Writing the American Immigrant Experience – Harry Mark Petrakis

Since the publication of his short story “Pericles on 31st Street” in the Atlantic Monthly in 1957,  Chicago-born novelist Harry Mark Petrakis has chronicled the experience of Greek Americans finding their place in an unfamiliar world.   His novels, including The Odyssey of Kostas Valakis, Nick the Greek, A Dream of Kings, and Ghost of the Sun, along with a wide range of short stories and memoirs, tell the stories of immigrants from Greece, their children and the people in their new land.

In some respects, his novels and stories are a modern embodiment of the Greek literary tradition.  His characters live large, complex and messy lives, even if their circumstances are humble.  His concerns range from the trials of everyday life to the grand sweep of history.   In his stories, life, death, love and hate exist side by side with the bonds and trials of family.  The Odyssey of Kostas Valakis, for example, follows the story of a young man and woman leaving their native Greece for a new life in America, starting a family, taking over a business, and experiencing the entire spectrum of human experience from uncontainable joy to unbearable tragedy.  The Hour of the Bell, on the other hand, chronicles the Greek war of independence from the Ottoman Turks in the early 19th century, presenting a larger picture of Greek history.

The story of Greeks in America, like that of other immigrant groups, is a coming together of past and present, comedy and tragedy.   In “Pericles on 31st Street,” Petrakis brings together the tradition of Greek history with a conflict between working men and those with power over them.   The story opens on a landlord who raises the rent on a building occupied by several small businesses.  The tenants rebel, channeling a spirit wrought by years of Greek resistance to oppression.  And in that sense, they tell a broader story of America.  The story is set in Chicago, but a similar story could also have been told about any number of immigrant groups in many cities.  Petrakis’ characters, by expressing their Greek heritage, embrace, or perhaps help to create, the American spirit of self-determination.

And like other writers concerned with the immigrant experience in America, Petrakis explores the underlying theme of identity.  There is both a conflict with and a coexistence between the old world of Greece and the often foreign ways of America.  Some characters view Greece and its culture as the tradition that defines them and that must be preserved.  Others view those same traditions as a set of shackles to be cast off.  In the short story “Dark Eye, ” for example, a young man clashes with his father, a Greek born puppeteer.   The father wants his son to carry on his tradition in America.  But the son wants to leave tradition behind and find his own path.  Again, while this story is about Greek Americans, anyone can read this story and find common ground with its characters.

As a member of the second generation in America, Petrakis has lived with Greek culture and embraced it as his own.  But he also grew up with American ideas and viewpoints.  Like so many Americans who grew up with more than one culture and language, he embodies through his work what America represents to so many people around the world.  That is the freedom to choose one’s destiny, whether that is adding one’s own culture to the new world or leaving that culture behind and creating a new one.

– Paul Holler

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