From the Book Jacket:
“This American system of ours,” observed Al Capone, “call it Americanism, call it capitalism, call it what you like, gives to each and every one of us a great opportunity if we can only seize it with both hands and make the most of it.” Capone spoke as a member of a generation who, seizing the opportunities offered by the Eighteenth Amendment of the US Constitution, which prohibited the manufacture, transport, or sale of alcoholic beverages, enriched himself and laid the basis for modern organized crime in America. Yet if the story of the eminent gangsters is not the orthodox, rags-to-riches story, a morality play where evil doers are brought to justice by the forces of law and order. Their story, rather, is a central and significant chapter in the social and economic history of modern America.
A Q&A with James Fentress (provided by Carol Fass Publicity and Public Relations):
Q: You use gangsters as sources extensively in Eminent Gangsters. Do you think the information they provided is reliable?
A: I’ve never imagined that, as testimony, the word of the gangsters is particularly reliable. They are, after all, criminals and therefore almost by definition men with something to hide. But this is hardly a problem limited to writing about gangsters. Historians are used to dealing with people’s memories, and they are aware, or at least they ought to be aware, that human memory is at best selective and sometimes a total confabulation. In all cases, memory is liable to rationalization, self-justification, and often enough, downright prevarication. Thus, lack of reliability is no reason for a historian not to use the gangsters as sources.
Q: Is there a danger that you end up justifying these gangsters’ behaviors by taking on the criminals’ perspective?
A: Making sense of a series of events is one thing; morally justifying them is quite another. I do not think for a moment that any of the killings were morally justified in the least. But I do not think they were random acts of violence either. I think it’s my job as a historian to put these objectives, the illegal businesses and underworld wars into a perspective in which they make sense.
Q: How did you get involved in this line of research?
A: I was studying to get a doctorate in anthropology and thinking of moving to Rome because of my wife’s career in archaeology. I asked my department if I could do my research on an Italian subject. They were somewhat nonplussed, but eventually came up with the Mafia.
Q: After you were assigned the Mafia as your research topic, how did you go about collecting data? Wander on down to Sicily and walk into a Mafia club house or whatever and say, ‘Hi guys, I’m your anthropologist’?
A: It was almost like that, at least at first. I barely spoke Italian and couldn’t make much sense out of the Sicilian dialect. But eventually, I began to make some progress. Sicily is a big island, and it took me a long while to understand what Sicilians were talking about, to get tuned in so to speak. But that’s what anthropology is supposed to be about, getting tuned in, understanding the way that other peoples speak.
Q: I understand that you wrote another book on the Mafia. Was that book based on these conversations?
A: The book was called Rebels and Mafiosi, and Cornell University Press published it a few years ago. It was really a historical study of the origins of the Mafia in Sicily. There’s a lot of rubbish written in this subject and I thought that there needed to be a book that set it all out in a well-documented way.
Q: Wandering around Sicily looking for Mafiosi to talk to must have been unsettling for the Mafia. Did they ever threaten you in any way?
A: The remark I kept hearing was ‘Your eyes are too blue; you’ll never understand anything.’ In fact, one of the reasons I wrote a history was that I found that Sicilians were much more willing to open up to me if I kept away from current events. As long as I asked questions about the period before World War II, or, at most, the years just after the war, they were happy to talk to me. With events closer to the present, people who could have told me things tended to shut up.
Q: After your first book was published, you found out that Sicilians generally liked the book while northern Italians didn’t. Why was that?
A: I took a very Sicilian perspective. I made sense of the Mafia in terms of Sicily’s political history, as a reaction to some of the misconceived policies that the new Italian state tried to impose on Sicily. I got the same reaction in the US. Some critics made analogies between the rise of the Mafia in Sicily and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the South or the rise of the IRA in Ireland. I thought there was some validity in these analogies. In all these cases, the criminal conspiracies/political terrorist groups are not just rising up out of nothing; there is a historical context that goes a longs way to explaining why they emerged.
Q: Eminent Gangsters focuses mainly on the Italians and the Jews. Why?
A: The answer is that they, like the Mexicans today, happen to have been standing at the right place at the right time (or perhaps the wrong place at the wrong time). The Italians and the Jews arrived in American and settled in the poorest urban districts precisely when the previous inhabitants, the Irish, well on their way to assimilation, were leaving these same districts. They became the loyal clientele of the corrupt, big-city political machines; they ran the big-city honkytonks, which, as much as they were criticized by the mugwumps and by various church groups, were always extremely popular with both the middle and the working classes. Thus when Prohibition rolled around, the Italians and the Jews were in a good position to capitalize on the opportunities it presented.