The Mafia Gangster in American Crime Fiction: an analysis of the phenomenon of the mafia with reference to "The Godfather", "Goodfellas" and "The Sopranos"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

25 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. American Crime Fiction
2.1 The satisfaction of murder
2.2 The invention of the gangster
2.3 The importance of the gangster in American culture

3. The mafia gangster in American culture
3.1 The etymology of the term “mafia”

4. The phenomenon of the mafia in literature and on television
4.1 Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and the film trilogy by Francis Ford Coppola
4.2 Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990)
4.3 David Chase’s The Sopranos (1999-2007)

5. The decline of the American mafia

6. Conclusion

List of references

1. Introduction

The genre of crime fiction comprises several subgenres and is only an umbrella term for literature about crime that originated particularly in Great Britain and the United States in a time ranging from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century. When people are confronted with the genre of crime fiction, they usually associate it with detective fiction or crime thrillers. Some of the most popular writers of crime fiction are Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler and Edgar Allan Poe and their inventions of such characters as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and Philip Marlowe (Priestman 2003: preface). These works have shaped our understanding of crime literature profoundly and influenced the emergence of other crime fiction genres and their authors. On these grounds this essay will mainly focus on the emergence of a crime genre that is concerned with the American gangster and the myth of the mafia. To be more precise, I will concentrate on the mafia gangster in the United States and analyze his way to success and power. To better understand the phenomenon of the mafia gangster, I will give a brief account of American crime fiction followed by a description of the typical ingredients a successful crime novel has to have. Afterwards, I will present some information on the American gangster in general and explain the circumstances that facilitated his career in organized crime to become such an important part of American culture. Then I will proceed with the sudden appearance of the mafia gangster in the United States and comment on the etymology of the term mafia in order to explain how he became so important to the American culture. After the background information has been covered by the first three chapters, I will go on with the analysis of the phenomenon of the mafia in literature and on television. Therefore, the very popular contributions to the mafia genre produced by Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and David Chase will be discussed. The Godfather, Goodfellas and The Sopranos will be the main subjects of interest to show how these works contributed to a general understanding of the mafia in the second half of the twentieth century. Finally, I will give a short account of the decline of the mafia in organized crime within the United States before the Conclusion will be presented.

2. American Crime Fiction

Detective stories are part of the huge success of crime writing which can already be found in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. In the following century a subgenre called true crime developed and in the nineteenth century the focus shifts again to detective stories such as the ones of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories (Bertens & D’haen 2001: 1). Today, this period and the invention of the amateur detective are perceived as the foundation of the successful pieces of writings of authors like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers for example. Due to the great success that was achieved by several British authors in a time between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second World War, the period was also referred to as the Golden Age in which the clue-puzzle or whodunit subgenres emerged. At the same time an American version of the British detective writing came out, called private-eye that dealt with professional detectives who investigated for their living (Bertens & D’haen 2001: 1). At the end of the nineteenth century and more specifically in the middle of the twentieth century a new mode of investigation developed that is now referred to as the police procedural. Here, the work of a single detective was broken down into several special tasks which were taken over by different units of the police or other federal agencies. In this context Mueller (2010: 96) mentions an increased visible presence of “[...] urban law enforcement [...]” in contrast to the plain-clothed detective.

In the United States crime writing has always played an important role in reflecting social attitudes in general and more specifically towards the state and other institutions or organizations. From the times of colonialism up to the present day, crime writing has always been capable of recognizing emotions within the society such as fear, desire and anxiety which ultimately made the genre en vogue. Even in the late twentieth and twenty- first century television series such as The Sopranos and films like American Gangster or Departed are proof that the genre, with respect to gangster and mafia stories, still attracts a great audience (Nickerson 2010: preface).

