“A Greek Author Travels to the Country of the New Myth”: The Voyage of Elias Venezis to America in 1949Posted: April 1, 2014
This essay comprises the text of a talk that I presented in the Cotsen Hall auditorium of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA), April 9, 2013, at an evening devoted to novelist Elias Venezis, whose papers reside in the Archives of the Gennadius Library. The text was also published (in Greek ) in the “Athens Book Review,” in an issue dedicated to Venezis. Since my essay discusses two of Greece’s most important novelists’ impressions from their journeys to America, I thought that it also deserved to be published in English and be made available to an American audience (here, I must thank my friend and former colleague Stefanie Kennell for her wonderful translation). For half of my life I have studied and worked in a Greek-American environment; there interest lies in examining how foreigners (usually described as philhellenes) perceive(d) Greece, and it is rarely discussed, at least in the broader community of the American School, how Greeks experienced America at critical times, such as in the first decade following WW II. The two authors, Elias Venezis and Yiorgos Theotokas, traveled in America during the period of the Marshall plan and the beginning of the Cold War, just before strong anti-Americanism began developing in Greece. For both, the voyage to America was a journey to a mythical land — as implied by the title of this essay, which is drawn from the title of a talk (“Ένας Έλλην συγγραφεύς στη χώρα του νέου μύθου”) that Venezis delivered at the Greek American Cultural Institution in 1950, immediately after his return from America.
For those who are not familiar with Modern Greek Literature, I should also add a few remarks about the so-called literary “Generation of the Thirties.” As commonly employed, this term describes a group (all male) of novelists, poets, and artists, who came of age in the 1930s. These men continued to be very productive and influential in the following three decades, to the point that a myth with regenerative power was built around them, one that still aspires and inspires (Leontis 2013). Nobel-prize laureate poets Yiorgos Seferis and Odysseus Elytis, novelists Angelos Terzakis, Stratis Myrivilis, Elias Venezis and Yiorgos Theotokas, are some of the most accomplished and distinguished “members” of the “Generation of the Thirties.” The personal papers of most of them have been deposited in the Gennadius Library of the American School.
In 2009, at an event devoted to Yiorgos Theotokas and the republication of his Essay on America, I was introduced to Greek travel literature about America. Theotokas was among the first writers of the so-called “Generation of the Thirties” who visited America a few years after the end of World War II. While taking receipt of Elias Venezis’s personal papers in 2010, I came upon the manuscript of Land of America and then, in discussions with the author’s daughter, Anna Venezi Kosmetatou, I was made aware of the fact that Venezis was actually the first of the famous “Generation of the Thirties” to travel to the U.S., in 1949.
Except for Theotokas’ Essay on America (Δοκίμιο για την Αμερική), which had the good fortune to be re-published a few years ago, travel writing of this type is difficult or impossible to find on the shelves of Athenian bookstores. When I looked for Land of America at a well-known bookstore in downtown Athens, clerks told me that it was the first time they had heard that Venezis had written a book of this sort. Perhaps this is because, in the age of globalization, trips to America have lost some of the magic and myth that used to surround them. Already in the 1970s, as Vassilis Lambropoulos writes, “with the spread of cinema and even more the advent of television in Greece, travel writing is losing its primary function and sparkle. The public does not need the guidance of an eyewitness to get to know foreign countries.”
Unlike the other writers and intellectuals who visited the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, Venezis began his long journey without the support of the American government. The famous program of cultural exchanges sponsored by the the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, popularly known as the Smith-Mundt Act, does not seem to have been implemented immediately in Greece. What is certain is that Elias Venezis and his wife either did not know about or did not expect American government support when they decided in the summer of 1949 to cross the Atlantic. On the opposite shore was Venezis’s brother, Thanos Mellos and his wife, the mezzo-soprano Eleni Nikolaidi, who had settled there just a year before.
Thanos Mellos wrote to his brother Elias and his wife on May 6, 1949, from New York: “I’ve told Elias that a place has been confirmed for his trip to America on a merchant ship that sails from a port in France. Perhaps there’s a way he can embark even from Greece. The trip won’t cost a cent. The steamship owner’s a friend of ours, and he’s offering it to us for free. You only have to get your papers ready, Elias, and send me a telegram.”
On June 22, 1949, To Vima newspaper issued Venezis a special card that named him the newspaper’s special correspondent in the U.S., obviously to facilitate his acquiring a visa and staying in America. At almost the same time as their arrival in New York, his brother Thanos received a letter from the State Department dated July 20, 1949, that they had been informed of Elias Venezis’s arrival and would like to put the services of the Orientation and Service Department in New York at his disposal.
A second letter on August 9, 1949, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, invited him to visit farms in the New York area. The Venezis Archive in the Gennadius Library contains no other letter from an official U.S. body dated prior to September 6, 1949, when he received an announcement that, on the basis of the program of cultural exchanges between the U.S. and the countries of the eastern hemisphere (the Smith-Mundt Act), he was being offered financial support for two months so that he might visit places of interest to him professionally. In addition, he was being offered assistance in organizing his trip in the U.S.A., in “arranging an itinerary in harmony with your present interests.” From the State Department’s official press release on December 29, 1949, we ascertain that Elias Venezis was not only the first person from Greece but also the first from Europe and the eastern hemisphere to be awarded this particular grant by the State Department, which aimed to acquaint European intellectuals with the U.S. and to improve America’s image in Europe during the early years of the Cold War.
