The reshaping of American literary culture from the early 1950’s to the early 1970’s might be captured in one historical image. James Jones’s From Here to Eternity, the massive blockbuster about the Regular Army in the last months before Pearl Harbor, was awarded the 1952 National Book Award in fiction. Not quite two decades later, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was not even nominated. Joyce Carol Oates was honored for Them, her long aimless narrative of poor whites adrift in riot-torn Detroit.
Puzo had treated the Mafia in his novel in much the same way that Jones had treated the army—as an autonomous social institution with its pressures for conformity, where there is no place for a man with any real integrity.
From this it does not follow, however, that Puzo’s theme is what Gay Talese described in the Washington Post in reviewing the novel:
And like Jones, Puzo fills his pages with man after man—dozens of them, including the occasional woman—all of whom are distinct individuals, with individual histories and traits. No character is introduced without a backstory and a chapter to himself. This is the method of the blockbuster. In 1952 it was possible to win a major American literary award with a naturalistic blockbuster; by 1970 a novel had to be a “holy vessel of the imagination” to receive official recognition.
If it is read at all any more, Puzo’s The Godfather is probably read as the “novelization” of Francis Ford Coppola’s famous film of the same title, which was rated the third greatest American film of all time. It took Coppola three years to bring the novel to the screen (or about the same length of time that Fred Zinnemann took to film From Here to Eternity). According to literary gossip, Puzo molded and trimmed his work-in-progress to satisfy the demands of Paramount Pictures. If there is any truth to the rumor, however, it is startling that the most important scene in the novel, in which “Don Corleone gave the speech that would be long remembered” and in which “he coined a phrase that was to become as famous in its way as Churchill’s Iron Curtain”—the phrase that inspired the dust jacket illustration by S. Neil Fujita that was reproduced on the movie posters—only makes it into the film version in heavily abbreviated form.
After the Don is shot on the streets outside Genco Olive Oil, after Michael Corleone guns down the police captain Mark McCluskey and the drug smuggler Virgil Sollozzo, after Sonny Corleone has been murdered in retaliation, Vito Corleone calls a meeting of New York’s Five Families with “invitations to Families all over the United States” in order to sue for peace. The meeting is filmed by Coppola, and so too is the Don’s speech. But its central passage is not recorded:
Michael tells her that he is working for his father now. “But I thought you weren’t going to become a man like your father,” Kay says; “you told me.” “My father's no different from any other powerful man,” Michael replies—“any man who’s responsible for other people, like a senator or president.” “Do you know how naïve you sound?” Kay asks with a smile; “senators and presidents don’t have men killed.” “Oh,” Michael says; “who’s being naïve, Kay?” Or, in other words, Gay Talese had it right after all. The Mafia differs from the U.S. government only in the extent and reach of its power. This is a view that can be enjoyed by libertarian and political radical alike, but it is not the view of Puzo’s novel.
In the novel, Michael’s speech to Kay is rather different:
Puzo’s prose rarely flashes, but it rarely loses it balance either. The Godfather may not have been the best American novel of 1969, or even the third best (although it is easily better than Oates’s Them and two other novels nominated for the National Book Award, including Leonard Michaels’s Going Places and Kurt Vonnegut’s dull and tendentious Slaughterhouse-Five), but it remains a novel worth reading, if only for its ambition of copia or completeness.
The Godfather is a full picture of the Mafia, but it does not glamorize it. Puzo represents the Mafia as the social institutionalization of violence. This is not an accidental feature of “refusing to live by rules set up by others,” but its very essence. Nor does Puzo suggest a superficial and sloganeering moral equivalence between the Mafia and governments or businesses. His Mafia is a unique institution that uniquely degrades men, when it does not murder them.
* Raffi Magarik, a graduate student in English at Berkeley and a regular reader of A Commonplace Blog, writes to register his unhappiness with this phrase: an institution not immediately associated with the degradation of man. I admit to not being entirely pleased with it myself. What I was thinking is that (a.) prior to Puzo’s novel, the Mafia was not usually thought of as a social institution, and (b.) in Mafia fiction, it is more usually associated with beatings and murder than with human degradation (and certainly not the degradation of the men who become Mafiosi).
Magarik mentions W. R. Burnett’s Little Caesar (1929), perhaps the only earlier American novel about the Mafia. It chronicles the rise of Rico (a character modeled on Al Capone) from mob gunman to mob chieftain. From first to last, though, Rico remains a sociopath. He is vain about his hair, proud of his ability with a gun, and fair in splitting the take from robberies with his subordinates. His rise to power does not degrade him, however; he seizes an opportunity and holds on to power through violence. Puzo was the first American novelist who understood the Mafia as something different from a mere criminal gang—a complex social organism with a “separate authority” and its own code of ethics. His Mafia, in fact, differs only in social detail from James Jones’s army.
Magarik concludes, rather brilliantly, in my opinion, that your politics may determine whether you prefer Puzo’s Mafia or Coppola’s. Coming to the novel and film from my left, he concludes that “the Coppola is better than the Puzo just because the mob seems, on its own terms, too easy a target for naturalistic critique.” As a conservative, I prefer Puzo’s moral vision.