New York.- (GreekNewsOnline)
Harry Mark Petrakis ( June 5, 1923 – February 2, 2021) was an American novelist and writer of short stories. He was best known for depicting the life of Greek-American immigrants in the Greektown neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. He died at his long time home near Chesterton, Indiana in February 2021 at the age of 97, of what relatives said was old age.
Archbishop Elpidophoros of America has expressed his grief over the death of Greek-American author Harry Mark Petrakis.
“The passing this week of Harry Mark Petrakis, a literary giant of the Omogeneia and a loving scribe of the Greek-American experience, is a profound loss to our community and to the world. But his work will endure for generations to come, even as his memory will be eternal!,” Elpidophoros said in a message on social media.
Harry Mark Petrakis’ parents, Rev. Mark and Stella Petrakis, came to America from the Greek island of Crete in 1916. He was born in St. Louis in 1923, the fifth of six children, where his father, a Greek orthodox priest was serving. Six months later, the family moved to Chicago’s South Side, an immigrant inner-city neighborhood where Harry grew up and where his younger sister was born. His father served the parish of Sts. Constantine and Helen on Chicago’s South Side until his death in 1951. At the age of eleven, Harry contracted tuberculosis, which kept him bedridden for two years. He passed his time reading avidly whatever he could find – usually a book every few days. When he had recovered, he continued his reading in the neighborhood library. As he has written: “I recall the palpable excitement I felt as I prowled the shelves searching for books to read. In a fascination fostered by my two year period of illness, I savored the touch and appearance of books.”1He ended his formal education while still in high school while holding a series of jobs including the steel mills and the railways express baggage platform. When he was twenty-two, he married Diane Perparos, whom he had known since grammar school, and they have three sons and four grandchildren.
Petrakis started writing short stories in the late 1940s. As he tells us: “What that discipline taught me was tightness and terseness of language. In other words, I set my scenes with a few fragments of language and, as a consequence, write sparingly. That training in the short story prevented my writing thick, lengthy novels.” And Petrakis continuous saying: “Chicago remains my turf. More and more over the years Halsted Street has been my patch of ground. But I blend the real Halsted Street with the mythical Halsted Street. I populate it with many shops that don’t exist and I populate the neighborhood with many more Greeks of various occupations than really live there.” However, for a decade rejection slips kept piling up at a frustrating rate. It wasn’t till 1955 that his first short story, Pericles on 31st Street was published by the venerable Atlantic Monthly, and 1959 that Little Brown published his first novel, the immigrant story, Lion at My Heart. More novels followed like The Odyssey of Kostas Volakis (1963) about a Greek in a new land, the best selling A Dream of Kings (1966), the post-Viet-Nam, In the Land of Morning (1973), Nick the Greek (1979), Days of Vengeance (1983), and others.
In his work, Petrakis examines the plight of the Greek immigrants as they search for the American dream. He knew from his father the conditions of the Greek coalminers in Utah, where Father Mark Petrakis had first been assigned when he arrived from Crete. He knew first- hand the confrontations with blacks in the Depression years as they migrated from the Jim Crow south to Chicago.2 He knew the gangsters, the gamblers, he himself being addicted for a while, and the lonely, burnt out old men. He knew the Greek restaurants, the Greek sweet shops, the Greek floral shops. His realism sometimes bothered other Greeks who felt he was often defining an unflattering Greek-American portrait. In 1970, when he was not yet 50, Petrakis published his frank autobiography, Stelmark: A Family Recollection, where the roots of most of his literary work can be discerned in family memoirs of ancestral Crete and his own personal experiences in Midwestern America.
But Petrakis had long felt the need to return to the Greek War of Independence (1821-1830), and at first conceived a trilogy of three historic novels, and the extensive research required, to offer his readers a heroic, tragic, and compassionate saga of the conflict that created modern Greece. The first, The Hour of the Bell (Doubleday, 1976), was about the outbreak of the Greek Revolution. Over thirty years later, came the second, The Shepherds of Shadows (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009).
In the autumn of 2014, The University of South Carolina Press published a new memoir entitled Song of My Life, that revisits many of the places and people that appeared in his earlier biography Stelmark from 1970, but this time looking back on the arc of his life from the perspective of a 91-year old.
Harry Mark Petrakis has won the annual O. Henry Award, given to short story writers of exceptional merit, and the Chicago Public Library’s Carl Sandburg Award. He has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction. In addition to the honorary Doctor of Literature he holds from the American College of Greece degree, he holds honorary degrees from the University of Illinois, Roosevelt University, Hellenic College, Governors State University and Indiana University, Northwest.