2.1 The satisfaction of murder

What is a common feature in all American gangster and mafia stories is crime, particularly notions of oppression, murder, corruption and illegal ways of making money. At least in the genre of crime fiction all of these entities seem to fascinate humankind ever since. But it’s particularly murder or homicide that makes crime fiction so interesting for the reader or viewer, depending on the medium we are talking about. As soon as somebody gets killed or becomes victim of a shooting for example, people become very excited and begin to question who it was and for what reason it was done for example. In most crime novels or films the murder is known to us but hides among other characters within the story. Hints might be given by the detective, police or other protagonists involved such as mafia bosses or simply gangsters. If the examination of the corpse for reasons of identifying the murder is not the focus of the story, like it is the case within police procedurals or detective stories, other motives such as revenge or vigilantism may excite the audience. In this case the reader or viewer eagerly follows the victim’s or his fellows’ strategy who are taking the law in their own hands. Questions concerning crimes of different kinds in literature and on television have always motivated the audience to read or watch more closely in order to find hints within the given story (Nickerson 2010: 1). It is the constant search for more answers that encourages the reader to satisfy his own curiosity. The origin of the suspense within crime fiction can always be reduced to a serious problem such as kidnapping, homicide and drug dealing, most often in combination with a large amount of money and criminal people that are involved. On the other hand, there are federal agencies and officers whose aim it is to protect the people and the state from gangsters and public enemies. This is what one may refer to as a perfect combination which hooks the audience to follow the story with great attention and at the same time creates the popularity of the genre. It doesn’t matter whether the audience tries to solve the problem or just observes the action, because in the end the problem will be solved some way or other (Nickerson 2010: 1). As Nickerson (2010: 2) points out, the most important essence of crime fiction remains murder and its associated offenders, victims and reasons behind it. Nevertheless, there is more behind crime fiction than just the previously mentioned instances which characterize the genre. Most often there is an ending with retributive justice and also social critique in that the addressees begin to question the system they live in. Concerning the power of the mafia in Puzo’s (1969) The Godfather for example, it is the helplessness of the state, the power of money and the entanglement of officials and politicians with the mafia clan which impede the seizure of such criminals.

For a long time crime fiction wasn’t regarded as a serious literary genre until it was perceived as a reflection of American history and culture. Crime fiction has many subgenres and the most popular one is probably the detective fiction, which can be assigned to the Golden Age and authors like Agatha Christie. Since then, multiple genres like the thriller, spy novel and the police procedural have been developed and scrutinized leading to the question why the original detective fiction was so successful (Priestmann 2003: 1 f.). During this development of crime fiction within the second half of the twentieth century, the genre itself became much more sophisticated and factors such as gender, ethnicity and social class became more important as can be seen in contemporary crime novels and “[...] its proliferation on television” (Nickerson, 2010: 2). As the group of authors became increasingly diverse with respect to their heritage, novels and movie adaptations about gangsters and the mythos of the mafia developed, reflecting social issues concerning social imbalance, disputes with the law, racial, religious and gender prejudices. While the early figure of the gangster originally represented a fear of antisocial behavior, the mafia stories expressed a social fear of corruption, conspiracies and the development of subcultures and a separated United States (Nickerson, 2010: 2 f.).

2.2 The invention of the gangster

What contributed mostly to the popular image of the gangster or the invention of the public enemy is the mass media that conventionalized those figures. According to Ruth (1996: 1) it was after World War One that Americans faced the gangster and his self-indulgent behavior to become a characteristic part of their society. Newspapers, novels, movies and television were soon full of different gangsters who are nothing more than a social and cultural concept. It was rather for economic reasons to promote the public enemy and give him so much attention than representing reality. Nevertheless, the gangster became a fascinating figure in American culture promoting certain values and practicing violence for certain reasons (Ruth 1996: 2).

