Harry Mark Petrakis: A World-Renowned Literary Figure
by Elaine Thomopoulos
“I have often wondered what a wonderful basketball team could be formed from Petrakis characters. Every one of them is 14 feet tall,” said Kurt Vonnegut.
In my mind, Harry Mark Petrakis himself was 14 feet tall, a giant of a man who had gained world renown for his literary genius.
When I took my examination to become a licensed clinical psychologist, a professor from the university I had attended said, “Well, if you don’t pass the exam, you can open a restaurant.” Petrakis showed the world that Greek Americans can be literary geniuses, as well as restaurant owners. Petrakis, a high-school dropout, wrote 23 books and countless short stories. He earned honorary degrees and numerous awards. His novel, A Dream of Kings, was on the best-seller list, translated into 12 languages and made into a movie. His stories appeared in magazines and newspapers, including the Atlantic, The Saturday Evening Post, and the Chicago Sun Times.
He taught at several universities and conducted many workshops for writers, as well as performing for the general public. Petrakis was an excellent storyteller with a booming resonant baritone voice, perfect timing, and imposing stage presence, standing tall and proud. (See, “Twilight of the Ice": Award Winning Author Harry Mark Petrakis - Bing video.) He credited his ability to project his voice to his performances in Greek plays while he attended the Koreas School at Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago, where his father served as priest and his mother helped those in need in her role as presbytera (wife of the priest). He wrote and spoke about both of them.
He would keep an audience spellbound. On several occasions, I heard him recite a story about how he impressed his grade school class with his tale of giving his lunch to a ragged old man sitting in the gutter who hadn’t eaten in three days. He gloated in the admiration of his teacher, principal, and classmates—until his mother showed up with his lunch, which he had forgotten at home. His audience reacted with tears of laughter. He took his memories and extracted both the humor and pathos in them.
He transferred heartfelt feelings to the page and made the world which Greeks inhabited come alive. He reminds me of the great Greek short story writer Alexandros Papadiamantis, or Nicholas Lardas, who, although he only wrote one novella Ikaria Remembered, possessed the same kind of deep understanding of human nature.
Petrakis’s creative writings were mini-history lessons about the life of the early immigrants. He included tales of the families who lived in Greektown in Chicago, as well as the young Greek men who came to work in the life-threatening jobs in the mines of the west at the beginning of the 20th century.
Petrakis was a man with feeling, a man with filotimo, who took pride in his family and Greek heritage but saw things clearly, without a filter that obliterated the truth. Rather than portraying the Greek Americans as Homeric figures who had become one of the most successful ethnic groups, Petrakis exposed their faults and foibles. He gave an honest depiction, even when talking about his own shortcomings, which included being addicted to gambling when he was a young man.
One of my friends, a retired English teacher, said, “He did not write about the Greeks I knew.” No, he did not write about the Greeks that had made it in the new world, that moved deftly between their American and Greek identities. He portrayed Greeks who were having a difficult time adjusting to the new world, that pined for the old world and had a rough time eking out a living, Greeks who gambled or had extramarital affairs, and Greeks who had difficulty understanding their American-reared children or caring for their elderly parents. He wrote about their heartfelt experiences with life and with death.
Petrakis’s writing explored what constituted a meaningful life. In the short story “The Return” from Cavafy’s Stone and Other Village Tales, a rich bachelor who had settled on the gold coast of Chicago came to visit his hometown village in Greece driving an 11-foot Aztec red Cadillac Eldorado accompanied by a beautiful Athenian woman. Petrakis writes, “He realized suddenly with a twinge of jealously that his brother, who had stayed in the village, was the one to be envied. He had a loving devoted wife, fine children that would carry his seed into generations to come. They had nurtured the land and, in turn, the land had nourished them” (159).
In his biographies, his short stories, and novels such as A Dream of Kings or Ghosts of the Sun, he recreated not only the people but captured the images, the smells, the sounds of Chicago Greektown of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. I remember going to Greektown with my mother to visit her elderly uncle who had been a peddler. At that time, Halsted Street was in skid row, with shabby apartments rented to the bachelor Greeks and drunken men hanging out on the street begging for money. I remember Diana’s Grocery and Restaurant, the Matsakas Jewelry Store, the Parthenon, the Athenian Candle Store, and the kafenia where the Greek men, like my great-uncle, would congregate to drink coffee, play cards, and argue. All except the Athenian Candle Shop are now gone. Petrakis captured the Greektown of this era on paper so that it would live forever.
He chronicled the Greek American experience. But he was so much more than a writer who wrote about Greek America. He penned two novels about the Greek War of Independence, a book of short stories set in post-World War II Greece, and several short stories whose protagonists were not Greek. He explored the human condition no matter what the ethnicity. In his commentary regarding “The Passing of the Ice” in A Petrakis Reader he wrote: “The theme encompasses decline and age as well as the resonances of the past I draw upon for my stories. If these men are not Homeric figures but Polish icemen, I saw them as heroic figures suffering the same fate” (63).
In a 2006 interview with Steve Frangos, published in The National Herald, he said, “And so I think my stories, even the funny ones, are in a way, small illuminations on life and as a consequence you think about them afterwards. In other words, they don’t just bounce off like drops of water. They should settle and you feel the emotion of the people. Sometimes, in the humorous stories, that emotion is one of laughter and relief. Then, again, in some of the darker stories there is a tension that it leaves because you sense the complexity of human beings.”
Harry Mark Petrakis, who died in 2021 at the age of 97, left a literary legacy that will not die. His stories inform us not only about life in the Greek American community but challenge us to think about the significance of life itself.
Elaine Thomopoulos, PhD, wrote The History of Greece and edited Greek-American Pioneer Women of Illinois. Her book Modern Greece will be released in 2021. She served as Director of Social Services of the Hellenic Foundation, Administrator of Greek-American Community Services, and directed the multi-year project, “The Greeks of Berrien County, Michigan.” The latter resulted in an exhibit that is permanently installed in the Greek Museum of Berrien County in New Buffalo, Michigan.