Thursday, October 26, 2017

Louis Tikas: Cretan and Greek Identities in Poetry and History

For some time now I have been working on a book chapter that explores the ways in which David Mason’s narrative poem Ludlow: A Verse-Novel (2007) fictionalizes Louis Tikas, an immigrant from Crete and a union organizer, who was brutally murdered in 1914 during the labor strike at Ludlow, Colorado. As a narrative that intertwines poetry with history, Ludlow prompted me to undertake extensive research on the cultural and political context that shaped the trajectory of Tikas’s real life, both in Crete where he was born as Ilias Anastasios Spantidakis in 1886, and his early years in the United States, where he immigrated in 1906, before joining the Union late in 1912. Given the scarcity of the archive, research on the context within which Tikas negotiated his identities presents itself as one of the few available routes scholars have in the effort to understand Tikas’s pre-American life. I did so of course with Zeese Papanikolas’s (1982) pioneering work on this topic as a compass. I have now completed the work, tentatively entitled “Poetry Traversing History: The Making of Louis Tikas in David Mason’s Ludlow.” It is forthcoming in a volume exploring intersections between poetry and history.

In this posting I share research that was left out from the soon-to-be published work. It is about a question that I sought to answer regarding Tikas’s Cretan and Greek identities. Given the power of regionalism in the Greek-speaking worlds of the 19th century and its antagonism with Greek national culture, I needed to understand how Tikas might have negotiated this set of identities. In what follows I closely read the poem’s evocation of Tikas’s regional and pre-American identities in relation to the available evidence regarding his practice of identity as well as the cultural discourses that defined these identities at the time. I observe that Ludlow’s poetic evocation of Tikas produces a historically and sociologically credible reconstruction: A co-existence between his Cretan and Greek identities.

Writing about the regional identities of U.S. Greek immigrants in the early 20th century, historian Yannis Papadopoulos (2010) notes that for populations from areas outside the Greek kingdom at the time, “attachment to Greek state institutions and solidarity with Greeks from other provinces of Greece and the Ottoman empire were not self-evident” (14):

"The Greek- or Turkish-speaking Orthodox emigrants from Asia Minor and Thrace did notnecessarily identify themselves with the irredentist policy of the Greek state. Greek diplomats considered the immigration experience to be a way for immigrants to assimilate the dominant discourse of the “Great Idea” through social intercourse with Greeks from mainland Greece'' (13–14).

Does this situation apply to the historical Tikas? Not necessarily. Oral accounts–the best evidence in our possession–attest to his Greek national identification prior to his emigration in the United States. Local memory places the nineteen-year old Tikas wrapped up in national fervor and participating in the 1905 local revolt against the Great powers protecting the island’s autonomy from the Ottoman empire (1898) and toward Crete’s unification with Greece. This constitutes an expression of political activism contributing to his reputation in the village “as a guerrilla fighter” (Papanikolas 1982: 262). These accounts cannot be readily discounted, given the robust operation of Greek nationalism on the island throughout the nineteenth century, as I will show later in the discussion. Ludlow registers this act of national identification during the revolt–an identification that performs Tikas’ Greek identity–and further follows speculations that have this figure joining the national fervor sweeping Greek immigrants on the occasion of the Balkan Wars (1912-1913): “It is hard to think of that ardent young man, Louis Tikas, not being in the crowd that cheered the special [train] going east,” Papanikolas writes (44). (fn.1) The poem echoes this sentiment: “He joined those marching in the big parade/who would stay behind but wished their brothers well,” (53). The historian and the poet are in tandem in recognizing the power of nationalism to shape this historical figure.

