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Resurrecting The Godfather
Author(s): James Thomas Chiampi
Reviewed work(s):
Source: MELUS, Vol. 5, No. 4, New Writers and New Insights (Winter, 1978), pp. 18-31
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature
of the United States (MELUS)
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Resurrecting The Godfather
James Thomas Chiampi
Mario Puzo's The Godfather belongs to that legion of novels whose most
salient quality has been misguidedly denounced as a vice: its capacity to
make the artificial appear "natural." Almost with its first criticism the novel
was regarded as a roman a clef as critics attempted to identify the "real"
Johnny Fontane and Don Corleone. To do this, they and more sophisticated
critics later disregarded the work's patent fictiveness as revealed in its numerous allusions to epic and mock epic. I would argue that The Godfatheris a
profoundly mediated work, an inspired bricolage that takes elements of
Christian mythology, American and Italian literature, and transforms them
into something irreducibly new. This means that the relationship between
the work and the reality from which it takes its materials is extremely
problematic. Thus, The Godfather is not merely an index, a symptom, or a
document of its time, for it does not carry its historical materials fully formed
into a new context where they remain pristinely unchanged. On the contrary, the work has revealed itself to be deeply prophetic, because it has
become the agent of new perceptions that have subtly altered our understanding of society. The tensions of the age, Puzo's and Don Corleone's, are
intermingled with the novelistic tensions that transform the matter of history.
Criticism of The Godfather has been, with few and unconvincing exceptions, little more than an onslaught of denunciation. A selection from among
that onslaught is almost perversely revealing. The anonymous critic writing
in the May 1969 issue of America finds that
There is brutality in abundance, but there is also a sickening justification and glorification of a detestable regime. Everything is brutal.
Sex is abundant; it is not love, just animality, except in a few instances.1
This anonymous voice of righteousness has chosen to ignore the use of the
"animality" he correctly identifies; he has likewise chosen to disregard the
denunciation of the irrational which is the very fiber of the work. Moreover,
he sees the animality divorced from the other elements of the novel's context
which knock the sharp visual edge from its imagery and subordinate it to the
18

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RESURRECTINGTHE GODFATHER

19

work's overall thematic unity. Another anonymous critic, writing in the
Times Literary Supplement, denounces a cynical intention that he believes
constitutes the origin of the work and governs its "squalid" teleology: "The
Godfather is a brutal disappointment. It is, quite simply, a package for bestsellerdom: huge, vulgar, and sensational, it has all the formula requirements." It is "at best pretentiously literary" (hardly a formula requirement);
its most salient quality is "a kind of played-out Chandleresque."2 Contra, one
might adduce the review of Fred J. Cook in The Nation who defends the
novel in terms of the "reality" it illuminates: "All of this [sex, gore, etc.] might
have made it a work of cheap sensationalism, but The Godfather is deeply
imbedded in reality, and this sense of reality pervades the torrent of unending action."3 Without some qualification, however, the "sense of reality" is a
poor criterion to employ in evaluating a work of fiction. What such a criterion ignores is the craft of the author: on the one hand it disregards the play
of convention that turns a verbal structure into a window to reality, on the
other it establishes a false correspondence between novel and life that makes
the latter the axiological center of the work. Puzo has actually made the
outrageous plausible; it is for this that he should be praised, because there is
little that can be described as natural once it is sundered from the context that
grounds its plausibility. In short, Cook too is committed exclusively to an
esthetics of transparency that despoils the novel of its originality. As we
approach the criticism of The Godfather that has appeared in the most popular newsmagazines, we descend into a Dantesque bolgia of hedonism; thus
Pete Axthelm opens his very uneven review:
This is a big, turbulent, highly entertaining novel with ingredients
that should assure it a place on the bestseller lists: ample sex, a veritable orgy of bloodshed in many exotic forms, and several characters
titillatingly reminiscent of real-life public figures.4
Although Axthelm praises Puzo in passing as a "social historian," his primary concern is with the consumption of the novel and he assumes that for
the most venal reasons Puzo shared his concern. In this, Axthelm's criticism
is typical: most of these critics treat the novel simply as a piece of merchandise whose assumed profit motive justifies their wrath. Thus, the object of
their value judgment becomes the moral act that inspired the novel and not
the novel itself. This is hardly just grounds for literary-critical praise or
condemnation, because those intentions remain with the author and are not
available in the work. What Axthelm has done is simply a variation on this
theme: He has first assumed a cynical persona, then, arguing that the intention of the work is commercial, he proceeds to praise it for realizing that
intention. Unfortunately, Puzo himself will reveal himself as nothing more
than a mediocre critic of Puzo when he uses these same criteria in judging his

