George Economou’s Invented Greek American Ethnicity
By Artemis Leontis
George Economou—born in Great Falls, Montana, in 1934 to Greek immigrant parents, educated at Colgate College (BA 1956) and Columbia University (MA 1957, PhD 1967) in English literature, professor of English literature and creative writing for thirty years, and a published poet, translator, and scholar, and professor of old and middle-English Literature for forty-one years—wrote at an angle to the white ethnic revival in America.1 He anticipated the revival by more than a decade when in 1957, at the age of twenty-three, he made an immigrant son’s journey to Greece to connect with his parents’ homeland. This brought him into a generative dialogue with people in Greece and especially the country’s poets. He left Greece in 1959 with poems to translate. Back in the United States he adopted storytelling, genealogical inquiry, translation, and philological reconstruction as modes of writing, using them to bear witness to the processes by which the children of immigrants from second-class, non-Western European countries lay claim to their America while they simultaneously reimagine their places of origin. In his writerly universe, there are no easy “harmonies and fits” (Economou 1987) of the old world and the new: instead shifting allegiances are part of an ongoing process that continuously explores and reinvents ethnic identity within a changing transnational landscape.
Some of the witnessing takes the form of first-person storytelling in which an autobiographical narrator is engaged in passionate debates with the gatekeepers of national identity. Two stories lay the groundwork for his thinking about ethnicity. One takes place in his mother’s village of Dafni near Kalavryta during his first visit to Greece, when Economou had to appeal to the regional χωροφύλακας (gendarme) to renew his American visitor’s visa so he could extend his stay. An argument breaks out between him and the attending gendarme. Economou answers “American” to the question of his citizenship and wishes to answer “American” additionally to the question of his εθνότητα (ethnicity/nationality).
The gendarme declares the answer unacceptable: “One’s nationality comes from where his parents were born, Greece and Greek.”
“One’s nation is where one’s born, and that’s America and American,” Economou counters.
As he narrates the exchange in Janus Witness: “American, Greek, American, GreekAmerican, greekamerican, it went on, as our one word apiece stichomythia concealed from me my true identity, struggling to emerge out of a merger of the two seemingly antagonistic words” (10–11). The argument introduces Economou to the semantic ambiguities of ethnicity and the tensions in its usage: Is it a matter of cultural or biological distinction? Does it assume consensual affirmation or obligatory inheritance by descent? And if descent is the stronger candidate, is one descended by birthright or place of birth? Economou discovers that he holds none of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in Greece, yet all the obligations of Greek ethnicity/nationality willy nilly are his. How did this happen? By what alchemy had the Atlantic crossing given his father and mother the opportunity to become American but himself, born in the U.S.A, the requirement to be Greek American?
Economou grapples with these tensions in an American situation thirty years later in “An Evening in Kingfisher” (1987), an autobiographical poetic account of another passionate exchange. The poem is set at an Elks Club–University of Oklahoma football fundraiser in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, attended by Economou as chairman of the English department. This time the argument is about American group identity and whether the American-born Economou, with his non-Western European name, can ever belong. Economou’s antagonist is Huck Rice, a sixty-six-year-old former offensive guard of the Oklahoma Sooners, who repeatedly blocks Economou’s claim to be American. The poem is worth reading, very nearly from beginning to end, in Economou’s words.
. . . “ENTERING KINGFISHER, Oklahoma”
the road sign reads
“THE BUCKLE ON THE GRAIN BELT.”
…[W]e move for the doors or bartenders
and I am almost out into the night air
when the sixty-six year old guard pulls
out of the line at the bar & squints
at my crimson-bordered OU name tag
offering his hand to mine which he begins to squeeze
and asks me where I’m from.
—“Well, I kin see that. I mean with a name
like that where are yuh from?
Looking back at his tag
which reads “’Huck’ Rice”
and understanding what he’s getting at,
—“Just moved here from New York,
but I was born in Montana.”
He squeezes harder,
—“But that’s not an American name.”
—“Sure it is, from Greece. (And making a good guess)
When did your people come over here from Germany, Huck?”
Easing up on the squeeze,
—“Oh hell, we bin here forever.”
—“You mean you’re native American?”
—“No, no Indian. What d’yuh do at OU?”