Let us turn to Tikas’s regional identity. The poem unequivocally underlines the solidity of his Cretan filiation under conditions of migrancy. Early on in the narrative, it posits the power of the natal village as a source of deep belonging: “home was Loutra, poverty, the house, the olive press, his father serving coffee” (Mason 2007, 47). The speaker has Tikas assert a primary identification with the culture of his early childhood socialization: the Cretan dialect, the family’s agrarian and small shop economy. This is sound, sociologically. It is the habitus of local culture, in other words the “system of durable” predispositions” that structures deep attachment to a place and social practice (Bourdieu 1977: 72). The poem construes Tikas via the sociological recognition of the power of habitus as a mode of enduring belonging. Tikas’s cultural past enters the American present in a moment of personal crisis. When confronted with alienating roles and rules associated with Americanization, the speaker construes Tikas seeking solace in the intimacy of the internalized familial and local identifications. The enduring diasporic identification lies with the embodied habitus of the regional.

Particularly visible in the archive is what appears as a marker of regional affiliation. There are images of and eye witness accounts about Tikas sporting the traditional costume of Crete. This is what he opted to wear in the highly symbolic photograph he posed for before emigrating to the United States in 1906. But was he wearing it during everyday activities as well, an ordinary practice that reflected habitual usage instead of a conscious display of identity? This is also the costume he would keep wearing during the strike, “among the Ludlow tents on holidays,” before the flames in the camp erased it from the record (Papanikolas 1982: 266). In the multiethnic camp that costume would have been seen as a marker of difference, certainly a meaningful connection with the pre-American past.

Tikas’s powerful regional identification presents a tantalizing route of inquiry. Is it possible perhaps that his attachment to rural Crete placed him in an antagonistic relation with national culture, imposed by the Greek state during the island’s period of autonomy (1898-1913)? The vast cultural distance between the local vernacular and the official national, coupled with Cretans’ well-documented animosity toward state-imposed bureaucracy could have ruptured Tikas’s national identity as Greek. Lack of identification with national culture coupled with active resistance against it, would have rendered him a lesser Greek, a Greek in fact, if we follow national stereotypes, whose vernacular culture exhibited tainted proximity with Ottoman elements (Herzfeld 1999), as I will explain. Is this possible lack of identification with the national what informs the poet’s decision to render Tikas as partially Greek? To explore this further let us take a close look at the multitude of contradictory social worlds that enmeshed Cretan life at the turn of the nineteenth century.

The clash between the state-sponsored national culture and regional social practices at the time of Tikas’s upbringing–a time of dramatic political and cultural flux–helps us situate this historical plausibility. Modernization in Greece, Gregory Jusdanis writes, “entails the formation of a national culture to replace the ethnoreligious identities of the stratified system” (1991: 49). “The introduction of the European model” of national uniformity from above “led to ideological turmoil that polarized Greek culture along a series of antimonies” (43), including the one between modernity and tradition. As a result, the national and the regional clashed. As a result, the national and the regional clashed. Dimitris Tziovas shows that national culture represented the centripetal forces of “modernization, Europeanization, and standardization” (1994: 104). It was generated by an elite in the context of forming a capitalist, industrial, and bureaucratic society, and was disseminated through the institutional mechanisms of education, the army, and the jurisprudence. Social cohesion was seen as a function of cultural and linguistic uniformity. Regional identity, on the other hand, represented the centrifugal forces of “customary law, communalism, regionalism, and linguistic plurality” (104). Social cohesion was sought through interpersonal and familial obligations, local values, and customary law in a pre-capitalist, pre-industrial setting. The national and the regional represent two cultural worlds at odds with each other and therefore antagonistic in the context of nation building. The historicity of Ludlow’s claim on Tikas’s Greek identity lies in this tension between the national and the regional. From this macro-perspective, one could pose the reasonable hypothesis that Tikas–as a subject who is embedded regionally–could be seen as “almost a Greek” from the point of view of modernizers; as someone who represents the centrifugal presence that counters the homogenizing orientation of national culture. Because Crete was a province of the Ottoman empire until 1898, Tikas was not subjected early on in his life to the full range of the social mechanisms that the Greek state deployed to instill national culture within the kingdom. Still, parallel to the pull of the local, he must have been subjected to Greek nationalism hailing Cretans to identify with the nation. He must have been institutionally, at least, exposed to the ideology of Greek national identity, as the Greek state’s “national educational networks” (Şenişik, 2011: 57)–schools, consuls, patriotic organizations–were an integral part of Ottoman Crete–including rural areas– in the second half of the nineteenth century. Cretan-born teachers, educated at the University of Athens, were the primary agents of cultivating national consciousness among rural Christian peasantry, in “new elementary Christian schools” (46) appearing throughout the Cretan countryside. This could explain why the speaker has Tikas denounce a Roman/romios identity. The nation was transforming the Orthodox Christians subjects of the Rum millet into ethnoreligious, Greek Orthodox national subjects shifting the primary identification and loyalty of these populations from Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul toward the Greek kingdom and the nationalized Orthodox Church of Greece.

