In a writing career spanning more than half a century, Harry Mark Petrakis (b. 1923) has produced 20 novels, numerous short story collections, scores of essays and non-fictional books, including autobiography. His most famous works include the novels Days of Vengeance, A Dream of Kings, and The Hour of the Bell, among others.
Petrakis is a realist writer who does not hesitate to probe all aspects of immigrant humanity. He explores compassion and faith but also undisciplined passions, moral flaws, and ethnocentrism. Spousal abuse and domestic violence are not absent from his stories. While women struggle to negotiate the traditions that confine them, they are seen, at the same time, as possessing sensual and domestic power.
Petrakis' characters are flawed yet emotionally and morally complex. Because they are portrayed in their full humanity, they challenge the positive stereotype of "model" ethnicity. His emphasis on their humanity is the reason why he has touched a sensitive nerve among some Greek Americans. As Charles Moskos writes, "Although Petrakis has received literary awards and recognition, his writings have also raised the ire of some touchy Greek Americans who felt they were maligned as a group."
Petrakis casts a penetrating glance at the social consequences of non-conformity. Individuals, who transgress community norms or take an unpopular public stance, suffer marginalization and even ostracism. In this respect, he does not hesitate to interrogate the American dream and to show us that hard work and good citizenship do not always translate into socio-economic success. Racism and economic exploitation can also contribute to a person's failure.
Petrakis wishes to be remembered in relation to the oral story-telling tradition. This is how he sees his legacy:
In the end, [this is] what I think I am and how I would like to be remembered. A storyteller in the tradition of those old tellers of tales whose voices lingered in firelights as they conjured for their listeners another life more real, for a while, than the one they were living. As a storyteller visiting libraries and many schools, I have been witness to the delight of young and old audiences at stories.
Indeed, audiences fortunate enough to experience his public speaking have attested to Petrakis' gripping oratory. A performative bard, Petrakis has fashioned a life as an author for whom "writing is an act of faith [through which] one creates a quality of life as much for oneself as for others." His enormous investment to realize himself as a writer is eloquently described in his Reflections: A Writer's Life, a Writer's Work.
Scholars, such as Alexander Karanikas, Yiorgos Kalogeras, and Yiorgos Anagnostou, have written about his literary contributions. Karanikas has analyzed how Petrakis uses interactions between immigrants and the mainstream to structure plot, choose settings, and develop characters. Kalogeras has examined the "specific use Petrakis makes of classical myths and of Modern Greek history and folklore, and how he understands them to reflect a cultural transformation." Anagnostou has explored how he depicts the transformation of immigrants into ethnic Americans. And he has noted the significance that the Petrakis family assigned to Greek Orthodoxy as an ethic of love and compassion to counter racism.
In an interview to the Chicago Tribune, Moskos calls Petrakis "the Greek-American Saul Bellow." In the same journalistic piece, Vassilis Lambropoulos portrays Petrakis as "a realist novelist who addresses all the important issues of class, gender, ethnicity, religion, identity, equality and ancestry that the average American reader-voter-worker cares about." But despite the relevance of his work, Petrakis' corpus does not enjoy popularity among graduate students. This neglect is explained in view of academic trends among literary critics. "Petrakis' straight-forward approach to writing is out of fashion among literary critics. It is not experimental. It is not playful. It is not trendy PhD material," Lambropoulos is quoted as saying. "He's more in the tradition of The Scarlet Letter than Moby Dick." Therefore, as journalist Pat Reardon remarks, Petrakis "is more likely today to be included in an ethnic studies course than in a literature class." His diverse corpus invites research on ethnic memory, connections between ethnic Americans and their families' ancestral home, inter-ethnic and inter-racial relations, cultural change, working-class immigrants, poverty, unfulfilled lives, fictional representations of history, and the social experience of aging.
Petrakis has dedicated his life to writing, his act of faith. Not a single day went by for Petrakis without his struggling with the challenges of writing. Here are two telling excerpts from his diaries:
Steinbeck wrote of proceeding slowly, a step at a time, one hour and one day at a time. That is how it must be done or the immensity of what I am attempting to do will render me immobile.
It has taken me three hours to write a single page and I know that will not be the final draft. At this rate how long will a book of six hundred pages take to write? Feeling melancholy and resigned, I resist sadness.
We thank him for persevering in the task of writing.
Anagnostou, Yiorgos. 2008. Contours of White Ethnicity: Popular Ethnography and the Making of Usable Pasts in Greek America. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press
Anagnostou, Yiorgos. 1993-94. "Anthropology and Literature: Crossing Boundaries in a Greek-American Novel." In Fantasy or Ethnography? Irony and Collusion in Subaltern Representation. Sabra Webber and Margaret R. Lynd, eds. Papers in Comparative Studies Vol. 8, 195-220.
Kalogeras, Yiorgos. 1986. "Disintegration and Integration: The Greek-American Ethos in Harry Mark Petrakis' Fiction." Melus Vol. 13 (3): 27-36.
Karanikas, Alexander. 1981. Hellenes and Hellions: Modern Greek Characters in American Literature. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Karanikas, Alexander. 1989. "Varieties of Interface in the Greek Immigrant Novel." Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora, Vol. XVI (1-4): 37-46.
Moskos, Charles. 1989. Greek Americans: Struggle and Success. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Petrakis, Harry Mark. 1983. Reflections: A Writer's Life, a Writer's Work. Chicago, IL: Lake View Press.
Reardon, T. Patrick. 2005. "Harry Mark Petrakis: Back in the Zone; it's all Greektown to this 81-year-old writer." Chicago Tribune, March 31.