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20

JAMESTHOMAS CHIAMPI

own work. However, all he does, as we shall see, is prove that the creative
moment and the critical moment are separated by an abyss. About the best
critic among the journalists is Dick Schaap who observes with some sensitivity: "Puzo performs a neat trick; he makes Don Vito a sympathetic,
rather appealing character," adding: "The deep strength of the narrative
comes from... a conviction that street justice is more equal and more honest
than the justice preached in the courts."5Nevertheless, if Puzo shows us the
demoniac moral satisfaction that murder offers-an eye for an eye-he also
far transcends it by revealing that when one destroys the "other," one annihilates his own identity.
What then of Puzo writing on Puzo? Should we accept his criticism of The
Godfather as definitive because he is the creator of this novelistic universe
and should know better than anyone what he set out to do? We would be
tempted to agree, if his critical language were both coherent and adequate;
that is, if it could do justice to the complexity of the novel in a way that does
not compromise the logic of his critical assumptions. Does it? In The Godfather Papers, Puzo tells us that The Godfatherwas not intended to be a work
of art as were his two previous novels, The Dark Arena (1955) and The
Fortunate Pilgrim (1965), which together netted him the pittance-$6,500literary works of art usually earn. Puzo claims he was "forty-five years old
and tired of being an artist," realizing that it was "time to grow up and sell
out." Puzo is perversely generous in his self-indictment; he recalls: "I had
never doubted I could write a best-selling commercial novel whenever I
chose to do so."6 During the three years it took to write it, he produced hack
work, adventure stories, a children's book that was well received, and numerous book reviews; he completed the manuscript in July 1968. Now
assuming the confessional persona in which he will masquerade throughout
his essays, he claims:
The book got much better reviews than I expected. I wished like hell
I'd written it better. I like the book. It has energy and I lucked out by
creating a central character that was popularly accepted as genuinely
mythic. But I wrote below my gifts in that book. (Puzo, p. 41)
Of course, no one will think more or less of the book on account of its
author's comparison of it with some insubstantial notion of what he could
have done. That is rather like believing fish stories. The literary-critical act of
judgment must be performed on the book alone, not on its relationship to the
assumed capabilities of its author. Whatever the author's gifts, we have
finally only the novel itself to prove whether or not those gifts were ever
realized in the writing. With this in mind, let us change the terms of the
question somewhat: Can an author ever truly master and subdue language?

