseppe Garibaldi is introduced through Talese’s re-creating an account of that great freedom fighter as recited by his father’s schoolteacher. The stories of other famous figures important to the history of southern Italy, such as Napoleon’s brother-in-law Jochim Murat and the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, are also skillfully interwoven into the account. The technique is similar to that used by E. L. Doctorow in his novel Ragtime (1975) to provide a historical framework for fiction. Talese uses it to give personal history a broad cultural matrix.

Although Italian history provides a base for this...

(The entire section is 1945 words.)