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Pugliese argues biography is autobiography

Stanislao Pugliese, professor of Italian history at Hofstra University, spoke last night at an event co-hosted by the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship and the History Department. Although history is often seen as an attempt to portray events impartially, Pugliese argued that in historical narratives “honesty is a duty, but impartiality is a dream.”

He began his talk with a personal narrative about the circumstances leading to his works before launching into a reading of his two biographies on Italian politicians Carlo Rosselli and Ignazio Silone. Pugliese then challenged the audience to “find the link between the personal anecdotes and what ends up on the printed page.”

Author Stanislao Pugliese talks about his experience writing the biography of Italian author Ignazio Silone at Tuesday's talk, co-hosted by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the History Department (IAN GARCIA-DOTY/The Stanford Daily)

The author admitted that a combination of chance and personal connection led him to choose Rosselli and Silone as biographical subjects.

While pursuing his postdoctorate at City University of New York, Pugliese was drawn to the narrative of anti-fascist Italy, which, in turn, led him to write a biography on Carlo Rosselli. Rosselli was founder of the Italian political organization Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Liberty).

When his novel, “Carlo Rosselli: Socialist Heretic and Antifascist Exile,” won the 2000 Premio Internazionale Ignazio Silone, Pugliese became interested in the prize’s namesake, Ignazio Silone, an Italian author and politician.

Describing his interest in Silone, Pugliese said he felt “a kind of moral obligation, personal obligation, to this story of a young man who threw in his lot with the landless peasants.”

Just as his choice to dedicate his academic career to Italian studies was the result of his eventual decision to embrace an “in-betweenness” of Italian and American culture, Pugliese wanted to write about Silone due to their shared cultural background.

Pugliese also asserted that impartiality is impossible in biographical narratives.

“If it is true that in some sense every work is autobiographical, biographical works must be even more so,” he said.

Pugliese saw his own work as an effort to counter two trends in biography writing: the tendency of biographies to degenerate into 900-page laundry lists of subjects’ lives and the presumptuous use of the omniscient voice. Pugliese also encountered these very problems in his own writings.

“After 10 years of reading documents…I could not get to the essence of my subject,” he said.

He described his frustration over being unable to “completely understand” Ignazio Silone. In an interview with Silone’s wife, Pugliese found that even she did not understand who Silone was after living with him for 40 years.

From this experience, Pugliese realized that the role of biographers was not to provide the omniscient authority on the life of a character, but to provide a narrative to the story.

Pugliese encouraged students in the audience to work on what they loved and warned that passions can turn into obsessions. He went on to describe how his research on Silone haunted him during the 10 years in which he drafted the biography.

“I never slept so well as I did the night after I handed in the manuscript,” he concluded.

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