“Going Native”: The Unusual Case of George Cram CookPosted: August 1, 2013
In The Road to Temple, a biography of George Cram Cook, his wife, author Susan Glaspell wrote: “He liked the shepherd’s clothes, worn also by the peasants. A grey or black tunic, white tights of beautiful wool from the sheep of Parnassos, spun and woven by the women, heavy half-shoes crowned with poms-poms, and a little black skull cap.” Cook had adopted this attire when he decided to move to Greece in 1922 and make Delphi and Mount Parnassus his new home. By January 1924, Cook had died of glanders (contracted from his pet dog) and was buried at Delphi, a column drum from the Temple of Apollo marking his grave. Glaspell published The Road to Temple only two years later.
I did not know who George Cram Cook (nicknamed “Jig”) was until a few years ago. While reading the diaries of archaeologist Dorothy Burr Thompson, I discovered by happenstance the following entry for October 15, 1923: “At supper G. Cram Cook, husband of Susan Glaspell, appeared in Greek costume in the restaurant –looking handsome and ridiculous. He is writing four plays on modern Greece…” There is one more entry in Thompson’s diary about Cook. On January 16, 1924 she mentions his death: “G. Cram Cook died of hydrophobia in Delphi – poor man, his four plays unfinished.” One senses some slight sarcasm in her remark.
My second literary encounter with the name of George Cram Cook came soon afterwards when I read Upward Panic. The Autobiography of Eva Palmer-Sikelianos, edited by John P. Anton. Writing about Angelos Sikelianos’ poetry and her desire to see his poems translated, Eva Palmer wrote: “Once I took heart when George Cram Cook came to Greece. He became ecstatic when Anghelos recited, and then translated for him some of his shorter poems. He vowed that his life work, from then on, would be to leave everything Anghelos had written adequately translated into English. He actually began enthusiastically to study modern Greek; he really seemed to love and understand what he had heard, and I felt then my hope would be realized. But “Jig” died within the year; and so far, no one has taken his place” (Anton 1993, 71).
Glaspell does not mention Jig’s encounter with Sikelianos, only his interactions with Leandros Palamas (the not-so-popular son of poet Kostis Palamas). Cook, however, must have had spent significant time in the company of contemporary Greek poets in Athens, because, after his death, it was “at the request of poets of Greece [that] the Government decreed that one of the great fallen stones from the Temple of Apollo be moved from its place to be used as headstone. Such a thing had never been done in Greece before” wrote Glaspell (1926, 343). It was also Leandros Palamas who wrote the introduction to the Greek translation of Cook’s play “Athenian Women” published by ΕΣΤΙΑ in 1926.
The third time I encountered George Cram Cook’s name was a few months ago while reading Elias Venezis’ American Earth, his chronicle of a journey to the United States in 1949. While visiting Massachusetts, Venezis asked his guide if he knew what had happened to Cook after his Provincetown days. When his guide confessed ignorance, Venezis proudly informed his friend that Cook’s final resting place was in Delphi “συντροφευμένος από μια κολόνα του Ιερού των Δελφών.” (Venezis 1955 , 301). As late as 1949, Cook’s displays of philhellenism were still vivid in Venezis’s memory. At some subsequent point, however, his name sank into oblivion, since in 1997, at an international conference celebrating the 70th anniversary of the revival of the Delphic Games, there was no mention of Cook in numerous published papers —despite the fact that Eva Palmer Sikelianos is buried in a grave near his (Ben-Zvi 2005a, 289).
But who was George Cram Cook? (I draw most of my information from an essay published by G. Thomas Tanselle in 1976.) Born in 1873 in Davenport, Iowa and raised in an affluent environment, Cook was educated at the University of Iowa, Harvard (under Charles Eliot Norton), Heidelberg, and Geneva. As a playwright, novelist, and poet, he showed signs of nonconformist behavior early on. Although he believed that a writer should not be economically dependent on his craft, he found his teaching career restrictive and gave it up. He lamented the general subordination of the scholar to the administrator “which lies like a black frost over the life of our institutions of learning” (Glaspell 1926, 91).
An acolyte of Nietzche at first, Cook later embraced Marxism, but above all he was an idealist who surrendered himself with fleeting passion to new ideas. Married three times in less than a decade, Cook finally found emotional balance in the independent and talented Susan Glaspell. Among scholars of American literature, he is best known as co-founder with Glaspell of the Provincetown Players (1915-1922), an innovative theatrical scheme to promote American plays, and for his “discovery” of playwright Eugene O’Neill. But when O’Neill left Provincetown for Broadway, Cook felt betrayed and it was then that he and Glaspell decided to fulfill his ambition of moving to Greece.
As a student at Harvard, he and his friend John Alden had fantasized about Greece. In a letter to his mother (Glaspell 1926, 47) he wrote “I sit here and dream of Greece. I hear –see-the blue waves of the Aegean beating on the shore.” After graduation he did travel to Heidelberg and Geneva but not Greece. The landscape in Iowa continued to oppress him after his return and he returned to his Greek dream. “I live in a flat inland; I wish to live where the mountains meet the sea… I’d like to build a cabin near a village of mountain shepherds, with a path winding down dark rocks to the blue-green sea… Why not a Greek Thoreau, living with Homer and the mountains, the olives, the grapes, the fish, the shepherds, the sailors, and the sea? Winter in Athens with scholars and people and the Parthenon! I’ll do it as soon as I can” (Glaspell 1926, 66). But it would be twenty-seven more years before he finally said to Susan “it is time to go to Greece” (Glaspell 1926, 240).
