Harry Mark Petrakis (1923-2021): Greek America’s Responsibility to Itself and to Others
But I have lived long enough to understand that the suffering and separation of a black man and a young Greek girl and their child might not even earn a footnote in the long sorrowful chronicle of racial intolerance and hate.
—Harry Mark Petrakis
The above words are from Harry Mark Petrakis’s rueful conclusion to his “A Tale of Color,”1 an essay that tells a story about racism in 1950s Chicago. Its melancholy about the lack of a place for the downtrodden in public memory underlines the responsibility for countering this displacement, which Petrakis performs in the very act of writing the story.
Placing at the center stories that ethnic groups often relegate to the margins has been at the core of Petrakis’s project, a lifelong devotion to bringing Greek America into literary representation. The gritty realism of his fiction details the effects of damaging ideologies: the violence of patriarchy, working-class exploitation, stifling traditionalism, and Old World ethnocentrism.2 The ways in which certain immigrant practices and beliefs derail lives is a recurring theme in his work.
Petrakis’s literary realism works as a form of cultural chronicling. Drawing from his intimate knowledge of immigrant life, he employs literature to represent unseen or hidden social dramas. Their telling via naturalism makes a claim to their status as true. Indeed, his stories are read as accurate and candid. Petrakis’s stories echo the bitter disclosures of women in autobiography and oral history and accounts occasionally found in ethnography and the archival record. Petrakis’s fiction intersects with the ethnography of the everyday, creating a corpus of work that, in the long run, produces a counternarrative to the main narrative of public memory.
The recognition of patriarchy, traditionalism, and overall social failures within the community counters public scripts of idealized ethnicity. Petrakis opts for an alternative route, penning Greek America as internally diverse, and portraying his characters as complex figures. While his protagonists often seem heroic, larger-than-life, or, simply, ordinary, they may display moral and social flaws. They are, in other words, interesting fictional characters who don’t fit the sort of “model ethnicity”—that is, his characters are alive and complicated and human, with Greek affiliations being part of their identity. In this respect, Petrakis is a pioneer in humanizing the U.S. Greeks. Not unlike his “fellow Chicagoan” Saul Bellow’s literary representation of Jewish Americans in the 1940s and beyond, Petrakis’s fiction makes Greek Americans—to paraphrase essayist Joan Acocella—“normal characters for the novel, no longer people who have a sign over their heads saying ‘Greek’ but regular people, with the same privilege of texture—of self-contradiction and error, and thus a tragic force—as white people.”3
Petrakis’s work then works against a powerful cultural current: the systematic projection of an often-caricatured positive image of ethnicity and its self-congratulatory narrative of ethnic pride. But what is the point, possibly, about this alternative portrayal? What purpose does it serve?
For one, the naming of harmful ideologies and their attendant practices connects with the necessity for critical self-examination. Ethnicity cannot be celebrated as a whole, his fiction alerts us. Particular cultural ideas must be further contemplated, scrutinized for their effects, and retained or reconfigured. Petrakis views ethnicity in contemporary terms, as a process of reinvention. Storytelling—fictional or otherwise—offers a vital venue to reach the collective and contribute to this act of ethnic becoming.
But this tribute to Petrakis calls for a larger question. Is it possible, I would like to ask, that Petrakis’s insistence to register critique of ethnic tradition offers, ironically, a route for a broadly affirmative narrative about Greek America? An affirmative cultural template of what it means to live and practice hyphenated identities without falling into the trap of resorting to idealized heritage?
To explore this question, I will place his work, albeit briefly, in the context of two historical moments—interconnected as I will show—that mark the beginning and end of his writing career: the time of his early fiction in the 1950s and 1960s and today.
Petrakis’s emergence in the American literary scene coincides with the nascent opening of society to stories from its ethnic margins. Immigrant fiction and historical facts were crucial in rendering ethnicity visible, in a sociocultural turn that soon crystallized into the so-called ethnic revival in the 1970s. The return to “authentic” roots and the value of tradition to combat modern anomie and reclaim formerly stigmatized identities was a cornerstone of this movement.
But in ethnic revival, tradition served more than a resource for citizens to connect with their cultural past. It was appropriated in a divisive identity politics that in the immediate aftermath of 1960s Civil Rights pitted “white ethnics”—seen as deserving social recognition as exemplary Americans—against racial minorities—construed as undeserving “antineighbors” whose culture threatened the family oriented, socially cohesive ethnic neighborhoods. The notion of traditional values and work ethic defining working-class “white ethnics” mobilized this demographic in opposition to policies set to offset centuries of racial injustices against Black Americans. The polarity of racially inflected “good vs. bad” cultural traditions divided peoples with different histories but overlapping economic and social concerns.
