Writing about the Leopard is a daunting task. The scope of the work is prominent and has been exhaustively examined. Its effect has been felt from high to low culture, politics and mass media. The tight relationship to the author further adds dimension and richness to the work, while complicating meaning and multiplying the pieces of writing that wrestle with The Leopard. Both the sociopolitical narratives within the text and biographic elements of the author’s unique social position which have lent such cache to The Leopard have been already addressed in this entry. A word remains to be said about the evident differences between the text and its equally worthy counterpart in the movie format: the image of the prince of Salina has evidently been reworked, from a complex and bitingly sarcastic character to a more stereotypical pater familias of the old noblesse oblige bent, easier for the mass audience to digest. This reworking track along the same themes of one major question that has been left unanswered: Why was this a book a bestseller in the United States?
In America The Leopard was a one hit wonder quickly forgotten, but the initial furor for it that culminated in an all-time classic picture deserves more careful consideration. At face value it shares little of the characteristics described in works such as the Bestseller’s Code as archetypal features of a bestseller. Its themes are baroque and controversial: Sicilian aristocratic living, arranged and failed marriages, class struggles told by a narrator unsympathetic to a grand prince’s self-made rivals, shameless political machinations, incest and an omnipresent Catholic Church …nothing is relatable for the controversy-averse middle classes; much of it flies in the face of traditional Americana. As a work, it is undeniably by the hand of a prince writing in his own jargon and about his personal biases, a man doing catharsis after carrying centuries of Lampedusa baggage.
A starting point for better understanding why America was taken by The Leopard would be Edmund Wilson’s review for The New Yorker. Wilson best captured what perhaps is the most salient quality about The Leopard in the eyes of seemingly egalitarian and puritanical United States – it’s foreignness, the authenticity of a raconte of a stately prince by a descendant of the half-biographic character. For a country simultaneously known for its obsession with celebrities and millionaires it is not hard to see how this intimate glimpse would conform to the tastes of the reading public with a new and exotic twist, a new type of character to populate the gossip pages. It reminds one that this was the age of Truman Capote, when café society and the jet set were making exotic figures such as the Aga Khan or Gloria Guinness staples of housewife gossip. Wilson captured the essence of this mood when he contended that a “pro” could have not produced a same work. A prince writing about a prince fascinated American audiences, with the exoticness of it all, the allure and glamour of being briefly in the know about the Italian aristocracy. It is not the unsettling narratives, but rather the fetishistic objectification of the luster of the narrative that captured the American public.
Today’s audiences are generally unfamiliar with The Leopard, yet it remains a fetishized must read for the literati. The fact that The New York Times was bothered to run an editorial about The Leopard at 50 years old attests this. This further buttress the problem and simultaneously provides a solution: why was a high brow book all the rage in the United States – famous for its distrust of academics and elites? The answer might well lie in its status as an immediate lion of modern literature, its arrival on American shores stamped with the unpsoken “must read” distinction. That the political explosions that catapulted the book to the top of the charts in Europe would have a coattail effect as the work crossed the Atlantic seems self-evident. More interesting is that the book avoided generating the overt politicking it so did in the Old World.
One main reason for this might be the fact that America simply has no direct experience in the pan-European political and historic tradition for the book to reverberate, so that it becomes impotent to operate as discourse within the nation’s political culture. A book about a people’s weighting a choice between a republic or a constitutional monarchy and following the later option does not quite compute in the American psyche.
A more highbrow impression for this phenomena might be that the work functioned culturally in the same way that art did at the height of the cold war – that America’s tastemakers and leading intellectuals sought to emphasize the artistry and beauty of the work as critics such as Clement Greenberg did with abstract painting in the medium of the plastic arts; thereby de-emphasizing the inherently Marxist bent for political polemics and upholding the distinctively Western-bourgeois values of aesthetics, beauty, and arts for art sake; much which can be find in the sheer beauty of Lampedusa’s outstanding talents for setting and mood.
Still, this does not assuage the anxiety that naturally rises. The book’s feudal order mirrors the plantation model and turn of the century wage-slave exploitative systems. It reminds one of terms engrained in the American lexicon (merchant princes or robber barons), or turns in our own history as the socio-economic baton was passed from the aristocratic plantation families in the Tidewater over to industrial tycoons in the north -- much as the rains of Donafugatta’s society are foreboded to transfer from Don Fabrizio to Don Calogero (the book’s nouveau-riche antihero).That critics failed to confront the almost reflexive connection, particularly as the book arrived charged with social discourse on inherited privilege, societal norms along gender lines, political enfranchisement and democratization onto a country on the verge of social rupture ahead of the Civil Rights Movement and fundamental societal liberation which would by the end of the decade end in profound changes for people of color, women and queer people seems either lacking in creativity, foresight, or humanity.
From this inflection point, I offer one new possible theory for the value the American public saw in the book during in 1960: That implicitly The Leopard was also political in the U.S. and resonated with the public as such.
