Harry Mark Petrakis Biography
Harry Mark Petrakis comments:
Nationality: American. Born: St. Louis, Missouri, 1923. Education: The University of Illinois, Urbana, 1940-41. Career: Has worked in steelmills, and as a real estate salesman, truck driver, and sales correspondent. Since 1960 freelance writer and lecturer. Taught at the Indiana University Writers Conference, Bloomington, 1964-65, 1970, 1974; McGuffey Visiting Lecturer, Ohio University, Athens, 1971; writer-in-residence, Chicago Public Library, 1976-77, and for the Chicago Board of Education, 1978-80; taught at Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, 1978-79, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, 1978 and 1980, University of Wisconsin, Rhinelander, 1978-80, and University of Rochester, New York, 1979-80; Nikos Kazantzakis Professor, San Francisco State University, 1992. Awards: Atlantic Firsts award, 1957; Benjamin Franklin citation, 1957; Friends of American Writers award, 1964; Friends of Literature award, 1964; Carl Sandburg award, 1983; Ellis Island Medal of Honor, 1995. D.H.L.: University of Illinois, 1971; Governors State University, Park Forest South, Illinois, 1980; Hellenic College, Brookline, Massachusetts, 1984. L.H.D.: Roosevelt University, Chicago, 1987.
Lion at My Heart. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Gollancz, 1959.
The Odyssey of Kostas Volakis. New York, McKay, 1963.
A Dream of Kings. New York, McKay, 1966; London, Barker, 1967.
In the Land of Morning. New York, McKay, 1973.
The Hour of the Bell. New York, Doubleday, 1976; London, SevernHouse, 1986.
Nick the Greek. New York, Doubleday, 1979; London, New EnglishLibrary, 1980.
Days of Vengeance. New York, Doubleday, 1983; London, Sphere, 1985.
Ghost of the Sun. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1990.
Pericles on 31st Street. Chicago, Quadrangle, 1965.
The Waves of Night and Other Stories. New York, McKay, 1969.
A Petrakis Reader. New York, Doubleday, 1978.
Collected Stories. Chicago, Lake View Press, 1987.
A Dream of Kings, with Ian Hunter, 1969; In the Land of Morning, 1974; Ghost of the Sun, with John Petrakis, 1994.
Pericles on 31st Street, with Sam Peckinpah, from the story by Petrakis, and The Judge, with Bruce Geller (both in Dick Powell Show), 1961-62; The Blue Hotel, from the story by Stephen Crane, 1978; Song of Songs, with John Petrakis, from the story by Petrakis, 1994.
The Founder's Touch: The Life of Paul Galvin of Motorola. NewYork, McGraw Hill, 1965.
Stelmark: A Family Recollection (autobiography). New York, McKay, 1970.
Reflections: A Writer's Life, A Writer's Work. Chicago, Lake ViewPress, 1983.
Tales of the Heart: Dreams and Memories of a Lifetime. Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 1999.
In Old Northwest (Oxford, Ohio), December 1976; interview in Chicago Review, Winter 1977; Hellenes and Hellions by Alexander Karanikas, Urbana, University of Illinios Press, 1981.
(1991) My task now as I reach the threshold of seventy (how swiftly a lifetime has passed) is to find that language born of the years I have lived that expresses my vision now, a language that belongs to a mature age.
What I feel now is gratefulness because from an early age I was allowed to discover what I wished to do. For all the insecurities, my vocation has never failed to provide me those moments, however rare, when I could say with a figure in an old Greek chorus, "still there surges within me a singing magic."
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In a book of personal recollections, Stelmark, Harry Mark Petrakis confirms what the reader of his novels would guess: that Petrakis is the son of Greek immigrants to the United States. He is in fact a second generation man who is intent on estimating the meaning of his presence in a country that is far from the Crete of his ancestors. To the territory of South Chicago, Petrakis's father, a Greek Orthodox priest, brought the recollections of a strange and noble sort of life where poverty was the foreground of an existence lived in an awesome setting of mountains and an equally demanding texture of ancient custom and suffering. As a young man, Petrakis was impressed by the interplay of his inheritance and the sections of American culture that he came into contact with in the land of promise: the narrow opportunities of a great and indifferent city, the materialism of Midwestern life as the immigrants encountered it and the continuation of the pride and violence that crossed the Atlantic with the Greek immigrants. It is this basic contrast between America as dreamed in the Cretan valleys and America as experienced by an ethnic minority that gives Petrakis his subject.