The Halsted Street Greeks in Chicago’s Greek Town was Harry Mark Petrakis’ turf to explore. Of his 21 novels, short story collections, essays, and autobiographies, the most famous is A Dream of Kings (1966), set in Chicago, which made it on the New York Times Best Seller List, followed by a Bantam Books paperback edition, became a Doubleday Book Club choice, had twelve foreign editions and was made into a motion picture (1969) starring Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas.
The New York Times has called him: “one of our finest writers,” and Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer has written: “Harry Mark Petrakis is good news in American literature.” He has taught as a visiting lecturer, and as a writer-in-residence in various American universities, as well as holding the Nikos Kazantzakis Chair in Modern Greek Studies at San Francisco State University (1992). In 2004 the American College of Greece in Athens presented him with an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters Degree.
Chicago Sun Times
“Chicago Sun-Times obituary says that “when Harry Mark Petrakis began his writing career imagining characters he later admitted knowing little about, he earned nothing for 10 years but rejection notes. But when he turned his eye to his community of immigrants in Chicago’s Greektown and wrote a short story about an old Greek hot dog vendor, he finally sold a story in 1956 to the Atlantic magazine. The story, “Pericles on 31st Street,” launched a long career that made him one of Chicago’s best-known authors.
“He passed away imperceptibly, like the flutter of a sparrow’s wing, seemingly without struggle, with my brother and his wife by his bedside,” his son Mark Petrakis said.
Mr. Petrakis “was a major figure, certainly in 20th century Chicago literature,” said author Stuart Dybek. “He was part of a movement that was national at the time, with Chicago in the forefront, in which America claimed its identity through its ethnic writers.”
“Harry was among the most exuberant writers to walk the streets of Chicago,” said Henry Kisor, a retired book editor of the Sun-Times and author of 10 books. “He belongs right up there with Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, Sandra Cisneros and others who showed how ordinary Chicagoans could be extraordinary Americans. He really should have been better known, although he was hardly a neglected author.”
“I view Harry Mark Petrakis as one of the greatest Chicago writers throughout our history,” said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and president of the Society of Midland Authors, of which Mr. Petrakis was a longtime member. “He gave a unique voice to the Greek community and to the entire human community.”
In his later years, Mr. Petrakis turned to writing occasional essays about his recollections for the Sun-Times’ Opinion section, many of them set in the 1930s and 1940s. Among his topics were a woman with a disfigured face who finally found her true love; young men waiting to see when they would be called to war; a passionate racetrack bettor; a story-telling high-school ROTC commander; his thoughts of suicide when he mistakenly believed he had ALS; his youthful gambling addition, and his various early jobs, including hauling 400-pound blocks of ice and owning a small diner called “Art’s Lunch” (a name he didn’t change because he couldn’t afford a new sign). His final Sun-Times essay appeared in October.
The Song of the Life
of Harry Mark Petrakis
In a three part exclusive interview with Vicki James Yiannias, for the “Greek News”, Harry Mark Petrakis was asked what impact he thinks his writing has had on the Greek American community, or what his writing might mean to that community; and finally, if he thinks of himself as a Greek writer.
“ Honestly, I don’t think about it. It’s gratifying, but I don’t think of myself as a Greek writer with only Greek causes. I write of the Greek because that was my background; I grew up in an immigrant community comprised of Greek and Jewish and Italian families. My first experiences were Greek school and Greek church, so as I began to write it would be natural that I turned to my background. Isaac Bashevis Singer writing of the Jewish shtetls in Poland, writing of the intellectual Jews… at a certain point you cross a threshold and you enter the realm of grief and sorrow and loss and joy. Those aren’t Greek and German and Jewish and Polish, they’re universal. So I write of human beings. That they happen to be Greek is because my background is Greek. I never think of them as distinctively Greek. I write of those things they share with other human beings, and give them the little prejudices that go with the Greek, as well… we all have them. Every nationality has different ones.”
Please read the three part exclusive interview of Harry Mark Petrakis, with Vicki James Yiannias, for the “Greek News”
Harry Mark Petrakis on the Occasion
of the 30th Anniversary of UHAC
November 21st, 2005
Your Eminence, Ambassador Negroponte, Ambassador Mallias, Members of UHAC, Friends,
As a boy growing up in my father’s south side parish in Chicago in the 1930s, our neighborhood was a village transplanted from Greece. There were six children in our family then, and my father and mother. Our lives, revolved around the church.
