Peter C. Moskos and Charles C. Moskos, Greek Americans: Struggle and Success. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. 2014. Pp. xxii, 234; illustrations. ISBN 978-1-4128-5295-1.
One of the first things that struck me about Greek Americans: Struggle and Success was how familiar I was with the story even though my closest experiences with anything Greek were a wonderful week touring the country 42 years ago and my addiction to moussaka and baklava. Mentioning the popular movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the authors note that one reason for the success of the film was that people of other groups could identify with it—“they’re kind of like my family!” (169). Perhaps this was closer to the truth than they realized. The characters and their foibles were everyone’s family, and in the same fashion the book demonstrates how closely the Greek experience in America mirrors that of other European groups. How is the Greek Nea Yorki ca. 1930 any different from the Polish Nowy Jork or the Italian Nuova York of the same era? The largest wave of each of these immigrant groups arrived between 1880 and 1920; most were poor laborers on arrival, lured by the prospect of economic gain; it was largely a male migration; they established kinotis, okolica, or quartieri about a central religious nucleus; they valued and attempted to preserve their native language and culture; and they formed ethnic associations, often based on specific regions or cities in the Old Country, for mutual protection and assistance. Immigrants from all of the main groups often began using pushcarts to sell produce, sandwiches, coffee or other items as an avenue for mobility into middle class ownership of a kafenion, a taverna, or a ristorante. All faced discrimination on first arrival. Greeks were killed in the Ludlow Massacre (1914), Poles and Slovaks at the Lattimer Massacre (1897), and Italians lynched in New Orleans (1891). All three groups rank above the U.S. average in income and education according to the most recent census. I could go on but I have made my point. The authors ask, “What makes the Greek American experience different” (5)? In many respects, Greeks were in fact much like the other groups from Southern and Eastern Europe who arrived in large numbers during the same historical era.
However, I do not mean to suggest homogeneity. There were differences, one of which was how Americans received Greeks on entry into the United States. While undergoing some forms of discrimination, Greeks also benefitted from the positive image most Americans had of the historic Hellenic civilization, especially during the period of mass migration. Being Greek Orthodox did not have negative connotations among most Christian Americans, whereas being Jewish often acted against acceptance of that group. During the Cold War, Americans often viewed with suspicion Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians and others from communist-dominated nations, while Greeks benefitted from being perceived as fighting against communism. In the same sense, it was much easier for Greek Americans to maintain ongoing contacts with Greece than it was for those who rejected communism and thus avoided contact with their ancestral nations under its control. In regards to religion, the Greek Orthodox Church served a dual role as an ethnoreligious unifier; however, among Catholic immigrants their church hierarchy was dominated by Irish bishops who, during the era of mass migration, were not particularly interested in and often discouraged ethnic diversity. These are just a few examples that oppose the notion of bland homogeneity.
There are many reasons to recommend Greek Americans: Struggle and Success to readers. In some ethnic histories there are only superficial references to the influences of the home country on the diaspora. Such is not the case here. There are some illuminating comments on Greek perceptions of the United Sttaes in view of the context of their European experience and an informative discussion of the Greek American reaction to the 1967 military coup in Greece and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. The authors assert that Gerald Ford’s reaction to the latter event turned voters against him. This is reminiscent of how his comments about Poland being “free” turned people whose ancestors were from Eastern Europe against him, and how Irish Americans abandoned Woodrow Wilson over his failure to promote Irish independence at Versailles. The book contains useful information on remittances, gender ratios, citizenship, and some other topics, and much to the authors’ credit they do not shy away from less savory topics such as crime and gambling.
Among the more important contributions that Greek Americans makes for people not intimately conversant with the Greek Orthodox religion is its discussion of the jurisdictional structure of Eastern Orthodoxy and the differences between competing factions. This brings to mind similar divisions in Catholicism in America, especially the schismatic Polish National Catholic Church that attracted dissenting Slovak, Lithuanian, and Italian parishes. Equally interesting is the comparison between Katharevousa and Demotic and the authors’ linking them with conservative/liberal orientations and influences. Language issues appear in other groups as well, but usually from the standpoint of subjugated peoples in the Russian, Austrian, and German Empires seeking to preserve their vernacular to resist assimilation. Finally, the discussion of immigrant community formation is of interest to historians because, while on the surface it mirrors the practices of other groups, the Greek experience is different in a significant way. In Catholic communities such as the Italians and Poles who formed the largest immigrant groups during the “Great Migration,” local administration, including the assignment of priests and ownership of all parish property, was firmly in the hands of the bishop. The authors suggest that in the early Greek Orthodox settlements it was not the bishop but the kinotis that hired the priest (88). This afforded a significant difference in community organization and control that created an entirely different communal dynamic.