—“I teach English.”
—“With a name like that, yuh teach English?”
—“I run the whole show in English, Huck.
I’m chairman of the department, brought in from New York.”
The handshake ends in a tie
and I’m grateful for the summers
spent opening oysters in Wellfleet.
—“Well, George, how d’yuh like workin’
here among all these Americans?”
—“I told you, Huck, I was born here.”
—“I like yuh, George, I’d like to talk
to yuh ’bout your beliefs.”
Remembering Roy Rogers’ characterization
of Reagan when he was nominated in 1980,
—“Why, I’m ‘a fine Christian gentleman,’
just like you. Only my kind is the oldest,
Huck. Greek, you know, right back to the
language of the New Testament (making another
good guess) while you Lutherans are pretty recent.”
Shaking his head,
—“Greek, and yuh teach English
and don’t even have an accent.”
—“No, no accent, Huck, perfect English,
You’ve got the accent. But give me a
chance and I’ll be back here next year
sounding just like you.”
—“I’d like that. I like yuh, George.”
—So long, Huck, see you next year.”. . .
(“An Evening in Kingfisher”)
What stands out in the poem is Huck Rice’s verbal awkwardness in addition to his offensiveness. In stark contrast is the rhetorical proficiency of Economou. To Huck Rice, Economou simply must be foreign. I am reminded of C. P. Cavafy’s word ξενίζει in “Returning Home from Greece” (1914), which Cavafy uses to characterize the “loves and … emotions” of people of the Hellenized Near East who self-identified as Greek yet could not convince Athenians that they were sufficiently Hellenic. Little bits of Arabia and Media inevitably “peeped out.” The former offensive guard sees un-American qualities peeping out of the name “Economou”—despite the fact that Economou is born in Montana, speaks “perfect English,” and identifies as American. Indeed, Huck Rice questions how such a person could be American and speak without an accent. Against Huck Rice’s verbal awkwardness, Economou proves himself to be rhetorically agile. He is, after all, the chairman of the English department, and he plays the American nativist verbal game better than Huck Rice. In particular, he knows the twists and turns of more than one American immigrant nation narratives. He chooses the story that represents the United States as a nation of foreign immigrants in order to demythologize American origins and to place Huck Rice alongside himself as another differentiated outsider who adds to the cultural mosaic of America. In his American nation, every American is ethnic: whether Greek Orthodox, like Economou, or German Lutheran, as suggested by Huck Rice’s name, or descended from the Puritans. Everyone has dual belonging. The only exceptions are the colonized Native Americans, from whom Huck Rice rushes to distance himself.
Despite the strength of narrator’s arguments and the confident ease with which they are delivered to crack open Huck Rice’s narrow conception of Americanness, the poem has the uncomfortable effect of silencing its xenophobe interlocutor without creating a space for Economou and Rice to coexist. At the end of their interaction, as in the beginning, they occupy separate universes with distinct notions of group identity as a source of values, histories, and beliefs that define America.
The poem’s longer-term effect was that Economou outed himself biographically as an ethnic American writer, with the dangers of marginalization this represents for any poet who must “compete for recognition in the nation’s literary market place,” on the one hand, while receiving but “scant visibility” from Greek American readers (Anagnostou 2011, 280), on the other hand. Rather than run away from the ethnic designation, however, Economou embraced his divided belonging as a condition of his creative work. He became a “witness” to the “autobiographical and linguistic complexity of the compound ‘Greek American’” (Economou 2000, 2), teaching himself to look carefully in two directions: historically backward to recount the westward Atlantic crossings that shaped the new world into which he was born, and imaginatively forward to reckon with the homeland that his parents left behind.
Ameriki: Book One (1977) and Ameriki: Book Two (1987) are two long poems with the genealogical awareness stimulated by the American ethnic revival movement. In the mid-1970s, Economou sat down with his father and mother to record their immigration stories. He interwove these with others in the two Ameriki poems. It is important to note that the two Ameriki books recount his parents’ crossings into America holistically alongside other lines of descent. The fathers and mothers from whom Economou draws his lineage are multiple. They include colonial settlers; second-class European immigrants besides the Greeks such as the Jews, Italians, and Irish; Africans who came on slave-ships and Native Americans who lost their homelands and lives; and even the Hereford cattle and white-faced lambs that crowded out native elk, bison, and wolves. Thus, true to the most subtly argued work on ethnicity of that period,2 Economou’s writing complicates Greek American descent by both grappling with cultural distinction as an outcome of forces beyond hereditary descent and representing harsh aspects of immigration and the concomitant destruction of indigenous American culture.