Petrakis’s fiction resists the valorization of tradition. Behind the veneer of the cohesive traditional family, he cautions readers, patriarchal oppression may devastate wives and daughters. Sons too. Ideological and intergenerational differences simmer under the surface, or produce outright conflict within the “homogeneous,” seemingly cohesive, ethnic neighborhood. The bootstrap ideology hides how individuals fail socioeconomically not because of lack of effort, but because of social ostracism.
It is not clear whether this position was a conscious intervention in the cultural politics of ethnic revival. But by implication, at that time, the fiction of Petrakis resisted the appropriation of tradition as an idealized and nostalgic moral force instilling ethnic pride and dividing white ethnics and Black Americans.
The premium that ethnic revival placed on ethnic pride has proved an enduring one, leaving an indelible mark in contemporary modes of ethnic self-representations. At the popular level, ethnic revival turned history into heritage, the production, that is, of highly selective versions of the past for the purpose of generating self-esteem in the present. This cultural engineering, designed to prove that ethnic “heritage was compatible with normative American values (family, faith, community, courage) and that … had in fact contributed much to the formulation of these values,”4 continues unabated today.
The alignment of the ethnic with the national certainly works to project a nonthreatening ethnic image, empowering the collective. But it simultaneously sanitizes the past, compromising historical memory. It dramatically narrows the range and meaning of ethnicity. An avalanche of positive self-stereotyping erases the internal complexities of an ethnic group, removes nuances, silences nonnormative expressions of ethnicity, refrains from critical self-reflection, and hides inconvenient truths on the name of protection and pride.
How to place Petrakis’s nonnormative truths in our ethnic pride–oriented era? This placing cannot dismiss lightly the fact that ethnicity operates in connection to relations of power. It will be naïve to overlook how society has historically promoted its interests situationally, by maligning and harming those with hyphenated identities. The devaluation of immigrants from southeastern Europe early in the twentieth century, the decimation of German American society during the First World War, the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, and the ongoing anti-Asian American violence under Covid-19 are stark reminders of the vulnerability of hyphenated Americans under certain historical circumstances. When the stakes are high, as they were in the 1988 presidential election campaign between candidates George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, the circulation of nativists ideas portraying Dukakis—and by extension Greek Americans—as inherently foreign to America could not have possibly gone unnoticed in Greek America, sending a reminder of ethnicity as vulnerability.
Hence the ethnic vigilance over matters of representation. “When ethnic groups emerge from their isolation and into the larger culture,” John Kass writes on the occasion of Petrakis’s demise, “there is resistance to honesty.”5 Insecurity translates into self-censoring. This may explain the opposition from within the community to Petrakis’s realist representations. He has been accused of maligning Greek America, jeopardizing its reputation.
But, after all, the public role of the artist is to refuse “to be boxed in by formulae.” “If there is a desire to promote Hellenism,” Alice Scourby writes, “then one is ipso facto committed to promoting the arts.”6
This brings us to one of the major Greek quests in the United States, the quest for isotimia—equal esteem. Almost a century-and-a-half since the first mass wave of Greek immigrants in the United States, contemporary Greek America—now socially and economically powerful—faces this historical dilemma:
(a) Continue its strategy of seeking recognition as equal via the making of an idealized ethnic image in conformity with a narrow set of national ideals (family, faith, socioeconomic success).
(b) Redirect its efforts to achieve social recognition via the making of a rigorous public sphere. A thriving one, which cultivates a great range of civic visions.
Given Greek America’s internal plurality, the first scenario constitutes an act of self-censoring. It allows a narrow set of norms to dictate how ethnicity should be represented, which compromises the autonomy of the ethnic group. It domesticates the potential of ethnicity to inject new ideas in the home society, working as a form of subservient capitulation to a dominant set of external expectations.
The second option, in contrast, is about the agency to shape an expansive Greek America. The quest for isotimia is predicated on the basic recognition that a democratic society—and consequently an ethnic group—is internally plural, creating itself via informed debate, deliberation, and self-critique. This route to equal esteem values the recognition of the community as multifaceted—Greek American Protestants, secularists, members of the LGBTQ community, and activists for the public good (environmental protection, interracial solidarity, countering class exploitation). It endorses in this manner inclusive democracy, whose ideals constitute, after all, a core component of Greek American identity. This self-confident autonomy develops along the alertness to agonistically rebuff any attempt to reduce—and thus stereotype—Greek America into a single truth from both internal and external sources.
Establishing isotimia via the responsibility to speak truths, including self-criticism, has been Petrakis’s pioneering practice of his vision. He recognized early on the value of literature and essays for voicing those ethnic experiences that, for several reasons, an ethnic group may find difficult to articulate in ordinary discourse or official identity narratives. This ethos earned him recognition and acclaim.
