Greek American Literature
Courses in modern Greek literature, language, and history are offered for credit in many colleges and universities. Some were initially promoted by members of the Modern Greek Studies Association, founded at Princeton in 1969. Most relate to Greece, of course, but the scholarly study of Greek America has also expanded in recent years. Such systematic study goes back at least to 1911, when Henry Pratt Fairchild published Greek Immigration to the United States. Thomas Burgess followed with Greeks in America (1913). Since then many books and monographs, including master’s theses and doctoral dissertations, have helped to make the Greek minority one of the more thoroughly researched in the nation. The most authoritative account to date remains The Greeks in the United States (1964) by Theodore Saloutos. Of late an interesting adjunct to these endeavors by social scientists has been an inquiry into the modern Greek presence in our literature, with respect to both fictional characters and creative writers.
Until now the bibliographies either sparely reported or completely ignored the Greek ethnic component. The two-volume collection of essays Ethnic Literature Since 1776: The Many Voices of America, by W.T. Zyla and Wendell Aycock (1978), for example has no section on this subject. A fairly sizable segment on Greek Americans does appear in Wayne C. Miller’s Comprehensive Bibliography for the Study of American Minorities (1976), although its listing of Greek writers and Greek characters in American fiction is incomplete. The standard literary indexes that mention immigrant and ethnic works are also unsatisfactory. The current popularity of the ethnic dimension in American literature promises to hasten the needed bibliographical work. The establishment of MELUS, for the study of the multiethnic literature of the United States, indicates the growing value that scholars are placing on the new literary emphasis.
Greek immigrants did not begin to arrive in large numbers until the 1980s. Coming mostly from peasant and pastoral backgrounds, unlearned and poor, they did not immediately express in writing the wonder, anguish, and triumph of their odyssey. Their initial publications were both utilitarian and ephemeral – Greek-language newspapers such as Atlantic, National Herald, and Chicago’s Greek Star. Some earlier accounts consisted of fugitive narratives and personal history deriving from the Greek Revolution, captivity and atrocity tales, and reminiscences. During the nineteenth century many non-Greeks visited Greece, however, and wrote interesting though usually impressionistic travel essays. Most of them wanted to learn at first hand if four hundred years of Turkish enslavement had left in the Greeks any traces of their classical greatness. Stephen A. Larrabee’s excellent Hellas Observed (1957) documents these reports as well as many other works, including those that reflect the “Greek fever” of support for the Greek revolutionary cause. A valuable extension of Larrabee’s pioneering research is the more recent American Poets and the Greek Revolution (1821-1828) by Alexander Papas and Marios Byron Raizis. Subtitled A Study in Byronic Philhellenism, the book records how American poets celebrated in verse the rebirth of modern Greece.
The writings cited by Larrabee, Papas, and Raizis help to illustrate the impact of Hellenism on the early years of our republic. They form a useful intellectual background for the contribution made by Greek ethnics to American literature. By “ethnics” I mean any Greek writers, regardless of place of birth, who have lived and worked in the United States, and by “Greek” I mean any person who has at least one Greek parent and does not deliberately flee from his or her heritage by change of name (unless through marriage) or by other means. I assume, of course, that writers of Greek descent can contribute to American literature even if they choose never to write about their fellow Greeks.
No scholar can know for sure, at this stage of research, how many Greek Americans can qualify as writers by virtue of having published worthy poems, stories, or essays. In the 126 issues of Athene magazine, the leading American journal of Hellenic thought, a couple hundred more or less minor authors were represented during the twenty-seven years of publication from 1940 until 1967. Many others have published in Greek newspapers, written privately printed booklets, and so on. The Greek press has often published poetry and short fiction. These scattered and rather slight works may have some value for term and seminar papers – that is, if one can locate them to begin with; they have not as yet been gathered and cataloged at any central location. Even many books by the forty or so relatively important Greek-American authors are so long out of print that they cannot be readily assigned as texts. In time, no doubt, the archives of Greek Americana will be as complete as money and effort can make them. Then, on microfilm and through inter-library loans they will be available to students throughout the country.
Lafcadio Hearn, the first major writer usually regarded as Greek, at least in part, presents the problem of not having shown any interest in modern Greece. Born on the Greek island of Lefkas, Hearn had an Irish father and a Greek mother, Rosa Tessima. She was “Grecian” or “predominately Greek,” as he writes, although she may have been Maltese or Maltese with a Greek heritage. Hearn alludes frequently to classical Hellenism in his many essays, yet he never uses a modern Greek in his fiction. He does portray rather exotic ethnic types such as Creoles, Polynesians, and Japanese. As a writer and teacher he spent much of his adult life in Japan; he left Lefkas at an early age and never went back. After the age of seven, in fact, Hearn never again saw his parents. Thus, even though he enjoys permanent stature in American literature and despite the accident of having a Greek mother, Hearn cannot be considered a Greek ethnic.
No college course in Greek-American literature can ignore the dozen or more poets for whom the muse has sung in the promised land. The works of more recently published authors like Olga Broumas and Evans Chigounis are readily available, but those of poets such as George Koutoumanos, who wrote early and exclusively in Greek, are not. Some of the poems deal with Greek ethnic subjects; yet, on the whole, the Greek-American poets concentrate on topics that are more personal than narrowly chauvinistic. That is not to say that a consciously “Greek” act, idea or emotion cannot at the same time have universal meaning. Nevertheless most of the works written by the poets mentioned here do not reveal a specific ethnic origin. I am presenting these poets in roughly chronological order with some comment on the intrinsic worth of their work.