His father’s entrance into the United States at Ellis Island in 1907 was decided by an Irish immigration officer, who was probably just one generation removed from immigration himself. He stamped the
…naked 16 year old male
on the shoulder, “Omicron
Kappa, he’s put on your back,”
confides an older naked male.
Government Inspected, he is destined for St. Louis and points
West, where work
becomes the new
for this is a story
an economic comedy—
(Ameriki: Book One, II, in Harmonies and Fits 30)
Thus Economou’s father became “OK,” the government-approved labor immigrant. By an imaginative act of translation, “OK” became “Omicron Kappa,” his new nickname, which also happened to anticipate his son’s position in Oklahoma eight decades later. And the surname Οικονόμου, “Economou,” was another Greek receptacle for secret English meanings, aligned with Adam Smith’s theory of self-interest, America’s “economic comedy” and pointing to opportunities in the West.
Economou’s mother, traveling from Piraeus to New York in 1922 at age fourteen aboard the SS Byron and then by rail across the United States to Montana, made her own good Greek sense of the American crossing:
she crossed herself
and crossed herself
and crossed herself again
as her life’s line crossed
with America’s rivers:
and at the place of its cataracts
the river whose name in Greek
sounds like “smudge.”
At the great falls
of the Missouri
it would begin.
(Ameriki: Book Two, IV, in Harmonies and Fits 52)
Like his father, his mother translated her way across the continent, though the cultural translations that Economou features bring to the foreground the gendered dimensions of an immigrant woman’s world. As shown in the passage above, with each river’s crossing, she crossed herself three times—following the Orthodox custom to make the sign of the cross (once for each member of the Holy Trinity) when confronted with danger, and so translating into a familiar bodily practice her crossing into stranger and stranger land. When she reached her destination, the great waterfalls became “cataracts,” a transliteration of the Greek word καταράκτες for waterfalls, and the Missouri River became μουντζούρα / mountzoura, a near homophone meaning “smudge” in Greek.
On the bank of the Missouri / smudge river, Economou’s mother and father married. In accordance with the Greek Orthodox sacrament, they “dance[d] / the dance of Isaiah round the marriage altar thrice,” while their families in Greece toasted their union nearly six thousand miles away on the bank of the Ladon River. (This scene, recorded by Economou in 1987, anticipates by several years the similarly powerful representation of wedding celebrations on separate riverbanks in two important Balkan films: Theo Angelopoulos’s 1991 Suspended Step of the Stork and Emir Kusturica’s 1995 Underground):
as the Sun feeds
the Missouri by
the marriage where
it does, gathered
near the Ladon
where jealous Apollo
fed Leukippos to
the knives and spears
of Daphne & her girls
(in her village
& and the bride’s),
for sizing up
& toasting their union
on the western continent.
(Ameriki: Book Two, III, in Harmonies and Fits 50)
Right from the start his parents began to interweave the languages of the old and new worlds, so that the old world fills the new and reshapes their lives and their world. Or, as Economou puts it in “Days of Disembarkation” (2003):
The couple married America and planted
a tree that would branch and burgeon into
complexions and tongues not seen or heard before
that momentous day of disembarkation.
Their bridge building consisting of finding shared letters, homonymous words, similarly mapped the mountainous topographies of Arcadia onto Montana, of Greek folk songs onto the landscape of Cascade County. When they bring children into the American landscape, they became part of the bridge building by triggering recollections. In one section of Ameriki: Book One, Economou records the act of his father’s recollection, and through this act, brings into English the simultaneity of the two separate homelands, one of which is unknown to him, the other of which he is known—the two joined by overlapping signs of the “Achaian daimon” mapped onto the mountains of Cascade County:
of its recollection
of recording that recollection
become all one mosaic
one song worth singing: to remember the walk down
into Pine Coulee
is to remember
walking on air not rocks--
what joy in the mountains
man, what joy is there
an Achaian daimon
(in Cascade County now)
what joy there is in the mountains
hear the birdies tell it every day
and how they bear witness
their gut song in the trees
and gut sings out of your hand
(Ameriki: Book One, V "Recreation 2," in Harmonies and Fits 35)
The memories he recounts are not his own, but acts of purposefully triggered recollection received from his parents and recorded in his two poems linking his parents’ Greek past to the immigrant’s American promise. By such means the poems fitted the new home they inhabited with the noncorresponding parts they handed over to him.