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RESURRECTINGTHE GODFATHER

21

Does not even a language which responds with apparent docility to the
author's will still create fine, almost imperceptible networks of meaning
which the author never intended, but which remain sublimely indifferent to
his personal sense of triumph or failure? Puzo's argument is actually the
presumptuous declaration of one who would be God to his text by appointing himself the judge both of its worth and of the validity of its interpretation. Presumption is implicit in the kind of criticism that sees in the author's
mind, conscious or unconscious, the transcendent meaning of the text. This
attitude forbids language the full range of its capacities for creating meaning-its geno-text. In short, Puzo is a mediocre critic of The Godfather.
With an erudite article of some interest by Wilson Carey McWilliams,
"Natty Bumppo and the Godfather" published in the ColoradoQuarterly, we
reach a higher and more ambitious level of criticism, one concerned with
historical thematics.7 McWilliams claims that Don Corleone, the Godfather,
is Natty Bumppo redivivus, a "barbarian" in the Jeffersonian sense of the
word. Barbaric man, in Cooper's novels as in Jefferson's theory, "lacked
sympathy, the ability to generalize his feelings beyond himself and his own,
the empathy needed for larger societies and broader sentiments for humanity as a whole" (McWilliams, p. 138). Barbarism is a middle term between
nature and civilization. The barbarian is closer to his moral origins which
arise from nature and control his moral being by means of feeling, thus:
The Godfatheris not merely a phenomenally successful novel. It documents our transition from the Natty Bumppos who go to meet the
barbarians to new heroes, barbarians who can survive and succeed
within civilization itself. Don Corleone is a great barbaricchief, a man
who puts friendship, loyalty, and family high on the list of virtues,
who has a code of honor and propriety that makes him scorn the drug
traffic, value his word and hold to a rather antique sexual morality.
(McWilliams, pp. 140-141)
Continuing this moral eulogy of Don Corleone, McWilliams observes
rather imprudently: "Amerigo Bonasera, frustrated in the courts, vows to go
on his knees to Don Corleone. Surprisingly, the law-abiding undertaker
finds the Godfather a sterner moralist than he is himself" (McWilliams,
p. 141). McWilliams forgets that Corleone refuses Bonasera's request for far
more expedient reasons-it is simply unnecessary. Mutilation will do quite
nicely. Bonasera will be thrilled when the sadists who disfigured his daughter are mauled by Paulie Gatto. The Godfather's decision was based upon
simple-and accurate-calculation. McWilliams baptizes Michael" 'The Last
of the Mohicans'... at heart a clansman, warrior and a chieftain" (McWilliams, p. 142). Finally, he nuances his argument somewhat: "As Puzo

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JAMESTHOMASCHIAMPI

realizes, the logic of greed and gain, the 'business' which becomes an end as

well as a style, decays the tradition which is the root of barbaricvirtue"
(McWilliams,p. 143).What McWilliamsoverlooks is that Corleoneis above
all a crook and that he is a crook in order to protecthimself from a savage
American society. But there is an insidious subtext in evidence in McWilliams'sargument, for he condescendingly makes a Dartmouthgraduate
and Marine Corpshero into a "noblesavage."Michaelis, actually,as American as anyone can reasonably be ... or is he? McWilliamsclaims that the
Irish"were our amiablebarbarians"(McWilliams,p. 140).The questionthen
becomes: Who is this "we" that is the agent of that "our."For whom does
McWilliamsspeak?If Michael'scredentialsdo not suffice for Americancitizenship, then whose can? Certainlyachievements such as his have earned
him a place in the mainstream.When McWilliamsclaims that Michael is a
warrior,he relegateshim to the exotic;when he claimsthatthe Godfatheris a
"greatbarbaricchief,"he forgetsthat the man has a profoundsense of irony
which he revealsin his terrifyinguse of understatement.Moreover,it should
not be forgotten that the Godfather was not above cheating his godson
Johnny Fontane when the latter displeased him.8 The Godfatheruses his
apparentlyquaint customs in the serviceof his business interests.Finally,by
finding in the Corleones the earnestness of good simple folk, McWilliams
questions our sense of national identity. What is the cultureof referenceif a
Dartmouthgraduateand Marine Corpshero remainsan exotic?
Toanswer the criticismsof TheGodfatherI have citedabove, let us turn to a
reading of the novel. Let us begin with a farewell.The firstword we readin
the novel is the name of the undertakerAmerigo Bonasera.Now the proper
noun "America"derives from that of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci-no
news here. But "bona sera,"or "good night," added to that name makes it
clear that what the novel is saying at its very outset is "good night, America."9This apparentlycasualdetail placed in this absoluteposition identifies
the majorconcern of the novel-the end of the American dream of justice.
This undertakerwill lay to rest any lingering belief that the courtsdispense
justice evenhandedly to rich and poor, ethnic and native-born.Of course,
Amerigo Bonaserawas not poor. He was a prosperousmorticianwho, while
spurning Corleone's friendship, maintained a bond of kinship with him
through Corleone'swife, who was godmother to his daughter. When two
college boys beatup his coed daughterand receiveonly suspendedsentences
by bribing the judge, Bonaseraturns to the Godfatherfor justice.Corleone
grants his requestaftera brief homily:
No. Don'tspeak.YoufoundAmericaa paradise.Youhad a good trade,
you made a good living, you thought the world a harmlessplace

