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The Promise

In 1968, I made a promise to my eighty-three-year old grandfather. I would write a book about his life — finally setting the record straight. Fifty-five years later, it’s done. Marginal Man: The Life of Emilio Goggio is that book.

I imagined it would be a tribute to the man I loved, something like the letter our family received eight months after my grandfather died in 1979. It was from the University of Toronto Council of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, expressing their condolences and deep regrets. Here is part of what they had to say.

"Professor Goggio was very active in the Italian cultural life of Toronto. He also supported with enthusiasm the activities of the University’s Italian and Spanish Clubs. He was a prime example of the professor with wide interests . . . the kind of figure that is so desirable today."

It is ironic to read these words after his death, knowing how undesirable he was to many during his early career. My grandfather put himself squarely on the wrong side of pre-war politics in the years before Italy’s invasion of Africa. On 10 June 1940, his actions as a former Fascist leader in Toronto landed him in jail as an enemy alien.

Emilio Giuseppe Goggio was born in 1885 into a bourgeois family in Piedmont, Italy. He was the second son of a schoolteacher, Caterina Cravera Goggio. His father, hat maker Francesco Goggio, had just left his family for America when Caterina was eight months pregnant with Emilio.

Fourteen years later, Francesco wrote to Caterina, asking that she send one of their sons to Boston. My grandfather remembered volunteering to go. In the fall of 1899, Emilio left Italy from Genoa, traveling in steerage to New York City on the S.S. Aller, and from there by train to Boston.

Emilio went to work as a clerk in Francesco’s hat store on Hanover Street. He was disgusted by the racism and bigotry most Italian immigrants suffered, working as day laborers in the rapidly expanding city of Boston. But he was not a laborer. He had been educated in a privileged family and continued his studies at Boston Latin High School and Harvard, where he graduated in 1909.

At Boston Latin, Emilio found his purpose in life. He dedicated himself to teaching the Italian language and culture, believing he could reverse the prejudice he saw around him by teaching others about Italy’s gifts to civilization.

After Harvard, Emilio took faculty positions at the University of Toronto, the University of California Berkeley, and the University of Washington in Seattle. Along the way, he married my grandmother, Emma Bini from Dorchester, and completed his PhD at Harvard in 1917.

In 1920, he returned to the U of T, with Emma and their six-year-old son, Alfredo. In Toronto, Goggio immersed himself in the life of its Italian colony, establishing close ties to the Italian consulate in Canada. Back home in Italy, the 1922 March on Rome elevated Mussolini to power, pulling my willing grandfather into a growing Fascist movement that was reaching out to all Italians in North America.

My grandfather’s life was a crusade for multiculturalism, during a period of intense nationalism, nativism, and bigotry. In a screenplay he wrote during his darkest days in 1944, he describes the dilemma of Enrico, a thinly veiled depiction of himself.

"On account of his Italian origin, however, his attempt to rise above mediocrity is almost doomed to failure and, though an excellent citizen, he finds himself in the position of a marginal man, unhappy in his old surroundings because of his higher education and unhappy in his new environment because unaccepted among the better class of Americans in consequence of his foreign origin."

This book tells the life story of that marginal man — my grandfather — and the woman who saved him from ridicule and ignominy. My grandparents told me many stories directly. And yet, they never told me anything about my grandfather's experiences in those formative years of his life.

Emilio and Emma 1920

Emilio Goggio 1906

Emma and Emilio 1937

My grandfather and me 1950

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