Vincenzo Rabito’s life was by no means exceptional among the fellow-members of his own region, class and generation: premature death of a parent, poverty at home, little or no formal education, experience of two wars, emigration to support a family, political affiliation determined by whichever party seemed most likely to provide help in finding a job. If the author’s background and the figure that he presents to his readers can be fitted into familiar social and cultural categories, what about the decision to write his life and the style in which he chose to do it? Sartre observed that, although Valéry was easily recognizable as a member of the petite bourgeoisie, hardly any petit bourgeois was a Valéry. To what extent is the work that Rabito himself produced unique, or if not unique, at the very least unusual?

Based on his experience of organizing an archive of similar writings in Liguria, Antonio Gibelli suggests that, far from being as exceptional as its reception made it appear, Terra matta was in fact ‘tutt’altro che un fenomeno isolato e inspiegabile, semmai il prodotto di una pratica diffusa’ [anything but an isolated and inexplicable case but rather the product of a widely diffused practice] (Gibelli 2012, 19, fn. 12). Indeed, while writings by the largely uneducated, mainly artisans and shopkeepers, were not unknown in earlier periods, their number and range of authors increased after Unification, no doubt as a consequence of the gradual widening of access to education, the incentives for emigrants to keep in touch with their families back at home, and the experience of having to deal in writing with the expanding bureaucratic state (D’Achille 1994). Nonetheless, any attempt to substantiate Gibelli’s claim in detail runs up against an obvious difficulty. Since the texts we know of were not designed for publication and only reached the archives for non-professional writings through unpredictable routes, often after long gaps between their composition and their public disclosure (in Rabito’s case, a gap of more than thirty years), we do not know how far the texts that happen to have surfaced publicly can be taken to constitute a reliable sample of the putatively but unquantifiably larger number of similar writings that have been put away in cupboards or destroyed by heirs. The processes by which such writings reach public archives appear too serendipitous to be able to draw many solidly based conclusions about the real incidence and social distribution of the kinds of texts they exemplify. If faute de mieux we rely on the texts that reached the network of archives for non-professional writings that were established in central and north Italy in the 1980s, in particular on the collection at the ADN – the largest depository, and dedicated exclusively to autobiographies and memoirs – then we can perhaps reach tentative answers to the two questions combined in Gibelli’s claim. First, how diffuse was the practice of autobiography across different social classes and regions of Italy? Second, to what extent did Rabito’s text share or stand out from the writings produced by people from a similar social and cultural background?

The 6,472 texts deposited in the archives of the ADN between 1984 and mid-2012, some written many years earlier, cover a range of literary forms. Autobiographies and memoirs, full or fragmentary, account for two-thirds, diaries for one-quarter, and the rest are mostly letters usually exchanged between clandestine lovers or between husbands and wives separated by war or work. Men (55 per cent) and women (45 per cent) are almost equally represented among the authors who come from almost all points on the social hierarchy. Among the winners of the Premio Pieve, for example, we find aristocrats, professionals, workers, military officers, criminals, drug addicts, peasants, artisans, and victims of domestic, terrorist and wartime violence. Although writers from Tuscany, where the archive is located, provide the largest single contribution, all regions are well represented. Among the 375 contributions from Rabito’s fellow-Sicilians, for example, we find that 15 per cent were written by forty-four people whose highest educational qualification was an elementary school certificate and occasionally not even that.8 Alongside the number of texts collected in similar and more inclusive archives (Lyons 2013), this set of materials therefore tends to confirm the suggestion that autobiographical texts, composed independently by their subjects rather than being solicited orally and then converted into written and invariably modified form by journalists or social scientists, are not rare.

In what ways, if any, does Rabito’s text stand out among the autobiographies and memoirs of the diversamente colti?9 Whatever their region of origin, the writings share the set of linguistic features saturating Rabito’s original text: the close reproduction of speech forms, heavy reliance on dialect, and inconsistent use of non-standard grammar, orthography and punctuation (Amenta 2004, 2009). Rarely do they seem to have been guided by any preliminary plan or explicit consideration of what to include or exclude, showing little concern to revise or correct in the course of writing, simply inserting at a later point any additional material that has occurred to the author in the meantime on an event already mentioned. Even when they were not composed over several years – as one-third of the Sicilian texts were – this feature is generally present. Although the length of Terra matta has struck most readers as exceptional, it is not far from being matched by a handful of other life-writers from Rabito’s background. Almost half of the texts produced by the forty-four diversamente colti writers from Sicily whose works reached the ADN ran to at least 100 pages, and seven reached more than 300 pages, the largest with its 811 pages almost rivalling Rabito himself.11 Such memoirs seem often to have been the latest in a series of experiments in writing which began with diaries, were pursued in the shape of letters to absent family members and perhaps brief descriptions of particular experiences or episodes, and then developed into fully-fledged life-writing. Notwithstanding the awareness among authors of their lack of ‘proper’ Italian and poor command of the instruments for clear communication, many such texts explicitly or implicitly envisage readers – mostly close kin and descendants – and are rarely exercises solely for personal gratification.