Demetrios A. Michalaros
Until his death in 1967 Michalaros was known nationally primarily as the editor of Athene magazine and locally in Chicago for his weekly television program, Greek Panorama. A poet turned journalist, Michalaros also edited American Hellenic World in the 1920s. As a young poet he published two volumes, The Legend of America (1927) and Sonnets of an Immigrant (1930). In her Foreword to the Sonnets, the famed social workers Jane Addams compares Michalaros with Jacob Riis and other immigrants who left a record of their arrival and adjustment. “In Old Ionia” eulogizes his village of Alachata on the western coast of Asia Minor. “Wanderlust” cites an episode that contributed to his leaving – a ship anchored in the bay where he heard stories about America. The poem “I Am the Immigrant” praises the newcomer as the builder of America who lifts mountains, digs canals, masses the bricks, and runs the machines. Of the several plays that Michalaros wrote the best is perhaps Theodora (1931), about the empress for Justinian. The play premiered at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago and received such headlines as “Greek Immigrant Proves His Mettle” and “Ditch Digger Sees His Play Produced.” Among other books by Michalaros are Protagoras (1937) and The Minoan (1958), the first long poem about the noted Sophist and the second about the adventures of Antalos, a mythical Cretan hero. For his long editorship of Athene, Michalaros was honored by the Friends of Literature, who gave him their Ferguson Award, and by the king of Greece, who gave him a plaque.
Much admired as a “people’s poet,” Koutoumanos composed in Greek enough poems to fill several volumes. Were poets in America as widely read as they are honored, the best of his work would have long since been rendered into English. From 1907 to 1964 his poetry appeared in slim, privately printed books and in Greek-language newspapers. Rae Dalven and John Prevedore translated some of his verse for various issues of Athene. In “A Saugatuck Landscape,” Koutoumanos praises the region in Michigan where he retired to write and live out his days. In “Dance of the Grecian Maidens” the poet, as master of ceremonies, welcomes the girls to participate in a festival of youth. In 1968 the writer Theano Papazoglou-Margaris delivered a lecture on Koutoumanos, in Greek, which is available as a pamphlet. She calls him the finest of the earlier Greek-American poets, one who captures well the dreams, the agonies, the nostalgias, and the hopes of the immigrant. In his verse he also supports many social causes dedicated to improving the lot of humanity.
Several poets write equally well in both Greek and English. One uses his real name, Nikos Laides, in Greece, and the name Paul Nord in America. His poems tend to be epigrammatic, satiric, and witty. Like a fellow poet, the columnist Paul Denis, he belongs to the cultural scene of New York City. Greece knows him for his poems, essays, songs, and translations of Shakespeare, Tennyson, and others. Nord’s mock epic in English, Salamander (1946), elicited from Albert Einstein a warm letter of praise. The more than eighty poems in Chaos Revisited (1964) appeared first in the Jamestown, New York, Sun. Acerbic humor such as one finds in Nord’s pithy verse seeks to reduce humanity’s folly and greed. A number of his poems and short stories appeared in Athene magazine.
A versatile author, Decavalles is also a teacher, scholar, critic, editor, and translator from the Greek into English. He has for many years edited Charioteer, an ambitious and high-quality review sponsored by the New York cultural society, Parnassos. Charioteer brings to American readers, in English translation, the best poetry and fiction of modern Greece. Decavalles has written several books of poetry as well as critical studies of Eliot, Pound, Elytis, and Prevelakis. His collection in Greek, Armoi karabia lytra (1976), won the Academy of Athens Poetry Prize of 1977. With the demise of Athene in 1967, Charioteer remains the longest surviving Greek-American journal, and as such becomes an increasingly valuable repository of modern Greek literature.
Translators of the works of Greek poets and novelists have been busy since the 1940s, when Dalven issued Poems (1944), written by the Greek-Jewish poet Joseph Eliyia. She worked in the tradition of Aristides E. Phoutrides, a brilliant Harvard scholar who introduced the great Kostis Palamas to America. Harvard published Life Immovable (1919) and A Hundred Voices (1921), and Yale offered a play by Palamas, Royal Blossoms (1923). Phoutrides also collaborated with Demetra Vaka in translating a fine volume entitled Modern Greek Stories (1920). Dalven followed up her book on Eliyia with Modern Greek Poetry (1949), another pioneer translation, and later with The Complete Poems of Cavafy (1961). Dalven’s play, A Season in Hell, was produced off Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theater in 1950. Among her other writings are a critical study, Anna Comnena (1972), and The Fourth Dimension (1977), selected poems of Yannis Ritsos.
Long before Friar undertook the Herculean task of translating The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (1958), by Nikos Kazantzakis, he was established in American letters as poet, critic, editor, lecturer, and teacher. Friar has taught at Adelphi, Amherst, Iowa, and Minnesota, among other places. His critical articles and translations of Greek poets from Cavafy to Ritsos have appeared in many magazines. He prepared the poetry section for Introduction to Modern Greek Literature (1969), edited by Mary P. Gianos. During its relatively brief life, Friar edited Greek Heritage, an impressive quarterly founded by Christopher G. Janus. Friar has compiled several anthologies and texts including, with John Malcolm Brinnin, Modern Poetry: American and British. He did a great service for world literature by gathering, translating, and publishing Modern Greek Poetry (1973). In another book, The Sovereign Sun (1974), Friar presents the best poems of another major Greek poet, Odysseus Elytis. His crowning achievement, however, remains The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. Friar lives in Greece but visits the United States periodically to lecture and teach.
One of the best and most prolific Greek-American poets, Vazakas was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1907. His work has appeared in Accent, Yale Review, and other prestigious journals. Vazakas’ first book, Transfigured Night (1946), marked him as a major precursor of the Greek-American literary awakening that was in the offing. William Carlos Williams in his introduction greeted Vazakas as a genuine inventor who had “completely done away with poetic line as we know it, a clean sweep, not a vestige of it left.” To replace the line, he had “found a measure” based on music, with its primal appeal to the “pure ear.” Vazakas dedicated his title poem to Arnold Schoenberg. Of the fifty poems included, none deals with Greek ethnic subjects. The same is true of the fifty poems in his second volume, The Equal Tribunals (1961). Vazakas’ interest in music continues with poems such as the “Ballet of the Noble Stairs,” “Martial Music,” “Masks of Chopin,” “Night Fugue,” “Music in America,” “The Mozart Pavilion,” and “Late Music.” Other poems allude to art and literature; in form and diction they appeal to the aesthete rather than to the casual reader.