With this program’s support, many Greek writers would travel to the U.S.A. in the ensuing years. Right after Venezis followed M. Karagatsis (the pen name of Dimitrios Rhodopoulos), who wrote to Venezis from Cincinnati, September 29, 1950, “In America—and only in America—I’m following in your footsteps.” Yiorgos Theotokas went in 1952, and even Yiorgos Katsibalis, who was very negative at first, in 1954—“What am I looking for in America? . . . I’m gripped by hopelessness when I contemplate that I’ve got to spend three whole months as a prisoner of the Americans, who’ll hurl me from one end of their vast land to the other like a football [sc. soccer ball] without letting me catch my breath”—only to write to Υiorgos Seferis three months later, “My trip through America is drawing to a close. I began it in distress but continued it with full-blown enjoyment. It was something surprising. I was delighted with it” (Daskalopoulos 2009, vol. 2, 345-347, 353).
In fact, the State Department organized an itinerary for Venezis from the east to the west coast and from the northern part of the country to the south. On October 6, we find him in San Francisco, on the 11th in California’s Yosemite Park, and on the 13th in Los Angeles, which he found disappointing as a city: a “hodgepodge of provincial town and super-capital,” “expressionless,” and “characterless.” While in Los Angeles, he did not fail to visit Hollywood, “the world of illusion.” Katina Paxinou, the actress, had advised him when he told her how much time he was reckoning he should spend in Hollywood, “But why do you think you have to see it? A few hours and you’ll be done!” In the meantime, he already had a telegram in his hands from the mayor of Tucson, Arizona, who was expecting him on October 22, to celebrate Tucson becoming the sister city of Trikala in Greece.
From a letter that he sent to the Director of the Bank of Greece (and his superior) on November 19, 1949, we learn that, while Venezis was in the U.S., two major American newspapers, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, published extracts translated from his broadcasts on the Voice of America.
In his archive, Elias Venezis kept clippings from American and Greek community newspapers with articles about his trip, maps, guides, pamphlets from museums and parks, and anything else that could help him with the travel chronicle he was planning to write. Venezis’s impressions of his American trip were published by ESTIA in 1955 in a beautiful volume, illustrated by Spyros Vasileiou, entitled Land of America (Αμερικανική Γη).
Anyone familiar with Venezis’s work cannot but associate the title Land of America with that of his signature work Land of Aeoliα (Αιολική Γη). This was also pointed out in a critique by Andreas Karantonis, the pre-eminent critic of the “Generation of the Thirties,” who in a single article presented Land of America together with Yiorgos Theotokas’s Essay on America, which had been published by IKAROS just a year earlier, in 1954. Karantonis wrote, “In America, Venezis also took the writer of Land of Aeoliα with him, and the pen of the writer of Land of Aeoliα… [and] has given us an America full of feeling, lyrical, and mythologized in human terms.”
Two travel texts about America that were published so close in time and reviewed together cannot be presented separately even today, despite the fact that this evening’s event is dedicated to Elias Venezis. Some 60 years later, I think that it is worth our while to make the trip to America with them again.
The Perception of Fate
Both Venezis and Theotokas were impressed by the fact that in America everything was possible, and each endeavored to explain this in his own way. The ordinary worker in the Ford Motor plant who developed into a management staffer caused Venezis to reflect “how strong the sense of the individual is for an American. The sense that everything begins with you alone. That for each person there is scope first to gain confidence in himself, then to earn a living in the arena outside . . . where destiny loses its oriental quality and becomes a powerful motivation.” In a similar vein, Theotokas wrote that in America, “there is no fate, neither for individuals nor for peoples: everything is in our hands.”
In the Empire of Henry Ford
In the Venezis archive is one entire folder containing pamphlets from the Ford Motor Company, and Venezis devotes an entire chapter in his book to his visit “To the Empire of Henry Ford.” It is perhaps one of the best chapters in the book. Where Theotokas wrote a chapter that eulogized the Americans’ organizational spirit and the impressive application of the Taylor and Ford management systems to big business, Venezis saw them in practice and wondered if work that was divided up and rationally organized, “which is repeated in a standardized, monotonous, continuous way… extinguishes every drop of vitality, crushes the soul, and destroys the personality?” Venezis’s descriptions are unique. Upon reading them, I had the sense that I was in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, especially when Venezis describes the Ford assembly line:
“It was the famous “Line” of rationalized automobile production that Henry Ford inaugurated. What was this Line? A slow-moving train, about 1700 m long. Every two meters, on either side of the train line, two men sat opposite each other. On every train carriage, at its starting point, they placed the automobile’s frame—a chassis. As long as the carriage slowly advanced, the workers facing each other added the car’s various sections, which arrive on little trolleys or on chains from above, to the frame in one standardized, time-managed movement. At the other end of the line, the automobile comes out ready for testing. In 9 hours, 450 automobiles…
I gazed silently at the perpetual, unstoppable line of the train. The movement of men, the screw that one worker turned, the hammering done by another. The car part that came from above—everything at the same moment, calculated, unalterable… I looked at the workers’ faces and, let myself guess: Had this incredible concentration of the whole body, of all energy, of the entire mind on the slightest automatic movement crushed their nerves and their souls?”