where you could take your pleasure as you willed. You never armed

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THEGODFATHER
RESURRECTING

23

yourself with true friends. After all, the police guarded you, there
were courts of law, you and yours could come to no harm. (p. 31)
Bonasera's response to this denunciation of his naivete is to whimper: "I
wanted my child to be American" (p. 31). The point is that neither she nor he
can "be an American." Bonasera's very appearance betrays him: "The parents of the animales were coming by now, two men and two women his age
but more American in their dress. They glanced at him shamefaced, yet in
their eyes was an odd, triumphant defiance" (p. 12). Bonasera has been
humiliated and that humiliation inspires his decision to leave America ideologically for the kind of justice he knew in the Sicily located in the very heart
of the American mainland. Bonasera's identity, as the Godfather reveals, is
bound up with the immigrant dream of justice for all-destroy the one and
you destroy the other.
The Godfather is not Puzo's sole critique of America, nor is it his sole
renunciation of its decadence. In The Dark Arena, Walter Mosca renounced
both America and his family for postwar Germany and his hopes for love.
Mosca's renunciation of his family was carried out in the name of an almost
Camusian authenticity-it was essentially a renunciation of their stifling
bourgeois sentimentality. This theme of authenticity in turn contributes to a
more englobing poetics: a poetics of the renunciation of feeling. In each of
the three Puzo novels, survival depends upon the cool, deliberate suppression of feeling and of irrationality. The end of each novel is the death of love
or hope-a great frozen inner wasteland. In The Fortunate Pilgrim, America
was the death of the imagination for a young boy who would eventually
grow up to take his place as a clerk for the railroad. But here in The Godfather,
one renounces America to return to a Sicily located within America, indeed,
within the self, as an autonomous structure of values. This Sicily prospers in
strangely symbiotic contradiction with the lawless host country. If justice in
this America is only for the rich or the native-born, then it acts as a principle
of exclusion; nevertheless, this very situation creates an underworld that
then works in marvelous harmony with business. Puzo shows that crime is a
response to alienation and powerlessness, but more important, he shows
how crime creates its own hierarchy and system of justice. The Godfather
expounds the proposition that to avoid control by others one must create a
Sicilian fiefdom and translate Sicilian customs into an American counterpart
language.
Throughout the novel, those who would say with Bonasera "I wanted my
child to be an American" are either humiliated or killed. Sonny's un-Sicilian
spontaneity, his lack of cunning and self-control earn him a horrible death at
the hands of assassins. Bonasera sees his coed daughter disfigured physically
and emotionally. Johnny Fontane, a singer and godson of Corleone, is emas-

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24

JAMESTHOMAS CHIAMPI

culated by his shamelessly adulterous wife. Frederico (Fredo), another of
Corleone's sons, is slapped around and humiliated by the pretentious Moe
Greene in Las Vegas. Felix Bocchicchio, who attempted to start a legitimate
business, is incriminated in the fradulent bankruptcy of his associates whom
he finally kills. Michael, Corleone's youngest son-his prodigal son-the
Dartmouth graduate and war hero who was intent upon assimilation into
American society, returns to the family when a corrupt cop sets up his father
to be murdered. Of course, Corleone has contributed to this moral disintegration, but this is not the issue; Michael realizes that legal justice is merely an
illusion and returns to the fold to protect his father. In The Godfather,America represents moral chaos, a world of vice and passion where one can only
find protection in what the novel defines as Sicilian cunning, order, and
restraint, and, above all, in Sicilian puritanism. Puzo's tour de force lies in his
upsetting familiar ethnocentric stereotypes: The world of the Sicilian American is a world of order, unspontaneity, and calculation, while the world of
the American is one of foolhardiness, passion, and irrationality. It is thus
unsurprising that Carlo Rizzi, the tall, blond "half-breed" born in Nevada is
the traitor who arranges Sonny's murder (p. 20).
Abetting the renunciation of American irrationality is the closed world of
values that the Sicilian underground expresses in its code of behavior that
includes the kiss of death, ritual assassination, impeccable courtesy, and
strong relations of kinship. This code of behavior is actually a separate system of signs, a language which can only infrequently be translated into
American terms.10 Even those terms are only apparent cognates. For example, what Corleone understands as the "business attitude" consists, in essence, of the relentless inhibition necessary to one whose behavior is
constantly scrutinized for evidence. of his thoughts and allegiances. This
attitude is necessary for survival when the law is seen as a hostile, imperialistic force imposed from above and from outside. Cold, unspontaneous calculation becomes, in Corleone's public behavior, the managerial expertise
necessary to running the family enterprise. In the novel, the word "business" is a bizarrely hybridized pseudo-cognate that describes both peasant
cunning and standard business procedure. Puzo suggests that the Corleone
family and big business share the mistaken belief that their impersonal
preoccupation with profit and loss exempts them from any transcendent
moral claims.
Aware that assimilation is impossible, the Don despises Michael's decision
to enlist in the Marines: "Don Corleone had no desire, no intention, of letting
his youngest son be killed in the service of a power foreign to himself"
(p. 18). These words suggest not only the loyalty which a baron expects of his
vassal, but the submission a god demands of his creation. Corleone is not
simply the founder of his morally autonomous world; he is its sacrament and

