Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Discovery: Frank Snowden III

We pause to offer a shoutout for a man I never heard of until just last week.  Which is not to say he is obscure; just hitherto unknown to me.  That would be Frank Snowden III, scholar of Italian history and holder of an endowed chair at Yale. He came on my radar sideways; on a whim I downloaded his lecture-course on "Epidemics" from the Yale Open Courses website.  It's wonderful but perhaps not quite for the reasons one might expect.  It is in part a "science" course--there are spirochaetes and penicillin and high-saline water.  But the best parts address the social response to epidemic; indeed, best of all may be Snowden's account of the Naples cholera epidemic of 1911 and the infinitely resourceful efforts of the Italian government (with the cooperation of the United States) to keep it secret.  Not quite "your government is trying to kill you," but certainly "your government has other, more important items on its agenda and really doesn't give a rat's patootie whether you live or die."  Snowden does almost as well in his gripping account of the notorious (or is it forgotten?) Tuskegee syphilis study, losing a bit of its bite (if it does) only because it is better known (if it is).

But beyond the lectures.  If I understand this right, Snowden started his career with a more abstract interest in political theory and social justice but somehow stumbled onto the case of Italy where there is just a whole lot of political theory going on.  I'm  just now getting acquainted with his four books, but there's consider the subject matter: cholera, malaria, the rise of fascism, the dispossessed southern peasantry.   In short,  a down-and-dirty attempt to understand real human problems and their solutions or not. 

What's particularly intriguing here is  it's a topic so often corrupted with a gauzy romanticism.   I suppose it is nearly impossible for the writerly class to come to terms with the truly dispossessed in any event, and I'll grant there are some Italians who have given it an honest shot: Verga in particular (but he is Sicily); Sciasscia (Sicily again, and general corruption); with qualification, Silone (a  bit too readable for his own good.  But writers like this, however they much get respect, never get that much of an audience.  Our views are far more likely shaped by the easy (and photogenic) pieties of Bertolucci's 1900 . And recall Giuseppe di Lampedusa's insight that the reason Italian politics are so awful is that people confuse opera with life (a more suitable movie entry might be Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah).

Granted, Snowden is never likely to achieve the celebrity of a Bertolucci, with or without a shoutout from me.  But it bears all the earmarks of a sustained, integrated and coherent career, all of a piece and all worth serious attention.  

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