He concludes a little later, “I myself would have to work to be able to say what transformation into an automaton does to a man’s soul.” Where Venezis wonders and wants to put himself to the test, Theotokas reckons that coordination, stability and precision of organization save a lot of effort, that working days are limited to 5, and working hours to 40. For Theotokas, only “large-scale industrial mass production” will lead the masses “to rise to the highest possible living standard” and “offer to each of its members the goods that will allow him to be ransomed from the depression and agony of material want and to live with humanity, in hygienic conditions, with dignity, and, above all, with enjoyment.”
The Educational System
Both men were impressed by the American educational system. Venezis speaks “about the radiant joy that you will find in all American universities.” Theotokas wonders “how these athletic young men and these beautiful, daisy-fresh girls manage to open any books in the midst of such felicity. It seems that they do manage it, though, some more and others less… But somehow they learn to love the institution that shapes them… to look back on it with nostalgia all their lives… always eager to offer their service to it and their financial aid, if they can.”
The Melting Pot of Peoples
Theotokas devoted a separate chapter to the different ethnic groups which “without barriers or previously defined relationships entangle in countless combinations, influence one another, intermarry, join together and give birth to a new nation with a youthful, original temperament and a refreshing spirit… with all the hallmarks of youth.” Venezis recognized the same elements, and we find them scattered about his narrative. Somewhere around Niagara Falls, seeing Americans being disappointed at the sight because they had dreamed it would be different, he too noted, “Americans are a new people with the heart of a child, with the same disposition that a child has to believe easily and to dream.” Toward the end of the book, though, he writes, “The land [sc. of America] has brought about the most astonishing wonder: she took from all parts of the globe everyone who took refuge with her, everyone who came begging, merged races, nations, and peculiarities within herself, and gave to all who put down roots in her a feeling of fruitfulness, the right to a success that is hard-won and lasting.” If we consider that when Venezis and Theotokas visited America, the horrors of the Second World War (and the Greek Civil War that followed) and of a shattered Europe were still fresh in their memories, then we can understand why they were so impressed by the phenomenon of the fusion of nations.
Americans, United by the Future (or the Present)
In his efforts to get a sense of the American people and of national consciousness in America, Theotokas concluded that it had to do with a collective faith in the future. While a common past linked European nations, the future united Americans. Having had similar experiences, Venezis chose to use a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (“What is past is prologue”) as the epigraph of his book. He had seen this quotation at the start of his journey, carved on the base of a statue by the sculptor Robert Aitken entitled Future outside the neoclassical National Archives building in Washington, D.C., and kept it in mind throughout the duration of his great trip around America’s interior. As a torture victim and refugee himself, he looked with sympathy on the persecuted and unhappy Europeans who settled in America. The author of the Land of Aeoliα sensed the need of these people “to forget what bound them to the old world, to cast off their past and whatever reminded them of bitterness and humiliation. They do it so as not to feel the past, not to feel even the future. What matters is the present.” With these thoughtful remarks, Venezis differentiated himself from Theotokas.
I shall conclude with an extract from Karantonis’s critique of the two Americas, of Venezis and of Theotokas:
The weltanschaulich [ideological] Theotokas has studied and shown us a finished work, divided up into modern cities, behemoth factories, astounding building complexes, and above all into state institutions of labor for the production and distribution of goods. Venezis, whose main concern is mankind, time, and its destiny, captured in small, self-contained stories in the form of a modern fairy tale the human starting point of today’s gigantic and complex America” (Karantonis 1955).
D. Daskalopoulos (ed.), Γ.Κ. Κατσίμπαλης & Γιώργος Σεφέρης «Αγαπητέ μου Γιώργο» Αλληλογραφία (1924-1970), vol. 2, Athens 2009.
A. Karantonis, “Δύο Αμερικές,” Ραδιοπρόγραμμα, July 7, 1955, 12.
V. Lambropoulos, “Το ταξίδι του Έλληνα διανοουμένου στην Αμερική,” appendix to the new edition of Yiorgos Theotokas, Essay on America [Δοκίμιο για την Αμερική], Athens 2009, 237-257.
A. Leontis, Review of Ο μύθος της γενιάς του τριάντα: νεοτερικότητα, ελληνικότητα και πολιτισμική ιδεολογία (The Myth of the Generation of the Thirties: Modernism, Greekness and Cultural Ideology) by Dimitris Tziovas, in Journal of Modern Greek Studies 31:2, 2013, 324-328.