The years between 1958 and 1960 produced profound changes at home and abroad. John F. Kennedy was elected president riding high a wave of optimism in the future, embodied by the arrival of Camelot to the White House. Abroad, the Cold War was intensifying at an alarming place, and it seemed that the order at any time threatened to give into chaos. Amid these dynamics, a novel was written, about a world at an inflection point between the old and the new; promising prosperity while warning of the dangers of too much faith in the political machine. Its characters were noble characters, simultaneously being handed their comeuppance while being glittering embodiments of the best and brightest.
At home, millions of people decided that enough was enough. In the United States, African Americans had endured another century of state enforced oppression in the form of separate but equal, sharecropping, Jim Crowe laws and lynching. With the explosion of the post-war educated middle class, the deep injustices of the inequities of the system the movement for Civil Rights Movement was reaching a feverish pitch ever since Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat to a white woman.
I propose that to encounter The Leopard as a bestseller just four years shy from the passing of the Civil Rights Act is not a mere coincidence, but that rather it speaks of The Leopard as a novel that got to the core of the esprit de temps of the early 60’s, becoming a bestseller by speaking to people’s unconscious political anxieties in a veiled manner.
In The Leopard the fundamental motor underlying the narrative movement is the political events of Italian Unification roughly a century before the book’s publishing. At the heart of it all stands a family that braces to see its world be consumed and changed in less than a decade. All that rests to be seen is how the old prince, his frustrated firstborn, a young and dashing count, a self-made man and the two women of different upbringing vying for the count’s love, a priest and a land laborer will see their social dynamics change or stay the same ahead of fundamental sociopolitical reform.
Whether you agree with the Marxist’s that condemned the novel, or with the Marxist’s who extolled it, the shared belief is primarily the same: The Leopard is undoubtedly a novel about reactions to major and impending political change. As political reform loomed in the air of United States politics in the 60’s, the echoes to the promise of liberation, or the dangers of irresponsible reform; the cartooning of an outgoing generation, or the longing for stoic and steady leadership of the old kind, the novel resonated with the American middle class precisely because of its unusual characteristics, functioning during a unique time.
For example, the anxiety of the Salina’s, spoken through Don Fabrizio, is manifested over their loss of landholdings, a recurrent theme of the prince’s inner dialogues. In this, we see a similarity to national anxieties over the alignment of the third world in Africa and India, the culminating Korean War and burgeoning Vietnam War, and forthcoming coups in Latin America; all driven by a national anxiety over hegemony and control of geopolitical real estate. Furthermore, Don Fabrizio fears not only his loss but the idea of who will replace him -- the ambitious and opportunist up and comings such as Don Calogero, the “hyena” to his “leopard”. Again, this is reminiscent of the moral stance of Freedom against the Empire of Evil and the stakes at play in geopolitical jockeying.
The Leopard also asks complicated questions about democratic representation in the modern era. In the novel, Don Fabrizio is stuck between putting up a fight on behalf of the aristocratic regime or letting republicanism take course. While at first readers may conclude that the republic is the better answer as the ancestral system of feudal relationships had led to centuries of societal stagnation for most Sicilians, by the end of the novel it becomes apparent that republicanism brings with it its own baggage and fake promises, crystalized by the rigged voted for a si in the plebiscite, which was registered as 100 percent of Donafugatta even as Don Fabrizio hears from his confidante Don Chiccio that he had voted otherwise and was not alone doing so. Don Fabrizio never resolves his stance, neither accepting the senatorship offered to him due to his status as Prince of Salina, nor challenging the fraudulent elections as he is pleaded to do so by Don Chicccio.
In the 60’s, questions about representation dominated the domestic political conversation, particularly around the enfranchisement of the African American community. Follow a century of literacy tests, poll taxes and intimidation tactics the United States was gearing up for an overhaul of election policies and enforcement of protections nationwide. On the progressive side, proponents argued the time had come to liberate millions from old societal structures which held millions in conditions of historical servitude. Conservatives feared major voter and enfranchisement reform was a vehicle for state control and a replacement of one injustice with another this time less favorable to those who marginally benefited from the existing relationships of power like Don Chiccio who enjoyed preferred status from the Salina’s patronage. Both mirror the disquietedness that surrounded the plebiscite of 1860.
All the while, beautiful Angelica (Don Calogero’s daughter) rises from her family’s humble origins to dominate with cunning and charm all the major courts of the Italian peninsula, outdoing her rival Concetta for the love of Concetta’s cousin Count Tancredi and enchanting Don Fabrizio into consenting to the marriage; so adroitly orchestrating the arrangement Concetta in the end can’t help herself but be happy for the addition of Angelica to the family. A refreshing example of the American Dream and common-sense smarts in a world dominated by stagnation and anxiety; a promise of continued prosperity and opportunity for a post-war generation riding the heights of never seen before progress yet goading us to also confront the backs of those on whom this progress was attained as we encounter Concetta’s grief over a broken promise.
In short, the novel was as political in the United States as it was in Europe. Commentators having failed to pick up on the themes as it pertained to America, the novel none the less had ample tangent points through which, consciously or unconsciously, drive the American reading public locate themselves within a wider context, interrogate their positions, and rea-firm their own political beliefs.