Vazakas was named the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholar, 1962-64, an experience that resulted in his third volume, The Marble Manifesto (1966). By this time he had won national recognition. Library Journal called him “Unquestionably one of the best contemporary poets.” Most of the poems in Manifesto were inspired by the sights and sounds of England, from the band playing at Brighton to the poet’s rubber soles squeaking on the floor of the British Museum. The title refers to the Elgin marbles, whose classical nudity shocked the Victorian sensibility. Vazakas dedicated his next book, Nostalgias for a House of Cards (1970), to the memory of his “old friend,” William Carlos Williams. Among the fifty poems are some that advance a chronology of personal experiences, from his early childhood until, as an adult, he evokes Emerson and Whitman in present-day Boston. Although Vazakas frequently alludes to ancient Greece, calling one section of Nostalgias “The Trials of Oedipus,” he makes no aesthetic use of the Byzantine or the modern Greeks. His own father is the only Greek immigrant he mentions.
Chigounis also dedicated a volume of poetry to Williams, saying in Secret Lives (1972), “To the American master William Carlos Williams who would tell me that writing is a very human thing to do and to my father Charles who was a Greek.” His volume appeared in the long-standing poetry series of Wesleyan University Press. The first section, “South,” contains fourteen poems about places in South and Latin America written in free verse and containing varying degrees of experimentation. The poet, through his verse, visits Peru, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, commenting about past and present as he goes. The second part, “Other Directions,” includes forty-six poems on a wide variety of subjects. Chigounis writes some prose poems, as does Vazakas. He deals with modern Greek material in two poems, “Hasapiko,” a folk dance, and “Peoples Heroes,” inspired by the funeral of Nikos Kazantzakis.
A new poet of great promise, Broumas writes sharply and sensitively from an activist position asserting the power of the feminine. Beginning with O (1977) appeared as Volume 72 of the Yale Series of Younger Poets. She uses English, her adopted language, with surprising control and finesse. Stanley Kunitz in his foreword notes her “explicit sexuality and sapphic orientation” and adds, “Among the most impressive features of Broumas’ supple art is her command of syntax, rhythm, and tone.” Many poems and parts of poems unabashedly describe the physical aspects of lesbian love. In another comment Kunitz says, “It does not seem at all presumptuous for Broumas to link herself with the goddess of the Hellenic age, for she has honest ties of kinship to that age in blood and spirit.” He refers to a cycle of poems entitled “Twelve Aspects of God” wherein Broumas casts a mythic and classical aura about lesbian lovemaking; in effect, it becomes a special way to celebrate the human body. With understandable fondness she honors the women who pointed the way for her: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Adrienne Rich. That her poems also express a social conscience, fired by her feminist views, is shown in “the knife & the bread,” written “for the women of Cyprus, ’74.” One may well wait to see where Broumas’ fine talents will go from “O.”
Other Greek-American Poets
Additional poets include Theodore Giannakoulis, who wrote poems for Athene and helped edit it for a time. Athene also printed many stories from Fairy Tales of Modern Greece (1930), which Giannakoulis prepared with Georgia H. Macpherson. Another Greek-American poet, Constance Elinore Hatson, published a creditable first volume entitled Who Know Not Leaf (1947). She also wrote articles for a New York language newspaper. More recent poets include Konstantinos Lardas whose And In Him, Too; In Us (1964) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Lardas has published in many journals here and abroad. His story “The Broken Wings” appeared in The Best American Short Stories of 1973. The poems of Alexander Karanikas have been printed in newspapers and journals since the 1930s; in two books, When a Youth Gets Poetic (1933) and In Praise of Heroes (1945); and in such anthologies as Port Chicago Poets (1966), edited by Don A. Torgersen, and Hold Fast to Dreams (1969), edited by Arna Bontemps. Another poet, Eleni Floratou-Paidoussi, was born in the United States, spent her youth in Greece, then returned to this country after World War II. Her poems include both personal lyrics and political statements. Cycles of Silence and Screams (1975) laments the fascism of the junta years and expresses hope for a democratic future. A second volume, Twenty Strophes and Other Poems (1976), continues her lyrical appraisal of life’s sadness and joys.
Greek-American novelists are more numerous than the poets and they use more ethnic material. They have also reached a much larger audience, and their works are more readily available. A student can discover some of the same themes in both the poetry and the fiction; the diaspora, the odyssey, nostalgia for the lost homeland. The novel as a genre, however, has much more scope for ethnic-based plot, for characterization, for the description of ethnic customs, ideology, and illusive soul. The novel has sufficient magnitude to allow the author to deal with the alienation inherent in the immigrant experience and to extend the action to whatever triumph or loss is consistent with the organic aesthetic purpose of the work.
In a number of novels and short stories the conflict between the generations serves as a basis for the plot. A frequent source of tension is the son’s or daughter’s decision to marry a non-Greek. The fiction of other ethnic writers makes similar use of this basic problem. Perhaps no other decision so profoundly tests the degree of assimilation achieved by the parents. In fighting against nature, so to speak, the parents are invariably, and often sadly, defeated. Their ethnic dreams appear to founder, break, and die. Nor does wealth or social class make any difference in the outcome. The rich daughter in Ariadne Thompson’s The Octagonal Heart and the poor son in Harry Mark Petrakis’ Lion at My Heart face equally fierce opposition when they “betray” their ethnos. The clash over marriage (or over “learning Greek,” for that matter) raises the broader question of identity: to be or not to be a Greek, though born in America. Or, more exactly, what does it mean to be both Greek and American?
