It will take much time and effort to truly comprehend, let alone fully assess, the recent loss of George Giannaris to Modern Greek Studies.
Professor Giannaris’ death on June 28th, due to complications resulting from his long battle with cancer, means that yet another exceptional Modern Greek author and teacher has been taken from our midst.
An author of more than 30 books, countless articles, reviews, and commentaries, to say nothing of his decades as a professor at City University New York (CUNY), University of Athens, and elsewhere, Giannaris was a unique and highly-acclaimed intellectual. It was a keen interest in real world politics informed Giannaris’ studies.
Giannaris was born in the village of Daphne Kalavriton on April 8, 1936, to Vasillios and Demetra (Roumanis) Giannaris. His academic career spanned a diploma from the Gymnasium of Nikea in Piraeus, conferred in 1956, to a PhD in comparative literature and classical philology from CUNY in 1968, and a comparable degree from the University of Athens (magna cum laude) in 1984 – that dissertation titled: “The Greek Immigrant and the Greek American Novel.”
Giannaris led a rich literary and poetic life, moving effortlessly between a host of teaching positions in the United States and Greece. Yet academic and literary recognition does not always translate into success. Consequently, Giannaris was destined to hold a wide variety of lecturing positions. Notably among those was his prominent role in 1974, within the founding group that established the Greek American Studies Project at the Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Queens College (CUNY).
Intellectually, Giannaris spent his career on nothing less than the systematic study of comparative literature and the classics. A man of wide interests, for Greek-American Studies, Giannaris will be forever recalled for his devoted and sustained attention to bilingualism and how Greek literature took shape in a North America setting. The only error one can conceive Giannaris ever made in his broad-based studies was in assuming that he would have an audience in Greece as well as the Hellenic Diaspora as fascinated as he in these complex expressions of Modern Greek literature.
To offer substance to the claim of Giannaris’ considerable accomplishments in the scope, historical depth, and versatility of his intellectual enterprise, the following short citation of his major works is offered. He wrote and translated in Greek and English, and was himself translated into German and Spanish. His principal studies: Mikis Theodorakis: Music and Social Change (in English), 1972; Spyros Plaskovitis and the Art of the Novel (Greek), 2007; Greek Pioneers: Nikolas Calas and Theodore Dorros (called at the time of its publication the definitive study on the pioneers of surrealism in Greek) 2005; The Greeks Against the Odds: Bilingualism in Literature (essays in English) 2004; Patras: Multiculturalism and Selfitude (Essays in Greek) 2004;Capitalism Socialism and Greek Peculiarities (Studies in Greek) 2001; Cultural Antagonisms and Hellenism (Studies in Greek) 2000; Theater Education and Games
1995; Greek Student Movements and Education 1993; Modern Myths and Poetry (Essays on Modern Greek Poetry in Greek) 1993; The Greek Immigrants and the Greek-American Novel (in Greek) 1985; and On Greek Music and Poetry (Essays in Greek).
In top of that impressive library of high-quality words, Giannaris leaves five behind, yet to be published. Among then, the most notable are: Eleftherios Venizelos and the Greeks in America (in Greek); The Proverb as Poetry and Thought (in Greek); and the massive Thesaurus of Modern Greek Proverbs (in Greek), a monumental thesaurus of Greek proverbs in verse and prose. Among close friends and colleagues Giannaris would call these manuscripts his “lost children.” It will be the task of future researchers to appraise the contributions of these vastly different types of studies. That said, various colleagues who have seen this work assure that Giannaris’ in-depth and pioneering focus on Venizelos’ tour of North America will serve to expand the study of that pivotal historical figure.
Giannaris had something of a double-life. While he was well-recognized and greatly respected as an academic, his 14 books of published poetry also gave him a considerable standing in Modern Greek poetry circles. Ever mindful of the needs of students and future researchers, Giannaris bequeathed his entire private collection of papers, books, commercial recordings, and even 18 paintings to the University of Crete. The bulk of the material, donated by him, totals some 15,000 books, while a significant part of library and archival material relates directly to Hellenism in America of about 4,000 individual volumes.
In a thank you letter to Giannaris, from the University of Crete, for this bequeathal, it was emphasized that a hall of the university’s main library would be named in his honor.
Modern Greek studies never knew what to do with George Giannaris. Yet through his publications and lectures it was clear for decades that Giannaris was an ardent champion for a host of social and educational issues, focusing always on the rights of the Greek people and of Hellenes abroad.
Acerbic often in the extreme, it must be said Giannaris was not a friend to all he met.
Still, none could ever deny his encyclopedic knowledgeable and intuitive artistic grasp within his field of comparative literary studies. As the published record documents, less than a handful of individuals have ever possessed Giannaris’ deep understanding of Greek creative writing in North America. For so many reasons, he will be missed.