From Peddlers to Bankers: The Greeks in American Fiction

Text of a lecture given at Lincoln Land Community
College, Springfield, Illinois. Sponsored by the
college and the Greek American Community Services,
funded by the Illinois Humanities Council, the
National Endowment for the Arts, and the Illinois
General Assembly.

By Alexander Karanikas,
Professor of English Emeritus
University of Illinois at Chicago

My subject will be the way Greek characters by occupation—the work they do—have been used in American fiction, with particular emphasis on novels and stories set in Illinois. It was interesting for me that at least ninety novels employ modern Greeks whose jobs contribute meaningfully to the plot. Most of them are written by non-Greek authors. As Professor Charles Moskos of Northwestern notes in his book Struggle and Success, the Greek Americans are a relatively small ethnic minority, but our economic and social success far exceeds our numbers.

My interest in fictional Greek characters began in the early Seventies when the Italian Americans managed to drive the TV program The Untouchables off the air, on grounds that it created negative stereotypes about them. Italians were too often pictured as gangsters, the bad guys. I wondered if our novels had created negative stereotypes about Greeks—especially since I had felt considerable bigotry growing up in a small town in New Hampshire. I never dreamed that from my initial curiosity would result a 550-page book, Hellenes and Hellions, published by the University of Illinois Press.

I am grateful to the Greek American Community Services of Chicago and Illinois for making it possible for me to share some of my findings with you.

For example, the ninety-two relevant novels and stories can be separated into the following eighteen categories. Nine of the works depict Greek Americans who are street peddlers or owners of small fruit, candy, and flower shops. Two, with shoeshine boys. Seven, with gamblers and gangsters. Seven, with factory workers. Six,

Nine of the works depict Greek Americans who are street peddlers or owners of small fruit, candy, and flower shops. Two, with shoeshine boys. Seven, with gamblers and gangsters. Seven, with factory workers. Six, with entertainers. Two, with detectives (and several with Greeks as murder victims). Four, with spongers at Tarpon Springs. Four novels, with students and two with teachers. Six, with soldiers and sailors. Three, with returned and troubled veterans. Six, with Greek priests. Three, with doctors and lawyers. Three, with big businessmen. Two, with theater magnates. Sixteen, with restaurant owners—the largest category. Two, with very rich tycoons, developers and shipowners. And eight, miscellaneous.

with entertainers. Two, with detectives (and several with Greeks as murder victims). Four, with spongers at Tarpon Springs. Four novels, with students and two with teachers. Six, with soldiers and sailors. Three, with returned and troubled veterans. Six, with Greek priests. Three, with doctors and lawyers. Three, with big businessmen. Two, with theater magnates. Sixteen, with restaurant owners—the largest category. Two, with very rich tycoons, developers and shipowners. And eight, miscellaneous.

Needless to say, I cannot comment on all these examples of our ethnic presence in American fiction. What I’d like to do is briefly examine one or more from each category that together create a composite picture of who we Greeks are and what we’ve done for a living. The fiction is only a small part of the reality—but these many novels give their non-Greek readers an image of us which they might not otherwise have. Novels about other ethnic minorities in America do the same for them.

Back in 1912 an author named Jeannette Lee wrote Mr. Achilles, a novel about a Greek immigrant who owned a fruit stall on Clark Street in Chicago. Achilles Alexandrakis, a proud Greek, wondered why nobody had asked him about Greece, the glorious country of his origin. One day he noticed that one of his customers, a young girl, was ushered into a car by two strange men. Next day, the paper headlined the kidnapping of a child whose wealthy parents lived on Lake Shaoe Drive. From the photo Achilles recognized the young girl from the day before. He called the police. From his description they found the car, the girl, and the men. Her parents were so grateful they invited him to their mansion. There, before a group of prominent Chicagoans, Achilles in his broken English lectured on his beloved Greece. The novel shows a very favorable attitude about Greeks when many bigots were calling us nasty names.