The coming of World War II made the Greek war hero a viable protagonist in American literature. Non-Greek authors such as Leon Uris and Glenway Wescott were inspired to dramatize the heroic Greek resistance to Nazi occupation. In Tom T. Chamales’ Never So Few the Greek hero fights and dies in distant Burma, whereas in Petrakis’ In the Land of Morning he returns home to Chicago, where, echoing the myth of Orestes, he helps to wreak a violent revenge on his mother’s lover. In the war fiction the Greek is far removed from the earlier diaspora and process of assimilation. Nobody now questions his right to be an American. He has other, usually more personal, problems to face and resolve.
Some novels set in the postwar period – The Arrangement, by Elia Kazan, for example – have protagonists who are only incidentally Greek. The fact of their ethnicity plays a very subordinate role; in that aspect they tend to resemble Greek characters created by non-Greek authors. They are Greek in name only. They are no longer called bad names; they do not confront a hostile, bigoted environment; they do not have to choose from a limited number of jobs. Greeks are now free, like any other Americans, to make their mistakes on their own, to be great lovers, adventurers, business and social successes or failures, and sometimes comic or mad figures. The price that they pay for almost full assimilation is the almost total loss of their ethnicity.
A fairly complete and varied treatment of the Greek immigrant informs the five collections of short stores published by Papazoglou-Margaris. One of them, The Chronicle of Halsted Street (1962), won the second government prize in Athens – a high honor, since the award had never before gone to a Greek living outside Greece. Unfortunately for the general reader, Papazoglou-Margaris writes only in her native Greek, and only a few of her stories have been translated. Like Kimon Friar, Demetra Vaka, and Elia Kazan, Papazolglou-Margaris has an Anatolian (Turkish) background, which is often seen in her characters. What she admires in the poetry of Koutoumanos emerges in her fiction as well: the longing and the bitterness, the dreams and nostalgia of the early Greek immigrants. Moreover, she delights in the whimsical, the ironic, and sometimes the starkly tragic when fate intervenes to demolish hope and ambition. Ethnicity permeates her work; she is always aware that her characters are Greeks. Her books include fully developed short stories as well as relatively brief narrative sketches. They are Efiha and Other Stories (1939); A Tear for Uncle Jimmy (1958); The Chronicle of Halsted Street (1962); Notes from Chicago (1967); George Koutoumanos (1968); and The Adventures of Uncle Plato (1972). For many years Papazoglou-Margaris has also written weekly columns of commentary for Greek-language newspapers. Athene printed two of her stories, “The Nymphs of Lake Michigan” and “Theia Giannitsa” in English translation. A volume of selected and translated stories by her would be useful since she is the last and the best of those still writing in Greek.
Demetra Vaka (Brown)
This vital and prolific author used both her maiden name and her married name; on several occasions she collaborated with her husband, Kenneth Brown. A polyglot from Turkey, she used English with great skill. She arrived in America at eighteen, learned English, married, and spent a busy lifetime writing, traveling, and supporting causes such as the Greek War Relief during World War II. Through her more than fifteen books she sought to interpret Turkey and the Near East to the West, in the hope that more understanding among peoples might lead to peace and security. Her novel Bribed to Be Born (1951) was issued after her death in 1946. The autobiography she left behind, A Heart for Any Faith, came out as a serial in Athene but has not yet appeared in book form. Her career as a writer began in 1907 with a romance entitled The First Secretary. Her first prose work, Haremlik (1909), unveils the suppressed status of Turkish women under the old dispensation, before Kemal Ataturk’s revolution began to move the nation forward.
In her last work, Delarah (1943), Vaka makes an eloquent appeal for love between the Greeks and the Turks. Many delightfully comic touches emerge from the basically grim situation – the agitation and violence of the Young Turks (1909) demanding that Sultan Abdul Hamid adopt a new constitution. Delarah, the young pampered daughter of Ali Pasha, becomes friends with Alcmene Floras, the bright daughter of a Greek banker. As their friendship grows, Delarah experiences a mental and emotional awakening. When turmoil convulses the country, Ali Pasha “gives” Delarah to the Floras family, who manage to escape to Vienna. Of all Vaka’s works, Delarah most deserves to be reissued for today’s readers.
Best known as a Hollywood screenwriter, Bezzerides also wrote three novels: The Long Haul (1938), There Is a Happy Land (1942), and Thieves’ Market (1949). The first and last are novels about the tough San Francisco produce market. The hero of Thieves’ Market is a volatile young Greek, Nick Garcos. He blames his mother for driving Yanko, his father, to death with her constant complaining. To haul and sell produce Nick teams up with Ed Kennedy, a rough man who knows all the dirty tricks. Most of the story deals with the buying and selling of two truckloads of apples, during which time Nick proves strong but naïve. In the end he learns how to recoup his losses and gets revenge on the master thief, Figlia. The Long Haul also describes trucking in California, but it has no Greek characters. Bezzerides, of Greek and Armenian descent, dramatized the life of the Tarpon Springs spongers in the film Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef. The most valuable of his works from an ethnic point of view, Thieves’ Market, is also a regional novel that qualifies as proletarian fiction.
The first novel depicting the Greek as immigrant is Gold in the Streets (1945) by Mary Vardoulakis. She was attending Wellesley College when this work won the Intercollegiate Literary Fellowship sponsored by Dodd, Mead. Set in 1906, Gold in the Streets takes a group of immigrants from pastoral Crete to the mill town of Chicopee, Massachusetts. Vardoulakis’ characters show real ethnicity, an element usually missing from fictional Greeks in earlier novels by non-Greeks. George Vardas, a young Cretan, leaves for America because of trouble over a girl and a conflict with his cousin Nicholas over land rights. In Chicopee he and other Greeks cope with the hostile Polish workers. The Greek community grows, and more immigrants arrive, including Greek girls. They all expect to find “gold in the streets” – the dream that lured millions of Europeans to our shores. The novel lacks much of the real day-to-day suffering, but it does express the loneliness of the newcomers and their nostalgia for Crete. Gold in the Streets ends happily with the arrival of Nina. Better prospects lie ahead for George Vardas; the mills in nearby Hartford pay as much as fifteen dollars a week. Maybe George and Nina will still find the gold; after all, they have seen only half the streets. Despite her brilliant and precocious beginning, Vardoulakis did not write any other fiction.
