|Greece Through America's Eyes 1820-1840
Text of a talk delivered at the "Celebration of March 25, Greek Independence Day" at the Chicago Hilton and Towers on March 21, 1993. Sponsored by KRIKOS, the Greek American Community Services, The Hellenic Cultural Organization, the Hellenic Professional Society of Illinois, the Greek Town Association, the Kalavrita Foundation, and ENOSIS.
By Alexander Karanikas
Professor of English Emeritus University of Illinois at Chicago
The effect of every great revolution lives on in the history books, in the novels, plays, and poems, in the songs, in the legends of the heroes, in the church, in the government and other institutions born in the struggle, in the memorials and celebrations that continue from year to year.
So today, in gratitude and pride, we reach out in remembrance to our brave forefathers who fought for eight long years against the powerful Ottoman Empire and whose blood restored an independent Greece.
So also, today, we recall with thanks that many Americans of the time strongly suppprted the Greek cause. They saw the Greeks as followers of their own example set back in 1776.
This support began long before the revolution broke out in 1821. Thomas Jefferson favored a free Greece in the name of natural rights. While Minister to France from 1784 to 1789, he befriended various important Greeks in Paris including Adamantios lyorais and John Paradise, and he made known to them his libertarian views.
The first American novel to call for a free Greece was "Modern Chivalry", 1792, written by Hugh Henry Breckenridge. The hero of the book, Captain Farrago, invokes Greece before a company of militiamen: "O Poetic and philosophic country, where my mind ranges every day; whence I draw my best thoughts; where I converse with the schools of wise men, and solace myself with the company of heroes, thou art lost in servitude, and great must be the revolution which can extricate thee thence."
Early American travelers to Greece, like Joseph Smith and Nicholas Biddle, expressed a similar view. In 1806 Biddle wrote:
The soil of Greece is sacred to genius and to letters. The ancient race has long disappeared. But the sod under which they repose, the air which listened to their poetry and their eloquence, the hills which saw their valor are still the same.
In England three years later, 1809, Lord Byron first raised his voice, to say that the Greeks must free themselves.
After the Napoleonic Wars ended, in 1815, more American travelers felt free to visit Europe, including Greece. Among them was Edward Everett whose Master of Arts oration at Harvard, in 1814, was on the subject "The Restoration of Greece." He was the same Everett who spoke with Lincoln at Gettysburg. He represented those Philhellenes who wondered how much the modem Greeks resembled the immortal ancients who built the Parthenon. Other pilgrims to Greece before the revolution went as missionaries hoping to convert the Orthodox to Protestantism - perhaps forgetting that for 400 years the Turks had failed in a similar effort to convert. Still the missionaries helped the Greek people.
Other travelers from America went to the region for commerce and industry. They tended to prefer the rich Turks to the impoverished Greeks. We may recall Thoreau's statement that we favor that institution which makes us rich. The Ottomans helped to make them rich.
The Greek Revolution began during the presidency of James Monroe. In his message to Congress on December 3, 1822, he expressed a "strong hope" for Greece, a sentiment that rapidly spread to become what is known in our history as the "Greek Fever." This was the period when new towns in various places were given Greek names, like Athens and Macdeonia, Ohio, and Ipsilanti, Michigan. A hamlet in upstate New York topk the name of "Greece." If you wish to visit Greece, go to New York State!
The earliest American play about revolutionary Greece was "The Grecian Captive, qr the Fall of Athens", by a Jewish author, Mordecai Noah. It was performed at the New York Theatre in 1822. The next year appeared "Ali Pacha, or The Signet Ring", by a more famous playwright, John Howard Payne. In both melodramas the fierce Ali holds Greek girls prisoner - the damsel in distress - and both girls are sought by their lovers. What Captain Farrago had hoped for in Brackenridge's "Modern Chivalry", the freedom of Athens, Noah dramatizes as having occurred when one of his characters declaims:
Behold a glorious termination to all our painful struggles! Greece is free! The land of the great, the home of the brave. The queen of the Arts has broken the bonds of tyranny and slavery - and a glorious day succeeds to a long night of peril and calamity. Now to merit freedom by the establishment of just laws - a free and benevolent spirit to all.
The first fictional American to visit Greece - in a novel - appeared in 1825 in William S. Cardell's "Story of Jack Halyard, the Sailor Boy; or, The Virtuous Famil^^During the rest of the nineteenth century Jack Halyard became the symbol or archetype of the American sailor. While in Greece Jack explores the island of Poros and visits a Greek home where he learns about modern Greeks.