Two other Chicago street peddlers appear in stories by Theano Papazoglou-Margaris. A man named Agathopoulos in “A Mother’s Letter” and a Greek woman as a hotdog vendor in “The Other Eugenia.” Most of this author’s prolific work is set in Chicago and depicts the toils and tears of the immigrant.

In a story titled “The Shearing of Samson,” also set in Chicago, Harry Mark Petrakis writes about a tough Greek produce man, Samson Leventis, who is subdued by a beautiful woman much as the biblical Samson was subdued by Delilah. Leaving Chicago, we find fruit and produce men in books set in New England, New York, the South, and as far west as San Francisco. In fact, the only geographic limits on novels that include Greek Americans are the Southwest (only one, in New Mexico) and the Northwest. That is, to my knowledge. Every other region is represented. Because of authors such as Tom T. Chamales, Petrakis, and Papazoglou-Margaris, Chicago and thus Illinois are especially well reflected.

The novel Eternal Greece, set in New England, shows the progress of the Sarres brothers, Spyro and Joannes. They begin with a modest fruit store and end up with a big prosperous restaurant. A similar upward mobility is the happy fate of John Pantellis in the fine novel, The Wing and the Thorn, set in the South and written by Roxanne Cotsakis. The author carefully explains our more important ethnic customs and rituals, in addition to dramatizing the ups and downs of her overly Greek hero. John begins with a fruit and vegetable stand, then gets very rich in the insurance business. His friend George owns the largest florist shop in Auburn. These Greeks speak Greek with a Southern accent.

The novel that best describes how the American Dream reaches into the donor country, to lure immigrants here, is America America by Elia Kazan. After many tribulations that begin deep in Anatolia, his hero Starvos makes it to New York where he begins his new life as a shoeshine boy, with a new name, Joe Arness. A later novel by Kazan called The Anatolian shows the boy growing up, making and losing fortunes, a millionaire, yet debauched and degenerate because the dream has never risen above sheer greed, sensuality, and self-indulgence.

There’s very little upward mobility, only survival, in Thieves Market, a novel about violence and corruption in the San Francisco produce market, written by A.I. Bezzerides. Nick Garcos is the young and rather naïve Greek who goes off to the farms in his rickety truck, buys produce, and brings it back to the rough and tumble market. To survive, he has to fight those who try to cheat him. In another story by Papazoglou-Margaris, “Refuse,” a Greek woman named Bessie has to assume the running of a grocery store because she has a worthless husband.

The novel that best describes how the American Dream reaches into the donor country, to lure immigrants here, is America America by Elia Kazan. After many tribulations that begin deep in Anatolia, his hero Starvos makes it to New York where he begins his new life as a shoeshine boy, with a new name, Joe Arness. A later novel by Kazan called The Anatolian shows the boy growing up, making and losing fortunes, a millionaire, yet debauched and degenerate because the dream has never risen above sheer greed, sensuality, and self-indulgence.

We Greeks are famous for many things including the sport, skill, or disease if you will, of gambling. I cannot call it a stereotype because no one claims that most of us are infected. It’s not an ethnic trait. However, it’s Nick the Greek and Jimmy the Greek, not Stan the Pole, Max the Jew, who are closely identified with gambling. Here’s a quick rundown of fictional Greek gamblers and gangsters. Falconis, in Chicago, owns a bookie joint in Petrakis’ A Dream of Kings while Gallos owns the Temple of Apollo, a gambling casino in In the Land of Morning. Petrakis’ autobiography, Stelmark, reveals that he was a compulsive gambler in his youth.

To continue. A character named Takis is a mobster in Nicholas Gage’s book about the Mafia, Bones of Contention. Someone identified only as “The Greek” is a loan shark for the mob in The Diggers Game. Another novel set in Chicago, City Dogs, has in it Gus Koutsos, a paunchy middle-aged Greek suspected of being a kingpin of vice and petty crimes. Koutsos was first arrested for torching a restaurant in Greek Town. Nick the Greek, of course, was a real person. Cy Rice wrote a biography that he called Nick the Greek and Petrakis fictionalized his legendary life in a novel of the same title. The sad thing about Nicholas Andrea Dandolos, also a Cretan like Petrakis, is that he won and lost nearly half a billion dollars – only to die broke, pathetic, and alone. When he had plenty of money he had plenty of friends. What he had going for him at the end was a legend that will never die.