Still, the scale of experiential identification weighted more on the side of the regional than on the national. The considerable distance between national culture (the high register idiom of the purified language, bureaucratic and capitalist relations, modernization) and the regional one (linguistic vernacular, pre-capitalist, pre-industrial interpersonal relations) posed several borderlines which marked the distance between the local and the Europeanized national, a dramatic cultural gap which in the eyes of the westernized elite would have rendered Cretan “folk” less than “European Greek,” “almost Greeks.” Contemporary Athenians, Herzfeld notes, “are often quick to condemn what they see as an endemic Cretan proclivity for violence, and attribute it to the island’s long occupation by the Ottoman Empire” (2003: 284). They have been seen by many “Greeks as a hopelessly mixed and tainted population (284 my emphasis). Would Tikas have been similarly viewed as a “lesser Greek” by mainland Greeks?

But when the question comes to the historical Tikas’ own self-identification, a reconciliation between the regional and national identification could apply as a sound historical plausibility. It is indeed feasible once we examine it through the lenses of ethnohistory in the context of the clash between the regional and the national. The implementation of the legal system of the Greek metropolitan center to the island during its period of autonomy (1898-1913) provides evidence of how Westernization in jurisprudence introduced new legal practices in direct collision with local social practices. In his study of property transfer documents in the town of Rethymnos, in 1900, Michael Herzfeld brings to our attention the sharp disjuncture between the town’s social and moral universe and the cultural orientation of the Greek (European-derived) laws when comparing the latter with the island’s pre-autonomy Ottoman legal codes. Greek law introduced far reaching changes, beyond the expected linguistic ones. The laws were written in the high registered, purist Greek–a “super-purist legalese that was already the bane of the metropolitan center” (1999: 224)–at a time when Cretans “spoke the local form of Greek by preference” (227). Herzfeld shows how the property documents expressed a new bureaucratic ethos, a high degree of precision that was in odds with Ottoman law but also, crucially, from the way locals, both Christians and Muslims, at the time made sense of place, identity, and economic transactions. The Greek code, for instance, required information about the place of residence and the identity of the property owner illustrates this disjunction. Whereas the neighborhood was the local category of reference to orient oneself in the town’s spatial geography, it was now the locally alien address and number of a residence that legal documents utilized to regulate that geography. The local “ethos of imprecision” (235) was supplemented with the bureaucratic innovation of detailed and specific information. The impact of this innovation, Herzfeld shows, introduced a rupture on the ordinary social practices and the moral and economic ethos attached to them in the region, an ethos which Ottoman legal documents came closer in recognizing. Herzfeld aptly condenses the cultural gap between the regional and the externally imposed national:

"Ottoman documentation had not departed significantly from popular usage: the use of patronymics and andronymics as sufficient qualifying marks of personal identification, the naming of neighbours to determine the boundaries of real estate and the absence of a detailed prior history as a precondition for the recognition of current ownership (and hence the right to sell) are all features of the everyday, informal management of property relations to this day" (226).