Some Americans, in response to the "Greek Fever", went to Greece to help fight against the Turks. George Jarvis, son of a New York merchant, went there in 1822, volunteered, rose to become Adjutant General and head of fortifications for Byron's brigade, wrote much in praise of the Greeks, fought in many battles, and died at Argos on August 11, 1828.
Another young American who fought in Greece was Jonathan Miller of Vermont. In July 1824, the Boston Greek Committee accepted his application to go to Greece. Boston, New York, and other big cities had committees gathering money, supplies, and offering political support for Greece. As aide-de-camp for General Jarvis, Miller was in the thick of things and wrote articles that were published and widely read in America. He saw action near Nafplion where he met the most famous of American volunteers, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe. In one of his dispatches home Miller wrote:
The (Greek) peasantry are virtuous and modest, the merchants cunning, deceitful, and intriguing, the soldiers brave, patient, and strongly attached to liberty.. .The Greek women are modest, handsome and virtuous. I have fared like a Greek, and with the Greeks I am willing to suffer for the cause of religion and freedom. Call me in America a crusader, or what you will, my life is devoted to the overturning of the Turkish Empire. God is on the side of the Greeks.
Both Jarvis and Miller called for American doctors to go to Greece and offer their services. Even before these and other pleas, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, fresh out of Harvard, had decided to go. Once there, Howe kept a record of his experiences, which in 1828 took the form of a book, "An Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution." At the end of October 1826, Howe received an appointment as Director of the Medical Department of the Greek fleet. During his service as chief surgeon with the fleet Howe was under fire several times in the actions undertaken in 1827 to break the siege of Athens. Other Americans fought in Greece and many more back home kept up the "Greek Fever" of support for the war of independence.
Among the most vocal, eloquent, and effective were American poets and journalists. The poets here were especially influenced by the example of Lord Byron who wrote, fought, and died for Greece. Professors Raizis and Papas have recorded their poems in a fine book, "American Poets and the Greek Revolution, A Study in Byronic Philhellenism." The authors write:
The glorification of the Greek War of Independence in America belongs mainly to the pen of her... poets. During the long and hard years (the poet) tried to record every phase of that struggle, any moment of heroism and self-sacrifice; with his pen, he followed the Greek people in their sufferings and privations; he rejoiced whenever they rejoiced at their victories and he was the first to glorify their successes and resound them throughout America; whenever they shed tears over the dead bodies of their heroes, he was the first to share their mourning. In a sense, the American poet fought for the Greeks with his pen; through his spirited and rousing lines.. .through animated addresses, he expressed his unreserved enthusiasm and strong sympathy for the Greek patriots and offered Greece the best moral support that his country could offer.
In "The Vision of Liberty" James Percival wrote:
Oh Greece, reviving Greece! Thy name Kindles the scholar's and the patriot's flame... And is there none to arm in thy defense? No ardent, generous, devoted youth,
To pledge his fortunes, and his truth,
And, nobly exiled, cross the wave, To join the oppressed and aid the b^ave? Go forth, if such there be, go forth; Stand by that nation in her second birth.
Perhaps the greatest and most influential of the philhellenic poets was William Cullen Bryant. His first spirited speech for Greece was delivered on December 23, 1823. He said about the Greeks:
Nothing ignoble or worthless can spring from so generous a stock. It was in Greece that civilization had its origin... It was there that poetry, sculpture, all the great arts of life, were invented or perfected, and first delivered down to succeeding generations. Greece was the real cradle of liberty in which the earliest republics were rocked. We are the pupils of her great men, in all the principles of science, of morals, and of good government.
Among Bryant's Greek poems were "The Massacre of Chios", "The Song of the Greek Amazons", "The Grecian Partisan", "The Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus", and "The Greek Boy". His poem on the tragedy of Chios, which took 70,000 Greek lives,, was almost a poetic prediction.
Though high the warm red torrent ran Between the flames that lit the sky, Yet, for each drop, an armed man Shall rise, to free the land, or die.
With his poetry and speeches on Greece and his imposing and influential personality as a public figure, Bryant did more than any other poet in America to give moral support to the Greek cause. After he became editor of the "New York Evening Post", he continued his support of modern Greece, made a visit there, and wrote a book about his travels, "Letters from the East".