The first novel by a Greek about Greek immigrants, Gold in the Streets (1945) by Mary Vardoulakis, was also about textile mill workers in Chicopee, Massachusetts. The two big events in the story were ethnic conflict with Polish workers and the eventual coming from Crete of Nina, to be the happy bride of the hero, George Vardas. Later novels also depict working class types. Costa Desmas is a packinghouse worker in The Good Thief, set in California. Some unusual events make it possible for Costa to bring a bitter strike to a positive conclusion. In A Tear for Uncle Jimmy, by Papazoglou-Margaris, the hero leads a strike of restaurant workers.

A Tree of Life, by Konstantinos Lardas, describes his family business: painting bridges in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio. In time the very difficult work weakened and wore out Nikola, his papou. Harry Mark Petrakis deserves credit for making the fullest use of proletarians as characters in his fiction. Days of Vengeance dramatizes the violence and other hardships faced by the early Greek immigrants in the mines of Utah. For us in Illinois, Lion at My Heart by Petrakis may hold the most interest. Angelo Varinakis works in a South Chicago steel mill. He feels as powerful as Joe Magarac, the mythical man of steel. Yet he faces an insoluble domestic problem. His son Mike has fallen in love with an Irish girl, Sheila Clearly; and he marries her despite his father’s extreme displeasure. The novel is an excellent example of conflict between first and second generation Greek Americans.

When it comes to fictional Greeks as entertainers, it used to amuse my audiences that Jack London, in “The Scorn of Women,” written in 1901, depicted a Greek belly dancer in the Klondike during the Gold Rush. Freda Maloof played a leading role in preventing a man from unjustly treating another woman. Had Freda been based on a real woman, she might have come up from San Francisco where Jack London had Greek friends. Or she may have been brought to Dawson by another Greek, Alexander Pantages, later to become a theater tycoon. Pantages organized entertainments for the miners.

In Sterling North’s book Seven Against the Years, he uses the fictional name Demetrios Dardanus to stand for the real Nicholas John Matsoukas. He organized “Greek Day” at the Chicago World’s Fair, 1933, but a strong wind and rain wrecked his classical Greek floats and dispersed his pageant. Daphne Callistos, doomed to destroy herself, sings folk songs and wild laments in a Chicago night club. She’s in a story by Petrakis, who has a character say that Daphne “has come from disaster and is on her way to catastrophe.”

However, it’s wrestlers who seem to dominate among fictional Greek entertainers. Indeed, I grew up proudly admiring the famous wrestler Jimmy Londos, world champion who defeated ferocious rivals such as Strangler Lewis. I remember the huge life-size posters that advertised his bouts. In fiction Thomas Wolfe mentions, in The Web and the Rock, a wrestler called the Masked Marvel. Actually, this terrifying ogre is the mild-mannered cook in the local Greek restaurant. Leonidas is a wrestler in George Demetrius’ fine book When Greek Meets Greek, and the character Pallas, also a wrestler, may be found in Zeus Has Two Heads by Charles Jarvis.

Greeks as detectives, teachers, doctors, and lawyers make up relatively small categories. It’s interesting to note that Nick Charles, married to Nora, is a Greek in Dashell Hammett’s The Thin Man. Played by William Powell in the movies, Charles is a smooth, suave detective and not at all like the tough and sardonic Kojak, who appears, besides on TV, in a novel entitled Siege. In my generation Londos topped our list of heroes.

