Emily Esfahani Smith writes on Camille Paglia as “maverick critic and scholar” on the publication of her latest book:
Like Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom who sprouted adult-like from the head of Zeus, Paglia appears to have entered the world fully formed. She was born in working-class Endicott, New York, in 1947, when thousands of immigrants were arriving in the upstate town looking for work in the shoe factories. Her mother, Lydia, and her four grandparents were Italian immigrants. Her father, Pasquale, was the only member of his family to attend college, later becoming a professor of Romance languages at LeMoyne College in Syracuse. “I got my intellectuality, studiousness, and severity from my father,” she told New York magazine in 1991. “And I got my energy, optimism, and practicality from my mother.” Her sister, Lenora, was born when Paglia was 14.
Paglia’s early childhood was, she said, a “total immersion in Italian culture.” She and her parents lived with her maternal grandparents in the Italian section of Endicott. Her paternal grandparents lived two long blocks away, next to a Sons of Italy hall. Though her parents spoke English at home, Paglia was otherwise surrounded by people who communicated in “mutually unintelligible Italian dialects.”
Endicott was in many ways like a rural Italian village—which meant that Paglia saw how gender dynamics worked in the premodern world. Her grandmothers were matriarchal, goddess-like figures, who ruled home and hearth. They dictated the affairs of Paglia’s daily life. “Eat!” they’d command her in Italian. “Sleep!” Even more severe were the petite elderly Italian ladies who would visit their homes. “You had to watch out for them,” she said, “because when they kissed you, they’d bite your earlobe.” When Paglia and her parents moved from Endicott to the top floor of a dairy farm in Oxford, New York, where her father taught high school Spanish and her mother worked as a teller at the local bank, she encountered more tough women—farmers working the animals and land. Paglia dedicated Sexual Personae to her grandmothers and a paternal aunt.
Looking back, Paglia saw that her grandmothers had their own sphere of power at home, separate from the male sphere—where older women ruled. “Young women were nothing” in that world, Paglia said. Today, it’s the opposite: women try to gain power in the male sphere of work and lose status culturally as they age. “You’re unhappy,” Paglia said of today’s professional women, “because you’re spending all day long in this mechanical professional world. But we willingly put up with that because we want the financial autonomy and freedom.”
Her childhood also instilled in her an appreciation of men, especially working-class men—the plumbers, factory workers, and policemen who keep the world going. Paglia’s paternal grandfather was a barber, and her maternal grandfather operated a leather-stretching device at the Endicott-Johnson shoe factory. Four of her uncles served in the military during World War II, and her father was an army paratrooper. “One of the reasons I’m not anti-male,” Paglia told me, “is because I saw the sacrifices made by my father’s generation in those men.”
Paglia encountered her first works of art with her family at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Endicott. The stained-glass windows and polychrome statues of the saints entranced her.
If you haven’t heard/watched Camille Paglia’s conversation with Jordan Peterson, give it a shot: