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Saturday, May 31, 2014

John Hersey's A Bell for Adano: the Story of the 'Good Occupation'

Once the darling of the literary world, John Hersey's A Bell for Adano has fallen from grace, its reputation diminished to the point where no critic of standing would include the book in a list of the great novels of the 20th century.  Yet the book had its moment, and it was a long one.  Published in February 1944 to considerable acclaim, A Bell for Adano opened on Broadway (with Frederic March) in December of 1944 and in 1945 came to the silver screen (with John Hodiak) and won the Pulitzer Prize in Literature.  It was distributed free in millions of copies in the immediate postwar era, the play was produced for the Hallmark Hall of Fame Theater in 1967 and, whatever its literary merits, the novel was given in large numbers to American soldiers preparing for the conflict in Afghanistan. 

American troops on the beaches of Licata, 1943
The basic story is simple.  In the words of Wikipedia (why reinvent the wheel?) "it tells the story of an Italian-American officer [the novel's Victor Joppolo] in Sicily during World War II who wins the respect and admiration of the people of the town of Adano by helping them find a replacement for the town bell that the Fascists had melted down for rifle barrels."  How touching. There is some factual
Licata's Bell Tower
basis for the novel, though there is no Adano in Sicily.  Hersey was embedded with the US Army for 4-5 days after it came ashore at Licata, Sicily in 1943.  There, he observed the American Military Governor, Frank S. Toscani, deal with problems of the occupation.  Licata was, indeed, missing its town bell, hauled away and melted down by the Mussolini regime.

RST's interest in the book was piqued by an essay by Rutgers Professor Susan L. Carruthers in the most recent issue of The Journal of American History (March 2014).  You don't have to run out and buy it, because I'll tell you what it says--or some of it.  We can start with the title:  '"Produce More Joppolos': John Hersey's A Bell for Adano and the Making of the 'Good Occupation.'"  Carruthers' take is more complex than the novel, and more interesting, too.  She argues that all occupations--even those carried out by Americans, and even the occupation of Italy during and after World War II--are nasty affairs, a form of imperialism, really, in which the occupiers (the conquerors) are inevitably disliked by the native population (the conquered), no matter how warm and fuzzy the commanding officer and some of the troops might be.  Among the points of tension is that occupying soldiers (enough of them, anyway) invariably think that sex with the local girls is their right, to be procured by any means necessary, including "coercion and C rations."  Although some of Licata's citizens may have mourned for their bell, what they really needed was food, and getting it put them into undesirable situations (offering sex for food) or in contact with the black market, where a good portion of the available supply was whisked away by unscrupulous, greedy soldier-occupiers, to be sold at high prices.

These things don't happen in A Bell for Adano.  Flirtations, yes.  But no rape, no prostitution, no adultery, no sex for food, no sex period.  And no black market.

From the film: An American soldier, with a simple and
barefoot Italian fisherman
As told in the novel, it was, in Carruthers' term, the "good occupation."  The Americans were decent and caring, and Adano's Italians were, well, too simple to be bad: "fat, lazy, sentimental, garrulous, winsome," with
"protruding bellies, flappings hands, and gabbing mouths, given to theatrical displays of feeling and obsequious performances of deference."  Adano's Italians (Hersey's Italians) were, Carruthers argues, just glad to be liberated, eager to be instructed in the rudiments of democracy, pleased to have a strong (and benign) leader in Joppolo.  A simple people, not quite ready for self-rule.  (The myth of the good occupation has parallels: with regard to the deportation of the Jews, the myth of the good Italian and,
relevant to Italy's North African empire,
the myth of the good Italian colonizer). 

For Carruthers, A Bell for Adano's most important achievement--and arguably its most important purpose--was to present a way of thinking about occupation "without thinking of it as occupation.  Going unnamed, occupation lost its oppressive weight....Americans [who don't like to think of their country as imperialist, despite all that trouble with the Indians] could rest assured that they represented a force for good in the world, leaving only 'constitutions and parliaments,' not 'occupying armies,' as Bush put it in 2002."  Hersey's novel, she concludes, "helped freeze occupation at the euphoric moment of liberation.  What came next remained safely beyond the frame."

With appreciation and thanks to Susan L. Carruthers.


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