As for teachers, Michael Rossi is a Greek in Peyton Place, the popular novel by Grace Metalious. Christopher Pappas teaches history in another one of her novels, The Tight White Collar. In real life the author was married to a teacher who was Greek. The only fictional doctor of Greek descent, Stenopoulos, is an obstetrician in Red Sky at Morning. His son is popular with other little boys because he shows them his father’s medical book, with pictures of pregnant women and explanations about babies. With regard to lawyers, K.C. Constantine uses the alcoholic but brilliant Moe Valcanas to help solve murders in a series of novels. In Thalia Cheronis Selz’s The Education of a Queen, the heroine’s father is a lawyer. In real life, the author’s father was a chemist, Doc Cheronis, who for many years taught at Wright Junior College, of the City Colleges of Chicago. He later chaired the Chemistry Department at Brooklyn College.

At least three novels and two movies have been produced about the sponge divers of Tarpon Springs. Elia Kazan in 1948 directed a film about them for Twentieth Century Fox entitled Sixteen Fathoms Down. Hollywood later issued Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef, written by A.I. Bezzerides, that dramatized the rivalry for love and sponges among the Greek divers. Kazan devoted a section of his novel Acts of Love to bring his troubled hero to Tarpon Springs. However, the widest treatment of the spongers exists in these three novels: Full Fathom Five (1948) by Ahmad Kamal; The Islanders (1951) by the poet Joseph Auslander and Audrey Wurdeman, a valuable study of the whole industry; and Bazzaris (1965) by Don Tracy. The sponging business suffered a catastrophe in the Forties when a mysterious blight destroyed the sponge beds. The spongers came originally mostly from the Dodecanese Islands. In Bazzaris a young sponger, Pete Gerard (Giranopoulos), betrays his heritage, abandons his family, leaves his wife for a movie actress, and becomes a tycoon in Florida land development—but has to return home for a funeral, and to pay for his past mistakes. From these novels we see the old Tarpon Springs as a proud, isolated Greek community, adhering very strictly to codes of honor and tribal customs. The reality, of course, has changed. Synthetic sponges have taken over. For many years the signs at Tarpon Springs have said: “Tourists welcome!”

Since being a student is also an occupation, we can mention four interesting works beginning with The Octagonal Heart by Ariadne Thompson. The author’s father not only owned a very lucrative awning business in St. Louis, but he also served there as the Greek consul. Her maiden name was Pasmezoglou. In the 1880s her maternal grandfather, a priest, was sent from Athens to found a Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago. In her novel the main conflict, a generation gap, erupts between the Greek mother and her daughter, Aphrodite. Already in college, Aphrodite fights to attend medical school, then fights again to marry a non-Greek fellow student with whom she has fallen in love. She may well be the earliest “liberated” Greek woman in American literature. She fights and she wins.

Electra in George Christy’s All I Could See from Where I Stood is not as lucky as Aphrodite. She, too, falls in love with a non-Greek, a Viennese intern in Pittsburgh; but she will not marry him lest she break her mother’s heart. Although twenty-six, Electra does not rebel against her mother to follow her heart’s desire. Instead, she accedes to the role of the good Greek girl who can date only the right Greek man. In the end, sadly, she commits suicide, killed by her ethnicity.

Much more fortunate is Miri, in Miri, Peter Sourian’s novel. She goes to college in Boston. A war orphan, she lives in New York with Uncle Alex who owns several merchant ships. Nothing is settled yet, but if she decides to marry Josh Bigelow, nobody will object because of his being non-Greek.

The most intriguing student is the wild, hippie-type character of Gnossos Papadopoulos in Richard Farina’s bizarre novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. Just as Jay Gatsby revealed a truth about the Twenties and Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath of the Thirties, so Gnossos stands for the Sixties and its varied alienations. He is a shaggy-haired, pot-puffing product of the Great Society, an amoral collegiate hipster who loathes convention, lusts for kicks, and is determined, above all else, never to lose his cool. The book’s blurb lists mescaline trips, campus riots, sacrilegious rites, the New Left, and sex. Also present is humor, insight, bravado, a style of writing bordering on Shandyism, and satire. Gnossos is a modern Odysseus, a “furry Pooh Bear,” as Farina calls him—but also shades of Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, shades of Huck Finn, shades of plain hobo, yet all of these with a fundamental difference: Gnossos, despite his style, pursues an Ivy League degree. By now,in the Eighties, he’s probably a rich stock broker on Wall Street.