The invention of the public enemy can be traced back to April 1930 in Chicago, when the Crime Commission issued a list with the most wanted ‘public enemies’, a term that was from this point on used by the media who called Al Capone the ‘Public Enemy Number One’ (Ruth 1996: 2). In addition, several motion picture companies picked up on the gangster or public enemy and represented him as a dangerous but elegant and fancy man from the metropolitan setting, driving expensive cars, wearing similarly expensive clothes and celebrating nightlife without having a legal or transparent source of income (Finckenauer 2007: 4). His way to success was achieved through organized crime within a highly competitive illegal business. As the name public enemy suggests, the gangster violated the law in any way and also disregarded ethical and moral conventions particularly concerning his relationships with women. Part of the success of the American gangster was the prohibition of alcohol that boosted his career. Whereas conservatives from rural areas were the strongest supporters of the national prohibition, the city life flourished due to illegal sales and distribution of alcohol as can be seen in Scarface (1932). In the late twentieth century Scarface (1983) was adapted to fit in the current system, in which drugs were the source of power and money causing gangsters to find their way around the prohibition. As more and more people from rural areas moved to cities where most jobs were available, they were soon facing an impersonal and consumption-oriented modern society with new opportunities and challenges which in return changed “[...] the individual’s relationship to society” (Ruth 1996: 2 ff.). The gangster, who was also part of the city life, became an important cultural figure in America, because he helped the population to manage the transition to an urbanized and modernized civilization. This transition opened up new perspectives on issues like gender, ethnic and social systems and the urban American’s and gangster’s behavior in relation to these issues deviated more than ever from previously existing norms and social stereotypes. As he was part of this new society, he also shaped the American culture by being part of daily stories in newspapers, radio and on television. And since those stories contributed to the development of a certain culture and were for the most part dedicated to those individuals or groups in control of power, the gangster and his fellows told America stories about success and decline and thus reset the standard or norms for behavior and moral truth (Ruth 1996: 2 ff.). Eventually, the stories about gangsters and their way of life which to some degree contributed to an acknowledged culture and its shared values somehow reflected their desires and interests. The power of influencing the society started out from the creators and publishers of the new media but their success depended on the consumption style of the society. Thus, the media always had to fulfill the needs and desires of the population. Between the 1920s and 1930s the genre of the gangster flourished and contributed to the invention of the criminal as a symbol of the mass culture. The gangster soon impersonated the urban society and his lifestyle and the symbols associated with the criminal were used by the media in order to influence and describe the audience in an adjusting urban setting. Reviewers of literature and screenplays of the gangster genre analyzed that sophisticated social affairs were reduced to simple forms and functions that resulted in the successful depiction of the gangster in American culture (Ruth 1996: 2 ff.).

2.3 The importance of the gangster in American culture

Another interesting fact about the figure of the gangster is its cultural utility, as he was able to set new limits of behavioral codes. This can be illustrated by a new awareness of the public concerning the criminal which affected their perspectives on “[...] race, gender, class, responsibility, and sexual morality” (Ruth 1996: 4). Therefore, past and present accounts of newspapers and other media reporting on criminal activities and stories unfolding problems of our daily life have always helped the audience to critically scrutinize those reports and the behavior of criminals in order to conceive an individual opinion and shape the social world. Even today the invented cultural concept of the gangster serves as a rich cultural resource in that the audience is fascinated by his depiction no matter if their accounts are at odds with the truth or not. The depiction of Toni Camonte in Scarface (1932) for example may be one piece of work that contemporary writers and film producers may refer to as an era of rebellion or simply the gangster era, in which the youth revolted against the law and order (Ruth 1996: 5). Today, the original Scarface (1932) served as a model to produce remakes such as Scarface (1983), whose location was transferred to Miami and mainly deals with drug dealing and associated businesses between Cuba and the United States. Although the modern version of Scarface contains extremely violent material that is even censored in some countries, it became a very popular part of American pop culture and entertainment. Even though films like Scarface and the groundbreaking novel The Godfather (1969) by Mario Puzo are based on a true story, they created a myth around the gangster and mafia in order to make it more attractive to the audience. At the same time the authors and film directors pointed to the authenticity of these works indicating exclusive knowledge of the producers that made the product even more interesting (Ruth 1996: 5 ff.).