Texts often begin with a conventional phrase of the kind ‘This is the life of X, born…’, but then recount that life in different ways. Some themes are recurrent: memories of childhood and family life, village customs, love affairs ending well or badly, work, the hardships of migration and emigration, and the suffering and demands of illness: except among activists, politics and religion are only intermittently present. For the older generations, war follows family and childhood as the most common theme, partly because in twentieth-century Italy the major political and social changes thought worth recording followed both world wars, partly because war separates people who want to keep in touch, partly because the experience of war provokes soldiers to reflect on what people are capable of doing and enduring.12 Based on the accounts that have been published, we can distinguish two broad autobiographical styles according to both motive for writing and content to be conveyed. The styles are not rigidly demarcated nor are they exhaustive, but they help us to place Terra matta more precisely. On one hand, as exemplified by Rabito himself, the writer’s aim is primarily to construct an apologia pro vita sua, designed to rectify any unfair criticisms or misunderstandings of that life, to reinforce the kind of character to which the author lays claim. Antonio Sbiriziola opens his own long account thus: ‘Il motivo che o scritto questa mia storia e le o dato il Titolo, Povero, Onesto e Gentiluomo.’ [The reason for my writing my life is in the title I have given it: poor, honest, and a gentleman] (Sbirziola 2012, 25) – an illustration of the character traits with which he was able to confront the many difficult, sometimes tragic, situations in which he found himself. The style resembles Ariosto’s in its depiction of a protagonist tested by the dramatic challenges that arrive unforeseen in many different places. Italo Calvino describes the Orlando Furioso as marked by ‘movimento errante’ in which Ariosto seems to begin without a clear plan of how the various plots will unfold but simply plunges straight into the action (Calvino 1992, xliv). Correspondingly, as in Rabito’s case, the manuscript or typescript simply breaks off without a conclusion or culmination, even though in most cases the authors are writing in retirement or even late old age. The zigzag presentation of the life mirrors the sense of limited control or sheer happenstance that marks many of its events and movements. Such accounts tend to be written by men and women who spent long periods elsewhere in Italy or abroad and did not experience the settled rhythms of work in agriculture.

The life-stories by men and women more deeply embedded in a single community have a characteristically different style. Their authors are usually concerned to record the social and economic organization of their community in the determination to describe for their descendants and future generations the social hierarchies, practices and technologies that have now disappeared, for better or worse. Exemplified by the memoirs of Gerardo Statuto (Imbriani, Marano, and Mirizzi 1996) and Antonio Mele (Minicuci 1997), the writers submerge their own biographies in the vicissitudes of a particular class (in Mele’s cases, the beneficiaries of the agrarian reform in the Metaponto in the 1950s), identifying with pride the contributors and contributions to economic and social development. Only once the collective portrait has been sketched do the writers insert, almost as an afterthought, a few fragmentary details of their own lives and families (e.g. Minicuci 1997, 156–159). Although defined as the story of a life, this genre resembles rather the impersonal history of a social group, recapturing the vanished world in which their own lives have mostly been lived.

Many, perhaps most, of the raw written materials for a first-person ‘history of Italy from below’ are likely to be lost without trace. All are, of course, at risk of physical deterioration: the paper on which they were written disintegrates and the handwriting fades into illegibility. Diaries, reckoned to contain banal, private or perhaps discreditable or offensive contents, are often destroyed by their writers or heirs; Rabito’s own diaries, which he kept for twenty years, have vanished. Letters, full of valuable information and assumptions about local life, may be kept for a while but eventually disposed of. The survival even of lengthy texts such as those of Rabito, Statuto and Mele remains highly dependent both on the deliberate conservation efforts of perceptive family members and on the creation of public archives dedicated to the collection of such materials (Lyons 2013, 24–32). Survival also comes in different forms. Most will remain in the archives or libraries where they were deposited, consultable, unmodified, and with no further circulation. Lives containing matters of local historical interest may sometimes be taken on in a limited print-run by small publishing houses in their author’s region, often – as with the memoirs of Statuto and Mele – with the help of academic intermediaries and deposited in a few local libraries. It is the texts that recount the personal saga of the author which have the greatest possibility of survival and recognition. That genre accounts for all the winners of the Premio Pieve, for example, enabling them to attract the attention of major publishing houses. But their texts will invariably undergo more or less radical reshaping before publication to fit them for a readership to which the author had neither directed them nor imagined possible.