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The Nature of Patriotism: Studying Abroad in Italy

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By Emily Langer
Sunday, November 2, 2008

I feel lower than a snake's belly in a wagon rut.

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That was one of the many sayings I learned from Professor Mario Materassi, a dapper 70-year-old Italian who taught me the works of the American novelist William Faulkner during my junior year abroad at the University of Florence. But when he said those earthy English words, there was hardly a hint of an Italian accent. Materassi spoke pure Southern, as if he were passing through Tuscany on a grand European tour and would soon head home to Mississippi.

The drawl suited him perfectly. Materassi had spent half a century studying Faulkner, and he talked about the author's imaginary Yoknapatawpha County with the button-bursting pride of a hometown boy. He said that every time he opened one of Faulkner's books, he discovered something new: Instead of a world in a grain of sand, it was a world in a tiny Southern village, far from Italy but close enough that he could go there and find some insight into his own life and history.

Materassi's eyes went wild when he told the class about a road trip he took from New York to Mexico in 1962, after completing a Fulbright fellowship at Columbia University. Unwilling to pass up the opportunity to see the home of the writer he loved so much, he insisted that he and his traveling companion take a detour through Oxford, Miss., where he would pay a visit to Faulkner's Rowan Oak mansion. When the two men pulled into the drive, Materassi instructed his friend to wait in the car. This was his moment, and his alone. He walked up to the house, knocked at the side entrance, then heard the slap of bare feet on the wooden floor as Faulkner himself approached the door. "My God," Materassi thought, "he's letting me in." But there was no sweet tea in store for the young Italian admirer. Faulkner was using the screen door to push him off the porch.

Two and a half weeks later, Materassi read in a Mexican newspaper that Faulkner had died of a heart attack.

He didn't have to tell the class that he harbored no hard feelings toward the old stinker. He just told us what Faulkner wrote: "You don't love because; you love despite; not for the virtues, but despite the faults."

These were words, I would later learn, that Materassi had contemplated deeply. And before my year in Florence was over, they would have a special meaning for me, too.

As the only American in Materassi's class, I often found myself trying, without much success, to explain the history of racism that permeates Faulkner's fiction. My Italian classmates had trouble reconciling America's proud moments, such as the ones their grandparents remember from World War II, with the shameful chapters that they learned about during our discussions of the South. They seemed confused when we read the short story "A Rose for Emily," a macabre tale about an old aristocratic woman who lives out her days alone, save for the company of a servant named Tobe, who is more often called, simply, "the Negro." Why did Faulkner write that the men of the town went to Miss Emily's funeral "through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument"? Was it really so sad that she -- and the old South she represented -- were gone with the wind?

I don't remember how I answered their questions, but I'm sure I said nothing useful. I was having trouble understanding that period in American history, too.

Materassi, on the other hand, had done his reckoning long before. Like any European of his age, he knew well the dangers of prejudice. His parents didn't allow him to go to school when Mussolini was in power because they didn't want him to be "ruined," he said, by the fascist curriculum. And they had risked their lives to save Jews during World War II. With that upbringing, he came to the United States as a young foreign student and experienced the civil rights movement, joining the Freedom Riders and dating an African American woman.

Though Materassi never said so, I think he learned to love the United States not because of "The Sound and the Fury" and "As I Lay Dying," those great joys of his life, but despite the racial injustices he saw here as a student in the 1960s. He did tell our class once that he loved Italy not because of Dante, but despite fascism. When I contacted him recently, he hinted that he had come to that conclusion while studying Faulkner in the United States all those years ago.

I know what he meant because I had to go far away, to his classroom with its decaying frescoed ceiling, to understand how to love my country, too.

Emily Langer studied abroad at the University of Florence during the 2004-2005 academic year while a student at Georgetown University. She is an editorial aide for The Post's Outlook section and can be reached at langere@washpost.com.


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