The Lost History of NYC of Gianakoulis

Sometime in the late 1930s, Theodore Gianakoulis (1886-1964) had completed enough essays and reports for the Federal Writers Project (FWP), to produce a book-length manuscript on the Greeks of New York City. This volume has never seen print. Two public locations hold this unpublished volume: the Municipal Archives of New York City and the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. By combing through the daily press, attending an array of performances and civic events, and by interviewing a wide cross-section of individuals, Gianakoulis gathered the necessary information to write his unfortunately-forgotten book.

Gianakoulis wanted to write about everything “Greek” in New York City. A true Hellene, his FWP reports all begin with the places and performances of Classical Era a found in the city. Gradually, in the course of his reports, Gianakoulis goes on to record the presence and activities of Greeks throughout the city. That approach did not meet with official approval.

In the FWP reports found at the Library of Congress, Gianakoulis’ assignment editor, Emanuel Kantor, crossed out more than 90% of the Classical references. Given the haphazard manner in which FWP materials were initially kept, until quite recently not even most researchers had the opportunity to see the historical narrative Gianakoulis completed. What follows is a survey taken from Gianakoulis’ literally hundreds of pages: the background circumstances under which Gianakoulis worked and wrote, and some of what he recorded on the Greek arts of New York City.

THE BIG PICTURE

The Greeks in New York City manuscript clearly followed  the highly-detailed FWP ten-page instruction guide, The Greeks in America: Instructions for Socio-Ethnic Field Studies,  written in 1935 by Carl Malmberg and M.W. Royce. All across the country Greeks were being interviewed and written about based on this guide.

Greeks in New York City is only one of several unpublished FWP volumes on the Greeks in North America. The Greeks of Florida is based on reports collected by FWP state supervisor Carita Doggett Corse and a number of other fieldworkers. While the Florida volume was never published in a single volume, it appeared in an extremely popular serialized form, in Athene Magazine from 1941 until 1943.

Two Illinois volumes on Greek-Americans were planned. What seems to be a long-running manuscript is reported to exist at the Illinois State Historical Library. Yet it is still too early to identify this fragmented collection of papers as Nick John Matsoukas’ proposed FWP volume, Children of Ulysses. Other evidence suggests that the internationally-noted photographer Wallace Kirkland (1891-1979) twice documented Chicago’s Greektown area, during Easter celebrations, for Matsoukas’ volume.

Building on the earlier FWP reports and studies of Greeks around the country Dr. Carl Blegen (1887-1971), drew upon the Office of Strategic Service (OSS) documentation to complete his historical study, sometime around 1943, The Greek Community in the United States. Professor Blegen was an internationally-recognized Classical archaeologist. It is especially surprising, given his considerable academic stature, that this manuscript has never seen print.

NYC ARTS

Gianakoulis presented his reports in a consistent manner. The only problem was none of his editors ever shared that historical view. Consequently, his reports are heavily edited. Gianakoulis and his editors differed on what was admissible as Greek culture. Along with many of the other Greek FWP writers and field collectors, Gianakoulis saw all forms of Greek expression from Classical times to the present as fitting subject for their reports. The editors did not.

Gianakoulis’ unpublished volume exists in the following sections: Original Greek Settlements, Greek Immigration, Greek Writers, Greek Press, Folk Dances, Amusements (in several parts), Appreciation of Greek Art, Greeks in Business, Greek Societies in the Metropolis, Intellectual Life, and quite a number of pieces, which include biographies, labeled simply, General Essays. As with many other FWP writers, a number of Gianakoulis’ essays were published later in the Greek-American press. Regrettably the New York City sections have never seen publication.

In terms of the Greek-American arts, Gianakoulis’ book is so very important because he literally packs every report with an amazing array of names, dates, and events. No area of the arts was omitted. We see extensive discussions of Greek museum collections, theatrical productions, dancers, movie actors, folk dancers, singers, painters, poets, traditional folk musicians at summer picnics, Greek school productions, church acting troupes, visiting performers from Greece and fraternal organization sponsored events. Gianakoulis took great pains to gather his data. Extensive quotes from interviews and newspaper accounts are interwoven throughout his reports.

Aside from his Hellenistic perspective, Gianakoulis also believed that anyone who was performing a Greek derived art form must be included in his reports. Any professional theatrical troupe be they American, British or Greek presenting a Greek Classical Drama was included in his survey on Greek Arts. Gianakoulis went so far as to describe the Greek Festivals and Games at New York’s Barnard College. This all-inclusive approach on what constituted things Greek in North America, again met with official disfavor. All such sections are struck out in the edited reports.

Gianakoulis, especially in these omitted Classical sections to his FWP reports, is a perfect example of how the majority of Greek-American intellectuals during the interwar period, viewed the contributions and influence of Greek culture on the wider American society. Gianakoulis was absolutely correct in his observations. All the Classical plays and the long traditions of Greek fraternal organizations on American college campus are without question part of the total social and symbolic realm of things Greek in North America.

AMERICAN IMAGINATION

Simply because the FWP editors or even scholars since the 1930s have not recognized this linkage does not mean it does not exist. The problem for the editors, as well as many contemporary scholars, isn’t solely on the issues of cultural or historical continuity. Rather what remains unexamined is what exactly did/do Anglo-Americans think or mean by actively seeking out Classical Greek art or performing Ancient Greek plays? Obviously since they are consciously seeking to recreate Classical Greek art in dance or drama they are making/enacting their own interpretation of Greek culture in an American setting. These American-created interpretations of Greek art have an independent life and history of their own.

Complicating these facts one step further, as the FWP editors demonstrate, American-based writers can question Greek-Americans about their cultural interpretations but Greek-American writers have no such cultural or intellectual authority to turn the tables on the Anglos, for the very good reason that the American scholars say so. Ultimately, it is more important to simply realize is that American expressions of Greek culture cannot be brought up for counter-interpretations. Period.

This contention is supported by Hellas Observed: The American Experience of Greece, 1775-1865 by Stephen Addison Larabee (New York: New York University Press, 1957). Larabee, argues that it was never simply a matter of Americans becoming more factually knowledgeable about Classical Greek civilization. For Larabee what is more interesting is that the American imagination took over and began to incorporate and simultaneously recreate a distinctly American sense of all things Greek within their society. If Larabee is correct, then we can compare and contrast American notions of things Greek with native Greek notions.

Of course, one can say that it was never Gianakoulis’ intent to compare or contrast anything but rather to claim American Greek notions as part of native Greek cultural expressions in North America. But it can’t be both ways. Either the “Greek” cultural expressions are from American or native Greeks. That sounds fair enough, except that the FWP editors never took all that into consideration.

There is no apparent explanation for why Gianakoulis’ manuscript never saw print. But given the general conditions of the times in which it was conceived and written, we can be fairly certain why this was the case. After the government closed down the Federal Writer’s project, everything came to a complete halt. No provisions were made to preserve any materials generated by the FWP researchers. Many documents, including photographs and original materials, were lost forever. As we know from the recollections of a number of senior Greek-American writers, during the Great Depression there simply was no press, Greek or American, which was willing to take the chance of publishing any strictly Greek-American historical or cultural volumes because of the severity of the economic crisis.

From our perspective in history we know (or should realize) that unpublished manuscripts such as Gianakoulis’ are critical to see in print. These Federal Writer Project volumes are the lost historical studies of Greeks in the United States. These Greek American FWP volumes fill the gap between the earlier published accounts of the early-1900s and those written after World War II. The Greek communities of Florida, Illinois, New York City and elsewhere have waited far too long to hear and see again this long lost world of our forefathers.