Those of us here today, who are of Greek descent, were raised in the aura of famous revolutionary heroes: the brave women of Suli, Kolokotronis, Karaiskakis, Kanaris, the crafty Bouboulina, Marco Bozzaris, Katsandonis. Among these illustrious nam^s the most famous in America during the nineteenth century was Marco Bozzaris. He died, as you may know, on August 20, 1823, in a night attack upon twelve thousand Turks under Mustapha Pasha, encamped in the plain near Carpenesi in northern Greece - the same location of ancient Plateae where Pausanias had fought the Persians. Bozzaria hastened with twelve hundred men and fought Mustapha's army. Unfortunately, the renowned leader received a random shot that killed him instantly. His death captured the American imagination. Of the many eulogies written in his memory, "Marco Bozzaris", the poem by Fitz-Greene Halleck, made the greatest impression. Schoolboys learned it and recited it by heart.
The poem contains the best lines ever written on the Greek cause in America, according to Raizis and Papas. In the first part the poet gives a picture of the battle, the night attack by Bozzaris and his Suliotes against the Turkish camp.
An hour passed on - the Turk Awoke;
That bright dream was his last; He woke - to hear his sentries shriek,
'To arms! They come! The Greek! The Greek!' He woke - to die midst flame, and smoke, And shout, and groan, and sabre-stroke,
And death-shots falling thick and fast As lightning's from the mountain-cloud; And heard, with voice as trumpet loud,
Bozzaris cheer his band^ 'Strike - till the last armed foe expires; Strike - for your altars and your fires; Strike - for the green graves of your sires;
God - and your native land.'
The second part of the poem is a lament for the dead here and, as Bryant pointed out, "worthy to have been chanted by Pindar or Tyrtaeus over one of his ancestors,." It begins:
Bozzaris! with the storied brave
Greece nurtured in his glory's time, Rest thee - there is no prouder grave
Even in her own proud clime.
And it ends:
For thou art Freedom's now, and Fame's, One of the few, the immortal names That were not born to die.
The impact of Marco Bozzaris on American literature did not end with Halleck's poem. At least three plays brought the Greek revolutionary hero to the popular stage, to live, fight, and die again and again before viewers with tear-filled eyes. The death of General Karaiskakis, on May 4, 1827, in an attempt to lift the siege of Athens, also deeply affected the American public. A report in "Niles Weekly Register" gave a detailed description of his death, and ended with the extended oath which the Rumeliotes took after it happened.
We call God to witness and swear by the Holy Trinity, to die under our arms, and not to lay down till the enemy is driven from the land of our fathers, and in the bosom of which their bodies are buried - Amen!
Needless to say, the death of Lord Byron at Missolonghi also inspired American poets and writers. One poet called Greece his bridge. "Genius shall come a pilgrim to thy tomb." Another wrote that "Greece and Liberty unite" and "call thy deeds divine." fiven Dionysios Solomos, the bard of Greek freedom, composed in 1825 his celebrated "Lyrical Poem on the Death of Lord Byron."
Many Americans looked ahead to the future of Greece, even before independence was officially proclaimed in 1830. Women poets such as Lydia Sigourney proved themselves ardent missionaries of the spiritual regeneration of Greece. More and more travelers went there and recorded their impressions in articles and books. The best study of fhese travel accounts is "Greece Observed" by Stephen Larrabee. Some visitors were still looking among the modern Greeks for traces of their brilliant classical ancestors. Not readily finding these traces, they often created a negative impression. Many adventurers had arrived in Greece expecting to fight in epic classical battles, but found instead a tedious reality with no glory and no pay. Some Americans were disappointed that Greece ended up as a kingdom and not a democratic republic. Others like Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe felt that given time to overcome the effects of four hundred years of enslavement, the Greek genius would reemerge and once more astonish the world.
At the beginning of my talk I remarked that the Greek War of Independence lives on in the history books, in the novels, plays, and poems, in the songs, in the legends of the heroes, in the nation itself, the government, the church, and other institutions, in the memorials and celebrations that continue from year to year. If I may be permitted, in closing, I should like to read a poem of my own in honor of the brave and tragic women of Suli. There, on December 18, 1803, fifty-seven Suliote women leapt to their death to evade capture by the forces of Ali Pasha of Yannina. This is their chorus of lament.
Dances of Zalongo*
When you listen with an ashen heart
Cry not for us who have cried enough
One by one and one by one
Have we food for a supper of tears
We looked to the north and saw no north,
So gather your woes for the dance, my love,
*A cliff in Epirus where on December 18, 1803, fifty-seven Greek Suliot women leapt to their death to avoid being captured by the forces of Ali Pasha.