Harry Mark Petrakis/ Author's Bio
CHICAGO has has its share of realist writers who never formed
a school, but each had his own turf to explore. For Theodore Dreiser it
was social inequality, for Saul Bellow it was the intellectual Jew, for
Nelson Algren it was the Division Street Poles and for Harry Mark Petrakis
it was the Halsted Street Greeks in Chicago’s Greek Town. 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
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 Literatire 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.
1. Harry Mark Petrakis, “In Praise of ‘The Treasure House,’ the community library,” Chesterton Tribune, June 11, 2007.
2. For the confrontations between blacks and Greeks in Chicago’s South Side see Petrakis’ essay-memoir, “Achilles on 61st Street,” The Chicago Sun-Times, March 22, 2009.