“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.” Read the rest of this entry »
Back in August, when I wrote about the unusual life of George Cram Cook and his death and burial at Delphi, I promised to add a photo of his grave. Artemis Leontis of Michigan University kindly sent me her own photos of Cook’s and Eva Palmer’s tombs at Delphi, but I hesitated to post them because I felt that I had to visit Cook’s grave myself. Moreover, as an archaeologist, I was curious to examine the ancient block that had been used for his headstone. Susan Glaspell in The Road to the Temple described it as “one of the great fallen stones from the Temple of Apollo” (1926, p. 343). But by the time Elias Venezis referred to Cook’s grave in his American Earth, the block had assumed the shape of a column “συντροφευμένος από μια κολόνα του Ιερού των Δελφών” (1955 , 301). Was it a block or a column drum?
On September 24, Tom Brogan and I drove to Delphi to hear the papers of Tom Levy and his team at a conference on virtual reality in archaeology. Before going to the conference center, we made a brief stop at the local cemetery, which is located above modern village near the southwest edge of the ancient site. Several foreigners are buried in the northwest corner of the cemetery. It wasn’t hard to locate Cook’s grave, two burials to the right of Eva Palmer Sikelianou’s. With a broom that I borrowed from a nearby grave, I cleaned the surface of the marble plaque and revealed this inscription: Read the rest of this entry »
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. Read the rest of this entry »