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RESURRECTINGTHE GODFATHER

25

demiurge. Protection,then, radiatesfrom his being:Alienationfrom the Don
becomes sin; salvation demands return. Thus, Corleone will listen to Bonasera's prayer for revenge 'like a priest in a confessional"(p. 30). In this
vein, Hagen, the Don's ward and "consigliori"will explain to the stubborn
producer Jack Woltz-who refuses to give a part in a movie to Johnny
Fontane-that Corleone has a special bond of kinship with Fontane:"Itis a
very sacredrelationship"(p. 59). He will tell the patrioticWoltz:"Thismay
be sacrilegeto you, but my client can do things for you that even Mr. Hoover
might find out of his range"(p. 57). Indeed, Hagen claims that he himself
accepts "the Don's parental divinity" (p. 52). This thematics, by creating a
religious context for Michael'srenunciationof his father,raisesit to the level
of myth, transformingit into the parableof the prodigalson. Seeing the light,
Michael abandons his riotous ways and returns home to the fold. At this
point, the prodigalson is transformedinto Michaelthe avenging archangel.
This engrafting of thematicsupon thematicscreatesthe density of the novel
whose many contexts refracteach theme diversely.
Let us tracesome of these themes and contextsthroughout the novel. The
Godfatherbegins with a happy ending-a wedding. Since Roman comedy,
weddings have representedreconciliationand unity-a moment of concord
that resolvesthe plot and reaffirmsthe harmony of the universe.This festival
of closure witnesses the joining of many diverse wills into one. But here,
unity is a point of departure,a terminusa quo,for disharmony serves as the
suppressed counterpoint to all the dancing and singing. During the party,
Paulie Gatto, a future traitor,tries to imagine the difficultiesthat would be
involved in stealing the wedding gifts. At this moment, CarloRizzi wonders
about the amount of money tucked inside the bride's wedding envelope.
Before very long, a petty hood, the Don's lieutenant, a rival gang boss, and
the bridegroomhimself will betrayboth the Don and Michaeland pay with
their lives. In this wedding scene, Puzo has adopted the style of epic in
setting out the strengthsand weaknesses of each character.At the beginning
of the sixteenth-centuryepic poem of the Crusades,the GerusalemmeLiberata,Tassoenumeratedthe virtues and vices of each of the Christiancommanders from the perspective of God. So does Puzo; we find Sonny, the
powerful, quick-tempered,and sensual eldest son; there is Federico(Fredo),
the "lady'sman" and a weakling. Finallythere is Michael,Corleone'syoungest son, the one most like him; the one, however, who is intent upon a life of
American middle-class respectability.With him is his American fiancee,
Kay.The two crucialfigures in this moral landscapeare Sonny and Michael
who embody, as in an allegory,contrastingvirtues and vices that make them
the moral antipodes of the novel. Michael is quiet, deliberate,restrained,
thoughtful-a man not given to asking advice of others. For all his rebelliousness, he is the son best suited by temperamentto leading the family.

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