It is a subject full of challenges to Petrakis's novelistic imagination. And that imagination is equal to the passions, the disappointments, and the envies of the newcomers among whom, as a mediator and creator, Petrakis has lived his artistic life. He has created a striking company of persons who are, as Kurt Vonnegut has observed, at least 14 feet tall. These persons are swept by passions that are awesome when they are compared with the feebler desires and lesser dignities of men and women who have had several generations to adapt to the conditions of American life. The male figures still know the Greek versions of omertà, the Sicilian code of honor. These men act on the basis of personal pride and have loyalties that bind them less to American society than to family and a few close acquaintances. They have a sentimental vision of the cruel and impoverished land they—or their parents—fled. There is a dual center to their lives. One center is the church, whose ministers they respect, but whose teachings they put aside as having little to do with the lives of Greeks in South Chicago. The other center, more compulsive for them, is the world of cheap restaurants, backroom gambling dens that are full of con-men and bookies, and seedy offices above grocery stores where, as in A Dream of Kings, palms are read and advice is given to clients who do not know where to turn in a society that has scant tolerance for new arrivals. This male world has, in large part, a cold indifference for wives and mistresses; women are tolerated because men must have sons or because sexual desires must find expression. Sincere and deep affection is known to some of the men, as in The Odyssey of Kostas Volakis. But even so, the hopes of women remain alien to male concerns and are seldom respected or shared.
Mention of particular novels fills out this general description. Lion at My Heart, Petrakis's first novel, rehearses the fortunes of an immigrant household made up of a father and two sons. The father, with pride and suspicion, watches over the education and the marriages of his two sons, esteeming the son who takes a Greek wife and repudiating the son who marries "outside." A priest, a familiar figure in the novels, intervenes to mollify the father's harshness. The Odyssey of Kostas Volakis tells a similar story. Kostas is a young Cretan man who married a slightly older woman for her dowry, which pays for the passage to America. The novel traces stages in Kostas's adjustment to his new land: his struggle as a restaurant owner, his overcoming of his illiteracy, and—most important—his final forgiveness of his murderer-son who has disgraced his family.
A Dream of Kings explores a slightly higher social level and tells of the life of Masoukas the palm-reader and consultant, half charlatan and half-concerned adviser, by turns a compulsive gambler and adulterer. But Masoukas's dreams are fixed on an ailing son, for whose cure everything must be sacrificed. A journey to the sacred land of Greece will restore the health of the child and, perhaps, of the father. In another novel with a Chicago setting, In the Land of Morning, Petrakis moves into the post-Vietnam American world where the shock of a veteran's return is gradually merged with the ongoing tumult of life in the community. All this is a passionate and sad human encounter which the reader can find elsewhere in Petrakis, as in the collections of short stories, Pericles on 31st Street and The Waves of Night. Petrakis circles back to such themes—Greeks in a strange land—in Nick the Greek. Here the hero, Nick Dandalos, comes to the United States in the 1920s and allows himself to be drawn into the gambling life of Chicago, all at the cost of a sound future and a happy love affair. Particularly strong are the gambling scenes which take readers back to a distant time in the Greek community.
A bit to one side is The Hour of the Bell. This novel is an account of the revolution that commenced in Greece in 1820 when a confused but finally successful revolt against Turkish power began. Instead of finding the usual cultural enclave in South Chicago, the reader moves back and forth over the tumultuous Greek landscape, which is seen through various eyes: those of military leaders, some savage, some resigned to years of violence; those of a priest who respects the humanity of the slaughtered Turks; and those of an educated young man who is trying to write the history of the confusion that surrounds him. With his usual power, Petrakis, as it were, adds the completing piece to the Greek-American puzzle that is his concern. The Hour of the Bell is the "explanation" of the pride and the harsh tauntings and the intermittent tenderness that the novels about South Chicago record.
It is a record that is made up of prose of varying textures: realistic and poetically fierce by turns. The result is an indispensable report and also an imaginative world that takes its place along with the works of fiction—Chekhov's and others—that, Petrakis tells us, used to make him weep as a youth.
Harold H. Watts