Economou is attentive to their strategies of interlocking two different cultures from imperfectly matched materials, which he compares to old, broken spolia built into new foundations. Yet he also recognizes that the children of immigrants inherit a different sense of place. For himself, he must invent a different course to harmonize the inharmonious junctures of the new and old worlds.
The second path leads him back to Greece. In Janus Witness, Economou recounts how the Greek he learned at home in Montana in the 1940s produced such a strong sense of his inherent Greekness during his first trip to Greece in 1958 that he failed to make the case that he was not Greek but American. Internally, however, he experienced a significant gap between his faint, secondhand linguistic and cultural literacy and that of his contemporaries who were born and educated in Greece. Over time he effected a “reversal” of his parents’ assimilation strategy of mapping Greek letters, terms, sounds, and practices onto their adopted homeland to make sense of the United States:
Just as my father and other Greeks had reinvented their homeland by
adopting the mountainous topos of eponymous Montana, I began to reverse the process in which the topos of Greece gradually
insinuated itself into my senses and my sense of place in the world….
No matter how pale or faint my efforts appear when compared with the
mapping of the homeland phenomenon conducted by mainland Greeks, they
nevertheless constitute an example of the cultural force and fruit of
(Janus Witness 17).
The reversal Economou speaks of is no simple backtracking. Migrations have a direction as well as a trajectory—we would call it a nap if the earth’s surface were made of velvet. Perhaps we can think of the difference between the immigrant’s movement away from Greece and the descendant’s journey back in this way: the immigrant’s entry into life in the United States is an impossibly painful, creative act of hard labor, full of potentiality, expectations, and disappointments. Given the legal, economic, political, and social mechanisms that have developed in this country of immigrants, it may lead to full assimilation. Wherever it leads, the immigrant—the male immigrant in particular—feels the weight of his American fate. He sees himself as his universe’s maker. The immigrant descendants’ return, in contrast, is a retracing of the ancestor’s footsteps back to a world never of their making, which has not stood still. The ancestor’s record of the forsaken world—the names, toponyms, stories, myths, songs, photographs, letters, and emotions—now decades old, are what they have; and these cannot fit the world returned to after so many years. As much as the relationship of descent presupposes an original, the descendent finds that the original is not there to be repossessed.
I can think of several creative Greek American artists who have grappled with the frustration of being sandwiched between an American universe of immigrant forebears’ making and a required association with a Greek world that they could not fully access. They have found creative ways out of the stale middle ground between two identity markers by recombining and recontextualizing inherited, found, or invented pieces from the old world. Diamanda Galás does this when she sings rebetika songs in the style of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, or, in her album, Tragouthia apo to aima exoun fonos (1984), where she elaborates on the tradition of ritual laments of Mani with fearless New York avant-garde dissonance. And Jeffrey Eugenides does this in Middlesex and Natalie Bakopoulos in The Green Shore, where each author invents a family history based on carefully recovered archival and cultural fragments.
For many decades after his first visit to Greece, translation was Economou’s mode of engagement with Greece. In the early 1960s, he translated poems by Takis Sinopoulos given to him by Odysseus Elytis and Nikos Gatsos. He continued with other modern and ancient Greek writing, publishing translations of two plays by Euripides, twenty-nine extant erotic epigrams by the first-century BC Epicurean Philodemos, Acts of Love—a collection of ancient Greek love poems—and poems by Cavafy. With each of these translations, he honed the tools of poet and scholar to recover a context for understanding the poems in their own language and create an English idiom able to conveying their tone, meaning, and context. But it is with his last book, Ananios of Kleitor, published in 2009, that Economou exemplified both how an American of Greek descent may reclaim Greece and simultaneously how impossibly elusive is the goal of such a recovery.