How did the local Cretan Christians feel about this state-driven imposition? We will never know with absolute certainty. It is instructive at this point to take heed from Herzfeld’s allowing in the context of his discussion for “sceptical application of presentism” (236)–the cautious evocation of the present to project a relative understanding of the past–in the specific context of reading these property documents. Skeptical presentism presents itself as the best option we have to at our disposal to reliably reconstruct Tikas under the circumstances of a scarce archive.

Given the well-established Cretan hostility, even resistance, to external cultural impositions, including those by the Greek state, throughout history, it is most plausible–almost certain–that the islanders resented and attempted to undermine the new laws. Still, following Herzfeld, they may have also opted to strategically manipulate it to serve their own interests, particularly at a time when property document transfers were of particular significance in the midst of major population displacements, namely the fleeing of Cretan Muslims from the island. We must also take into account that resistance to the Greek legal practices did not mean repudiation of Greek national identity. At the rhetorical level today, the opposition to the state does not compromise loyalty “to the conceptual unity of the Greek nation” (1985: 19). Opposition to the bureaucratic state underlines an ethos of independence against state-imposed rule and buttresses the claim of the Cretans’ self-professed “moral excellence above all other Greeks.” In this rhetoric, aggressive traditionalism and regional pride for the island’s uniqueness subordinate themselves to the national while at the same time positing the local as the moral exemplar of the nation, positing the moral superiority of the local and the regional; making Cretans more Greek than mainland Greeks. This seeming paradox, the co-existence of strong localism and powerful national identity, in fact represents the power of nationalism to reconcile the two in the “integrative project of nationhood,” a project of particular urgency for nation-building in the area (Herzfeld 2003: 296). “Island intellectuals and peasants alike,” Herzfeld writes, “aggressively claim cultural uniqueness for Crete, which nevertheless remains firmly attached in their writings and in everyday stereotypes to the premise of its transcendent Greekness” (283).

Notably, as I have shown, the historical Tikas identified with the national cause calling for the island’s unification with the Greece at a time when cultural modernization was making inroads in the island. Though it is almost impossible to know how his family and him personally negotiated the importation of national culture, the latter did not deter him from identifying with the nation. It is not historically unlikely, following skeptical presentism, that Tikas followed the concentric model of identity, a model of powerful endurance in the island’s history. Opposition to the bureaucratic state does not preclude “an essentially segmentary view of the world” (Herzfeld 1985: xii), which accommodates a simultaneous village, regional, and national identity. Based on this logic, the clashing encounter between the local and the national in the formatting years of the autonomy period did not seemingly cast doubt in Tikas’s national self-definition. It did not necessarily make him feel less Greek.


1. An estimated 20,000 “Greeks from the United States went back to fight in the Balkan Wars” (Georgakas 1987: 22).

Works Cited

Bourdieu, P. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Georgakas, Dan. 1987. “The Greeks in America.” Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora, XIV (1&2): 5–53.

Herzfeld, Michael. 1985. The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village. Princeton University Press.

-----------------. 1999. “Of Language and Land Tenure. The Transmission of Property and Information in Autonomous Crete.” Social Anthropology October Vol. 7(3): 223–237.

-----------------. 2003. “Localism and the Logic of Nationalistic Folklore: Cretan Reflections.” Comparative Studies in Society and History April 45(2): 281–310.

Jusdanis Gregory. 1991. Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Mason, David. 2007. Ludlow: A Verse-Novel. Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press.

Papadopoulos, Yannis G.S. 2010. “The Role of Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Class in Shaping Greek American Identity, 1890–1927: A Historical Analysis.” In Identity and Participation in Culturally Diverse Societies: A Multidisciplinary Perspective. Assaad E. Azzi, Xenia Chryssochoou, Bert Klandermans, Bernd Simon, eds., 9–31. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Papanikolas, Zeese. 1982. Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre. Foreword by Wallace Stegner. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Şenişik, Pinar. 2011. The Transformation of Ottoman Crete: Revolts, Politics and Identity in the Late Nineteenth Century. I.B. Tauris.

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