Cook and Glaspell arrived in 1922 and almost immediately moved to Mount Parnassus, where they lived in the village of Delphi during the winter and on the mountain in self-made huts during the summer. Cook’s 12 year-old daughter Nilla followed them. In the winter of 1923, Nilla attended the newly established “Junior College for Girls” (now known as Pierce College) in Old Phaleron, Athens. She was the only American pupil.
When Cook died in early January of 1924, he and Glaspell had lived in Delphi for less than two years. The question that comes to mind is, of course: How long would Cook’s Greek phase have lasted, had he lived longer?
American and British archaeologists living in Greece would frequently dress themselves in a “fustanella” in the 1930s, as Kostis Kourelis has recently commented. Kourelis suggests that those with Presbyterian beliefs or from Presbyterian colleges likely had fewer qualms about dressing in a Greek traditional costume because it evoked their own traditional costume (the Scottish or Celtic kilt). The Archives of the American School of Classical Studies contain several photos of American archaeologists dressing native much earlier, in the first decade of the 20th century.
Cook’s case is, however, very different from the occasional native disguises of the Americans. Thus there is clear disapproval in Dorothy Burr Thompson’s description of him as “handsome and ridiculous.” For her, Cook must have gone too native. Reactions in the United States to Cook’s decision to go native were also equivocal in their praise. After his death, The Nation (January 24, 1924) wrote positively that “George Cram Cook was a Greek of the Periclean age, [who] strayed somehow out of his place and time into our more timid age; and after bruising himself by working a lifetime against realities which he was too eager to reshape, he strayed back again to what must have seemed his own country.” Percy Hutchison in his New York Times Book Review of Glaspell’s book went as far as to characterize Byron’s journey “superficial and tawdry” compared to Cook’s. But not everybody had such kind and exalted words for “Jig”. Upton Sinclair in Money Writes! (1927) was almost acidic when he described Cook as “a pitiful white-haired sot… wandering about lost among dirty and degraded peasants,” whose death resulted from alcoholism, not glanders.
Had Cook lived long enough to deliver on his promise to translate Sikelianos’ poetry into English, he might have steered early 20th century philhellenism in the direction of Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi a decade earlier. He was unlike most philhellenes of the first decades of the 20th century who came to Greece to see up close what they had been taught in the classrooms. If they thought of the modern Greeks at all, they were a “a mongrel race… no better than Turks” (Roessel 2002, 166). Cook, on the other hand, was genuinely interested in the land and its language. “The modern Greek, after two thousand years of wear and tear, [is] more beautiful than ancient Greek. The words are like pebbles rolled in the stream of two thousand years” wrote Cook in one of his letters (Glaspell, 282). His love for modern Greece so deeply impressed his literary companions in Athens that it was they who applied unprecedented pressure on the Greek Government to permit a column drum from the Temple of Apollo to serve as his grave marker. Although “Jig” Cook and his philhellenism are unknown to most members of the American School, I was pleased to discover that in 2008 the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Interdisciplinary Center for Hellenic Studies organized a symposium at Delphi entitled “Americans and the Experience of Delphi.” There were several papers that focused on Cook (in contrast to the event in 1997). Past Gennadeion Fellows David Roessel and Gonda Van Steen participated.
I have not seen Cook’s grave myself, but I am going to Delphi in late September to attend a conference on Virtual Reality. During a break I will climb to the cemetery to post a photograph of Cook’s grave as an addendum.
Meanwhile, The International Susan Glaspell Society (http://blogs.shu.edu/glaspellsociety) may interest my readers.
Anton, J. P. 1993. Upward Panic. The Autobiography of Eva Palmer-Sikelianos, Harwood Academic Publishers.
Ben-Zvi, L. 2005a. Susan Glaspell. Her Life and Times, Oxford.
Ben-Zvi, L. (ed.) 2005b. Susan Glaspell, The Road to Temple. A Biography of George Cram Cook, edited and with a New Introduction and Bibliography by Linda Ben-Zvi, Jefferson, North Carolina.
Cook, G.C. 1918. The Athenian Women: A Play (Translated into Greek by the author and revised by C. Carthaios. Introduction by Leandros K. Palamas. Athens 1926).
Glaspell, S. 1926. The Road to Temple, London.
Hutchison, P.A. 1927. “George Cram Cook Was a Modem Lycidas,” New York Times Book Review, March 13, 1927, pp. 2, 20.
Kourelis, K. 2009. “The Scottish Foustanella,” in Objects-Buidlings-Situations. Musings on architecture and archaeology by Kostis Kourelis, Saturday, June 27, 2009. http://kourelis.blogspot.gr/2009/06/irish-fustanella.html
Roessel, D. 2002. In Byron’s Shadow. Modern Greece in the English and American Imagination, Oxford.
Tanselle, G. T. 1976. “George Cram Cook and the Poetry of Living, with a Checklist,” Books at Iowa 24, pp. 3-30, 35-37.
Venezis, E. 1954 . Αμερικανική γη, Athens.
Dorothy Burr Thompson Papers, Bryn Mawr College Archives