The notion of America as a sanctuary for difference offers a compass for Petrakis’s vision, a legacy intimately linked with the vision of his immigrant father. For his father, a Greek Orthodox priest from Crete, the “first night on Ellis Island,” was “his introduction to democracy.” His entrance to America meant the realization of the dream “for a sanctuary,” for acceptance. The Statue of Liberty, a symbol of inclusion, gave meaning and materiality to his vision to safeguard America’s promise every day. It is this dream, Petrakis pleads, that “each of us, sons and daughters of immigrants, grandsons and granddaughters of immigrants must renew and fulfill in our own lives.”7 It is the responsibility for each generation to uphold America’s promise in the interest of national ideals and vulnerable others.
But defending the right to difference cannot possibly happen in absolute relativist terms. Because society changes, it is the responsibility of each generation to deliberate upon the boundaries of difference, articulate its civic vision, and act upon it. Petrakis was a steadfast practitioner of what he saw as his own responsibility: to renew America’s promise by means of speaking thorny truths about the complexities of Greek American life and its less-than-ideal aspects in order to direct it toward gender equality. This political ethos fueled his commitment as a writer-citizen.
Petrakis’s writing practice of inclusive representation and critical self-reflexivity offers an affirmative vision: the making of a vibrant Greek American public sphere: high-caliber authors, artists, commentators, journalists, scholars, and the public engaging each other in rigorous debate and deliberation about ethnic history and culture, producing new ideas about the present and the future of the ethnic group as well as the United States. In this endeavor, the Jewish American public sphere may offer a template, because of the sophistication of its public discourse.
The realization of this civic vision requires immense work. It demands an ethos of inclusion and a public invested in humanities and social sciences learning. How to enhance this civic space? The answer to this question hinges upon the political will of leaders and citizens to recognize the value of cultural learning as civic accomplishment. Petrakis was a pioneer in this domain too. A number of Greek Americans credit him as a generative source for their aspiration to realize the American dream based on “cultural achievements, not just economic advancement.”8 This is true to Petrakis’s vision: The making of an inclusive Greek America that understands itself historically and advocates solidarity with the downtrodden is a responsibility Greek America owes to itself and by implication to its home country and its residents.
Yiorgos Anagnostou is a professor of transnational Modern Greek Studies at The Ohio State University.
1. Harry Mark Petrakis, “A Tale of Color.” MondoGreco, A Double Issue, Writing the Greek-American Experience, 6/7, no. 46, (2001/2002): 46.
2. See Harry Mark Petrakis, A Petrakis Reader (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1978).
3. For the broader scope of Petrakis’s humanizing project see, Yiorgos Anagnostou, Contours of White Ethnicity: Popular Ethnography and the Making of Usable Pasts in Greek America (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2009), 151. John Kass most recently makes the same point: “Those big smiles and the outsized hospitality also shielded our insecurity about our place in this country.” Petrakis, “didn’t offer his subjects as two-dimensional immigrant cartoons but as real human beings—the gamblers and cheats, the exhausted priests, the long-suffering wives, the desperate businessmen, the dreamers and the virtuous. They seemed like Americans because they were Americans.” John Kass, “Harry Mark Petrakis Gave Greek America a Place to Stand,” Chicago Tribune, 5 February, 2021.
4. Richard Moss, Creating the New Right Ethnic in 1970s America: The Intersection of Anger and Nostalgia (Lanham, Maryland: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2017).
5. Kass, “Harry Mark Petrakis.”
6. Alice Scourby, The Vanishing Greek Americans: A Crisis of Identity (Rivervale, NJ.: Attica Editions, 2020), 114.
7. Harry Mark Petrakis, Tales of the Heart: Dreams and Memories of a Lifetime (Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 1999), 9, 10.
8. Kass, “Harry Mark Petrakis.”
Anagnostou, Yiorgos. “Classical Heritage and Greek America.” Immigration-Ethnicities-Racial Situations (May 14, 2011).
———. “MGSA Honors Harry Mark Petrakis,” 2007.
———. “Anthropology and Literature: Crossing Boundaries in a Greek-American Novel.” In Fantasy or Ethnography? Irony and Collusion in Subaltern Representation, edited by Sabra Webber and Margaret R. Lynd, 195–220. Papers in Comparative Studies Vol. 8, 1993-94.
Kalogeras, Yiorgos. “Disintegration and Integration: The Greek-American Ethos in Harry Mark Petrakis’ Fiction.” Melus 13.3 (1986): 27–36.
Karanikas, Alexander. “Varieties of Interface in the Greek Immigrant Novel.” Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora XVI.1-4 (1989): 37–46.
Katsan, Gerasimus. “Greek America: Literary Representation and Immigrant Narratives in Papazoglou-Margaris and Petrakis.” The Journal of Modern Hellenism 31 (2015): 101–19.