An artist as well as author, Demetrios wrote his first book, When I Was a Boy in Greece, in 1913, and thirty-four years later he wrote another, the small classic When Greek Meets Greek (1947). The twenty-five “episodes” – stories and sketches – in this fine collection often embody a moral or lesson and a style as spare and laconic as that of Aesop’s Fables. The Greeks of Demetrios are wise, foolish, kind, pigheaded, conceited, lazy, shrewd, funny, conniving, compassionate, thieving, mad – in short, very alive and human, and quite Greek. Their good qualities are sometimes undermined by faults and follies as they seek, by hook or by crook, by labor or by cunning to survive in their strange adopted land. Demetrios characterizes them with a few telling strokes of his pen: the wrestler Leonidas, who poses for sculptors until he meets Mary, and then he poses only for her; Pericles of Boston, who loses all his money in the stock market; the adventurer Anastasios, who is discovered cheating an intellectual friend out of fifty dollars; the clever Prokopios, who manages to trade a horse and cart for a theater; Gus Pappas, who returns to his village in Greece and explains to an octogenarian why he misses America; and so on. The lasting literary value of When Greek Meets Greek is evidenced by its having been reissued in 1970 in the Short Story Index Reprint Series. Demetrios effectively seeks humor, not social or historical significance, in his delightful limning of modern Greeks.
A resident of Atlanta, Cotsakis represents with distinction the women writers of Greek descent, even though her only publication has been the novel The Wing and the Thorn (1952). No other single piece of fiction contains so complete a record of Greek customs. Among much else in her ample novel, Cotsakis describes and explains the relevant symbolism of Greek Easter, name days, baptism, weddings, and funerals. A scholar can abstract from her story an authentic account of the ethnic rituals that assimilation threatens to erode or change. Cotsakis also details the issues that resulted in the founding (as it happened in Atlanta) and the growth of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA). She follows the fortunes of an immigrant, John Pantellis, who stubbornly retains and defends his “Greekness” against all American influences. He creates all kinds of difficulty and anguish for those nearest and dearest to him. Only when he visits Greece after World War II, a much older man, does he realize that he has been too boorish and parochial in his nationalism – and especially when he meets an “American” woman who speaks better Greek and knows much more about Greece than he does.
Whereas Vardoulakis writes about Cretan peasants turned mill workers and Demetrios deals with former Macedonians now living in New England, Ariadne Thompson in The Octagonal Heart (1956) records the life of a wealthy Greek family during and after World War I. In a vivid and evocative manner the author recreates her childhood spent at Parnassus, the family’s baronial estate in a suburb of Saint Louis. The patriarch of the house was the first Greek Orthodox bishop to be ordained in America; Thompson’s father was a successful businessman who was also the Greek consul. Her book chronicles a segment of Greek-American life far removed from that of the immigrant who arrived poor, illiterate, and alone. The main conflict concerns whether or not Aphrodite, a cousin, should be allowed to marry a nice non-Greek boy. The headstrong Aphrodite also wants to become a doctor, another unheard-of ambition for a Greek girl of the aristocracy. In the end Aphrodite wins on both counts, gaining a husband as well as a career. Unfortunately, the octagonal house burns down; a new house rises on the old ashes, but it can never take the place of the fondly remembered one that went up in flames.
Tom T. Chamales
The first novel by Chamales, Never So Few (1957), not only struck a strong popular chord but also introduced the Greek-American war hero to the reading public. Con Reynolds leads a band of about six hundred loyal Kachins behind Japanese lines. He is a foxy leader who, though greatly outnumbered, outwits the enemy. He has great understanding, patience, and courage. Con Reynolds is a thoroughly American Greek, a kind of Hemingway hero of Greek descent, fighting the Japanese in the Burmese jungle. He fulfills the requirements of the Hemingway code which includes drinking, loving, and facing danger with stoicism. The Kachins under his command get the perilous assignment of providing intelligence for General Stilwell’s offensive. After many battles and after two wounds in combat, Con Reynolds is killed by a booby trap in Rangoon.
The Greek hero for Chamales’ Go Naked in the World (1959) belongs to the rich and decadent North Shore above Chicago. Nick Stratton returns as a lost and bitter young war veteran to contest the wishes of his domineering father. Old Pete Stratton, the owner of a theater chain, pressures Nick to marry a girl named Pat Rakis so that the Stratton empire can acquire many theaters in the South. Instead, Nick falls in love with Nora, who is eventually revealed to him as Chicago’s highest-priced call girl. She also turns into a drug addict. Disheartened, Nick leaves home for a small island in the Florida Keys. There, completely alone, he begins to write a novel, which succeeds and opens up a new life for him. The accidental death of Tom T. Chamales, at thirty-six, deprived America of a writer who had only begun to realize his promise.
Doulis has written several books: Path for our Valor (1963), a novel about paratroopers in peacetime; The Quarries of Sicily (1969), another novel; George Theotokas (1975); Disaster and Fiction (1977); and A Surge to the Sea (1977); a study of Greek immigrants in Oregon. The setting for Path for Our Valor is Fort Mosby, Tennessee, home of the 43rd Airborne Division. What happens to Sergeant Gus Damianos is one of the three story lines that converge in this tale of a massive and dangerous maneuver called Operation Razor Blade. Damianos leads a jump to look over the Crossroads Drop Zone. The men respect him as a hardened veteran who knows and loves his work. Doulis rounds out Damianos’ character by describing his private problems, which centered on Sophie, who is pregnant with his child. Damianos feels bitter toward life, yet he survives and finds an identity and a freedom that he can live with – or at least he can continue to skydive after tragedy strikes others in the ill-fated Operation Razor Blade.
