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Literature

New Book on George Horton and Smyrna Catastrophe

August 26, 2022

This year marks 100 years since the Smyrna Catastrophe and though many books have been written, there is still a great deal to be learned about that pivotal event and about the key figures who were eyewitnesses to history. The Gentle American: George Horton’s Odyssey and His True Account of the Smyrna Catastrophe by Ismini Lamb and Christopher Lamb is a well-researched and well-written volume that highlights a remarkable historical figure and brings the events of that time period to life through Horton’s own words.

George Horton (1859-1942), the noted American philhellene, classicist, author, diplomat, ethnographer, and humanitarian activist is perhaps best known in the Greek community for saving innumerable lives in Asia Minor, especially from the Smyrna Catastrophe. The Blight of Asia, his 1926 book, detailed Turkey’s atrocities against its non-Muslim minorities leading up to and including the Smyrna Catastrophe. Horton’s efforts throughout his diplomatic career showcased his dedication to helping those in need as much as he could, saving as many lives as possible, though he was thwarted in those efforts.

With an extensive bibliography and copious notes, the book is a treasure trove of information about Horton and his times. Those interested in the history of this period will be impressed by the attention to detail and how vividly that vanished world of cosmopolitan Smyrna comes to life in the pages of The Gentle American. The issues of a century ago still powerfully resonate even to the present day in terms of U.S. foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean.

George Horton, at about the time he left for Smyrna. Photo: Courtesy of George Horton Papers, Georgetown University

Though Horton was able to rescue some refugees from Smyrna, as his ship backed away from Smyrna’s wharf, there was still a helpless crowd on the waterfront trapped between the sea and the raging inferno. “He was not consoled by rescuing his shipload of refugees, nor by the many other Christian, Jewish, and Muslim lives he had saved during his service as American consul,” according to the book’s description. “His focus was on the people before him threatened with fire, rape, and massacre. Their persecution, he later said, made him ashamed he ‘belonged to the human race.’”

The tragic situation unfolded as “his superiors were blocking humanitarian aid and covering up atrocities with fake news and disinformation to win Turkish approval for American access to oil,” the description continues. “When Horton decried their duplicity and hard-heartedness, they conspired to destroy his reputation. Undaunted, Horton pursued his cause until it went to the President and then Congress for resolution. At stake was the outcome of World War I, the stability and liberality of the Middle East, and the likelihood of more genocide.”

Professor Ismini Lamb, Director of the Modern Greek Studies Program in the Department of Classics at Georgetown University, told The National Herald that it took her and her husband and co-author Christopher Lamb nine years to complete the book. She describes how the project came about in the book’s Preface, noting that “after a few hours surveying Horton’s personal diaries, journals, correspondence, draft chapters of memoirs and his daughter’s draft biography, I was telling myself the book would practically write itself.”

During the nine years of working on the biography that followed, Lamb discovered “how daunting it is to accurately recreate the life experience of anyone born almost two centuries ago, even when you are well-armed with personal papers, online databases, and draft products.”

Published in time for the 100th somber anniversary of the Smyrna Catastrophe, the book is a compelling biography of Horton that offers insights not only into his life’s journey but also into U.S. foreign policy and the humanitarian efforts in response to the tragic event that changed the course of world history.

The Gentle American: George Horton’s Odyssey and His True Account of the Smyrna Catastrophe by Ismini Lamb and Christopher Lamb, published by Gorgias Press, is available online: https://bit.ly/3SVXydr.

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