While these are all positive aspects, there are also some negatives—at least from the standpoint of evaluating the book as a work of scholarship. Perhaps it is a legacy of the book having gone through multiple editions, but there is much that would label this a “popular” rather than a “scholarly” work. Immediately noticeable is the attempt to identify a Greek presence in the United States as early as possible, a common practice of ethnic activists who seek legitimacy through the “we were here when” method. One tortured example of this is the attempt to pass off a Spanish colony in Florida as Greek because a “sailor and ship caulker” on a Spanish expedition was Greek. Another clear indication is the frequent lengthy lists of politicians, famous people, films, and “famous firsts” presented as evidence of Greek participation and success in the United States without any attempt at analysis.
One of the problems the authors do address, but do not resolve, is the definition of who is a “Greek American.” Every ethnic group of any significant size in the United States has confronted this question at one time or another, and few of them have agreed on a definition for their groups. The authors’ problems begin on the first page where they attempt to assert that Columbus was Greek because at some telescopically distant point in the past an ancestor left Byzantium. Even supposing the genealogy to be accurate, how would someone who did not speak Greek, never set foot in Greece, did not live in any Greek community, and adhered to a different religion be “Greek” in any relevant sense? Ethnic activist-authors frequently attempt to trace ethnicity through distant bloodlines, a practice rejected by serious scholars today. A second problem deals with numbers; that is, the size of the Greek American ethnic community. We are told that there are 1.27 million Greek Americans according to the census (185), but because someone checks a box on a question regarding ancestry does not mean one “identifies” with a specific group much less than one has any specific ethnic characteristics. The authors assert that “Greek Orthodoxy and Greek identity became inextricably linked,” but also that only “one-third or so” of Greek Americans “adhere” to the church and only about “10 percent” (93) attend services regularly. If true, by the authors’ own definition, is the greater majority who do not participate religiously really ethnically “Greek”? To cloud the issue further, the authors then claim that “A smaller percentage of people, although by no means an insignificant number, could claim to be Greek American without having Greek ancestry”; for example, by marriage (185). So, apparently ancestry and being Greek Orthodox are not such important ethnic identifiers after all. Contradictions like these lessen the book’s value.
There are also some evidentiary shortcomings. The authors assert: “Unlike peasants in most other Eastern European societies of the late nineteenth century, the Greek peasant participated directly in a market, rather than a subsistence, economy” (140). They offer no evidence to support this. On the contrary, one could argue that peasants in Galicia (a Ukrainian and Polish province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) routinely traded produce at village and city markets and were an integral part of feeding the Empire through extended trade networks. Likewise, peasants in what today is Latvia, Lithuania, and northern Poland were involved in a lively trade through the Hanseatic League and its successors. The authors contend that Greek Americans had an “ingrained skepticism toward the helping professions” (141), but the three sources cited have nothing to do with supporting this generalization, rather they deal with evaluating the so-called “helping professions” themselves. Using a single survey from a sociology class in 1976-77 is not sufficient to support conclusions on how people view Greek Americans today, and using median statistics rather than the mean unduly credits outliers when presenting economic data (143). The authors claim 400,000 Greeks in the United States by 1920, but the table used to support this is based on “persons obtaining legal permanent resident status” (13). If this is correct, then it undercounts the population by not including people who have become citizens, taken out first papers, or are legally in the country but not permanent residents. Another odd approach the authors use is to exclude Russians from their demographic calculations “because this group often identifies more by religion than national ethnicity. … [and] Russian has been used as a proxy measure for American Jews” (fn10, 170). Ironically, the authors also use religion as a chief ethnic identifier for Greek Americans.
While there is noteworthy coverage of the Greek Orthodox Church, it would have been helpful to have more discussion of the church’s view on social issues, strengthened with survey data. Other questions beg answers: Did the Greek community in Chicago wield any real political influence? How did Greeks interact with other ethnic communities? Aside from the cases mentioned above, how did Greek American newspapers react to domestic and international events? How did Greek Americans react to the civil rights movement, or how did it affect them? How did gender roles transform over time? What is the percentage of intermarriage today?
Greek Americans: Struggle and Success tackles the daunting task of relating the history of an ethnic group whose American roots date back to the adoption of the Constitution and doing it all in barely over 200 pages. While scholars will find its usefulness limited, as a popular history for the general public it will no doubt continue to enjoy success.
James S. Pula is a professor of history at Purdue University Northwest. He is the editor of The Polish American Encyclopedia (McFarland Publications) and the author of Thaddeus Kościuszko: The Purest Son of Liberty (Hippocrene Press); Polish Americans: An Ethnic Community (Twayne Publishers); United We Stand: The Role of Polish Workers in the New York Mills Textile Strikes, 1912 and 1916 (East European Monographs); and more than a dozen other books and over 50 articles on immigrants from Asia, Europe, and Latin America. His work has been recognized with the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, three Oskar Halecki Prizes for outstanding books, a Purdue Northwest research award, and numerous other recognitions.