The Unique Harry Mark Petrakis

February 13, 2021

The demise of Harry Mark Petrakis (1923-2021) is an irreparable loss to Greek America and Greek literature. In twelve novels, six short story collections, four memoirs, and numerous essays, he faithfully chronicled the story of the Greeks in America, particularly the pioneering generation of 1900-1960s and its offspring. His work was lauded by writers such as Noble Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Cheever, Kurt Vonnegut, and Elie Wiesel.

Other indications of the power of Petrakis’ work are that some of his novels became New York Times bestsellers, two were finalists in the prestigious fiction category of the National Book Awards, and his work was carried by the Book of the Month Club at a time when it was the nation’s largest book seller. Petrakis’ other awards include winning an annual O. Henry Award for short stories and the Carl Sandburg Award given by the Chicago Public Library system.

One of the memorable events in my life was the weekend I spent with Petrakis and his wife at their home on the shores of Lake Michigan. We spent hours speaking of his work and Hellenic literature.  He was determined to tell the story of Greek America, warts included, often using Chicago’s Halsted community as his setting. He was aware that some Greeks would not approve of his including many of their foibles and weaknesses, but Petrakis thought it imperative to reflect on all of Hellenic culture, not just its virtues. My personal favorite of his evocation of the Chicago Greek experience is his novel, The Odyssey of Kostas Volakis.

Petrakis was proud to be a story teller. Not surprisingly, he admired other story tellers such as Nelson Algren, James Farrell, Jack London, Carl Sandburg, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Like the early Ernest Hemingway, he thought simple language and straightforward sentences enriched by considerable direct dialog were best suited to realize his literary goals. He complained that literati sometimes read him too quickly and dismissed him as a dispenser of ethnic folk lore in an urban setting. He was willing to risk their disfavor to reach a mass audience with vivid accounts of his beloved Greek America. He was overjoyed when some of his stories and novels were adapted for programs appearing during television’s Golden Age and later in Hollywood. 

His comments about working in mass media were revealing. He considered himself lucky to have worked with prestigious directors such as Sam Peckinpah, but he was uncomfortable working in a Hollywood whose corporate bean-counters wanted to simplify his work in a way they thought would make it more appealing to a mass audience. Due to such pressures, Petrakis felt compelled to leave his role as script writer for his Dream of Kings. He also liked to describe, with humor, his quarrels with Anthony Quinn, who would play the bombastic Matsoukas, the film’s Zorba-like main character, who was as full of folly as wisdom.

Quinn wanted to make Matsoukas “more Greek.” Petrakis thought he had a better sense of what that entailed. He also wanted more of the script to deal with Emily, the wife of Leonidas Matsoukas, to be played by Irene Pappas. As is often the case in

Greek marriages, it was Emily’s quiet common sense and unexpected daring that made Matsoukas’ dream possible. Petrakis was never particularly happy about the Hollywood version of his most popular work.

Petrakis had a compelling speaking voice. For years, he augmented his income and enlarged his public, by readings at churches, universities, and literary centers. He diligently practiced his delivery by reading aloud to himself and often altered his text when he heard it spoken. I have often thought how only hearing him read his work gives a full sense of the nuances in his thought, and the complex rhythms in what seems a simple, intuitive writing style.

One of his most admirable books is Stelmark: A Family Reflection, a memoir of his youth. Its most dramatic sections deal candidly with a gambling addiction that almost ruined his life. What he writes here and in novels such as his Nick the Greek are frank accounts of the gambling culture of a considerable number of Greek Americans, a topic often ignored by formal historians.

Stelmark also offers accounts of growing up in Chicago’s Halsted Street community. He writes of being bedridden with tuberculosis for two years, a circumstance that resulted in binge reading at the rate of nearly a book a day. Due to the time lost in his bed-ridden years he was unable to finish high school. That same condition, however, fed his passion to write. While composing and submitting stories, he had various jobs, including working in a steel mill, serving as a railway express baggage handler, and running what he described as “the worst diner in Greek America.”

Petrakis’ commitment to writing wavered at times, but after being unpublished for ten years, his short story Pericles on 31st Street was accepted by the prestigious Atlantic Monthly. Shortly thereafter it was adapted to became the first story about Greek Americans to appear on American television. Other adaptations would follow. In his Song of My Life, published in 2014, Petrakis writes about his original successes bringing him to Hollywood. He freely admits how the social dynamics at play were very attractive, yet he understood, with considerable counsel from his wife, that by becoming part of the Hollywood crowd, he would inevitably lose the authenticity he brought to writing about Greek America. He left Hollywood and returned to live in Chicago

Petrakis was extremely proud of his Cretan heritage. His father, an Orthodox priest in Crete, moved his family to St. Louis in 1916. Seven years later, Petrakis was born. When he was six months old, the family moved to Chicago which Petrakis liked to call “my turf.” Many of his finest essays deal with the problem faced by Orthodox clergy regarding their parishes in the new world.

Petrakis often drew on his Cretan heritage, most strongly in his novel Days of Vengeance, a tale of two brothers continuing a feud from Crete in the minefields of Arizona. Petrakis also greatly admitted the literary dynamism brought to Greek literature by fellow Cretan Nikos Kazantzakis.

While not a politically engaged activist, Petrakis was fiercely democratic. He loathed the Greek junta of 1967-1974 and vigorously opposed America’s war in Vietnam. Some of his stories take on the issues of the relationship of Greek-Americans to other ethnics, including African Americans. Underscoring his concerns was a wariness of abusive governments.

Petrakis’ passion for Hellenism led him to study the Greek war of independence. He was appalled by the bloody cost of the heroic war but inspired by the Greek victory. In trips to historical sites, he saw that events could not have taken place as depicted in patriotic texts. He decided to write three novels about the revolution that would strive to avoid mythologizing the valor of the Greeks. His Hour of the Bell (1976) dealt with the onset of the revolution and his The Shepherds of Shadows (2009) dealt with the middle years of the revolution with a magnificent evocation of Lord Byron. The third novel never materialized due to health problems, but his two existing works are inspiring and candid accounts of the revolution that Greek-Americans are joyously celebrating two hundred years later.

Manty stories written by Petrakis as he aged were set in the villages from which the Greek pioneering generation had emigrated. He was conscious of exploring the cultural continuity of Greek virtues while never fearing to deal with its shortcomings.  His devotion to Hellenism never flagged. Until the weeks just before his death, he was still writing new stories and publishing essays in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the National Herald, and other newspapers.

Where Harry Mark Petrakis will stand in American literature is still too early to judge, but I suspect his prestige will increase. His evocation of the lives of the Greek pioneering generation has no significant rivals and blends with the larger sagas of the fifteen million immigrants from all nations that compromise the Great Migration that reshaped America.

One of Petrakis’ enduring gifts is his marvelous ability to focus on the everyday life of ordinary people. But in one of his later works, he made of point of stating that “when the surface is stripped away, there isn’t any such thing as an ordinary life because each solitary human being reaffirms the magical, revelatory nature of life.” That conviction inhabits his work and is worthy of a thoughtful revisit by Greeks and the American public in general. 

Dan Georgakas wrote the introduction to Petrakis’ Song of My Life. He is director of the Greek American Studies Project at Queens College and is available at dangeorgakas.AGsites.net.


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