The Quarries of Sicily concerns a young American author Gordon Warrington, who has discovered and translated the works of Stamos Patrinos, a neglected Greek genius. As Patrinos condemns the disastrous Athenian invasion of Sicily, so Doulis by implication condemns the American involvement in Vietnam. A serious problem for Warrington arises over the motion picture to be based on Patrinos’ novel. Will it be a superficial and commercial film made by Gainsborough or a more honest effort directed by the Italian, Carlo Patriarchi? Complications lead to revelations about Patrinos’ past, and Warrington finds out why some powerful Greeks are content to let him remain unknown on the island of Chios. In the end, artistic integrity wins out over easy profit.
Athas’ several books include a vivid prose work, Greece by Prejudice (1962), and four novels, The Weather of the Heart (1947), The Fourth World (1956), Entering Ephesus (1971), and Cora (1978). Although it has no Greek characters, The Fourth World is a powerful story of life in a school for the blind. In Entering Ephesus a family with a Greek father goes from wealth in New England to relative poverty in the South. For more than a year, Pavlos Episcopoulos (changed to Bishop), has been in Ephesus, a university town in North Carolina. He raises tomatoes but without much success. When his wife Clara, a Mayflower descendant, arrives with his three daughters, they find P.Q., as he is nicknamed, renting a former funeral home in the heart of the black district. Perhaps the emotional high point in this book about maturation comes when the youngest girl, Sylvia, is run down and killed by a truck. The Bishops receive a check for $1,500, barely enough for the funeral. The final blow befalls them at the end when, unable to pay the rent for the decrepit mortuary, they must leave to start anew once more, this time in a tent on land they hope to own. The character of P.Q. is memorable. A Greek with a brilliant mind, he can readily allude to the classical philosophers but he is compelled by a sardonic fate to deliver laundered linen on a bike.
The literary career of Mountzoures began when he sold a story to the Atlantic Month. “The Buoy” from the Atlantic and twelve other stories appear in his collection, The Empire of Things (1968). Greek characters have significant roles in several stories. Philip Neros, the protagonist of Mountzoures’ first novel, The Bridge (1972), is five at the beginning of the novel and twenty-six at the end. Philip belongs to a large family, the depression lingers on, and times are hard. Their neighborhood is filled with other ethnic types: Syrians, Italians, Irish. The Greek customs that the Neros family observes are carefully described. During Philip’s long journey to manhood he learns to adjust to being both a Greek and an American. He goes to school, enters military service, and returns to a home tense with acrimony. The mother is apparently insane. The bridge symbolizes a conflict between the generations as well as the problems of growing up as a Greek in a non-Greek society. At twenty-six Philip must seriously examine himself to learn in what direction he wants to go.
After winning much acclaim as a film and stage director, Kazan wrote a novel, America America (1962). The story begins in 1896 with war impending between Greece and Turkey. An Anatolian Greek boy, Stavros Topouzoglou, suffers many reverses and works hard to reach America, the land of his dreams. After a massacre of Armenians, his father sends Stavros to Constantinople, with all their valuables, to secure a partnership with a supposedly rich cousin and then bring the rest of the family there for comparative safety. On the long pilgrimage Stavros is robbed by Abdul, the friendly thief, whom Stavros stabs to death. Only by becoming the lover of Madame Kebabian, the wife of a rich rug merchant, does he finally make it to Ellis Island. There he anglicizes his name to Joe Arness; he is soon happily at work shining shoes.
Kazan’s very successful second novel, The Arrangement (1967), dramatizes a crisis in the life of Eddie Anderson, an advertising executive whose real name is Evangelos Topouzoglou and who is a descendant of Joe Arness of America America. Eddie’s many extramarital affairs are meaningless because he loves none of his mistresses. He loves his wife, Florence, even though she has become sexually inadequate. Then Eddie meets Gwen, and his problems begin when he falls in love with her. His previous and precarious arrangement falls apart. Florence divorces him. Eddie finally ends up with a new arrangement, this time with Gwen, and not as an advertising executive but as a writer.
The author’s next two novels depart from Greek ethnicity and seek a wider relevance: The Assassins (1972) about the sickness and violence of our society; and The Understudy (1974), about the modern world of theater and film. Elia Kazan’s next work, Acts of Love (1978), is the only novel by a Greek American about the sponge colony of Tarpon Springs. One of its major characters, Costa Avaliotis, was once a famed sponge-boat captain, and the legendary sponge center serves as the setting for much of the plot. The main interest, however, concerns the wealthy and confused American girl Ethel Laffey. Although only twenty-two, she has already had many affairs in many places, and now, in search of stability, she marries Teddy Avaliotis, a young Greek navy man whose father, Costa, furiously objects. Ethel’s marital vows apparently mean nothing; she continues her affairs, claiming that she wavers between wanting discipline and craving freedom. Being terribly “wicked,” she even allows Costa to seduce her; then, to punish her treachery to his son, Costa chokes her to death. A plea of temporary insanity saves Costa. Teddy soon finds a new and more pliable girl to wed. All these events, even the murder of Ethel, are “acts of love.”
Charles E. Jarvis
The process of growing up as a Greek American dominates Jarvis’ Zeus Has Two Heads (1976). His hero is twelve-year old Socrates Genos, and the setting is Lowell, Massachusetts – called Cabot City in the novel. A good deal of Greek ethnicity permeates the story. The boy’s mother fears that he suffers from the evil eye, and Jarvis describes Mrs. Magisa’s method of exorcism. A Greek dunce in school is named Vlakas (fool). During the summer and fall of 1932, the presidential campaign stirs the people of Cabot City. That the Greeks believed Roosevelt would save them from further poverty indicates how strongly the ethnic enclaves supported him. Jarvis writes about the local Greek politicians and gamblers. The focus of the novel, however, is the Genos family and its many woes. The eldest son Leander dies from pneumonia. The poverty worsens. The Epilogue has Socrates wandering about the rainy city, wondering what will happen next.