The war hero and the returning veteran, broken in both spirit and body, and facing grave problems, have been archetypes in world literature since the days of Homer and Aeschylus. Six novels have Greek American protagonists who continue the tradition. Three of them are set in Chicago. Con Reynolds in Chamales’ Never So Few leads a band of guerillas behind enemy lines in Burma during the Second World War. He typifies the amoral and unfeeling militarist who’s willing to torture the enemy if torture can hasten the victory. Much as Truman used the atom bomb on children to hasten the defeat of Japan. After many heroic deeds in the jungle, Con Reynolds is killed by a sniper’s bullet in Rangoon.

Danny Kantaylis in Anton Myrer’s The Big War is a battle-scarred veteran of Guadalcanal who refuses to go on a bond tour, safe duty, so that he can return to combat. War is cruddy, he thinks, and we must kill and kill to finish the rotten business as soon as possible. He spends time in the brig because he goes AWOL to marry the girl he made pregnant. The scene shifts from Massachusetts to the Pacific where the Marines invade an island held by the Japanese. In the course of the battle Danny Kantaylis blows up an enemy tank and mortally wounds himself. A friend looks at the body and thinks: 𠇊 face strangely wizened: gray and shrunken and old.” The face of a hero. The war goes on.

Gus Damianos is a paratrooper in Thomas Doulis’ Path for Our Valor, while in Three Cheers for War in General, a satire, Major Marjorie Stavropoulos strives to make Colonel by, so to speak, making out with Colonels.

Two returned war veterans energize the plots of two interesting novels, both of them set in Chicago. Go Naked in the World by Tom Chamales dramatizes the homecoming of Nick Straton, disoriented and unhappy, whose powerful father Old Pete owns a string of theaters. Pete wants Nick to marry Pat Rakis, whose father owns theaters in the South, so that Pete can extend his empire through the marriage. Rebelling, wanting his own identity, Nick falls in love with a girl named Nora who turns out to be one of Chicago’s highest paid call girls. His father has known her through the usual business arrangement. Escaping, Nick Stratton goes to the Florida Keys where he writes a successful novel, and meets a new girl with whom he falls in love and eventually marries.

The biggest trauma faced by any fictional Greek veteran was that of Alex Rifakis in Petrakis’ In the Land of Morning. Petrakis has adapted several classical stories by giving them contemporary characters, settings, and slightly altered plot. Alex Rifakis is much like Orestes who arrives from the Trojan War to find that he has to revenge his father Agamemnon’s murder. Alex returns from Vietnam to find his father dead and his mother the willing mistress of the gangster who’s responsible for his death. At the end the plot departs from that of the Oresteia. Someone else and not Alex kills Gallos.

The priests who play an important role in Greek Town, USA, also appear in our fiction. When Aphrodite in The Octagonal Heart fights to attend medical school, it is the visiting Metropolitan of Athens who persuades her parents that her desire has great merit. Father Ioannis in Bazzaris, one of the novels about Tarpon Springs, calls Pete Gerard a satanas, a Satan, for breaking his marriage vows when he runs off with a movie starlet. Roxenne Cotsakis in The Wing and the Thorn describes the duties of the priest in sacraments like marriage and holidays like Easter.

In My New Found Land, by Dean Brelis, Father George loses his church when declared to be incompetent. Harry Mark Petrakis, whose father was a priest, depicts at least five priests in as many stories. They usually serve as mediators to help resolve domestic conflicts. For example, Father Kontogiannis in Lion at My Heart tries to convince Angelo Varinakis that it’s no tragedy if his son Mike marries the Irish girl. Father Naoum consuls the troubled veteran Alex Rifakis in In the Land of Morning. And in The Waves of Night, Petrakis shows how overworked, over-tired, and under-appreciated a dedicated Greek Orthodox priest can be.