Ananios of Kleitor is a unique, nearly unprecedented work. Part poem, part scholarship, part manuscript history, part correspondence, it translates and reconstructs the ancient Greek literary fragments and the scholarly history of those fragments, their author, their transmission, and the wider context of their discovery. The book opens with a photo-image of a brown papyrus from the University of Michigan Papyrology Collection. A brief introduction praises the scholars who recovered the work and summarizes the legacy of Ananios’s lost texts. English translations of the forty-one fragments of Greek erotic verse follow. Ancient commentaries on Ananios poetry give contexts for reading the poetry. Then commentaries and the modern correspondence on the poems’ recovery that follows tells a gripping story of classical scholarship at its most “inventive, zealous, insane, repressed, evangelical, cock-happy, racist, [and] murderous” (Whitmarsh 2009), as key players vie for exclusive control over the ancient material and at least one tries to rewrite history, with tragic effects. The correspondence is set immediately after the war and refers to events in Kalavryta in the Peloponnese—the homeland of Economou’s mother, historical site of the Greek revolution’s beginning in the Peloponnese in 1821, and important for its story, the horrific Nazi execution of 1,436 Greek men on 13 December 1943 during the German occupation of Greece, as retribution for the killing of 78 German soldiers by members of the Greek resistance. The last letter in the modern correspondence unlocks a horrible secret tying the two senior classicists personally to two young Greek men executed in Kalavryta. There follows an Index Nominum.
It turns out that the book’s contents, though not the historical context, are a stunning deception. No major figure in the book ever existed: not Ananios (b. 399 BC) or his Greek poems; not the ancient critics who quoted him (the Anonymous Alexandrian, Theonaeus, Kosmas Logothetis, and Theophanes the “Mad Monk of Morea”); and not the twentieth-century rediscoverers, the British and German scholars who projected their fantasies onto him (Sir Michael Sewtor-Lowden, Anastas Krebs, Hugh Sydle, Jonathan Barker). Yet Economou’s Ananios so convincingly presents the material and surrounding events as an act of recovery that one reviewer of the book confessed to having googled Ananios of Kleitor to find out more about him (Palmer 2009). As the story of the ancient poems’ rediscovery emerges, a plenitude of tongues besieges the spaces of the poet’s missing words. Readers of Ananios bear witness to the mixture of historical learning, conjecture, fantasy, and contemporary Greek history that can transform scraps of paper into dramatic acts of reconstruction, with mortal consequences.
Reviewers have identified Ananios of Kleitor as a brilliant satirical commentary on classical philology. In Tim Whitmarsh’s words, “Ananios of Kleitor … draws to the surface the absurdity, myopia, and arrogance of academic prose and the awful conjunctures of history and scholarship” (2009, 9). But it is also something more. Anyone familiar with Economou’s life and work will recognize scraps of his own that are recycled in the Ananios project. The book is Economou’s most profound reckoning with the “autobiographical and linguistic complexity of the compound ‘Greek American’” (Economou 2000, 2, as quoted above) as he understood it. It is also a masterful archival project.3 Economou’s encounter with Ananios, like his encounter with Greece, begins with the necessity that he translate into English Greek fragments of a whole that does not exist except in its interconnectedness to the lives of others. The fragments are so shattered, old, and foreign that they make little sense in and of themselves. Yet powerful emotions get attached to them. Like the Greece of the immigrant son’s parents, the poems are an ever-receding, unlocatable origin. While there is no possibility of their recovery, the very act of translating them and recovering their context represents a constructive, creative act of rewriting the lost Greek homeland.
Economou is one of the most significant poets of the twentieth century who purposefully called himself Greek American. Positioned at an ingenious angle to the ethnic revival in America, his work does not offer the satisfaction of commonplace tropes of the nation of immigrants narrative. It does not normalize immigration but represents its hard edges and disruptive force. Immigrants such as his father become hardworking not by nature but by the invisible hand of Adam Smith. Ethnic distinctiveness lies on the razor’s edge, one step away from artificially imposed folklore. There exists no easy script; there are no distinctive cultural practices by which Greek American or other ethnic readers may come to know themselves. Economou’s work abhors unquestioned concepts of ethnic group membership. What it invites instead through its language play, satire, parody, literary spoofs, and creative genealogies and translations are readings that consider how identities are created and recreated out of diverse pasts when locals and outsiders come together and interact.