In a second novel, The Tyrants (1977), Jarvis continues to write about the Greeks of Cabot City. Now the protagonist is the leading Greek-American politician, Peisistratus Zacharias. With his coffeehouse as a base, he builds an ethnic political machine that eventually shares some power with the Irish organization led by Jim Bailey. By handing out jobs and other favors Peisistratus survives for a quarter of a century. Through him and his Diogenes Democratic Club, the Greek immigrants and their offspring enter public life. The two novels by Jarvis constitute an interesting report on the ethnic and political life of an industrial New England city during the depression.
A relative newcomer among Greek-American authors is Nicholas Gage, whose latest novel, The Bourlotas Fortune (1975), explores the jet-set world of Greek ship owners. Gage was born in Greece in 1939, migrated to the United States, and eventually won recognition as a reporter for the New York Times. Attachment to his homeland resulted in Portrait of Greece (1971). Gage’s special knowledge of the underworld is reflected in three books: The Mafia Is Not an Equal Opportunity Employer (1971), Mafia, U.S.A. (1972), and a novel, Bones of Contention (1974). The two books about the mob are factual accounts based on Gage’s years of research and reportage. In Bones of Contention two young criminals seek to dispose of some stolen paintings while FBI agents concoct an ambitious plan to capture both the paintings and the thieves.
The Bourlotas Fortune deals with the shipping industry and its significant Greek component. Ethnic details add flavor and authenticity. Bourlotas (“fireship”) refers to an episode during the Greek Revolution. The Bourlotas saga begins on the island of Chios in the early nineteenth century and ends in the present, after Kosmas Bourlotas has built a rich empire. Gage shows how World War II and the Korean War elevated the Greek ship owners to positions of great wealth and power. The real rivalry between Onassis and Niarchos has a fictional parallel in the bitter contest between Bourlotas and Malitas. Gage looks closely into the private lives of his Greek tycoons, and what he reveals about greed and decadence does not always create a positive picture.
Harry Mark Petrakis
Of Greek-American novelists writing today, Petrakis is the most openly ethnic. His first novel, Lion at My Heart (1959), is set near the South Chicago steel mills. Like several other Greek stories, it exploits the generation gap between immigrants and their offspring. The lion of the title is Varinakis, a strong father whose son Mike works in the same steel mill. Mike wants to marry an Irish-American girl named Sheila Cleary. Such a wish constitutes a betrayal of country and of all traditions cherished by the parents. Objection to the marriage, however, means unwarranted interference in the son’s personal affairs. Here, in a free country, can we not be free to marry whom we please? A virulent hatred develops between the father, who loves his Greek heritage, and the son, who loves a girl who happens to be Irish. At the end there is no reconciliation.
The many Greek characters in Petrakis’ works run the gamut from good to evil; some are saints or heroes, other are devils, while not a few are fools and clowns. His second novel, The Odyssey of Kostas Volakis (1963), describes the coming to America of a Greek family and its troubles here. Kostas Volakis and his wife, Katerina, have three sons. One of them, Alex, feels that his father hates him, and this feeling of rejection leads to tragedy: he kills his younger brother Manuel, as Cain killed Abel. The novel concludes with the despairing father making a visit to the prison to see his lost son, a pilgrimage of sorrow he had once vowed never to make.
While composing his first two novels Petrakis kept selling short stories to magazines as different from one another as the Saturday Evening Post and Playboy. They are available in two highly praised collections: Pericles on 31st Street (1965) and The Waves of Night (1969). In the meantime he was also writing A Dream of Kings (1966), the story of a rather quixotic hero, Leonidas Matsoukas. Somewhat of a Zorba, Matsoukas is a fun-loving rogue with good intentions, great gusto, and a real love of life. He resorts to cunning when more laudable means fail. Often a loser, Matsoukas has an invalid son whom he wishes to take to Greece for treatment. Before he can leave, he makes love to a hot-blooded widow. He cheats at cards; he fights a Turk and must beg for his life. Petrakis enlarges Matsoukas into a quasi-epic or mock-epic figure. At the end, we pity him for his flaws.
Petrakis continued to enlarge characters and create modern myths when he wrote In the Land of Morning (1973). Alex Rifakis, the protagonist, bears a strong resemblance to Orestes of the Agamemnon. He returns from Vietnam, tired of death, only to find a trying situation at home. During his absence his father has died, broken-hearted after losing his grocery to Antonio Gallos in a game of chance. Gallos heads an underworld empire, the glittering heart of which is a nightclub called the Temple of Apollo. Asmene Rifakis, Alex’s mother, becomes the mistress of the rich gangster. Her daughter Eunice, like Electra, wants her wayward mother to be punished. Before the novel ends, Gallos lies dead at the hands of Zervas, an old friend of the Rifakis family. Alex leaves Chicago for the Southwest, where he hopes to build a new life.
In The Hour of the Bell (1976) Petrakis departs from Chicago’s Greek community and goes back to the Greek Revolution. He provides a panoramic view of the major events on both land and sea, from the autumn of 1820 through the following summer. The climax occurs at the Battle of Tripolitsa. Petrakis lists fifty-one principal characters, most of whom are Greek, although some are Turkish. Among the Greeks are some important clerics, from the levelheaded Bishop Germanos to the fanatic monk, Papalikos, who wants to kill all the Turks. Other Greeks are important sea captains, mountain chieftains, and assorted revolutionaries both historical and fictional. The real include the legendary Kolokotronis; the imaginary, the grizzled leader Vorogrivas and the heroic Captain Boukouvalas, who lives long enough to lead a crucial charge against the enemy. The House of the Bell begins a projected trilogy that will see the success of the revolution and the birth of modern Greece.