We all know the saying, “When Greek meets Greek, they start a restaurant.” That may well be the area in which Greek Americans in the greatest numbers have experienced the greatest upward mobility. In the fiction as well, they form the largest category among occupations, sixteen literary works. There could be more. I can mention only a few.

In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a woman named Myrtle Wilson is killed by a car driven by Daisy Buchanan. The hit-and-run accident is witnessed by a young Greek, Mavromichaelis, who owns a nearby roadside diner. In Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, set in North Carolina, Papadopoulos owns the Bijou Café for Ladies and Gents. A town in neighboring Tennessee is where Robert Penn Warren’s The Cave has Nick Pappy running Ye Olde Southern Mansion Café. Nick is a sport who drives a flashy white Cadillac. When a local man is trapped in a deep cave, Nick Pappy provides the food and refreshments for the large crowds that will gather to watch the rescue. He refuses to go along with the conspiracy to let the man die in order to prolong the exploitation of the event

Nick Papadakis, honest but naïve, owns a greasy spoon in Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. His sleazy wife and a drifter named Chambers team up to murder Papadakis for his life insurance. However, at the end the tables turn on Chambers and he fries, if you pardon the expression, for his crime in the electric chair.

Someone called just “The Greek” owns a bakery in San Francisco Adventure. Pericles is a pastry cook in Boston in When Greek Meets Greek. Alex owns an all night diner in Last Exit to Brooklyn. Polk Siniakides is a cook and an avowed Communist in Farewell My Son, set in New York. Lou Duck is a rich and unsavory restaurateur in Chamales’ Go Naked in the World. He and other characters were allegedly thinly disguised real persons that the author wanted to deride. It is Petrakis, of all the relevant authors, who utilized the most restaurant owners. He has six or more who own restaurants and three voluptuous widows, Aphrodite, Anthoula, and Delilah, who own bakeries. All of them are objects of desire.

Among tycoons of enormous wealth, the Greek shipowner has become a stock character in fiction. However, very few live in America and none, to my knowledge, live in Illinois. Some of the jet-setters moved to New York, as Nicholas Gage relates in The Bourlotas Fortune. An extremely rich Greek as murder victim is Nikos Karados in Girl Watchers Funeral. The book states, “Possessing a fortune astronomical even for a Greek tycoon, he was noted for his generosity as well as for his ruthlessness.” Karados was murdered in New York’s plush Hotel Beaumont.

Finally, with respect to miscellaneous occupations, George Knalkis is a wealthy art dealer in Ellery Queen’s The Greek Coffin Mystery. Spiro T. Agnew is a latent fascist President of the United States in Get These Men Out of the Hot Sun. Mr. Kotopoulos is a chicken dealer in Zeus Has Two Heads. Eli Chaconas is a Hollywood screenwriter in The Squirrel Cage. Nick Kolassi is a stonemason in The Devil in Bucks County. Louis Doxiades is a union leader in Pairing Off. Boros Niforos provides helium balloons in Cedarhurst Alley to stop airplanes from landing at Kennedy Airport on Long Island. And Stratis Zacharias in The Tyrants, by Charles Jarvis, sets up the Diogenes Democratic Club in Lowell, Massachusetts, to deliver the Greek vote on election day. This was back in the Thirties. The Greeks of Massachusetts have done a good job of delivering the vote ever since.

When I began researching the presence of modern Greek characters in our fiction, I had no idea the result would be a book of 550 pages. There are many separate lectures that could be derived from such a mass of material. Last June, for example, I had the happy experience of speaking in Athens, Greece, on the subject “The Aegean World in American Literature,” based on the fact that at least thirty-three or our authors have used that region as a setting for their novels. Today’s talk may have included a lot of titles and names, but it was only a brief and panoramic view of fictional Greek characters chosen for their type of work. They range in Chicago, for instance, from humble factory workers to rich theater magnates. There is a large and dynamic Greek American community in Illinois. As we have seen, it is amply and realistically reflected in our imaginative literature.