January 1, 2020
Artemis Leontis is the C.P. Cavafy Professor of Modern Greek and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan and Chair of the Department of Classical Studies. She writes and teaches on aspects of Hellenism in modernity. Her books are Topographies of Hellenism: Mapping the Homeland;, Greece; A Travelers’ Literary Companion; “What these Ithakas mean…” : Readings in Cavafy (edited with Lauren E. Talalay and Keith Taylor, the companion to the exhibit “Cavafy's World” at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology);Culture and Customs of Greece; and, most recently, Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins.
1. See Anagnostou (2009) on the meaning of “white ethnicity” (1–2, 11–16), the post-Civil Rights white ethnic revival (69–71), and location of Greek Americans in that revival (passim).
2. I have in mind Sollors’s Beyond Ethnicity and Appiah’s review essay on the book. Economou references Sollors (Economou 2000, 15).
3. Economou donated the archive of his research leading to the writing of Ananios of Kleitor to the University of Michigan Modern Greek Program, which deposited the collection in the UM Graduate Library Papyrology Collection “to encourage parallel readings between ancient and modern documents as well as comparative readings of different periods of Greek history, from the classical to the Roman to the medieval to the modern era.” See UM Modern Greek website, “Contributions in Kind.” Accessed 1 January 2020. [LINK]
Anagnostou, Yiorgos. 2009. Contours of White Ethnicity. Popular Ethnography and the Making of Usable Pasts in Greek America. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.
—————. 2011. “Reading the Hyphen in Poetry.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 29 no. 2 (October): 279–290. [LINK]
Angelopoulos, Theo. 1991 / 2012. Το μετέωρο βήμα του πελαργού (The Suspended Step of the Stork). Visual Material. London: Curzon Artificial Eye.
Appiah, Anthony. 1986. “Are We Ethnic? The Theory and Practice of American Pluralism.” Black American Literature Forum 20 no. 1/2 (Spring-Summer): 209–224. Accessed 1 January 2020. [LINK]
Bakopoulos, Natalie. 2012. The Green Shore. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Economou, George. 1977. Ameriki: Book One. Reprinted on George Economou website. Accessed 30 December 2019. [LINK]
—————. 1987. Ameriki: Book Two. Reprinted on George Economou website. Accessed 30 December 2019. [LINK]
—————. 1987. “An Evening in Kingfisher.” Grand Street 6, no. 2 (Winter): 194–196. Reprinted in Harmonies and Fits, 5–9.
—————. 1987. Harmonies and Fits. Norman, Oklahoma: Point Riders Press.
—————. 2000. Janus Witness: Testament of a Greek-American Poet. In the series, “The Kimon Friar Lectures in Neo-Hellenic Arts & Letters ,” edited by Matthew Jennet. Athens: Attica Traditions.
—————. 2005. “Day of Disembarkation,” The Charioteer 43: 9. Reprinted on George Economou website. Accessed 30 December 2019. [LINK]
—————. 2009. Ananios of Kleitor: Poems & Fragments and Their Reception from Antiquity to Present . Exeter: Shearsman Books.
Eugenides, Jeffrey. 2002. Middlesex. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Galas, Diamanda. 1984. Panoptikon, Tragouthia apo to aima exoun fonos. LP Record. Berkeley: Metalanguage.
Kusturica, Emir, Kovačević, Dušan, Manojlović, Miki, Ristovski, Lazar, and Joković, Mirjana. 1995 / 2018. Underground. Visual Material. New York: Kino Lorber, Inc.
Palmer, John-Ivan. 2009. Review of George Economou, Ananios of Kleitor. Rain Taxi 14 no. 4 (Winter). Reprinted on George Economou website. Accessed 1 January 2020. [LINK]
Sollors, Werner. 1986. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Whitmarsh, Tim. 2009. “Nabakov of the Ancient World.” Times Literary Supplement No. 5547 (July 24): 9.