What is common to the gangster and mafia genre in American crime fiction is its urban setting that seems to be very fascinating and complex in structure and thus needs to be explained by those in control of media coverage. Those who invented the gangster in the city at the beginning of the twentieth century and were most influential in creating the criminal were newspaper reporters and writers, because they covered news about the mystical city on a daily routine. The gangster served the society to better come to terms with the city life. The transition from a rural society to an urban and modernized way of life was associated with anxieties and chances and posed a challenge, especially to the native born middle class of the nation who mostly sought the city for economic reasons. They started to develop and establish organizations in order to impose rules and a new order on the seemingly chaotic new cities (Ruth 1996: 6 ff.). Due to their increased political and social engagement, the middle class aimed to stem suburban cultures and the development of potentially dangerous activities within an increasingly impersonal environment. In other words, the coordination of thousands of workers and immigrants in terms of accommodating and integrating them in the new urban society together with such issues as welfare and labor were a difficult task. Several efforts were made in order to cope with those challenges. Like the gangster image, those efforts were rather cultural than political in nature and involved a “[...] temporary, therapeutic respite [...]” and “[...] urban photography [...]” in order take cultural possession of the city (Ruth 1996: 7). The visual representation of skylines and other parts of the city with photographs helped people to understand and trust their new environment better and showed that human dignity was still compatible with the new urban society. Even the most conservative middle class people, who at first were most suspicious of the new urban environment soon sought cultural possession of the city as they recognized the “[...] civic greatness [...]” expressed by the images of the city skyline (Ruth 1996: 7). Another important step for the acceptance of the city at the beginning of the twentieth century was the development of recreation facilities and amusement or entertainment parks which made life in the cities more pleasant. In the 1920s, as a result of all the efforts to successfully complete the transition to an urbanized America in which all people could live and work together, the city was finally accepted and regarded as normal. Anyhow, this acceptance didn’t mean that the problems surrounding such an urban construct would disappear. In fact, the images of the gangster of the twenties and thirties were said to be part of the long struggle to come up with solutions (Ruth 1996: 8). Somehow the image of the gangster reflected long prevailing concerns about the new social and urban context people were living in. The gangster was part of the underground of the city, where issues like gender, amusement, migration, capitalism and business were still problematic and could amount to a dangerous composition. Nevertheless, these ingredients are common to all gangster and mafia stories and authors and movie producers could ever since adapt these issues to contemporary settings in order to satisfy the needs of the changing audience (Ruth 1996: 8). The success of Scarface (1932), The Godfather (1969), Goodfellas (1990) and The Sopranos (1999-2007) for example show that the gangster and mafia genre developed from “[...] problems of social categorization” (Ruth 1996: 8). This process of categorization entails a classification system used to structure the social world and also reflects an imbalance of existing systems to structure the experience of urbanization. People who were involved in inventing the gangster came across contradictory social issues:

[...] law-abiding and criminal, respectable and disreputable, male and female, moral and licentious, individual and group [.] and blazed new lines where the old ones had been trampled away or headed in dangerous directions (Ruth 1996: 8).

The success of this genre suggests that many Americans still appraise those characteristics of the gangster image and pleasantly take part in his adventures.


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The Mafia Gangster in American Crime Fiction: an analysis of the phenomenon of the mafia with reference to "The Godfather", "Goodfellas" and "The Sopranos"
University of Cologne  (English Department 1)
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The mafia gangster, American gangster, American crime fiction, the mafia gangster in literature and on tv, The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Sopranos, the gangster in american culture, mafia, Martin Scorsese, Mario Puzo, David Chase, the decline of the american mafia
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Diplomsportwissenschaftler David Fußinger (Author), 2012, The Mafia Gangster in American Crime Fiction: an analysis of the phenomenon of the mafia with reference to "The Godfather", "Goodfellas" and "The Sopranos", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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