Author Mario Puzo is best-known as the author of The Godfather, the novel that cemented the mafia's place in popular culture. Publication of The Godfather was a turning point in Puzo's career, and The Godfather and its film adaptations inspired and influenced stories about organized crime for years to come, from Goodfellas to The Sopranos.
Recently a collection of Puzo's papers were donated to Dartmouth College. The collection was a gift from Diana and Bruce Rauner of Chicago. Some of these letters and manuscripts are now on display at the Dartmouth College Library. NHPR's Peter Biello spoke with Jay Satterfield, Dartmouth's head of special collections, about Puzo's papers.
So tell us what we’re looking at here.
Well, this first case has materials related to Mario Puzo’s early career, when he was a struggling writer, found himself in debt trying to raise a family, and he sat down with the determination to write a best-seller. The result was The Godfather–something that he consciously wrote to be popular—and it was popular beyond his imagination.
He had written a few books before then, but they weren’t as popular?
Yeah, he had a couple of critically-acclaimed novels that didn’t see any sales. He wasn’t able to support himself and his family from those books.
And in this case we have the typewriter and this is the typewriter he wrote The Godfather on.
Yeah, it is one of those funny things to have in a special collection because its research value is pretty minimal. But it’s got that aura of the original that really helps people get into a collection and start to think about the actual act of writing.
Are you able to comment on the research value of the other things we’re seeing here? They look like letters and bits of manuscript.
Sure, there are materials in here—some manuscript pages of The Godfather the novel, but then there’s also materials related to the drafting of the book. As I said, he was trying to write a best-seller, and he actually plots out all of the sex scenes in the book to carry his narrative along. He’s really conscious about being popular in this book.
What is the research value of this collection as a whole?
It’s an interesting collection because in creating The Godfather, Puzo creates a modern myth of organized crime and it’s one that has created purely as fiction. But organized crime was fascinated with it and actually changed their behaviors to fit some of the behaviors of The Godfather movies.
Can I ask for an example?
That’s one that’s in Puzo’s papers that I don’t know an example right off, but I know that they became fascinated with the idea of acting like Don Corleone. They started acting more that way.
You mean having people kiss the ring and show ultimate respect and loyalty, that kind of thing?
Yes, exactly. This is a case where somebody creates a myth out of fiction, then reality shifts to match that myth in a way. It’s a very compelling story, so everybody now when they think of the mafia, they think of The Godfather. That’s what comes to mind. Everything since then, Goodfellas and The Sopranos, is in some way a response to The Godfather. What I find fascinating is how a work of fiction can create a different reality from what reality actually is.
And The Godfather in some ways was a story about immigration. What can you say about that?
The Godfather, especially in Godfather 2, but also the novel talks about the Italian immigration experience, and it creates a set of stereotypes about Italian immigrants that people have been trying to live with ever since. There are assumptions people make based on somebody’s last name that have no basis in reality. But again, Puzo’s story is such a compelling one that people want to place that on to an entire immigrant community.
That’s one of those cases where in the movies prior to The Godfather, Italian immigrants were treated very, very poorly. He humanizes them, but at the same time makes them criminals. It has turned into this very complicated situation for Italian immigration and I think the papers can comment on how America starts to understand the assimilation of different groups into America. We can see the creation of a set of stereotypes and then the battles against those stereotypes. There was a terrible period during which if you had an Italian last name, people thought you were connected. It’s absurd, but it’s because of the power of these movies and these stories.
Tell us about the New Hampshire connection, the Hanover connection that The Godfather has.
It’s a curious one, because it was very confusing to us at first when the papers came to us. The first thing I did was re-read the book because I hadn’t read it since I was a teenager, and there on like page 15 there’s Michael Corleone going off to Dartmouth. I thought, “How could that happen? What’s the relationship here?”
The curator of the exhibit did some in-depth research, and she found that Mario Puzo had been one of the kids on the Fresh Air Fund, which was an organization that sent inner-city kids out into rural communities for the summer. So he was from New York and he came to New Hampshire on the Fresh Air Fund. We haven’t figured exactly where he stayed yet, but he clearly had some connection with Hanover and Dartmouth because Hanover and Dartmouth figure in The Godfather, but in other books as well.
I think that the reason he sends Michael Corleone here is that for him, as a child, this must be antithesis of New York City, both in terms of the physical environment, but also the social world. If Michael Corleone wanted to escape the family, where better than Dartmouth?
What about Puzo’s career after The Godfather? Obviously a big success, he got into writing for movies as well.
The Godfather really took over for him, in a way that he was not really particularly pleased with. It came to dominate the public’s perception of him and he tried to escape that a few times by writing other things, but none of them took off like The Godfather did. He had gotten some excellent experience with The Godfather trilogy in Hollywood as a screen writer, and so he wrote the screenplays for the 1978 Superman movie, for The Cotton Club, for Columbus, and for Earthquake. His career really becomes a Hollywood career after The Godfather.