Other Greek-American Writers
At least eight additional authors should figure in any course on Greek-American literature, and Jim Dilles is such a writer. In The Good Thief (1959) he tells of a Greek family in California. Costa Desmas finds himself unemployed after a strike in his packing house. A crisis erupts when his twelve-year old son Stavro, aided by two friends, steals a steer and hides it in their cellar. Costa is arrested and he takes the blame on himself; eventually, however, he emerges as the hero. Another author, Thalia Selz, in “The Education of a Queen,” published in the Partisan Review, describes the coming to maturity of a sensitive girl with a Greek father and an American mother. The short novel was reprinted in The Best American Short Stories (1962), and in the following year it won an O. Henry award. Another writer whose works have a strong ethnic content is Dean Brelis, whose My New Found Land (1963), set in Newport, Rhode Island, has a Greek boy as protagonist. Dimitri suffers a crisis in loyalty toward his alcoholic father, John, but eventually he has a rebirth of faith in himself, his father, and people in general. George Christy in All I Could See from Where I Stood (1963) dramatizes both the humorous and the sad problems of a boy growing up as a Greek American in western Pennsylvania. Stephanos hates everything Greek. A Greek girl, Lekky, commits suicide because she cannot marry a non-Greek. In time Stephnos becomes somewhat less hostile toward his ethnic heritage.
Theodore Vrettos describes the Nazi occupation of Greece in Hammer on the Sea (1965). A nonfiction work by Vrettos, A Shadow of Magnitude (1974), recounts the acquisition of the Elgin marbles by England, at the expense of Greece. In his second novel, Origen (1978), the author re-creates the life and times of the early Christian period. The most ambitious piece of fiction by Konstantinos Lardas is Tree of Man (1968), a tribute to the author’s grandfather. With the planting of a victory garden as his central event, Lardas pens a lyrical memorial to his Greek family. George N. Rumanes sets The Man with the Black Worrybeads (1973) in the port city of Piraeus during the Nazi occupation. Two acts of sabotage organized by the hero, Petros, dominate the plot. In the first, three oil tankers are destroyed; in the second, an entire convoy. The climax occurs when, because of a misunderstanding, Petros is killed by his friend Nico. Athena G. Dallas-Damis in Island of the Winds (1976) describes the Chios of 1822 and the Turkish massacre of its inhabitants. The action also involves the tribulations of a Greek woman, Helena, and the fate of her twin sons. Dallas-Damis has written a second historical novel, Windswept (1979). She has translated The Fratricides and three plays by Nikos Kazantzakis.
The major immigrant and ethnic themes either stated or implied in the foregoing accounts may be summarized as the social conditions in the donor country (Greece); a definition of the American dream and its effect on the immigrant; the archetypal odyssey, the journey to the promised land; the attitudes of the receiving community; alienation, the “suspended souls,” the pull from two cultures; the ethnic enclave, Greek Town; the novel as study in class mobility, the transition from peasant to industrial worker to entrepreneur; the establishment of roots in a strange environment; the process of Americanization; the ethnic backward glance, nostalgia for the lost homeland; the aesthetic use of the Greek heritage, from myth to Zorba to gyros; the fear of defeat and failure, the failed immigrant; the clash between first and second generation over degree of ethnic compromise, choice of occupation, education, and marriage; ethnic humor; inherited superstitions; the role of religion and the church; psychological problems that result from alienation and related causes; the changing role of Greek women, their new opportunities; the results of financial success on morality; the formal and aesthetic use of Greek ethnicity in plot, characterization, tone, thematic unity, and emotional effect.
Enough works by Greek Americans are available in both paperback and hardcover to serve as texts for either a quarter or a semester course. Much material that is not in print may be found in any sizable library. The rare volumes may usually be secured through inter-library loan. Students who know modern Greek can study authors such as Koutoumanos, Papazoglou-Margaris, and Decavalles, who write primarily in Greek. Because most of the works cited are written in English, however, the instructor should have no problem acquiring relevant material.
The works of three of the best poets of Greek descent are available in paperback editions: Byron Vazakas’ Equal Tribunals, The Marble Manifesto, and Nostalgias for a House of Cards (reissued as Poems of Byron Vazakas); Evans Chigounis’ Secret Lives; and Olga Broumas’ Beginning with O. Most of the poems are not particularly ethnic but they represent a literary contribution by an ethnic minority.
The fiction still in print in paperback allows for a wider range of study in terms of both form and content. The five novels by Elia Kazan lead the list: America America, The Arrangement, The Assassins, The Understudy, and Acts of Love. A paperback edition of Harry Mark Petrakis’ A Dream of Kings was published, but is no longer in print. The recent A Petrakis Reader issued by Doubleday is very useful, however, especially since the author uses Greek characters almost exclusively. Other novelists in paperback are Tom T. Chamales, Never So Few; George N. Rumanes, The Man with the Black Worrybeads; Athena G. Dallas-Damis, Island of the Winds; and Charles E. Jarvis, Zeus Has Two Heads and The Tyrants
Should they be needed as texts, the following hardcover works by Greek Americans may also be assigned: A.I. Bezzerides, Thieves’ Market, recently reprinted; George Demetrios, When Greek Meets Greek; Nicholas Gage, The Bouyrlotas Fortune; Harry Mark Petrakis, The Hour of the Bell; Theodore Vrettos, Origen; and Daphne Athas, Cora, a new novel about a Greek American searching for his ideal girl. No doubt as interest in ethnic studies grows, more of the older and rarer works cited here will be reprinted to meet the demand.
Among useful secondary sources are the following: Thomas Burgess, Greeks in America (Boston: Sherman, French, 1913); Henry Pratt Fairchild, Greek Immigration to the United States (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1911); Alexander Karanikas, Hellenes and Hellions: Modern Greek Characters in American Literature, 1825-1975 (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1981); Stephen A. Larrabee, Hellas Observed (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1957); Wayne Charles Miller, ed., A Comprehensive Bibliography for the Study of American Minorities (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1976); Charles C. Moskos, Jr., Greek Americans: Struggle and Success (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980); Alexander Papas and M. Byron Raizis, American Poets and the Greek Revolution (1821-1828) (Thessaloniki: Inst. For Balkan Studies, 1971); and Theodore Saloutos, The Greeks in the United States (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1964).