The most significant event of the year was Easter, Pascha. We fasted then for the forty days, truly fasted, not haphazardly as we do it now. My father, the parish priest, fasted most stringently, his countenance growing pale. We fasted sternly enough so on the morning of communion when I was ten years old, unbalanced by hunger. I spotted a banana in the kitchen, peeled it and took a single bite as my mother walked in and let loose a shriek of dismay.
We went to church and the moment came for communion. I knelt with my mother before the altar. My father gave her communion, As he bent with the chalice to me, my mother said, “Marko,( my father’s name,)” to paidi efage ena komati banana. Bore na metalabi?”
My father somberly shook his head. My mother took my hand and we walked the ten miles from the altar to the rear of the church. And on the faces of the parishioners we passed I saw their horror. What had this boy done that his own father rejected him at the altar? Murder, arson, pillage…and I wanted to cry out to all of them it was only a banana, one piece of a banana!”
Easter culminated in the night of Anastasis. At midnight the church plunged into darkness. And in that darkness a single candle lit and from that candle hundreds of candles gleaming like stars on the waves of night. “Christos Anesti! We cried. Christ is Risen. Alithos Anesti the response. Truly He is Risen. And in that moment we felt sanctified and redeemed ourselves.
Home then to the great Easter dinner, lamb, mageritsa, cracking the blood red eggs, afterwards collapsing into bed. How securely we slept then, father and mother, brothers and sisters in rooms around our own, like sentries in the darkness, guarding our sleep.
The second most important event of our year was the March 25 celebration, commemorating the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence. We’d rehearse the heroic poems for weeks until the great day came. Dressed in our fustaneelas and vlahika we’d emerge trembling onto the stage. Our voices quavering we cried out the heroic poems. Remember? O KOLOKOTRONIS FONAXE KAI O TOURKOS TROMAXE! Kolokotronios cried out and the Turk trembled. And the other lovely poem that I remember to this day, GIA DES KAIRO POU DIALEXE O CHAROS NA ME PARI, TORA POU ANTHIZOUN TA KLADIA AND BGAZI I GI HORTARI. How strange that death should come for me now, the hero Diakos said, now when all the Earth is bursting into flower.
In all the celebration of that event commemorating the outbreak of the Greek War of Liberation, I do not recall much being said about the almost four hundred years of slavery endured by the Greeks. Stop for a moment and imagine tht span of time.
Babies born slaves, growing into adulthood, marrying, bearing children of their own, if they were fortunate growing into old age and dying, still slaves. Generation after generation until a memory of their land being free must have receded into the mists of the past.
The revolt broke out followed by ten savage years of war. Entire communities massacred, islands destroyed, the men killed, the women and children sold in the slave bazaars of Asia. There were brutal massacres on both sides. Let us be fair. Warfare releases primeval passions.
Victory finally, but the great powers, Russia, France, England, concerned then as now only with their self interest allocated only a portion of Greece to be free. 800,000 liberated, 2 million left enslaved. The Ionian Islands, Thessaly, Macedonia, western Thrace, a part of Epirus and the eastern Aegean islands all remained in bondage. Also excluded my father and mother’s island of Kriti. By that culpable decision Cretans were granted the right to fight and die in a series of revolts for seventy-five years before gaining their freedom. An old Cretan once in Chania speaking of those decades of anguish with so many palikaria dead, said to me, “TA BOUNA KLAPSANE, PAIDI MOU. The mountains wept, my son.”
That legacy of suffering and survival through the centuries is the miracle of Hellas. From the time of the Persian invasions, through centuries of Roman and Ottoman rule, through two world wars, the Balkan wars, an Italian invasion and German occupation among the most brutal imposed on any conquered land in history, through two civil wars, famine, and a series of military coups, Greece has managed to endure and to survive. That is the miracle of Hellas.
I never say that my heritage is better than that of anyone else. That way lies intolerance and bigotry and bloodshed. But as I consider America my fatherland, for as long as I live, Greece, that small, tragic, lovely land will remain my motherland. It is in my blood and in my heart, born of those days of my childhood, in church and school, living among immigrants who brought parts of Greece here with them as they struggled to make a place for themselves in this new land.
I am truly grateful to be a small part of that rich, suffering legacy of survival, part of the miracle of Hellenism. And I would not trade having been born the son of a poor parish priest from the blessed island of Kriti to have been born a prince of some royal house.