Robert Canzoneri was an author and teacher raised and educated in Mississippi. Though he left for doctoral work and teaching jobs, his experiences in the state influenced his writings in a variety of genres as he grappled with the meaning of his identity as a Mississippian, an Italian American, and a southerner in decades particularly fraught with southern political and social debate.
Canzoneri was born in San Marcos, Texas, on 21 November 1925 to Joe and Mabel Barnett Canzoneri. His mother was a cousin of former Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, while his father was originally from Sicily. His family moved to Clinton, Mississippi, and he attended the city’s public schools. After graduating from high school, Canzoneri joined the US Navy and served in World War II. He subsequently returned to Mississippi and received a bachelor’s degree from Mississippi College in 1948 and a master’s degree from the University of Mississippi in 1951. Canzoneri also attended graduate programs at Vanderbilt University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Kentucky.
Canzoneri received a doctorate in English from Stanford University in 1965 and won the Henry H. Bellamann Foundation Award, recognizing and encouraging writers with unusual literary promise. He taught English at several colleges before settling at Ohio State University in 1968. He was married twice, first to Dorothy Mitchell, with whom he had two children, and subsequently to Candyce Barnes.
Canzoneri published nonfiction, novels, short stories, and poetry, and his work appeared in a number of literary journals. His first book, I Do So Politely: A Voice from the South (1965), is a work of nonfiction that responded autobiographically to the contemporary “race question” in Mississippi. Written as a free-flowing personal essay full of argument and anecdote, the book criticized Mississippi’s government and societal opposition to integration following the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. The book used Canzoneri’s childhood experiences to outline the dilemma facing Mississippians who had been taught to see the world in Christian and democratic terms and found contradictions in segregationist policy and rhetoric.
Canzoneri’s next published work, Watch Us Pass (1968), featured poetry drawing on his experiences. His first novel, Men with Little Hammers (1969), offered an ironic and comic look at the hypocrisy of students and teachers on a midwestern college campus. Canzoneri followed up with Barbed Wire and Other Stories (1970), a collection set primarily in the South from the 1940s to the 1960s that focused on the lives of Italian immigrants and their children and drew heavily on his experiences with his extended family. He also penned A Highly Ramified Tree (1976), a collection of sketches covering his boyhood and featuring portraits of his Sicilian relatives in the United States and Italy. Thirteen years later, he authored an autobiographical cookbook, Potboiler: An Amateur’s Affair with la Cuisine.
In December 1970 Canzoneri donated the manuscripts of his published and unpublished works to the University of Mississippi Department of Archives and Special Collections. He died in Westerville, Ohio, in 2010.
- Robert Canzoneri File, Department of Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi
- James B. Lloyd, Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817–1967 (1981)